Lovecraftian Doctor Who

It struck me recently how Lovecraftian my favourite period of Doctor Who (the first half of Tom Baker’s reign) was. I don’t know if there was ever an explicit influence, but the fact it was a science fiction show being made during a British horror boom (the early seventies), probably led to a certain amount of natural crossover.

Script editor Robert Holmes certainly brought in (or encouraged) all sorts of horror and sci-fi influences, mostly filmic ones — King Kong  in “Robot”, The Thing from Another World in “The Seeds of Doom”, The Beast With Five Fingers in “The Hand of Fear”, Frankenstein in “The Brain of Morbius”, for instance. He wanted to “darken things up a little”, saying “I don’t think it would be unfair to accuse us of aiming towards a slightly ‘gothic’ area. Tom always called it ‘Who-noir’.” (quoted in Classic Who: The Hinchcliffe Years by Adrian Rigelsford)

Another thing that led to a Lovecraftian feel could have been Holmes’s attempt to shrug off good/evil dichotomies. According to producer Philip Hinchcliffe, Holmes “had a theory that there’s no such thing as good or evil in the universe; it’s all just part of a process, and the side you fall into simply depends on how you’re made. He was fascinated by the notion of an organic life-form which lands on earth and causes havoc because it’s neither intentionally bad or good, it’s just that its ‘process’ conflicts with ours and appears evil by comparison.” (from Classic Who, again.) This is pretty much spelled out by Sutekh: “Your evil is my good, Doctor. I am Sutekh the Destroyer. Where I tread I leave nothing but dust and darkness. That, I find good.”

Of course, Doctor Who could never have addressed the underlying cosmic horror outlook of Lovecraft. The Doctor is a heroic figure, and it’s one of the tenets of Lovecraftian horror that people can never be heroic — cannot, in fact, ever be anything other than gnats and flies before the terrible forces that rule our universe. (“In my presence, you are an ant, a termite — abase yourself, you grovelling insect!” — the ever-quotable Sutekh.) Doctor Who, on the other hand, had a fundamentally optimistic nature (necessarily so, perhaps, being a kid’s show). When the Doctor defeats Sutekh, it’s with the feeling of things being returned to their rightful balance, rather than a brief avoidance of an eventually inevitable human defeat (which is how “The Call of Cthulhu” ends). And just consider how Lovecraft would have viewed the story of one of the Doctor’s human companions — more as the sort of alien abduction perpetrated in “The Whisperer in Darkness” or “The Shadow Out of Time” than a romp through space & time, with the Doctor, perhaps, as a sort of charlatan Nyarlathotep figure.

But it’s surprising how much of a similar feel the alien creatures had during these few seasons to Lovecraft’s creations:

insect-like creatures who can fly through the vacuum of space — the Mi-Go (Lovecraft), and the Wirrn (Doctor Who)…

a man transformed into a giant, lumbering, tentacled monster intent on wiping out all human life — the creature at the end of “The Dunwich Horror” (Lovecraft), and Keller transformed into a Krynoid at the end of “The Seeds of Doom” (Doctor Who)…

an alien entity who wants nothing more than to destroy all life in the universe, but who has been imprisoned in a tomb on Earth — Cthulhu (Lovecraft) and Sutekh (“The Pyramids of Mars”)…

a created lifeform, intended as a servant/soldier, destroys the race that created it — Shoggoths (At the Mountains of Madness) and the nascent Daleks (“Genesis of the Daleks”) who, in their naked form, are rather Lovecraftian sea-slug-like slimy blobs…

an ancient alien lifeform, buried for millions of years, is uncovered and comes to life again — At the Mountains of Madness, “The Hand of Fear”.

To me, the most Lovecraftian creatures are the Fendahleen — perhaps just because they spring from the same impulse to try and create a monster that doesn’t simply look like a man in a suit (in the case of Doctor Who) or which isn’t just a slight alteration of the human form, but is designed to be totally alien to everything we ever think of as human (in the case of Lovecraft’s monsters).

Of course, a more direct source of influence on “The Image of the Fendahl”, with its ancient, alien powers being released by scientists examining a 12 million year old skull, is Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit. But the Lovecraftianism of Nigel Kneale’s output is a whole nother subject (the meteorites of Quatermass II — nicked virtually wholesale by Doctor Who in “Spearhead from Space” (another Robert Holmes story) — to me recalls Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out Of Space”, for instance.)

So, to recap: Sutekh is Nyarlathotep, Zygons are Deep Ones, and the Doctor ought to faint more often.

Comments (8)

  1. Actually it’s the last bit I agree with. Quatermass is, in a sense Lovecraftian. in Doctor Who aliens tend to epitomise human qualities we oppose, such as the will to power. There’s normally a confrontation scene where they and the Doctor spout those opposing values. Conversely, there’s always an unknowability about the aliens in Quatermass. Only in the first ever are the aliens ‘met’, and even then there’s no possibility of communication with them. They’re from other worlds, but it may as well be other dimensions.

    The irony is, Doctor Who filches elements from Lovecraft while never buying into the underlying philosophy. Quatermass has a similar philosophy while filching far less of the surface elements. (I’d guess that any similarities are just co-incidence, but wouldn’t want to argue that for sure.)

  2. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Although I remember Baker’s Dr. Who well, my childhood years were formed by Pertwee’s interpretation of the role. ‘The Green Death’ is one that stands out in my mind, with luminous green maggots proliferating all over some part of London.

    ‘The Beast with Five Fingers’ scared the crap out of me as a kid (retrospectively, Lorre’s drug problem was obviously at its peak) – but how does a disembodied hand ever reach a door handle, let alone turn it? Not to mention play the piano…

  3. Murray says:

    How does a disembodied hand ever reach a door handle?

    It could always knock, I suppose!

  4. Drhoz says:

    That would have been maggots all over parts of Wales, Aonghus.

  5. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Yeah – so I just discovered! Well it was thirty years ago….

  6. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Thirty-eight years ago. Ouch.

  7. Andrew Kawam says:

    As a huge DW fan, I feel that the most Lovecraftian episodes of the revived series include ‘Midnight’, ‘The Witchfinders’, ‘It Takes You Away’, ‘Listen’, ‘Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead’, ‘The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit”, “The Eaters of Light”, ‘Blink’, ‘Can You Hear Me?’, ‘Father’s Day’, ‘Heaven Sent’, ‘Turn Left’, and ‘Hide’.

    Torchwood also had many really Lovecraftian episodes, like ‘Small Worlds’, ‘End of Days’, ‘Dead Man Walking’, ‘From Out of the Rain’, and ‘Adam’.

  8. Murray Ewing says:

    The new series really upped the horror content, it seemed to me. I still haven’t seen all of them, but maybe I’ll pick one or two of these for a watch/re-watch.

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