Aliens in the Mind

A 6-part radio drama first broadcast at the start of 1977, Aliens in the Mind just about fits into the category of “kids with mind powers” that has become a bit of a theme on Mewsings. The reason I say “just about fits” is that the actual kid with mind powers, Flora Keiry, is pretty much a secondary character, the focus of the narrative being on the lead duo of brain surgeon John Cornelius and Professor Curtis Lark of the New York Institute of Paranormal Phenomena (played by Peter Cushing and Vincent Price), so this isn’t about the inner experience of a kid with mental powers in the same way as, say, The Chrysalids or Carrie.

The story starts with Cornelius and Lark arriving on the Hebridean island of Luig, to attend the funeral of their medical-school chum, Dr Hugh Dexter. There they find that not only were the circumstances of Dexter’s death somewhat suspicious, but he left them a hidden message, a record of his discovery that the island is the breeding ground for a new, mutant species of human. Most of these, having passed through an adolescent phase of mental disorientation known as “the Island Sickness”, become indistinguishable from other human beings, with no special powers. But a small number — perhaps only one at a time — become “controllers”, who can transmit telepathic orders which instantly turn the other, heretofore dormant mutants into mindless zombies bent on obeying the controller’s command.

Cornelius and Lark realise that Flora, an eighteen-year-old who never emerged from the mental disorientation stage of the Island Sickness, and so who has the mental and emotional maturity of a much younger child, is just such a controller, and manage to get her off the island and back to London to see if they can work out what’s going on. This, though, is only the start of a plot that soon moves into conspiracy thriller territory, bringing in Manchurian Candidate-like ideas of brainwashing as a means of achieving political ends.

Only a few months before, British TV had seen another take on The Manchurian Candidate, this time in the shape of Robert Holmes’s The Deadly Assassin serial for Season 14 of Doctor Who. The funny thing about this is that Aliens in the Mind, though not scripted by him, also came from Robert Holmes.

According to Richard Molesworth’s biography, Robert Holmes: A Life in Words, Holmes first came up with the idea behind Aliens in the Mind in 1967, when he submitted it as an idea for a TV series entitled Schizo. He then repurposed it as a possible Doctor Who script in 1968, around the time of writing his second adventure for the series (The Space Pirates), this time calling it Aliens in the Blood. Again, it failed to catch. He finally managed to get it commissioned in 1975 as a radio play, and intended to write it while on a Mediterranean holiday, only to have his wife fall ill, after which he had to spend all his spare time till his Doctor Who duties began again looking after her. As a result, Aliens in the Mind (as it was now titled) was scripted by Rene Basilico, with Holmes receiving a credit for the idea. (It’s a real pity he never got the write the scripts himself. Holmes loved a double act and created some of the most successful secondary characters in the classic era of Doctor Who, most notably Jago and Lightfoot from The Talons of Weng-Chiang. It would have been wonderful to hear what he’d have done with Cushing and Price.)

Although she’s not the main character, Flora still lives through the experience of your average “kid with mental powers”. From Firestarter to Stranger Things and The Institute, it’s the eternal fate of such kids to fall into the hands of scientists who want to study them, and who usually end up treating them as less than human. If Cornelius and Lark weren’t our main characters — and weren’t played with such suave charm as Cushing and Price bring to them — it would be easier to see just what they put poor Flora through. When she gets distressed and has doubts about leaving the island with them, they drug her. They take her to a psychiatrist who tries to hypnotise her, without telling her this is what they’re doing. Most of all, the pair make all the decisions for her, in the confidence that they, of course, are doing everything for her own good, despite the distress and danger they put her in. It would have been a quite different story if Flora had been the focal character. As it is, her personal story comes to something of a disappointing end as the series shifts out of weird SF and into conspiracy thriller territory for the final two episodes. (And ending with a Midwich Cuckoos-like opening out onto the wider stage: if this is happening here, what about the rest of the world?)

It’s a fun serial, mostly for Cushing and Price, who are given some (but not enough) friendly UK-vs-US badinage, as well as for its Doctor Who-ishness (a Brigadier is brought on near the end, and you just know he ought to be the Brigadier). Plus, its mix of political paranoia, distrust of corporations, interest in mind-powers — and, sadly, its unexamined sexism — place it very much in the 1970s culturally.

Flora is an interesting example of the “kid with mental powers” who’s both very powerful and emotionally immature, meaning she uses her abilities as a toddler might, with all a toddler’s impulses of childish enthusiasm and sudden fear, plus a complete lack of self-control, leading, without her intending it, to endanger herself and others. It’s a pity the story wasn’t more about her; but it’s also a pity we never got to see more adventures from Cornelius and Lark as played by Cushing and Price. And it would have been great to hear them scripted by Holmes himself.

Why I Like… Doctor Who

It starts with a trip down a rabbit hole — a weird, angular, metallic rabbit hole that keeps changing the shape of its iridescent walls as you fall. Meanwhile, there’s a distant alarm going off — either that, or someone’s trying to shoot you with a ray gun. From the echoing bass rattle you can hear, you might be surrounded by miles of distant, faulty plumbing. If so, someone’s emptied a boxful of pins into the system, because you keep hearing these wooshing washes of tinkliness pass by. Then up from the darkness looms an enormous face. Tom Baker, eyes agoggle. There for a moment, then he’s gone, dissolved into many colours like a prismatic ghost. And still you keep falling.

Doctor Who is weird.

The first episode of Doctor Who I saw was from Tom Baker’s introductory adventure, Robot. As that was broadcast between the end of December 1974 and mid-January 1975, I must have been three and half years old at the time, which means that seeing the programme is one of my earliest memories. (Sitting in a bath watching my chicken pox peel off comes a close, but not so fondly-remembered, second).

I pretty soon wanted to be the Doctor. (I don’t mean I wanted to act the part. I mean I wanted to be the Doctor.) But it was the monsters that most fascinated me. The two are, of course, inseparable. The Doctor is the corrective called for by the imbalancing evil of the monsters; the monsters are the shadow cast by the heroic light of the Doctor. It’s why the Doctor always has an intuitive knowledge about the enemy he faces, often before he sets eyes on it/them — as soon as he steps out of the TARDIS he knows, like he can sniff it in the air, something’s afoot. And he often knows the sort of something it is, as well as the sort of foot, sucker, or pseudopod it’s afoot on. The reason for this is that the Doctor and the Monsters are one. They’re part of the same psychological picture.

Looking over the first few seasons of Doctor Who that I saw — seasons presided over by the dream-team of Philip Hinchcliffe as producer and Robert Holmes as script-editor — there’s a lot of blurring the line between men and monsters. In The Ark in Space, the far-future human Noah turns by painful stages into an insectile Wirrn (courtesy of a generous helping of green plastic bubble-wrap). In Genesis of the Daleks, Davros, already half robot himself (the other half a distinctly withered Mr Potato Head), fast-forwards his people’s evolution into slug-like creatures encased in “Mark III Travel Machines” (banality-of-evil-speak for Daleks). There’s the Jekyll & Hyde Professor Sorenson possessed by anti-matter in The Planet of Evil, and Marcus Scarman with his mind taken over by the evil alien Sutekh in Pyramids of Mars. There’s the humanoid androids all set to take over the Earth in The Android Invasion, and a man turning into an alien plant-monster in The Seeds of Doom… Virtually every story has men turning into monsters or monsters masquerading as men. (With some, such as the Cybermen, the process is complete before the story begins.)

The Doctor and the Monsters, like Angels and Demons, are opposing absolutes. The real story takes place in between, in the human realm. Here, there’s the constant threat that you, a human being, might turn into a monster. And not just a green bubble-wrap one. There are far more insidious forms of human monster. That first season of Doctor Who I saw (the twelfth since the show began) was particularly full of fascists, cold intellectual elites, and power-mad scientists — all ways in which people can really become monsters.

To the child I was, unable to understand any of this consciously, having that inner battle between humanity and monstrosity spelled out in such clear, vivid, excitingly fantastic terms was, I think, a vital part of the appeal of watching the programme. It also perhaps explains why I felt so disgusted when Colin Baker began his tenure as the Doctor by attempting to strangle his companion. That was 1984. Dark heroes were very much of the times (Watchmen was only two years away), but I couldn’t see the point in a Doctor indistinguishable from the monsters he was supposed to be fighting. Having watched every episode since Robot with almost religious devotion, I gave up. There are still some Colin Baker stories I haven’t seen, and never will.

But Doctor Who had done its job.

Whenever I read about the formative influences of my favourite writers & artists, there’s usually a point where they discover a cache of story — a collection of myths and legends, a book of fairy tales, a copy of The Arabian Nights. Doctor Who was my story-cache, and that weird, down-a-metallic-rabbit-hole theme tune was its “once upon a time”. (The TARDIS, bigger on the inside than the out, is the through-the-wardrobe portal to the only thing that is truly bigger on the inside, the imagination.) In its gleefully pulpy way, Doctor Who regularly plundered myth, fairy tale, popular entertainment, literature, history and science for ideas and storylines. (The Hinchcliffe-Holmes era had a particular penchant for Gothic Horror, Hammer style.) As such, it was the ultimate all-in-one cultural education for the final quarter of the 20th century.

That and Blue Peter, anyway.

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.