Friday 27 January 2012

Skulltopus 7: Tentacle, Plastic and Bone

The first fully-fledged tentacular monster in Doctor Who - in the senses of being both properly cephalopodic and of being a central monstrous antagonist of the Doctor's - is the Nestene entity at the end of 'Spearhead from Space'.  That's seven years in before the show does a proper tentacular monster with real plot significance.

Apart from 'Image of the Fendahl' (which we'll get to one day) and the Cyber-head in 'The Pandorica Opens', 'Spearhead from Space' is also the closest Doctor Who has ever come to merging or (horrid word coming up, but needs must...) juxtaposing the skull and the tentacle.  If you don't know why I think that's significant, please go back and read my other Skulltopus posts, starting here.

The Nestenes manifest as a tank full of tentacles...

Yes Jon, pull a comedy face and go cross-eyed.
That's the perfect way to express mortal terror.

...inside which we can see a pulsing, vaguely obscene-looking anus/oesophagus/lung thing.  Meanwhile, the same story's main images of the monstrous are unfinished-looking plastic replicas of human beings.  There is something faintly but definitely skull-like about their faces, especially when they're not wearing wigs.

Note especially the empty eye-holes,
a detail lost in subsequent appearances.

If I were writing an Auton story now, my first priority would be the creation of a way for the tentacles and the plastic to co-reside in the same entity.  This never happens in 'Spearhead', but the Autons do stand and wait in the room where the Nestene tentacled thing hides.  At the end of the story, Channing reverts to a cruder Auton-form (once again making the Auton face skull-like, in that its appearance is linked to death in the more sophisticated Nestene replicas).  A line of green matter is spattered on the dead and reverted Channing's plastic face.

Bless you.

This is the closest that the plastic gets to merging with the alien flesh.  The proximity of the plastic skull and the green organic squidgy creature is tantalising.

It Adds Up

Doctor Who - because of its (spurious) materialist/empiricist/educational remit - has a set of internal rules that generally make the explicitly supernatural off-limits.  The show tends to have been made with the intention of at least outwardly championing the Enlightenment values and certainties.  As I argued here, this self-imposed attempt to foreclose upon the supernatural guides the show towards material (and materialist) monsters.

However, owing to the converging influences of children's fiction, mythological narrative (to which both SF and kid's adventure fiction are much indebted) and the gothic (usually mediated through 20th century popular horror, most especially Universal and Hammer monster flicks), the show simultaneously inherits an underlying magical conception of reality and a tendency to make its monsters metaphorical and hauntological (if not usually spectral in the full sense), i.e. haunting us with the 'repressed'.

Add the influence of 'soft' social SF literature, the prevailing 'lefty liberal' ethos among BBC creative types (which Barry Letts has spoken about) and the social context of pre-Thatcher Britain (in which there prevailed a broad 'liberal' socio-economic consensus), and you get a show that ends up representing this or that material nightmare of modernity in a great, mostly-liberal, allegorical morality play for kids.

We end up with loads of stories about hi-tech war, totalitarianism, industrial genocide, biological racism, commercial slavery, etc.  Yet these are all modern phenomena, products of the industrial age, thus - in the analysis that I accept - products of capitalism... and that's without going into how capitalism actively generates and even needs them.

The show keeps harping on about issues that, in the end, trace back to the capitalist system... but this issue is usually not noticed and certainly should not be acknowledged, even when it becomes - as it sometimes does - imminent.

The show is, ultimately, a product of capitalism, even if, for decades, it was relatively  independent of the stifling atmosphere of commodification produced by the system, owing to its being produced by a relatively independent 'public service broadcaster' with a social remit other than profit.  (By the way... this was always partial and compromised.  The Daleks saw to it that the show survived because they were an instant hit and were thus instantly marketable.  We all know that merchandise has been produced off the back of Who by the truckload.  The BBC was never any kind of pure, totally non-commercial attempt at a functionalist, benevolent, state-run industry.  Only people ill-informed enough to think 'socialism' means state control of society could imagine that such a creature had, for good or ill, ever once existed at Broadcasting House.)   

Doctor Who is part of the capitalist culture industry, with a very distinct niche within it.  Moreover, no amount of 'liberal' socio-economic consensus or 'lefty liberal' internal ethos can, on their own, amount to a deliberate, radical, structural critique of capitalism.  However, there can come a point where the liberal complaints and anxieties stack up in such a way that capitalism becomes the elephant... or perhaps, the giant squid... in the room.

Vernacular Tentacular

I think that, starting with 'Spearhead from Space', Doctor Who starts bringing the tentacular into play when it can no longer entirely put off a confrontation with something that it usually avoids and omits, something that it doesn't want to face but to which it keeps being lead back... namely, capitalism.  Not greedy individual capitalists, not evil businessmen, not corrupt businesses, not evil corporations... but capitalism as an exploitative social system.  70s Doctor Who, uses the tentacular monster as a way of semiotically evading - and, in a dialectical / paradoxical way, also meaning - capitalism as a system which links and/or causes different forms of oppression.

In a children's adventure series, one which fulfills a very distinct role in the culture industry and in mainstream mass popular culture, there are certain things which cannot be talked about... capitalism as a systemic whole, with exploitation, racism and imperialism woven inextricably into its essential structure, is untouchable and unmentionable. And yet, obsessed as it is with the mightmares of modernity, how can Doctor Who always manage to leave it unmentioned?  It frequently finds itself sliding towards this danger zone.  In the 70s especially, when this happens, tentacles usually appear.

According to China Miéville (see my account here), tentacles entered the Western tradition - ushered in by that style / affect / trend known as the Weird - as a deliberately incoherent, unprecedented and unfreighted 'novum', a scream of meaningless horror and incomprehension at the oncoming collapse of enlightenment certainties brought by the crises of late 19th / early 20th century modernity.  Doctor Who somehow misappropriates the tentacle.  The Weird use of the tentacular is, by Miéville's account, as a signifier for the meaningless, the indescribable, the incoherent, the incomprehensible, the unrecognisable.  Who creatively misunderstands it, pressing it into service as a way of obfuscating capitalism whenever it starts to notice that it is a systemic generator of modern nightmares, whenever its own metaphorical and hauntological style threatens to produce metaphors that are too penetrating about where modern nightmares come from.

Tentacles and capitalism become temporarily linked in the internal language of signifiers which constitute Doctor Who.  This continues as a fully-fledged semiotic connection throughout the 70s, dying out somewhat but occasionally recurring in a reduced form during the 80s and onwards.  I've looked at 'The Creature from the Pit', suggesting ways in which it can be seen as terminating the semiotic connection, here.


I've looked at some of the early history of the octopoidal in Who here, suggesting that Terry Nation may have been responsible for laying the groundwork for a connection between tentacles and capitalism, partly by using the tentacular in something akin to its Weird 'blank' mode, partly by invoking tentacles at narrative moments where people are being exploited for labour and/or commodities.  (The Animus in 'The Web Planet' is a whole different kettle of ballgames which I'll get around to one of these days.)

As times changed, protest and class struggle erupted and the swinging 60s became turbulent and, at times, revolutionary.  In 1967, Doctor Who tries for the first time to engage with some of the new notions that are rocking Western society.  The result is 'The Macra Terror', which features monsters which seem to genuinely experiment with merging the gothic and the Weird (see here) and which seem to express some unease with British capitalism (see here).  This is the prelude.

In the high-point of the show's engagement with the radical 60s, 'The War Games' puts forward an anti-imperialist message... however, it falters into a weak reformism at the end and, crucially, fails to bring in capitalism in any way. 

Automatic for the Products

And then came 'Spearhead from Space' by Robert Holmes.  Holmes had already shown anti-authoritarianism of 'The Krotons' and done some riffs on mining corporations and piracy in 'The Space Pirates'.  'Spearhead' is more radical than both put together - possibly even more radical (in the sense of getting to the root of things) than 'The War Games' - even though the radical implications are almost certainly unconscious and show through very obliquely and elliptically.

I've gone into all this here, and suggested that the eruption of the tentacular at the end of 'Spearhead from Space' might be a sign of the show in flight, as it were, from a thematic convergence towards a critique of capitalism as systemically alienating, soaked in commodity fetishism, exploitative, oppressive, racist and imperialist.  (If you now think I've gone mad, click the above link and see my reasoning.)

This use of the radically incoherent tentacular at the end of 'Spearhead' is reinforced (though only just) by the sequel.  'Terror of the Autons' simultaneously develops and softens much of the unease about capitalism that is submerged in the original Auton story.  The implied critique of mass produced consumer culture and a representation of alienation through hostile commodities is carried over. The death in this story emanates from mass produced products, from consumer goods. 'Terror' lacks the immensely potent and oneiric spectacle of the shop-window dummies springing to life, smashing out of their windows and, bedecked in finery and price tags, strolling down the consumerist high street, surrounded by shop signs and brand names, slaughtering workers and shoppers...

...but it generalises the same nightmare.  If the attack in the high street was the spearhead, this is the reign of terror.  Everything plastic, everything produced, every commodity, is now out to get you.  Even the promotional gifts are now likely to kill you.  'Spearhead' didn't suggest that the baby dolls made at Auto Plastics were literally dangerous.  In 'Terror', the toy will spring to life and lunge at your jugular, the novelty inflatable chair will eat you alive... even your phone will strangle you.  To the Master, all this death is just his way of "trying out a new product".

Where was the director, that's what I want to know.

While wider in scope, the threat in 'Terror' seems almost comic in its clutter.

As in ‘Spearhead’, the evil nestles and coils in the factory and the businessman's office. As in ‘Spearhead’, the factory owner / manager is enslaved by mind control and colludes with the Nestenes as they mesh with his means of production.  The Nestenes want to mass produce themselves and takeover the market. They also find a way in under our noses by disguising themselves within the context of policemen and police cars. Ask these bobbies where they’re taking you and you’ll find blank-faced, eyeless horrors lurking under their latex masks. They’re there to stop you opposing the immanent ascendency of the evil commodities.  Even more than in 'Spearhead', uniformed officers are protectors of property.

However, the Master takes the edge off them as villains.  And the way the Autons speak like robots makes them less sinister and more comprehensible.

As in 'Spearhead' hierarchy and class show themselves.  The Master disguises himself as a workman; he asserts power over Rossini by pointing out that he is really Lew Russell; he hypnotises people all over the place (a new detail at this point).  Rex Farrell is dominated by his father.  McDermot is murdered by the Master (the title itself shows that Holmes associates evil with hierarchy) when he will not keep to his place in the company pyramid.  Farrell interprets his slaughter as "termination of employment".  Waged work is again much in evidence.  The scientists take tea breaks and have packed lunches.  The Doctor mistakes Jo for the tea lady and so treats her contemptuously, meanwhile he uses his supposedly greater intimacy with "Tubby Rowlands" to intimidate Brownrose (!).  "Wrong sort of chap getting into your department these days".  We all know what this is supposed to mean.  Red brick oiks infiltrating the corridors that should rightly be the province of those who drifted down from the dreaming spires.  (You don't have to share Paul Cornell's assessment that this makes the Third Doctor a Tory... though, in some respects...)  And, of course, this kind of British class hierarchy is very much to the fore when the Doctor is visited by the Time Lord.  He is dressed "incognito" as a stereotypical Threadneedle St / Whitehall toff and needles the Doctor by referring to his degree.

There are even, once again, hints that the story has noticed the racial order of capitalism.  Whitey runs the factory, the radio telescope... even the circus!  Meanwhile, Roy Stewart is asked back to play essentially the same racist stereotype he played in 'Tomb of the Cybermen' but this time the character - Tony - is almost a parodic version of Toberman: he is written as a circus 'Strong Man' who "don't say much"!

However, this very comic mode makes it hard for the character to have the same uneasy impact as the Asian workers making white plastic babies at the factory in 'Spearhead'.

In fact, the over-the-top, grotesque, gaudy, comedic air of the whole piece tends to soften the impact of much in the story.  The Autons still look like products of human labour confronting humans as something hostile and alien, but the potential for them to form part of a systemic critique is diluted even as it is generalised.  At the end of 'Spearhead', a story that seemed so quietly and unconsciously preoccupied with alienated labour, hierarchy and consumerism - and which even hinted at imperialism, and at racial and gender hierarchies - the Nestenes manifest as an incoherent but undeniably substantial mad box of tentacles.  When the Nestene entity arrives and hovers over the radio telescope dish at the end of 'Terror', it retains the outline of the squid but lacks solidity and sharpness.  It is less needed, so it is kept as unfocused as the rest of the story.

The fact that they couldn't afford to do this onscreen may also have had something to do with it.

But then along came 'The Claws of Axos'... but that's for another time.

Dem Bones
As I've said, I think the tentacles that appear at the end of 'Spearhead' mark the moment when Doctor Who tries to obfuscate a conclusion that is haunting it.  Just as they haunt us with their submerged associations, so the Autons haunt the show through which they stalk with the same associations.  With their skull-like faces, they are very gothic, very hauntological (in that material way that Who does hauntology).  Yet the end up serving the quasi-Weird, the incoherent tentacular.  They get close to their octopoidal master but never merge with it.  As China Miéville predicts, the skull (gothic) and the tentacle (Weird) cannot merge, even when they try.  The tentacle rejects the haunting message of the skull.  And yet, tentacles keep turning up in 70s Who when the show notices capitalism.  I've written elsewhere about how 'The Creature from the Pit' terminates this connection.  Well, there's something else to note about that: there are skulls in that story.  Indeed, they litter the pit in which the creature is kept.  Organon uses as skull as a candle holder.

Maybe he was just pleased to see them.

It's almost like the gothic is reasserting itself even as the quasi-Weird is shown the door.

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