Tag Archive for monsters

EXTERMINATE: Are the Daleks Scary? (Part 2)

Wow! It’s been a long time since part one! Sorry about that! I’ve been getting new jobs, moving, finding homes for my now-stray kitties. But enough excuses, let’s get to the Daleks.

In part one, I talked about fan art seems to indicate that many fans find the Daleks cute, silly, and ridiculous as often as they find them scary. In part two, I talk about why I think the Daleks are supposed to be scary: namely, that they are modeled after the terrifying Martians from H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds.

Cross-posted at From Austin to A&M.

While science fiction is often posited as a kind of “what if” genre—What if aliens landed? What if we had interplanetary spaceships? What if we could genetically engineer people?—I don’t think that’s a great definition for the genre. After all, not all “what if” questions have anything to do with science, technology, or ray guns. My own definition of science fiction, based on my time as a fan and scholar of it, is pretty broad. I consider something science fiction if it has all or most of the following characteristics:

1. It is about sci­ence or the prac­tice of science.

2. It stays within the bounds of mate­r­ial reality/natural laws orit is con­cerned with appear­ing within the bounds of mate­r­ial reality/natural laws. This means that if it tries to explain its real­ity within the con­fines of our own nat­ural world, even if this is tech­nob­a­b­ble or lamp­shad­ing (á la Doc­tor Who’s “magic door” in The Girl in the Fire­place), then it could be sci­ence fic­tion. I don’t agree with def­i­n­i­tions that say sci­ence fic­tion must be strictly pos­si­ble in the real world or accord­ing to con­tem­po­rary sci­ence, because that is a ridicu­lously lim­it­ing def­i­n­i­tion, and would exclude sci­ence fic­tion like Star Trek, H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, Doc­tor Who (actu­ally, pretty much any sci­ence fic­tion that uses time travel), Armaged­don, Char­lotte Perkins Gilman’s Her­land, and Red Dwarf. What these nar­ra­tives have in com­mon is not that they are sci­en­tif­i­cally fea­si­ble, but that they are con­cerned with mate­r­ial real­ity, and explain their real­i­ties as the same as ours. Of course, the extent to which they are concerned with this explanation will vary.

3. It forces the reader to leave the famil­iar world of here-and-now. This is the char­ac­ter­is­tic that is most often absent, but I think, when it appears, it is extra­or­di­nar­ily impor­tant. When this char­ac­ter­is­tic is present, it becomes imper­a­tive that the nar­ra­tive adhere to the second characteristic listed above, because this means the narrative can make the famil­iar unfa­mil­iar, which can func­tion in a num­ber of ways. By mak­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of our cul­ture, for exam­ple, dis­ap­pear (like gen­der or racism), sci­ence fic­tion can denat­u­ral­ize those con­cepts within our real­ity. By paint­ing a utopia (like Star Trek), it can make that utopia seem not so out of our reach. It can take a neg­a­tive human behav­ior, and com­pletely exag­ger­ate or trans­form it; Dis­trict 9 por­trays how racism dehu­man­izes peo­ple, in a really stark and lit­eral (and thus unfa­mil­iar) way. With­out exist­ing within our own real­ity, how­ever, that lit­eral dehu­man­iza­tion loses some of its power.

If a narrative has this characteristic, but does not adhere to the second, it is very likely fantasy.

4. It is con­cerned with the mate­r­ial nature of human­ity or human society.*

Because science fiction is a literature about science, about the material condition of humanity, it is a well-suited space for authors to explore the anxieties and concerns we feel about our relationship with science and technology. To say science fiction is a “what if” genre ignores this relationship it has with the cultural identity of science; it suggests that science fiction is about prediction, caution, prescription. (“Don’t create a society based on genetic manipulation and bodily fitness!” warns Gattica, while 1984 cautions us on the dangers of the police state. Star Trekshows us a utopian future, which somehow came about with a government run by the military.) This is a shallow way to look at science fiction, which is very rarely any good at predicting the future. What science fiction does do well is give us a glimpse into our cultures’ view of science: what scares us about it, what makes us anxious about it, what excites us about it, what role we think it should play in our society.

***

H. G. Wells’s War of the Worldswas published in 1898, the tail-end of the Victorian era. The 19th century saw a transformation in the culture of science in Britain. Science went from being a gentleman’s hobby, with the “dirty work” done by underappreciated and uncredited middle- and lower-class laborers, to an institutionalized profession, with researchers who got their hands dirty for money, funded by universities and the government. Science fiction of the era was often concerned with the corporeality and dirtiness of science, distrusting the body and the material, as opposed to the cleaner and more rational mind and spirit. The fact that the material of science is detritus (flesh, organs, blood, brains, plant matter, insect corpses, dirt, rock) made science a problematic institution, made more acceptable by removing the gentleman scholar from the material practice of science and limiting him to theoretical work. The fact that observational science relied on the imperfect instruments of the human body (eyes, fingers, skin, eardrums) was also of concern, made more acceptable by supplementing them with machines like microscopes, telescopes, chronometers, daguerreotypes, and scales.

This distrust of the material and the body carried over into anxieties about evolution, which was something much of Wells’s fiction is concerned with, including War, The Time Machine, and The Island of Doctor Moreau. In War of the Worlds and a related piece he published in 1893, “The Man of the Year Million,” Wells suggests that our suspicion of the physical and glorification of the mental could actually lead to the end of humanity as we know it. In “The Man of the Year Million,” a tongue-in-cheek prediction, he argues that

man is the creature of the brain; he will live by intelligence, and not by physical strength, if he live at all. So that much that is purely animal about him is being, and must be, beyond all question, suppressed in his ultimate development.

In the article, he outlines a course of eventual evolution, in which humans will lose much of their bodies, and will end up mere brains, in helpless, useless bodies that consist only of heads and hands.

We notice this decay of the animal part around us now, in the loss of teeth and hair, in the dwindling hands and feet of men, in their smaller jaws, and slighter mouth and ears. Man now does by wit and machinery and verbal agreement what he once did by bodily toil; for once he had to catch his dinner, capture his wife, run away from his enemies, and continually exercise himself, for love of himself, to perform these duties well. But now all this is changed. Cabs, trains, trams, render speed unnecessary, the pursuit of food becomes easier; his wife is no longer hunted, but rather, in view of the crowded matrimonial market, seeks him out. One needs wits now to live, and physical activity is a drug, a snare even; it seeks artificial outlets and overflows in games.

He argues that technological innovation will guide our evolution, and that as we create more ingenious devices to take care of our bodily functions, those functions will cease to be possible in our bodies.

[Man] has a new organ, a mandible not of irreparable tissue, but of bone and steel—a knife and fork. There is no reason why things should stop at partial artificial division thus afforded; there is every reason, on the contrary, to believe my statement that some cunning exterior mechanism will presently masticate and insalivate his dinner, relieve his diminishing salivary glands and teeth, and at last altogether abolish them.

All that will be left of the future human is his brain and his hands, since Wells believed the hands to be “the teacher and interpreter of the brain.” Because Victorians believed that emotions were seated in the body, not the mind, since they were far too messy and not intellectual, Wells also pictured these future humans as emotionless and cruelly self-serving.

And so at last comes a vision of earthly cherubim, hopping heads, great unemotional intelligences, and little hearts, fighting together perforce and fiercely against the cold that grips them tighter and tighter.

It’s a horrifying vision, in which technology and intellect have, through the processes of evolution, done entirely away with the body, empathy, and emotion. It reminds me a bit of the way modern science fiction will romanticize about people becoming pure consciousness in computers or online; we haven’t lost our desire to be rid of the bodies that tie us to the material world, that cry and shit and piss and digest and orgasm and bleed. Our bodies make us uncomfortable, make us feel dirty and vulnerable. But Wells didn’t think that transcending our bodies through evolution was a good thing at all; the vision in “The Man of the Year Million” is purposefully horrifying. And if it wasn’t obvious enough, that vision came back to haunt us in his The War of the Worlds.

All the things that were scary about the future man are what is scary about the Martians in War. They are also great brains, with only eyes and hand-like tentacles. They are vastly intelligent and emotionless. But what is far more terrifying than their inability to feel is their technological prowess. Like the future human, they have replaced their bodies with machines. While Wells only explicitly imagined eating machines in “The Man of the Year Million,” he imagined the Martians as a people with machines instead of bodies, which they can change for the purpose like so many changes of clothes. The machine body we actually see is the spider-like tripod:

A monstrous tripod, higher than many houses, striding over the young pine trees, and smashing them aside in its career; a walking engine of glittering metal, striding now across the heather; articulate ropes of steel dangling from it, and the clattering tumult of its passage mingling with the riot of the thunder.

In these machines, the Martians literally eat human bodies; they drain them of their blood for sustenance, like vampires. And Wells draws a direct connection between the lack of a material body and the lack of emotions. Their reliance on technological bodies makes them capable of escaping emotions altogether. By pairing War with “The Man of the Year Million,” we can see that Wells is trying to flesh out a fear that the end-point of human evolution is the destruction of the human body and thus of emotion, compassion, and morality. By valuing intellect, science, and technology, we could lose our humanity. Corporeality, Wells suggests, is a constitutive part of humanity, and the use of the machine to overcome the limits of the body could lead to a loss of our compassionate natures. Wells values the human body and its material nature, the way that our bodies cause us to depend on one another, the way that our bodies tie us to the world we live in.

***

Okay! So why am I talking so much about Wells’s Martians? Because I think the Daleks were modeled after the Martians.** After all, they’re bodiless brains who lack all emotion and compassion, and they have replaced organic bodies with machine ones. They even look like the Martians: gray, gross, and full of tentacles.

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The machine body comes apart to reveal the organic body of a Dalek, from the “Dalek” episode of Doctor Who. The Dalek is a mucous-covered, gray mass, with a brain at the top and multiple tentacles at the bottom. He has one eye. Source.

Unlike the Martians, the Daleks are genocidal, but their inability to feel compassion, coupled with their cyborg nature, makes them dead ringers. (The Martians were actually kind of scary in part because they didn’t hate humans. We were merely in their way as they colonized a new planet. Cold fuckers, those Martians.)

But, I still don’t think the Daleks are scary, because I think they are poorly executed versions of the Martians. A lot of the things that made the Martians frightening are missing from the Daleks, in particular their machine bodies. Like the Dalekanium body of the Daleks, the Martians are hard to kill or disable. But that’s where the comparison seems to end. The small Dalek machines are slow and clunky, whereas the Martian machines are terrifyingly huge, fast, and efficient.

  Woking_tripod

A shiny 23-foot statue of the Martian tripod machine from Wells’s War of the Worlds. This sculpture was designed by Michael Condron and is located in Woking, Surrey in England. The design is true to the source, with a small body, two metal tentacles, and three long, flexible, mobile jointed legs. This thing would own the Daleks. Source.

The Martians were also quite alien and removed; for all the hate the Daleks seem to spend on the Doctor and the rest of the universe, they sure do talk to them a lot. The Martians never bothered to communicate with the humans, because the humans were food. It’d be like if we started having conversations with cows. The Daleks spend so much wasted time and energy on talking to the Doctor and his companions. The Daleks obviously don’t think they’re thatsuperior to us, or they wouldn’t bother communicating. Communication necessitates seeing another being as something on (about) the same level as you; it creates a connection between the communicators. And the excessive amount of communication between the Doctor/humans and the Daleks makes the Daleks feel less threatening.

And as a viewer of only NuWho, I’m starting to wonder how the Daleks got powerful in the first place. The advantages of being a brain in a machine is supposed to be that you’re smart. But the Daleks seem pretty stupid a lot of the time. They waste time talking and scheming. They get fooled by jammie dodgers. They get captured by rich morons. They spend more time yelling EXTERMINATE than they do actually killing people.

The Daleks just don’t do it for me the way the Martians do. They don’t have the cruel, heartless grace, the efficient killing and maneuvering power. They don’t feel alien and utterly unintelligible.

The Martian model makes it clear that the Daleks could have been frightening. But they simply weren’t well-executed, and lack the terror of Wells’s Martians.

______________

* (This definition, altered slightly, originally appeared in my post on Eli.) You’ll notice I don’t have any­thing about tech­nol­ogy in this def­i­n­i­tion, and that is for a rea­son. While most people’s con­cep­tions of sci­ence fic­tion have a big focus on tech­nol­ogy, I find that focus prob­lem­atic. This kind of def­i­n­i­tion is invested in the idea that old tech­nolo­gies are not tech­nolo­gies that mat­ter (in the sense that we no longer think of them as tech­nolo­gies) or count in sci­ence fic­tion. But it is wrong to sug­gest that books, pens, print­ing presses, chairs, cars, scis­sors, cameras, alarm clocks, DVD play­ers, elec­tric lights, laun­dry deter­gent, air­planes, ad nau­seum are not tech­nolo­gies that sig­nif­i­cantly shape the human con­di­tion in many parts of the world.

** Thanks to Amy Montz for originating this idea!

______________

Works Cited

Wells, H. G. “The Man of the Year Million.” Pall Mall Gazette6 November 1893: 3.

Wells, H. G. The War of the Worlds. 1898. Ed. Martin A. Danahay. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2003.

EXTERMINATE: Are the Daleks scary? (Part 1)

A comic by Peter Birkett, from Punch magazine on 5 August 1981. The image is a simple black line drawing on white. In it, a small group of Daleks are at the bottom of a short flight of stairs, looking toward the top of the stairs. At the bottom text reads, “Well, this certainly buggers our plan to conquer the Universe.” The comic is signed “birkett.” Source.

I’ve never much understood fear of the Daleks. They’re clunky and awkward, and way more adorable than frightening. (As a friend pointed out, the cutest thing about them is the way they sound increasingly frustrated. “Explain. EXPLAIN! EXPLAAAAIIN!!” Adorbs.) But the show and many fans insist that they are scary. They were even voted the scariest Doctor Who villain in a 2007 BBC poll. I find this confusing, because so many fan works (like crafts, fan art, cosplay) represent Daleks are humorous, cute, and/or silly. And it’s not like all villains are vulnerable to this. How many crafts do you see that make the Silence look adorable? Or that dress up the automatons from “The Girl in the Fireplace” as tiki-themed? Do people make plushies of the water monsters from “Waters of Mars”?

And it would be possible to read cute fan-made versions of the Daleks as studies in juxtaposition. We can create humor by making something truly horrifying look loveable or sad.

worst-thing-about-being-a-silence-21135-1317125684-13

A photo shows one of the Silence sitting at the end of a table. The table has a birthday cake on it, as well as several brightly colored paper plates and cups set on the table. The Silence wears a brightly colored striped party hat, and sits beside a bunch of colored balloons. He is the only one at the table. Text at the bottom reads “no one every remembers my birthday…” Source.

The humor of this image comes from two different contrasts. It riffs on the fact that the Silence can’t be remembered by anyone, and that would make it difficult for them to have normal lives. They couldn’t have friends, or dates, or jobs. But imagining villains (and particularly monsters) having normal lives is a weird contradiction, and that contradiction is funny. Imagine the Joker buying toilet paper, or the Silurians walking their dogs. Further, by giving the Silence the same kinds of feelings that normal people have, by making it seem vulnerable and lonely, the picture invokes the same kind of humor. A sad Silence is also a contradiction. Taking evil villains and monsters outside of their evil-doing contexts is funny, but not because it makes the actual villain/monster any less threatening. It works because they’re frightening; if they weren’t, there wouldn’t be any contradiction, and the humor wouldn’t be there.

Some Dalek fan works operate with the same kind of humor, but most do not. Popular themes are mocking the Daleks’ lack of motor functions, ridiculing the Daleks’ appearance, and poking fun at the Daleks’ catch phrase.

Can the Daleks do anything? Unlike the Silence picture, which makes fun of the Silence’s inability to have normal lives (not actually necessary for villainy), Dalek works often make fun of the Daleks for being clunky and awkward. The comic at the top of the post is a prime (and rather famous) example of this. The comic makes it explicit that the Daleks’ inability to navigate stairs would actually make them incompetent (and not that frightening) villains. One doesn’t need to have memorable birthdays to conquer the world. Stair-navigation, however, is probably necessary. We can see another example of this type of humor below.

Doctor-Who-Discombobulate-Dalek-T-Shirt

The detail on a dark grey t-shirt. In the image, a bronze-colored Dalek stands confused over a boxed light bulb on a table. His plunger and whisk “arms” are poised over the light bulb, and a think bubble above his head reads, “…how the heck?” Source.

While Daleks don’t need to change lightbulbs to be good villains (probably), the t-shirt is ridiculing the Daleks’ lack of motor functions. I mean, they have a plunger and a whisk. No fingers. No hands. They can’t pick anything up, or manipulate anything manually. That makes them a little less threatening as villains, which this t-shirt picks up on.

Why do they look like that? The Daleks’ clunky and low-budget appearance has been made fun of almost universally. Even people who think the Daleks are scary rarely think they look scary. The Daleks literally look like they were put together with scrap metal, stuff lying around the house, and some tape. It makes them hard to take seriously.

fig,royal_blue,mens,ffffff

The detail on a bright blue t-shirt. The image is a simple white line drawing. It shows a salt shaker, a plus sign, a plunger, a plus sign, a whisk, an equal sign, and a Dalek. Source.

This popular t-shirt posits that the Daleks are literally slap-dash. They humor comes in part because each of the objects is a domestic object (a salt shaker, a plunger, a whisk), which places the construction of the Daleks (or at least the aesthetic of the Daleks) squarely in the home. This makes them feel less threatening, because they are portrayed not as alien machines, but as objects that are extremely familiar. Further, the objects chosen here are, individually, so benign it would be difficult to imagine someone hurting you with them. How would you even attack someone with a whisk?

This kind of fan work doesn’t normally rely on contradiction; it’s a straight-up mocking of what the Dalek looks like and what parts he’s made of.

EXFOLIATE! ELUCIDATE! PONTIFICATE! The catch phrase for the Daleks is, I think, supposed to represent their horrifying, single-minded focus on killing all non-Daleks. But when you repeat a word enough, it starts to lose it’s meaning. I think this is what has happened to EXTERMINATE. Partially because the Daleks are so ridiculous, fans have easily and frequently taken the catch phrase and played with it for humor.

detail-110313

The detail on a dark blue t-shirt. The image is a simple bright blue line drawing. It shows a a Dalek lounging on a recliner. He is watching TV, using a remote, and eating popcorn on a side table. There’s a can on beer on its side on the side table, and one on the arm of the recliner. On a bulletin board next to the Dalek are pinned three different sheets of paper. One shows the sonic screwdriver, one is a technical drawing of the TARDIS, and one is a “To Do List” with three items, all reading “EXTERMINATE!” Source.

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 The detail from a handpainted white greeting card. A bronze-colored Dalek sits in the suds of a bathtub, with soap hanging from a rope on his plunger arm. Text above the image reads, “EXFOLIATE!” Source.

These examples rely somewhat on the contradiction of Daleks having normal lives (watching TV, taking a bath), like the Silence example. They are also showing, though, the ridiculousness of the way the Daleks approach actions. If the Daleks want to do something (or want someone else to do something), they just yell commands. (Explain! EXPLAIN! EXPLAAAAIN!!) By showing how humorous it is to do that in real life (PROCRASTINATE! EXFOLIATE!), these fan works reveal the ways in which the Dalek catchphrase is silly, in part because it unnecessarily narrates the Daleks’ actions. Instead of just, you know, shooting the Doctor, they yell EXTERMINATE about 10 times while looking at him first. That’s about as stupid as screaming EXFOLIATE while you’re in the bathtub. The PROCRASTINATE image is even funnier, because it seems to directly comment on the way the Daleks say actions to delay doing them, as the “To Do List” on the wall makes clear. This is certainly a characteristic that makes a villain less threatening (like a Bond villain who explains his whole plan to you and walks away after putting you in a slow-moving death trap).

Soft Dalek, warm Dalek, little ball of hate. There are, however, some fan works that seem to resemble my Silence example, that rely on the contrast between scary killer monster and domesticity/everyday life, snuggliness, and/or vulnerability and loneliness.

spastasmagoria

A screenshot from spastasmagoria’s Tumblr blog. The post, from 4 May, has an image that is a close-up of a bronze-colored Dalek’s head. His glowing blue eyestalk is central, and text below the eyestalk reads “I am alone in the universe.” A comment from Tumblr user missrenholder reads, “’‘Help me.’ Poor little thing.” Spastasmagoria’s commentary reads, “LET ME HOLD YOU, LAST DALEK IN THE UNIVERSE. LET ME CUDDLE YOU AND WE CAN HUG THE GENOCIDE OUT.” Source.

softdalekwarmdalek

A hand drawn set of images on white that parody the “Soft Kitty” song from Big Bang Theory. In the first panel, the text reads, “soft dalek” and a red Dalek is covered in something white and fluffy. In the second panel (“warm dalek”), the Dalek is on a lounge chair under the sun. In the third panel (“little ball of hate”), the eleventh Doctor casually looks at the Dalek, who is much smaller, about waist-height. The Dalek has little “hate lines” above his head. In the fourth panel (“happy dalek”), the Dalek is look upward, with his “arms” raised. In the fifth panel (“sleepy dalek”), the Dalek’s head and arms are facing downward, and a talk bubble reads “zzz…” In the last panel, the Dalek’s head and arms are facing upwards, and a talk bubble reads “EX-TER-MI-NATE.” Source.

Both of these examples contrast snuggliness with hatred and violence. The first image is funny because spastasmagoria explicitly juxtaposes hugging with genocidal creatures, and the second because it pairs a “little ball of hate” with kitties. Like the Silence example, this kind of fan work functions best if the viewer sees the Daleks as frightening and threatening. That way, the contrast is at its highest. Unlike the Silence example, however, these two works feel the need to explicitly remind the audience that the Daleks are genocidal murderers (“WE CAN HUG THE GENOCIDE OUT” and “little ball of hate”). I would suggest that they do this because without doing so, the audience(s) might see the Daleks as ridiculous, as already adorable, and then these works would be less humorous.

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A silver-framed cross stitch on a striped wall. In the cross stitch, a dark red Dalek faces an R2D2. A speech bubble coming from the Dalek had a pink heart in it. Source.

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A chubby red felted Dalek. He has twisty metal arms, and is holding a banner reading “EXTERMINATE” in stamped letters in front of him. Source.

Many examples of snuggly/lonely Dalek fan works, however, don’t rely on humor at all. They’re just cute. There are knitted Daleks, plush Daleks, crocheted Daleks, felted Daleks. There are cookie Daleks. There are Daleks that just want to love. There are baby Daleks. All of these examples aren’t really meant to be funny. They’re meant to be adorable. And that there are so many of them suggests that a lot of fans already think the Daleks are adorable, or at least think the Daleks are non-threatening enough to be fashioned as adorable.

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A “tiki Dalek” at Gallifrey 22 in 2011. The Dalek has bamboo trim and a straw “skirt” trimmed in green grass and Hawaiian flowers. His bumps are half coconuts, and his eyestalk is made of one, too. He has a cocktail umbrella behind his eyestalk, and his whisk arm is a tiki torch. The other arm holds a drink topped with Hawaiian flowers and cocktail umbrellas. The rings on his “neck” are plastic leis. Source.

So are the Daleks scary? My exploration into Dalek fan works suggests that even fans don’t really think so. When at least half of fan works of a villain mock or domesticate that villain, it seems unreasonable to say that fans are truly frightened of it. We seem to think the Daleks are ridiculous, silly, and cute at least as often as we think they are scary.

The upcoming part 2 of this post will explore how the Daleks are similar to H. G. Wells’s Martian in The War of the Worlds, and how that comparison affects how scary, or not, the Daleks are to modern audiences.

The Seven Plots and Doctor Who: Part 1 – Overcoming the Monster

overcomingthemonster

In his book The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker explains that, if you boil down every fictional story we tell, there’s actually only seven stories. The characters, setting, and details might change, but (if Booker is right) this means we can fit everything into seven very large buckets.

Recently, Ritch pointed out that Russell T Davies supposedly once told Moffat that we all write the same story over and over again. If we take Booker’s hypothesis of the seven plots and couple it with Doctor Who could we classify each story based on this literary theory?

Since the plots are quite in-depth, I’m going to try to dissect them using episodes of NuWho (sorry, I am not as familiar with the classic episodes yet to really delve into them, I’m working on it).

First plot: Overcoming the Monster
It’s no accident this is one of the first plots in the list. After all it’s the plot of the oldest Anglo-Saxon story we have, “Beowulf.” Overcoming the monster seems ideally suited for Doctor Who which deals with some sort of monster in almost every episode. In this plot the hero must learn of an evil threatening the land and overcome it. We can see this plot played out in episodes like, “The Idiot’s Lantern” when the Doctor arrives Muswell Hill, London on the day before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and discovers that something odd is happening. He uncovers the monster, a being called the Wire, who is using the highly televised event to soul suck people through their televisions. One of the more recent episodes that dealt with this plot is “The God Complex.” Vital to the Overcoming the Monster plot line is the steps that the hero usually takes to the conclusion.

The Anticipation Stage
The monster/danger makes itself known, but from a distance. Usually the reader/audience doesn’t see the monster right away, but the fear is very real. The monster must be the stuff of nightmares, something not entirely human. In this case the beast turns out to be a Minotaur-looking alien. While the monster in this plot may be different in appearance, they must have some kind of beastly quality that makes them the evil. If it’s a humanoid character than they must be malformed (or really big like the giant in Jack in the Beanstalk). If it’s an animal, like in “The God Complex,” then it must be cunning or capable of something that makes it partly human. Usually the monster is the representation of the darker side of humanity (in this case, it seems, the darker side of faith and possibly instinct, as he tells the Doctor later all that’s left is instinct).

We see the monster from a distance when the episode opens. We never catch a full view of it, always quick closeups (mostly the beast’s eye, which is significant). In this first case it’s Lucy, a police woman, who narrates the end of her life without much exposition, leaving the audience perplexed. As Lucy scribbles notes down in her pad we see more closeups of the beast. The beast’s animal noise growls and breathing (which aren’t entirely natural sounding) and heavy footsteps tell us it’s fierce and ferocious. Though there’s something more in the reaction the victims have which gives us our supernatural twist. A scream signifies poor Lucy’s demise.

The monster in the Overcoming the Monster story takes on three basic forms:

  • The Predator – Stalking victims (like in this story).
  • The Holdfast – the beast that guards a treasure or princess (wary of strangers, and suspicious). This beast is often sleeping when the hero comes up to claim the treasure.
  • The Avenger – the beast that’s awakened once the treasure/princess has been taken and hunts down the person(s) who have taken it.
Obviously, the monster can be all three of these forms in one story, but “In the God Complex” there’s no treasure or princess to rescue.

Hero’s Call to Action
The Doctor, Rory and Amy Look down the staircase in The God Complex

Once the story has established that the monster poses a great threat (in this case with Lucy’s death) the hero must receive his “call to action.” As with many of the Doctor’s adventures this call to action happens because the TARDIS has landed somewhere other than where the Doctor was planning on going. The Doctor was going to take Amy and Rory to Ravan-Skala, but instead is dropped off in a replica 1980s hotel. “Something must have yanked us off course,” The Doctor says dismissively.

When the Doctor, Amy and Rory are set upon by four frightened hotel guests, he receives his call to action. The exposition goes quickly with the Doctor asking questions of the four guests. The hero has a simple solution, The TARDIS, but discovers quickly his simple solution is gone. He then sums up their situation:

“Okay, this is bad. For the moment I don’t know how bad, but it’s certainly three buses, a long walk and a taxi from good.”

Once the hero receives his call of action he has choices (or does he). He can accept the call or try and run away from it, in the Doctor’s case he’s rarely run from a fight, so he starts right away to figure out the problem. He questions Joe, whose “tied up at the moment” because he’s very close to the same stage we saw Lucy at (acceptance that the Beast will kill him). This propels the story into the next stage.

The Dream Stage
The creepy dummies from The God Complex
In this stage the hero sets off after the monster (or the monster comes to him), but the monster is still at a comfortable distance. Everything seems to be going okay. In this case, the monster’s presence is very far away. Joe’s creepy recitation of a nursery rhyme, the awful elevator music resumes playing, and a low growl reminds us the danger is real, but there’s still a lot of humor like the PE teacher who tells the Doctor he’s doing PE “in his pants” (pants means underwear American folks, not anything dirty… well, wait…) and Rory telling Howie that his conspiracy theory is “amazing” because he’s found a theory more insane than what’s actually happening.

We’re clued in that the threat is far away in several places in this stage. Even when Howie finds his door (filled with teenage girls making fun of his stutter), Howie dismisses it as a “messed up CIA stuff.” When The Doctor and Amy finally hear the monster growling (again from a distance), Amy says: “it’s not real, yeah?” The Doctor says it’s not, but that they should run away and hide anyways. Rory’s spotting the exit door also confirms this comfortable distance (though his entire storyline is a bit different than the rest of the characters).

Of course, during this stage every one of the newly introduced characters (Joe, Howie, Rita and Gibbis) find their doors, but not Amy, Rory and the Doctor [though, there’s a slight mislead with the Weeping Angels room, as we’re meant to think it’s Amy’s room at first]. The monster comes after Joe, but the rest of the characters are safely behind doors. We catch more glimpses of the monster as the Doctor looks through the peep hole. In this case, the scene mirrors the Doctor’s eye with the monster’s eye (indicating their relationship, now our hero and monster are tied). Joe’s inevitable death still is comfortable, because of the implied inevitability of it.

The comfortableness is continued as the characters are safe in the giant dinning room/kitchen. Rita hands out tea, which the Doctor finds surprising. She smiles and says:

“of course, I’m British, it’s how we cope with trauma, that and ‘tutting’.”

The danger is not immediate enough to keep them from enjoying the tea. This also allows for more exposition in the form of Lucy’s notepad, it echoes some of the information we received at the beginning of the episode, but it’s meaning is clearer. When Howie falls into the monster’s thrall the danger slowly creeps closer and closer. The Doctor decides to use Howie as bait to catch the monster because, at this stage, everything needs to appear to be working. We see more glimpses of the Monster (giant, impossible horns that scrape the ceiling, hooves, etc.). The confrontation between the Doctor and the monster is assured now, taking us to the next stage.

Frustration Stage
At this point, the hero has met the monster and the monster is impossible to beat. Defeat seems to be just a matter of time. During this time the hero may fall into the monster’s clutches or under his power/thrall. In the episode, once the monster is trapped, the Doctor tries desperately to understand it after it realizes that it is not the source of the nightmares or trapping the people in this giant maze. He can’t gather all of the words (a callback to the idea that the TARDIS can’t translate very old languages, and the monster is so old that his name is lost) and asks how to defeat the monster. The monster doesn’t answer.

Interestingly, the Doctor and the monster have a conversation in a room full of water and mirrors. Reflective surfaces such as water and mirrors have a huge significance in most religions (not surprisingly because religion/faith being a theme in this episode). Mirrors steal your soul, mirrors reflect your true self, mirrors are gateways to other worlds, and so much more. The Doctor is inches away from the monster, but the two are separated by falling water. Again, the scene invokes the relationship the hero and the monster have… are the Doctor and the monster opposites? Or is there something more under the surface? could it be that the monster the Doctor’s reflection?

The Monster and the Doctor looking at each other through water

There’s little time for the Doctor to truly grasp all of this because Howie’s convinced Gibbis to let him go and is heading up to the monster. The monster cracks most of the reflective surfaces, including Howie’s glasses and the trap has failed. To add to the frustration, Amy has now seen her door (the number being 7, the age she was when she met the Doctor).

Throughout the episode, from the first time meeting her, the Doctor has grown to admire Rita, who questions the Doctor’s calling (as the hero). He offers to take her away with him on the TARDIS, but (after the Doctor leaves) Rita utters the “praise him” line that seems to seal her fate. As with most frustration stages, the Doctor falls under the monster’s thrall, and opens his own door. Then he has to watch, helplessly as Rita goes to her death. True to her final wish, he does not watch her death. Her death causes him to smash things in (you guessed it) frustration. Finally, Gibbis points out the helplessness of their situation, after the Doctor has said he’ll figure out how to change it:

“You keep saying that but you never do. And while we wait, people keep dying and we’ll be next.”

Finally, the Doctor realizes that it’s not fear that’s killing them, it’s faith. The fear just caused them to fall back on their faith. The Doctor also realizes that he’s caused the deaths by asking people to dig into their faith, the things that make them strong. He’s fallen into the deepest frustration a hero can have. This leads us to the climax of the episode.

Nightmare Stage
The Doctor watches Rita go to her death

It’s time for the final battle between the monster and our hero. In this case though, the battle is not with the monster directly it’s with Amy and the Doctor. Much like Lucy’s haunting words, you never know what’s behind your door, but when you see it you realize it can be nothing else. Amy and the Doctor’s relationship has been leading up to this event. Amy, whose life has been so ruled by the Doctor’s presence in it, whose character is shaped by being “the girl who waited” has the strongest faith of the characters. Her faith in the Doctor.

For the final battle the Doctor must break Amy’s faith in him to save her. He admits that he knows what will happen to his companions, but takes them anyways because he needs to be adored. That it’s time that the Doctor and Amy see each other “for who we really are.” The long standing mythos of the Doctor as Peter Pan (as I pointed out in a previous post) is now broken. The Doctor has this realization earlier with Rita when he likens his offer of traveling through time and space as offering children a suitcase of candy:

I brought them here. They say it was their choice, but offer a child a suitcase full of sweets and they’ll take it. Offer someone all of time and space and they’ll take that too. Which is why you shouldn’t. Which is why grown-ups were invented.

Unlike Peter Pan, the Doctor realizes that Amy must grow up, that’s its better for her. He also acknowledges that (despite his age) he is not a grown up. Instead of forcing her to remain child-like (like Peter Pan tries to do with Wendy) the Doctor becomes the person who makes her grow up.

The Thrilling Escape from Death, and Death of the Monster
The Doctor comforts the beast before he dies

For this stage the monster’s power must be broken, the people liberated, and the hero rewarded. In the episode, the monster’s power is broken the Doctor “sacrifices” Amy’s faith in him to save the monster from the torment of his capture. The word choice is very deliberate with the theme of faith. We fully see the parallel between the Monster and the Doctor: both feed on faith, on the worship of those around them and now the Doctor has cut off the supply to both himself and the Monster.

The monster (which I should point out is related to the Nimon, a race who appeared earlier in the Classic Who episode “The Horns of Nimon”) dies, at first comforted by the Doctor and then he offers the Doctor a warning before dying (ancient beings must always offer the Doctor warnings as they die, we learned this from the Face of Boe). The Doctor translates what the creature is saying as he dies:

An ancient creature, drenched in the blood of the innocents. Drifting in space through an endless shifting maze. Such a creature, death would be a gift.

The Doctor tells him to “accept it. And sleep well.” The Doctor pauses and then says the creature’s final words, “I wasn’t talking about myself.” Haunting the Doctor’s thoughts, indicating there’s more evil to come, and sealing the parallel between the two.

Usually, the hero at the end of the Overcoming the Monster story is rewarded. It can be some sort of treasure, or the ultimate other half (prince/princess), or a kingdom to rule over (or being the boss of one’s own company). Here’s where the story slightly turns, because it’s Amy and Rory who receive the treasure (Rory’s favorite car and a new house) not the Doctor.

Because of this one may think that this means there’s no treasure at all left for the Doctor, but as the episode ends, Rory runs out to the street and asks, “what happened? What is he doing?” Amy’s response comes as she looks up to the sky (again, religious symbolism), and says, “he’s saving us.” The final image of Amy is her at the window, looking up, indicating that she (once again) is full of faith in the Doctor. She once again is the girl who waited. The Doctor’s ultimate desire, the thing he sacrificed, has returned. Despite the solemness of the ending, it gives us the Doctor’s version of a happily ever after.

Amy watches out the window