Alien iconography in Doctor Who (2005-present): a matter of fears and likes
Doctor Who is well known for being one of the longest TV series broadcasted. Even after a break, it restarted in 2005 and kept being one of the greatest hits on the English television; its episodes always develop unpredictable plots and have shown us all kind of creatures through time and space. We might think this is a question of imagination and luck, but we would be simplifying the scriptwriter job; if we keep on watching it and it’s still able to make us feel anything (fun, love, fear, sorrow) it’s because its writers know very well how to play with our minds. I don’t mean they are trying to drive us crazy (although sometimes it looks like that), but they certainly know well how to make the crowd sympathize or fear somebody.
In the first place, we have the Doctor, the main character that defines himself as a mad man with a box. He is a time lord, an alien race that looks completely human, feels like a human and, in fact, as far as we know, has a life circle quite similar to humans in the beginning: through many episodes, the Doctor gives hints about how Gallyfreyan kids are born and raised, quite similarly to us. A time lord seems to be pretty normal to us, they are made time lords by spending a huge time looking into the Untempered Schism, which shows the entirety of the Time Vortex and the power that time lords have and that’s the point in which they differ from humans. They have achieved immortality by regenerating themselves when their bodies are too damaged, and immortality has always been one of the greatest ambitions for Humanity, so even that makes him attractive for us.
He has a thing for the Earth and humans in general (“Oh, humans, I thought I’d never get done saving you.”) and carries a human or at least half-human companion with him. He’s the last one of his species, completely free to come and go, but he still keeps a clear moral that pictures the virtues our society defends: kindness, peace, knowledge, courage, love... The only thing that can put him away from actual humans is the fact that he has two hearts and is about one thousand years old; he is eccentric and childish, indeed none of this makes him disgusting to any human he meets; instead, it makes the public feel some kind of tenderness because in so many aspects he is like a child: innocent, and innocence is something that must be protected. Here we can see the clearest example of how well scriptwriters know the public. It is always easier to make us sympathize with an alien creature as long as it is friendly and human-like.
Then we have the other main alien races: daleks, cybermen, weeping angels, silences, oods and silurians represent a wide range of possibilities, from fears to social conflicts, and their physical forms help to deepen into them. It’s not only about if they are ugly or nice (though this is important), but also about how sometimes something that looks harmless can become quite dangerous and take us unaware. Is it a metaphor of life? Maybe.
We could talk about daleks and cybermen jointly, as far as both of them represent different forms of the cyborg idea: daleks are a super intelligent alien race set into machines that make them letal, cybermen are steel men created by a human mind that use the heads of people as their organic component. Both of them have faced the Doctor a few times (daleks are, in fact, time lords’ biggest enemies and responsible for time lord’s extinction), always trying to take over the Earth and use humans to create more of them (cybermen) or destroy Humanity to get a new place to live in (daleks). Daleks seem to be way more dangerous because of their intelligence and lack of feelings. They are cold hyperrational creatures, unable of any empathy, although they haven’t always been like that; we know they were better once and compare it to what they’ve become and maybe spot our own future. If we only observe their appearance, we have to admit they don’t really look terrifying (“Without your gun you're a tricycle with a roof.” says the Doctor in episode 7x01) and they continuously claim they want to “Exterminate!” so there’s no possible doubt about their intentions. What makes them terrifying? Their history. They were like us once, but their whishes of improving themselves drove them into the complete loss of any kind of feeling, turning them into heartless brains. On the other hand, we have the cybermen, whose only interest is multiply their number so they can take over the Earth because their creator (originally human) compelled them to do so. Here we can see both sides of the same coin: with our continue struggle to be better, stronger, cleverer, we may end up being like daleks or cybermen (that depends on if we keep on thinking by ourselves or if we let someone else, more powerful or smarter, manipulate us). Will we go as far as this? Are we already going by developing things like eugenics, bionic devices, robots or even Google glasses? Those two aliens symbolize (very extreme) possibilities of future for us and are supposed to make us wonder about the morals that should be developed beside scientific achievements.
The weeping angels have turned out to be one of the creepiest aliens created by the Doctor Who scriptwriters. Opposed to daleks and cybermen, weeping angels appear for the first time on season 3 of the modern series and their origin is still uncertain. Many theories develop the idea of them being time lords that have fallen in disgrace, but their creator (Steven Moffat) hasn’t agreed with that. The only thing we know about their origin is that they are old, really old, older than our world, and that they definitely come from another part of the Universe. If we judge by their looks, we might think they are not very scary: weeping angels seem to be statues portraying angels with their eyes covered as if they were crying (in following episodes we find out that almost any statue can be one of them, regardless of their form), though later we discover the real reason why they don’t look straight: as long as somebody is looking at them, they cannot move, so they don’t risk to look into each other because that would doom them forever. The problem is that they are quick, very quick, and blinking may mean your death, because their touch will send you backwards in time to let them feed on your temporal energy. The only way to keep them from attacking you is to stare constantly at them, otherwise they’ll send you back in time again and again until no temporal energy is left in you and you die. The motto “Don’t blink” the Doctor repeats in every weeping angel episode has become one of the scariest sentences according to the fans.
The weeping angels represent psychological fears, much more personal than the previous ones. Scriptwriters are now playing with a few different fears: on one hand, fear of wasting time and dying without living at all, on the other hand, fear of the possibility of living creatures among us and being observed without us knowing it (they are literally living stone). The last one could be included in the list of paranoids that we can find among science fiction works. Besides, weeping angels in all kind of variations have always being a symbol of death, a very common one during World War I, when they got very popular to decorate the tombs of the fallen ones.
Right next to the weeping angels, we may analyze silences. Again we find a new alien race that appears for the first time in the modern series and that plays with our minds in a very similar way. Silences’ main characteristic is that you only remember them as long as you are looking at them. How can humans possibly fight invaders that cannot even be remembered? And it’s not only them what you forget, but also anything that might be said or done while you’re seeing them, although it leaves traces in your mind that might let you remind the shadow of an idea, as if it were your own (a very subtle way of brainwashing, so to call it). Without our memories, we are in constant danger and don’t know it and they are stealing little parts of ourselves. They confess to have been ruling the world for centuries, manipulating and controlling people into their whishes. Right next to this kind of behavior, another question is raised: are we still ourselves without our memories or induced into somebody else’s wishes? Leaving aside the fact of the alien invasion, here the show plays with another fear that has become very common in the last twenty years because of the increase of Alzheimer disease; how can we fight an invisible enemy?
Oods raise a very different situation. They are not enemies of the human race (or time lords), they a pacific and kind of child-like alien race who’s been born to serve. They need to have somebody telling them what to do, otherwise they pine away and die; they are also born with their brains out of their heads, so they must be pacific. They are one of the most confusing races in the show, because their exterior look is humanoid but they have tentacles on their faces and that, most of the times, bring the Doctor’s companions to mistake when they thing oods are dangerous. Oods also possess a high sensibility, they have a telepathic bound among their race and can express their pity by singing. Are they really inferior to human or equal but have developed their capabilities in a different way? I mean, humans develop intelligence and rationality more than anything else, but oods may have done the same with their empathy: they feel happy when the people around is happy, so they want to help and that is translated for humans as a way of servilism. Do we have the right to treat them as slaves?
Here we can see a parallelism with most of the colonizations in History, like when Spanish people arrived to
for the first time: at the beginning, natives only wanted to be kind and then
we took advantage on that. Is it the same with the oods? Rose Tyler (first
Doctor’s companion in the new series) is kind of suspicious about the way
humans understand and treat oods. When oods appear in the series again, Donna
Noble (new companion) also gets astonished of how cruel humans can be with
them; at this point, we get to see how oods may not be violent but they really
know how to take care of themselves, contrary to the idea exposed by humans.
They serve because they want and humans end up paying them with cruelty. America
Finally, we have the silurians. Silurians set a very different situation: they are not aliens, we are. They are a race that was habiting the Earth years and years before humans appeared and when we did, they found themselves forced to go into the planet to be able to keep on living. That’s why they start being really aggressive when we first meet them and then turn out to be a very human-like race willing to negotiate with us about the possibility of going back to the Earth surface. I think the circumstances around this encounter are quite interesting for us, because they are represented as humanoid lizards and that’s supposed to creep us, but when you really come to think about it, they are nothing but the previous step right before us. We are creepy for them too (one of them openly says so) because we are for them the same as some posthuman possibilities are for us. Both races are just two different steps of Evolution and, in this case, we are the invaders, we are the aliens and it’s our iconography the one that is disgusting.
Apart from these main cases, there are a few more I’d like to talk about too. In first instance, Cassandra. Cassandra is, at some point of the future, the last human being, although there’s almost nothing about her that we could recognize as human; her vanity has made her put herself through so many different types of plastic surgery that the only remaining part of her is a piece of plain skin with eyes and mouth. This could be considered as a posthuman possibility: no improvement that we can recognize, just the (very extreme) result of a very common obsession nowadays.
Right next to her, and as another way of going for humans, we have the Nestene duplicate of Rory (one of the Doctor’s companion): it’s a plastic version of a human whose personality stays just like the original one and doesn’t know that it’s a robot, but finds out when the main software makes all the duplicates start to kill and he accidentally shoots his girlfriend Amy. It’s such a perfect copy that nobody around him knows he isn’t real, not even himself, and this could fit the paranoia theme of classic science fiction.
Sontarans are a very clear (and critic) representation of another popular fact of scientific progress: eugenics and cloning. This race is meant to be warriors, pure warriors: they are born with the fighting desire inside and it’s not specifically said how they reproduce, but since they do it by millions with the only intention of being part of a huge army and they are “born” directly as grownups, we can imagine that they don’t do it the traditional way.
Vashta Nerada is a very different type of alien race. They look like dust particles when you see them floating around in the air thanks to sunshine, but they usually gather compounding huge shadows to attack people. They are also known as air piranhas, because they eat any kind of flesh just like the marabunta would. Actually, I see them more like marabunta than piranhas (here we have another buglike type of alien, but also some kind of psychological fear representation: shadows, the darkness and what is in there that we can’t see). The only way of staying safe from them is always to keep an eye on the shadows. The second scariest motto created by Doctor Who is “Count the shadows”, referring to this alien.
Human perspective could be our conclusion since we are all human (or so I hope). Generally speaking, the first reaction of humans (unless you’ve already travelled with the Doctor for so long that very few things can really impress you) is to feel scared. That’s a very normal reaction when you’re facing something unknown and that doesn’t look like anything you’ve seen before, but most of the times if we still feel scared after a while is because we can recognize a part of humanity in it, usually the worst part. If we watch alien invasions, wars or behaviors we can conclude that they do not look so different from us, although it looked like that at the beginning. Playing with the looks is the simplest way of scaring the audience and it may work on a concrete group (like the youngest spectators), but what scriptwriters do to really frighten grownups is to go one step beyond and create aliens that represent deeper fears or possible evolutions, those which are terrifying because they attack directly the most basic instinct: survival, by not letting us perceive reality as it is actually, or because they show how we are developing a hyper rational way of thinking and taking advance on whatever surrounds us.