Five Hundred Eyes

Gothic Art

The trouble with writing an article about the influence of Gothic horror on Doctor Who (especially a last-minute article desperately cobbled together at x o'clock in the morning to help pad out a zine suffering from Acute Article Anorexia) is that "Gothic horror" is one of those things which it is always easier to give examples of than to actually define. The reason I mention this is (a) to help swell this article by a paragraph, and (b) to pre-empt those readers who may come to have a shrewd suspicion that I don't really know what the hell I'm talking about.

Anyway, this much can perhaps be said to start with: that "Gothic" horror is, in some ways, directly opposed to what one might term techno- or eco-horror/SF, in which the advancement of science and technology (= the Future) is seen as something potentially dangerous. To this latter category we can assign tales of mad computers taking over the Post Office Tower, or mean 3ft maggots formed by Bateson's polymerisation of crude oil. In this genre, the villain tends to be (often with fat-cat capitalistic backing) that old dependable, the Mad Scientist.

Now, Gothic horror tends to be opposed to this scientific-hubris-as- dangerous viewpoint (says he confidently, hoping to God they don't think of "Frankenstein"). Instead, we are more likely to be presented with a situation in which the action revolves around a clash between the "Dark Ages" (= "the Past", or "the Primitive") and the "Age of Reason" (= rationality, science, the Future). Straight away one thinks of Lovecraft's doomy yarns of ancient evil and awesome Elder gods. Best of all, we have "Dracula", in which we see an epic conflict between the atavistic forces of darkness, base and predatory, centuries old (the vampire), and the forces of goodness, represented by a man of science, learning and enlightenment (Dr Van Helsing).

Often too, Gothic literature specifically equates the former with the mediaeval, albeit a heavily-romanticised version. Thus Count Dracula inhabits a louring medi mediaeval castle and in Stoker's novel is identified with dear old Vlad the Impaler. Quasimodo rings the bells in a cathedral which is literally "Gothic" - Notre-Dame de Paris. When seen in this context, "Frankenstein" fits more comfortably into this pattern: the Frankenstein who gives the Promethean spark of life to his creature is strictly in the tradition of the mediaeval alchemist or sorcerer: Volta and vermicelli just add another layer to the mythos. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think there's any attempt at even such pseudo-scientific explanations in Mary Shelley's actual narrative. More mediaeval trappings come with the cinematic versions, with the various "Frankenstein's castle"s, bristling with battlements. (I confess I can't remember whether the original book had a mediaeval castle in it.)

Now let's take a look at some Doctor Who stories which are generally considered to be "Gothic". Again and again we see this conflict between a devilish Past and an enlightened Present or Future (in most cases partly represented by the Doctor himself). In The Daemons and Image of the Fendahl we have superstition and Satanism versus the twentieth century; in Pyramids of Mars the forces of Ancient Egypt come up against the spirit of solid nineteenth century positivism (Laurence Scarman); while in The Stones of Blood, the threat emanates from Celtic paganism. Because Doctor Who is not an outright fantasy, the distinction in all these cases is blurred somewhat by imputing "scientific" explanations to the forces of the past themselves (hence "daemons" become "aliens"), but the Gothic pattern is clearly still there in its essentials. Also noteworthy are The Keeper of Traken, with its very prominent chaos vs. harmony theme, and The Evil of the Daleks, with its Faustian alchemist, Maxtible, who sells his soul to the Daleks.

Purest of the Gothic Doctor Who stories, however, are The Curse of Peladon, State of Decay and The Masque of Mandragora, in which the anti-rational, anti-progress nature of the villains is most explicit, and their "mediaeval" trappings most apparent: the barbarous, if chivalrous, code of honour of Aggedor struggles against Galactic Federation humanism, the force of the future; the vampire lords deliberately hamstring the development of their subjects, keeping them locked in a feudal, peasant structure; and the Mandragora Helix, working through astrology and the sorcerer/alchemist Hieronymous, attempts to destroy the anthropocentric civilisation of the Italian Renaissance. Masque is perhaps the single best example of the Gothic in Who because, with its actual terrestrial (and temporal) location and low-key "alien", the "science-fiction" framework is virtually dispensed with. As trusty Tulloch and Alvarado put it: "... the Gothic element was lurking closely benea ?th the surface with the science of Da Vinci's era threatened ... by the dark monkish practices and endless catacomb corridors ... In Hinchcliffe's Masque of Mandragola (sic - T&A were probably thinking of Machiavelli's play of that name) the threat of villainy is precisely against that process of human rationalism ... Situated at the turning-point between the "dark ages" of necromancy and the scientific rationalism of Leonardo and Galileo, the Renaissance itself is the subject of attack."

"Fear originates in a source external to the subject: the self suffers an attack of some sort which makes it part of the other. This is the type of appropriation of the subject found in 'Dracula' and tales of vampirism: it is a sequence of invasion, metamorphosis and fusion, in which an external force enters the subject, changes it irreversibly and usually gives to it the power to initiate similar transformations ... otherness is established throught a fusion of self with something outside, producing a new form, an 'other' reality (structured around themes of the 'not-I')."

- Rosemary Jackson, "Fantasy: the literature of subversion", quoted in T&A

Well, this brings us on to our old friend Possession, much beloved of Gothic literature. The occurrance of this theme in Doctor Who has been discussed so many times I won't dwell on it here, except to remark that no less than six stories of the Philip Hinchcliffe era deal explicitly with possession, and another three or so sort of hint at it. I only mention the subject of possession for the sake of completeness and for the sake of yet another long pompous quotation from "The Unfolding Text" (where would we be without it?).

What other qualities are associated with the Gothic? Well, there's definitely a very strong sense of melodrama : not comic melodrama I hasten to add, but instead a certain rich, dark grandeur which is almost operatic in its near-stylisation, but which paradoxically yet retains a grisly versimilitude in its particulars. Emotions, events, protagonists and places all share this impressive grotesqueness and this manically-heightened intensity. I would use the term "baroque", but I don't want to give any architecture buffs out there bad dreams ("Gothic-Baroque" - ouch!), instead I'll descend to the use of examples: I'm sure you know what I'm talking about.

The Talons of Weng-Chiang just oozes this quality : the whole six episodes are drenched in a thick, spiced gloom through which villains in fantastic leather masks and velvet capes flit on their diabolical errands. Lurid red-gold dragon idols loom through the swirling incense of secret lairs; killer dolls stalk deserted Victorian music-halls at night, brandishing lethal knives; and, down below, in the dark, dripping sewers, roam giant rats, the results of some hideous experiment ... That is Gothic.

In Doctor Who, this unashamed use of intensity and melodrama crops up even when the actual trappings of the story seem utterly un-Gothic. The Robots of Death may look as if it had been designed by Gustav Klimt on acid, with its sets and costumes a mixture of OTT Art Nouveau and Art Deco, but there is just one glorious scene which is Gothic melodrama to the core: the "very mad scientist" Taren Capel, sinisterly cowled ˆ la the Phantom of the Opera, looms over his operating table on which lies a prostrate Voc robot and whispers madly, exultantly: "I bring you freedom ... power ... death!", his words punctuated by the stirring, organ-like chords of the incidental music. Wonderful stuff!

More recently, Dragonfire tried for something of the sort. Clambering in and out of his plastic "coffin" and shrivelling up in sunlight at the end, bad boy Kane resembled Dracula, while his mad, worshipful monolgues to the statue of his dead beloved were pure Vincent Price (note the "Dr Phibes"-like organ-pipes behind the coffin). Unfortunately, all this was done in a rather weak, jokey manner, losing most of the intensity. This sort of melodramatic Gothic intertextuality can't be underplayed: it has to pour forth in rich, burnished, Hinchcliffian wares if it is to work at all.

Most importantly, it mustn't be sent-up or it will degenerate into mere campness, as in Dragonfire, and so lose its raison d'etre. The OED defines a melodrama as a "sensational dramatic piece with crude appeals to emotions". The point is, however, that such crude sensationalism can be very powerful in its own way, and so is not to be despised (as Gothic horror so often is as a literary form). The beauty of Doctor Who as a medium for presenting Gothic horror is that, if properly done, we can have our cake and eat it. If the actual events are treated in a serious, frightening manner then, melodramatic though they may be, they can have that powerful effect (as in literary Gothic). But because most Who Gothic is intertextual in inspiration (ie. drawn from literary sources) there is a self-conciousness about the whole operation which brings out the humour. Therefore the Gothic mode works best in Who when (a) these intertextual references are made very explicit, and (b) when the detailed events and the reactions of the protagonists are portrayed in a very serious manner.

Just one example. The climax of part one of Pyramids of Mars is shot through with "humorous self-mockery". As Ibrahim Namin tells how, for generations, his ancestors have guarded the secret of the dark god's pyramid, we can see the amusing self-conciousness inherent in the deliberate rip-off of all those creaky old Universal "Mummy" flicks, awash with villainous, fez-clad high priests who tend Prince Im-Ho-Tep through the centuries, jealously guarding the tanha leaves until the time comes when unbelievers shall defile his sarcophogus (or some such nonsense). At the same time however, the pounding incidental music, the flickering chiaroscuro of the candle-lit organ-room, Namin's chanting, the Doctor's horrified expression, the sinister presence of the mummies and the black-cowled figure of Sutekh's servant, Namin's bubbling shriek as the latter brings him the "gift of death" - all these elements make this scene an incredibly frightening and powerful one, perhaps the most intense in Doctor Who's long history. Compared to a cliffhanger like that, Dragonfire' s proto-Gothic Kane sequences have all the force of a particularly limp lettuce-leaf!

Another aspect of the Gothic which Doctor Who has employed more often than one would think is the depiction of exterior natural conditions (eg. weather) as a reflection of a character's emotions and inner psychological state, as a reflection of actual events, and as a harbinger of future events. This technique is not limited to horror literature of course - the English Romantic poets and continentals such as Heine made much use of it - but a particularly good instance of it in a more "Gothic" context occurs in Dostoyevsky's great novel "The Idiot" (a work which frequently trembles on the brink of melodrama). In chapter five of part two (I think!) the epileptic hero of the novel, Prince Myshkin, roams in a semi-trance through the city streets, all the time uneasily aware of a pair of sinister, burning eyes which glare at him from crowds, etc. A brooding, stormy sky mirrors the turmoil in the prince's mind and also prepares us for the terrifying climax of the chapter, when his mysterious pursuer (in fact his rival for a woman's love) tries to kill him, causing him to have an epileptic fit.

Doctor Who may not be on quite the same artistic level as Dostoyevsky, but note how we cut to the thunder-and-lightning of The Curse of Peladon and the sandstorms of The Robots of Death at moments of great tension, the violence of the weather mirroring the violence and danger in the Citadel of Peladon and the Sandminer respectively. Other examples include the storms which continually lash the battlements of Solon's castle, and the mudbursts which suddenly erupt as events of Androzani Minor approach their bloody conclusion. At first sight, Planet of Evil seems to exhibit something more akin to pathetic fallacy, as the jungle-planet Zeta Minor is explicitly anthropomorphised in the early scenes ("It's alive ... it watches every move we make ..."), but if we take it on a more allegorical level it fits the Gothic pattern: night-time on Zeta Minor and the Anti-Matter monster which only emerges when "night's candles" are aglow, can be seens as representing the dark and dangerous side of Professor Sorenson's psyche. and this leads us neatly back to the two main sources for Planet of Evil : the film "Forbidden Planet" with its "monster of the Id" and "The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde" in which R.L.Stevenson refers to "the primitive duality of man". As a final case, in The Keeper of Traken we have the storms which occur as the old Keeper approaches "dissolution" and the State slides towards chaos. Here the weather motif seems to link not just to the Gothic- Romantic tradition but also, bearing in mind the many Shakespearian images and references in the story, to the older Elizabethan concept of the universal chain of being. (See the article "Tragedy of Traken" in Frontier Worlds #16 for a full discussion of Shakespearian elements in The Keeper of Traken.)

A final point: one element of the Gothic-Romantic which Doctor Who has not often used is the concept of the monster/villain as sympathetic Tragic Hero. "Dracula", "Frankenstein", "The Phantom of the Opera", "The Hunchback of Notre-Dame", "Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde" - all the central figures in these tales fit this mould. Hinchcliffe's villains were usually just too nasty to be sympathetic, a role falling instead to their "possessed" victims, but one splendid example would, of course, be Sharaz Jek : we even have the traditional Gothic no-hope monster/maiden relationship portrayed to perfection!

A nice piece of irony that the last ever Doctor Who story should have belonged to the genre which the series had previously adopted with such conspicuous ratings and artistic success - the Gothic genre.

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