Menace From The Deep: The Doctor Who / H.P. Lovecraft connection

There’s an episode of the 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series that always resonates with me. It comes as the awesome foursome traverse an abandoned network of subway tunnels where they come across a hidden underground city populated by hideous monsters. “Perhaps,” says Michelanglo, echoing a film he’s watching at the story’s opening, “there are some things man was never meant to tamper with.”

It’s a well-worn cliché that’s seen more media appearances than Katie Price’s love life, but nowhere does it apply with more ferocity, and with consequences so damning, than in the work of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, horror writer extraordinaire. Typically, mad scientists in films are relentlessly pursued to an early grave by their own creation, or wind up stuck with an enormous fly’s head (now that I think about it, Ninja Turtles did this as well). But the characters of Lovecraft’s stories rarely get off so lightly: finding that, instead, they escape physically intact but with their world view infinitely expanded and horribly altered. “That’s your punishment,” says the Moment to the War Doctor, just as he’s about to burn up Gallifrey. “If you do this… you live.”

Like John Shaft, Lovecraft was a fiercely complicated man. Born in Rhode Island in the last decade of the 19th Century, he raged against poverty and mental illness for most of his life, scarcely making any sort of living from a not inconsiderable body of fiction and non-fiction, before succumbing to cancer in 1937, at the age of 46. It’s not the cheeriest of tales – in a classic case of life imitating art, there is no happy ending to Lovecraft’s story – and it may be one of the reasons why his life has yet to be the subject of any sort of substantial biopic, beyond a couple of obscure documentaries. It’s hard to imagine 80,000 people in Wembley Stadium cheering along with a reading of Dagon, unless they were all dressed in robes.

H.P. Lovecraft, June 1934. He’s just tried tofu for the first time and is trying desperately not to swallow it.

But strip away the surface of this twisted melancholia and you find a man whose work has had enormous and lasting influence on the horror industry, even going so far as to spawn its own sub-genre. Clive Barker, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and William S. Burroughs are among the many who’ve taken their literary cues from the tortured genius from Rhode Island: it’s a legacy that would likely annoy him, given that Lovecraft apparently considered himself a non-fiction writer first and foremost (his academic body of work, indeed, is both substantial and worth investigating), but perhaps it’s better to be remembered for the wrong things than to not be remembered at all. Stephen King, also, is a big fan – his short novella N. (Just After Sunset, 2008) is a carbon copy of Lovecraft’s style and thematic content, though King himself states that Machen’s The Great God Pan was his biggest influence. Even if you’re not familiar with the stories, the central concepts are embedded into popular culture, none more so than Cthulhu (‘Ka-too-loo’ if you’re American; ‘Ka-thoo-loo’ if you’re not, and according to Lovecraft we’re all wrong), the gargantuan cosmic octopus god who shall return at the end of days to destroy the world. Cthulhu’s been referenced and parodied – arguably beyond saturation point – in everything from South Park to Ben 10, with varying degrees of success. There’s even a pink plush toy. (No, I haven’t bought it; I’m holding out for the green one.)

Yes, we can hear you all not quite saying, ‘but what about Doctor Who?’ It’s been the better part of 60 years, with all manner of nods to the likes of Dracula, Dr. Jekyll, and Frankenstein; surely they’ve slipped some Lovecraft in there somewhere? And, of course, they have. More or less.

The most obvious one is the Ood. It’s something of an annoyance, really, given that every time anyone (all right, usually me) makes a Cthulhu reference you always get at least 12 other people saying “Hey, it looks like an Ood!”. No, my 5-year-old eating spaghetti looks like an Ood. But if we must, you’ve got it the wrong way round: the Ood look like Cthulhu. Learn to tell your chicken from your egg. Now that I come to think about it, it was a Twitter exchange with Tony Stokes about this very matter that prompted this article in the first place. I complained that no one ever reads anymore. “Lovecraft isn’t easy to read,” he pointed out. “A lot of his writing has excellent ideas marred by longueurs of narrative.”

Sort of like Tolkien, then. Tony’s right, of course, but it seems you don’t necessarily have to read in order to encounter it – if there’s a sinister cult or an ancient, unspeakable being in a Doctor Who story, chances are Lovecraft got there first. The Ood’s Lovecraftian tendencies extend far beyond their tentacled frontage, particularly in their first story: red-eyed and vacant, empty vessels for a nameless, faceless evil to warp and weft. The Impossible Planet isn’t the only Lovecraft-themed tale Nu Who has to offer, but it is one of the most transparent.

But Lovecraft’s reach into the Whoniverse extends far beyond a multi-brained slave race. The Great Intelligence, for example, was outed as cosmic entity Yog-Sothoth in one of the New Adventures, and it’s really not such a stretch (or it wasn’t, until it turned into Richard E. Grant and started building snowmen). The Curse of Fenric treads similar ground: the ancient demi-god playing a dangerous chess game with time and space is so classically Lovecraft that Andy Lane’s decision to recast him as Hastur (in All Consuming Fire) feels almost like an afterthought. Some of the references are more visual than story-related, and not all of them were deliberate – see the bulbous Animus in The Web Planet, which was supposed to be spider-like but which turned into something far more sinister on the road from script to production department to studio.

Clockwise from top left: Dr. Judson / Fenric in The Curse of Fenric; the Animus in The Web Planet; the Nestene in Spearhead From Space;
Padmasambhava in The Abominable Snowman. (Or, if you like, Justin Fletcher in later years.)

Then there’s Image of the Fendahl, which almost warrants its own article. It has just about everything, from ancient malevolent aliens fiddling with humanity to the cultists that worship them: there is unspeakable evil and a strange artefact that may be the key to everything. When the Fendahleen appears, all flapping fabric and BBC costume rubber, it strongly resembles an Elder Thing from At The Mountains of Madness, or perhaps something obscure that I can’t remember. Look, it has tentacles coming out of his mouth; that’ll do for starters.

None of this is exhaustive. There are layers of it, in all manner of Classic stories, depending on how deep you’re willing to go and how closely you can connect the themes. But there can be little doubt that there’s a general pervasive atmosphere amongst many of these stories, at a fairly superficial level, where the idea of great evil is encountered and swiftly exploited and then usually blown up. Consequently, Lovecraft’s hold over the show becomes less about the concrete and more about an abstract awareness of unthinkable, many-limbed horror; the sort of thing he wrote about years before (having been influenced by Poe) and which, in turn, influenced almost everybody else. It’s a stretch to say that everything is deliberate – I’ve never held, for example, that the Rutan jelly from Fang Rock is in any way a nod to any creature he described – but even that’s a story about doppelgangers and possession, something Lovecraft explores to a great extent in the likes of The Thing On The Doorstep.

Move beyond the wilderness years (when, it’s fair to say, the New Adventures authors got a little obsessed) and into the 21st Century and it all starts to become a little hazy. The Reapers (Father’s Day) aren’t bad, although they possibly owe more to Jackson and Livingstone, at least in the design department. Midnight owes much to the idea of unseen, nameless evil that inhabits the people we love: conversely, the Krafayis in Vincent and the Doctor is classically Lovecraftian in appearance, while posing none of the threat. The climax of Series 3 – which builds in the heat death of the universe – is a good idea squandered; how wonderful would it have been to actually see Utopia with all its fire and cold and the last of humanity, screaming at the dark?

That idea would come back some years later in Listen, where the Doctor hides at the end of the universe, and there is something outside, and – listen, while we’re on the subject, why does Doctor Who never actually deal with entropy properly? Why is it simply enough for the TARDIS to materialise somewhere that looks like a quarry with a bit of green screen, and then leave without any sort of sensible discussion? And why are we told that “the end of the universe” is a time and date? Is this like Hitchhiker’s? Or is it like Father Ted, when we found out that the ice age ended on July 19th? If this is flippant, it’s a purposeful distraction, because the punch line to Listen is that the monster under your bed is an English teacher. Chekhov would turn in his grave.

It’s worth noting that the Lovecraftian overtones to Who only extend as far as content. Nowhere (and somewhat mercifully) have there been any serious attempts to emulate his style, which consists of long, rambling passages of dense prose, usually descending into incoherence as the speaker descends into madness. Revelation is more common than resolution (it’s been noted by more than one scholar that Lovecraft does beginnings and middles, but seldom endings) and framing devices are both common and perplexing: frequently we’re reading about the contents of an ancient text being transcribed in the jottings of a sorcerer whose life and apparent death are being investigated by an academic who has written down the tale of his own findings, which is being read by a policeman. It’s like that Pink Floyd album cover where the picture on the wall is almost the same photo, and inside that is another photo. Or it’s like the model village in Bourton-on-the-Water, which itself contains a model of the model village, and inside that…

And what of the man himself? This is a show about time travel, after all, and the Doctor’s brushed shoulders with monarchs and mathematicians and more than a few writers: The Shakespeare Code is essentially 40 minutes of miniature bootstrap events, the Doctor tossing out quotable dialogue as if it were soon to be outlawed, while Donna picks up the slack in The Unicorn and the Wasp. If Colin Baker can give H.G. Wells the idea for The Time Machine, then surely there’s scope for the TARDIS to land in Providence and get embroiled in a sinister plot about necromancy and reincarnation?

Big Finish have more or less done it. In Lurkers At Sunlight’s Edge (2010), the Seventh Doctor, Ace, and Hex disturb an expedition in 1930s Alaska and meet a writer of weird fiction who is Lovecraft in all but name: he even has a hidden past. There is a sinister expedition leader with lofty ambitions, and an awful lot of uncovering stuff which should have been left piled under the snow. About the only thing missing is a flock of albino penguins, but that’s probably not a bad thing because we’d have to throw in a Frobisher joke somewhere and it’d just kill the mood.

(As an aside, there’s an episode of Scooby Doo: Mystery Incorporated that deals with the same idea. Fractured and divided, the gang find themselves looking around Darrow University where they encounter H.P. Hatecraft, an English Professor who’s seen far more than he’s initially prepared to let on. It all climaxes with a frenetic chase where Scooby is pursued across the rooftops by a large, Cthulhu-like monster. Looking back, this may have been the point I realised children’s television had lost some of its innocence.)

Scooby Ood.

The central problems with actually featuring Lovecraft are two-fold. For one, Lovecraft was thunderingly racist – and not in a Winston Churchill, well-it’s-a-fact-but-it-doesn’t-really-define-him-so-we’ll-ignore-it sense. Lovecraft’s attitudes towards persons of colour are woven throughout much of his writing – never mind poems like ‘On The Creation of N—-rs’ (mercifully unpublished, although it’s all over the internet), it’s in many of his books as well. The Shadow Over Innsmouth may be Lovecraft’s most frightening and ultimately satisfying work, but it’s also rich with subtext embodying the author’s disgust at racial mixing, a loathing that’s well-documented elsewhere but which manifests here as a deep-rooted fear of fish.

It’s The Horror at Red Hook that garners the most attention. We already know that Lovecraft wasn’t exactly fond of the place, and when writing about a fictional kidnapping that descends into a sinister tale of occultism and human sacrifice, he wasted no time in putting his contempt onto paper, in a wild and sordid tale where ‘Asian dregs’ consort with the degenerate Dutch and a raid on the cultists’ house leads to the discovery of ‘throngs of mixed foreigners in figured robes’. Was he worse than his contemporaries? Probably. Worse than the likes of Hartnell? Again, probably. There’s evidence to suggest he may have had a rethink in later years, but there’s a difference between attitude and aptitude – and when racism seeps into the work, as it frequently did with Lovecraft, then we have a problem.

Despite best efforts, we were unable to locate the original source for this image. If it’s yours, please let us know so that we can credit you!

None of this is a reason not to do it – you just have to be selective, not to mention extremely careful – but it stirs up the sort of hornet’s nest that the BBC would probably rather leave well alone. They already pushed their luck with the Rosa Parks story, as good as that was. It is impossible, in today’s climate of excessive accountability and 360 degree feedback, to put Lovecraft into an episode without in some way acknowledging his racism, either on or off screen. The fans simply won’t let you. And it doesn’t matter how you deal with it: it’s classic Catch-22. Whatever approach you take the only inevitability is an angry response on social media, and as such it’s probably best consigned to the BBC’s pile of stories they won’t touch with a 10 foot pole (which, I have on good authority, is in a plastic tray inherited from a former Eastenders scriptwriter, emblazoned with the words “LEAVE IT AAAAAAHHRRT”).

There’s another aspect to the Lovecraft mythos, however, that reduces its compatibility with the Whoniverse by a factor of 10. Because Doctor Who, like many contemporary sci-fi dramas, is fairly optimistic in its outlook. Yes, the universe is a dangerous and violent place and trouble lurks round every corner, and not everyone gets out alive (unless you’re Steven Moffat, in which case you can usually find a way to bring them all back). But there are pockets of goodness in amongst the death and devastation: aliens with Welsh accents and inferiority complexes; vast and beautiful worlds teeming with friendly civilisations and wonderful culture; sentient computers who don’t have designs on running the planet. “Somewhere there’s danger,” the Doctor tells Ace. “Somewhere there’s injustice. And somewhere else, the tea’s getting cold.”

Compare this to Lovecraft: a man who told us that we were colonised by aliens, none of them particularly friendly. The big ones don’t care about us, and the smaller ones just want us dead. There are horrible things lurking under the ocean and there are huge caverns of long-buried ancient civilisations and enormous abstract beings that lurk in the deep, and banned books that will drive you mad if you try to read them. Everything in Lovecraft’s universe is tainted with the smell of decay and insanity and – to go back to Michelangelo – things man was never meant to tamper with. Never mind the Doctor wanting to show you the universe: the Cthulhu mythos would have us believe that the best thing humanity can do is ride out its brief span on this Earth and not touch anything. “We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity,” Lovecraft wrote in The Call of Cthulhu in 1926, “and it was not meant that we should voyage far.”

So perhaps it’s best if we consign him to the sidelines. That references will continue to crop up – whether direct or inspired – is perhaps inevitable; Lovecraft may have fallen out of favour but his legacy, it seems, isn’t going anywhere, and there’s no reason why it should. Racial prejudice and xenophobia run rampant through much of his writing: it is good writing nonetheless, and some of the untapped themes (the Great Race of Yith, perhaps, or The Colour Out Of Space) are ripe for exploration by the Doctor Who writers. Just as long as he stays off camera, as the frightening, nihilistic world of Lovecraft unfolds without the presence of the man himself.

Although having said all that, I’m suddenly maddeningly curious to find out how he’d react to Ryan and Yas. Anybody got Chibnall’s phone number?