Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Dr Who and Me

I have been a big fan of Dr Who ever since primary school when I could watch a couple of episodes back to back on Channel Two on a Sunday morning - before, after or instead of my chores, depending on how sneaky I was. Tom Baker was brilliant and I fondly remember Adric, Romana and K9. In high school I would devour a Dr Who book in a single night and watched Sylvester McCoy with the indomitable Ace.

Then there was a period of void, where I forgot about the Doctor.

Sometime later I rediscovered him in the new, more adult oriented books brought out by BBC and Virgin. They introduced an edge to the Doctor and his companions I had never experienced before. I was enthralled by the drama and introspection that resulted in the now common-place "super-hero" tension: the "I can't save everyone" effect (TM). Sacrifices are consciously made, if not willingly; companions die, friends are removed from the time-line.

Later, glory of glories, BBC began making the TV series again. Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith. I was over-joyed that the Doctor was back with relatively good special effects, high quality acting and even a spin-off (Torchwood). But something was wrong... the stories didn't seem to make as much sense as I remembered - and the sonic screwdriver became Harry Potter's wand. It was being used for every thing from opening mechanical locks, stunning creatures, cutting rope and being an all purpose interface to any electronic system (or biological even). The Doctor didn't have to think his way out of every scrap or scrape. The stories began to feel implausible, I began to get annoyed.

But just recently I had an epiphany. It occurred while I was watching a re-run of The Satan Pit, where the Doctor confronts "The Devil". He says something along the lines of "I don't deny your existence but I don't have to believe you are who you say you are" and it is suggested that the creature survived from an earlier time (literally): that it existed before the Big Bang and survived through it into our time, still imprisoned.

Just at that moment it occurred to me that this is what the Doctor is really about: huge ideas! Science fiction, stretching the imagination just to see what happens. It doesn't have to be internally consistent (it isn't) or eternally plausible (it ain't). The stories are just trying to be enjoyable and wild.

And so they are.

The Call of Cthulhu

H.P. Lovecraft's The Call of Cthulhu is available on WikiSource.

H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu horror is both powerful and inaccessible because it is visceral. Cthulhu is a monster of indescribable horror that is being described. We are used to monsters in films, books and pictures so we can conjure up images of foul beasts easily enough, but it is decidedly harder to adjust our mental image when Lovecraft writes that "The Thing cannot be described".

Thus, the essence of Cthulhu horror is emotional rather than visual. Lovecraft tries to evoke the sense that the monster and the reality it belongs to is so morbidly incomprehensible that just bearing witness to it will bring insanity and inevitable death! This notion is not friendly to intellectual inquiry: we understand "monster" as something concrete but the Cthulhu monster is imbued with a fear of something abstract.

I see this abstract horror in stories that leave things unexplained: in the movies Cloverfield and The Mist we never find out where the monsters came from, how they got here or what they wanted. What Lovecraft adds on top of that is a sense of incomprehension; like a person from a two dimensional universe trying to comprehend our three dimensional universe. In the 90's Sam Neill starred in what I think are two horror movies that are very close to Cthulhu horror: In the Mouth of Madness and Event Horizon. Both movies involve a somewhat hapless curiosity that descends into an incomprehensible, inescapable and abominable fate.

I enjoyed reading Call of Cthulhu because it was challenging to me; trying to comprehend what Lovecraft wanted to portray by writing a story about incomprehensible horror.

3.5 out of 5

Read this on my iPod Touch.