Dr Who: when metamorphosis gets creepy

Today I found myself reminiscing about old Doctor Who episodes. I’m talking about episodes from the dark ages, ie, the seventies, when I was a kid, and the Doctor was played by Jon Pertwee, followed by Tom Baker.  I realised that the epsiodes that made the most impression on my tender young mind at the time, the ones that come to mind now when I think of Doctor Who, are the ones that involved a metamorphosis, where humans were “infected” and began to slowly change into a monster. Ewww! This made me think again about metamorphosis, and wonder what it is that makes human metamorphosis such a creepy idea?

Ark In Space

Morphing into a green slimy creature.....it's painful...not just in an emotional way.

Of course I realise that in any competition to name the most notorious villain from those classic Doctor Who days, the hands down winner would be the Daleks, but I personally think that is because with their robotic mannerisms and their menacing repetition of one word – “EXTERMINATE!” – they offered the most easy-to-imitate-in-the-classroom fodder for 9 year old boys. Primary school aged boys all over the English speaking world were thrilled to pieces by the Daleks, who at that time were state-of-the-art villains. They were mechanical, had laser guns for arms, emitted coldly shrill, high pitched, robotic voices, exhibited nifty swivelling action, and best of all, trundled their wobbly way along on a path of death and destruction, killing and maiming without remorse or sentiment. What more could you want?

I can still see Matthew Murphy, the next morning at school,  marching towards me, eyes staring at a fixed point, arms oustretched in imitation of Dalek laser guns, screeching in a cold and high pitched voice, “EX-terminate!  EX-terminate!” (I always admired the way Matthew threw himself into such roles far more thoroughly than the other boys.)

Dr Who with Daleks

Dr Who posing with some Daleks

No doubt that at the time, I found the Daleks every bit as menacing as they were intended to be, but the villains that left a more insidious, creepy feeling and therefore caused the episodes to stay tucked away in my imagination all this time, are the ones where human beings morphed into the monster! Snippets of those episodes remain in my head, but not being a fanatic, I had to look them up. One is The Ark In Space, released in 1975. The image above is from that espisode – apparently it is of “Noah being steadily transformed into a Wirrn”. Poor Noah.

Even though I was only 5 at the time, I can recall the ominous whiteness and stillness of the spaceship that the Doctor and his friends land in, the strangeness of the walls covered in capsules that contained cyrogenically sealed humans, and then…..eek! –  the horror of seeing trail of slime along the floor of the spaceship, and, I’m sure, the tail end of something SLIMEY disappear into a vent…..indicating the presence of some hidden, menacing, alien. Cue chills down a 5 year old’s spine!  Sure enough, viewers at home soon see Noah, the ship’s captain, hiding his hand in his pocket, so that his companions won’t see that IT IS TURNING GREEN AND FURRY-LOOKING!!! He’s been infected by the alien.

The other morphing monster I recall is from The Seeds of Doom, released in 1976. In this episode, somehow or other (read the Wikipedia entry for details), alien seed pods contaminate humans and cause them to morph into plant like creatures. I am sure that one of the final scenes has a large country house covered in an evil plant growth that was formerly a human.

What is it about human metamorphosis that  is so creepy? Think of the film, The Fly, or the book that started all these posts about metamorphosis – Metamorphosis – where the protagonist wakes up one morning to find he has turned into a cockroach. It’s not the fact that they morph into monsters that makes for the creepiness factor. The monsters create the horror, but the creepiness comes from the fact that the victims have lost control over their bodies but still retain consciousness of what’s happened to them. They observe their physicality undergoing a gradual change, and they know what the end result is going to be, but it’s out of their hands to stop it. In The Fly, and Metamorphosis, the victim was conscious of what had happened to him physically, and could observe himself becoming gradually less human in thought, feeling and behaviour – basically deteriorating as he lost all human-ness.

I think that as an audience watching/reading these stories we can’t totally let go, in our minds, of their human-ness, even when they apparently do, so we have an empathy that fills us with horror at their situation. That was certainly the case for me, watching Doctor Who all those years ago. So even when they have morphed into a large plant growing over a country house in England, there is the darkly disturbing possibility that they might retain some consciousness of the human they used to be, and awareness of what they are now. If so…how awful!

So thats it, finally. Why metamorphosis is so creepy. In case you were wondering.

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1 Comment

  1. Dori Dragon

     /  July 3, 2011

    Flies, daleks, cockroaches, triffids! Bring on the metamorphosis!

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