So… Handmines! (Doctor Who, Daleks, & Slaughterhouse Five)

I just watched the season premiere of Doctor Who and was struck by the thing that probably struck all fans of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaugherhouse Five: The Handmines are suspiciously similar to the Tralfamadorians.

In case you haven’t seen the episode, Handmines are like landmines, but instead of blowing people up, they reach up from underground and drag people to their deaths. And, creepily, they look like hands. And, more creepily, each hand has an eye in its palm.

A Handmine in action... like a Dalek, scary but oddly impractical as a weapon.

A Handmine in action… like a Dalek, scary but oddly impractical as a weapon.

By way of comparison, here’s how Kurt Vonnegut describes the natives of planet Tralfamadore in Slaughterhouse Five:

The letter said that they were two feet high, and green, and shaped like plumber’s friends. Their suction cups were on the ground, and their shafts, which were extremely flexible, usually pointed to the sky. At the top of each shaft was a little hand with a green eye in its palm.

Plumber’s friends! Which, of course, is to say plungers! Which is also to call to mind the ridiculous, iconic, and seemingly useless appendage mounted to the left of almost every Dalek’s gun!

Assuming Steven Moffat, who wrote the episode, is paying tribute to Vonnegut in some way (and even if he denies it… really?), then when we’re looking at Handmines, we’re looking at the flipside of a Dalek’s trademark plunger.

But what does it mean?

It’s tempting to wonder why Daleks have mostly useless plungers for arms, particularly given that Davros (who invented the Daleks) was a genius who hailed from a planet with the kind of technology that could produce Handmines and could therefore produce artificial hands, But that’s not really the question the Handmines answer. (The answer is that a humanoid hand would look ridiculous sticking out of a Dalek.)

The real question the Handmines answer is why the Daleks look like Daleks. That is, why do they roll around when walking seems to be the superior alternative? After all, we know that they have the technology to take on any form and usually do so in an upright, bipedal fashion (as the shopworn plot device of having pretty much every side character turn out to be a Dalek in disguise demonstrates). In other words, they can walk. They just choose not to.

Why?

If you’re Davros and you come from a planet where hands can reach up from the ground and grab you around the ankle and drag you to your death at any moment, you’re going to be particularly wary of the drawbacks of having ankles. As a result, any design you come up with for the ultimate survival machine isn’t going to have ankles. Instead, it’s going to have a massive base that rolls around on the ground so that a Handmine can’t reach up and conveniently grab it.

In the context of a world littered with Handmines, the pepper-pot design of Daleks makes a lot of sense. The Daleks were created as a means of survival and of winning war at any cost, which serves as a commentary on our own lot here on earth. It’s surely no coincidence that the Doctor is seen riding on a tank early in the episode. And when he makes a pun about the tank being the wrong size for his fish (or something along those lines), it’s tough not to think about Pink Floyd and the “two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl year after year” of “Wish You Were Here.”

More to the point, however, it’s hard not to think of other sea creatures that might be living in tanks. Octopi and squid, for example. And their doppelgangers, the Kaled mutants who operate the Daleks.

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A Kaled mutant rolls down the windows of his Dalek to get a bit of fresh air.

If there’s a parallel to be drawn here, it’s one I’ve made elsewhere, so forgive me for beating this dead horse: We have met the Daleks and the Daleks are us. But the image of the tank also underscores a theme shared by Slaughterhouse Five and pretty much every episode of Doctor Who featuring the Daleks. That is, war isn’t just bad; it’s dehumanizing. It causes people to arm themselves, to shield themselves inside protective layers of armor that prevent their feet from touching the ground.

And these layers of armor aren’t always literal. They can consist of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and how the world works (“We’re good, and they’re bad!” “We’re survivors!” “You need to kill or be killed!”). Moreover, these stories we tell ourselves can take away our compassion — which turns out to be the main theme of the episode.

It’s easy to show compassion for our friends since, by definition, they’re part of our understanding of who the “good guys” are. It’s harder to show compassion for our enemies or those we consider “other” or “alien.” Hence the Doctor’s on-again, off-again uneasy alliances with Missy/the Master, but his general tendency to always be aligned against the patently alien Daleks. But as the season premiere of Doctor Who and Slaughterhouse Five both suggest, without compassion, none of these alliances mean much of anything at all.

Or, as Kurt Vonnegut said in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,

Welcome to Earth.  It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter.  It’s wet and round and crowded.  At the outside… you’ve got about a hundred years here.  There’s only one rule that I know of… “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

J N-T: The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner (review)

With a little tweaking, Richard Marson’s tell-all biography of the late John Nathan-Turner could easily replace its subtitle with that of Peter Hook’s wonderful memoir on the Manchester club scene of the 1980s, The Hacienda: How Not to Run a Club, as its subject’s tenure as producer of Doctor Who reads like a case study on how not to run a television series. Of greatest interest to Who fans will likely be the vast range of commentary Marson culled from program insiders, especially the insights from actors, directors, and writers of the classic series. Some of the heavy hitters include Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy, who played Doctors five through seven, along with the actors who played companions Ace, Peri, Mel, Tegan, Turlough, and Adric (Sophie Aldred, Nicola Bryant, Bonnie Langford, Janet Fielding, Mark Strickson, and Matthew Waterhouse respectively). What emerges over the course of nearly 400 pages is a portrait of an ambitious, flawed, and ultimately tragic figure whose insecurities both fueled his success and led to his downfall.

The consensus, as far as Marson and those interviewed for the book are concerned, is that J N-T (as the producer was known) excelled at the art of spectacle. As soon as he took over as producer, he commissioned new titles for the show and an arguably catchier (for the times) version of the show’s trademark theme music. He’s also responsible for giving the Doctor a “uniform,” most noticeable in the question marks that started showing up in the Doctor’s costume during Tom Baker’s last season in the titular role. Along similar lines, the producer also did all he could to keep both the show and himself in the spotlight, including grabbing headlines by giving the Doctor new companions on a fairly regular basis and making himself a celebrity in his own right. One of N-T’s favorite poses involved pointing a finger in the face of any celebrity he was being photographed with, a move that insured he could never be cropped out of the picture.

J N-T’s intense focus on the marketing of his show, however, came at the expense of paying attention to its writing, and the book is full of commentary from writers, directors, and script editors who express frustration at the lack of direction they received under the producer’s tenure. Indeed, even as N-T pursued headlines and press coverage from British tabloids and Doctor Who fan magazines alike, the fans grew increasingly displeased with his work as producer and, at least in Great Britain, voiced their displeasure through the very channels N-T used to promote the show. The result was increasing paranoia on N-T’s part, a situation that wasn’t helped by the BBC’s waning interest in the show.

Tellingly, it turns out the BBC Enterprises (roughly speaking, the merchandising arm of the BBC, now known as BBC Worldwide) kept funneling money to the show to keep it in production even as ratings started to slip. Though fewer viewers were watching the show, sales of TARDIS key chains and toy sonic screwdrivers were bringing in plenty of cash — a lesson, Marson is quick to point out, not lost on contemporary producers of the program. Indeed, when one considers the plethora of Doctor Who toys currently on the market, there’s an argument to be made for the idea that the Doctor Who program exists at least partially to promote sales of Doctor Who merchandise and ensure the longevity of the Doctor Who brand.

In terms of style, Marson adopts a journalistic tone throughout much of his book but also offers his own opinions and analyses where warranted. A chapter on N-T’s sexual exploits and exploitations (title “Hanky Panky”) comes off as somewhat sensationalistic but is balanced out by the rest of the book. Despite his flaws — and they were apparently numerous — J N-T emerges from J N-T as a sympathetic figure whose desire for love and acceptance in all of their forms led to great heights and, tragically, greater lows.

JNT-Cover

The Greatest Loo in the Galaxy

To say I’m a Doctor Who fan is a bit of an understatement, as anyone who’s read my first book, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy: The Discerning Fan’s Guide to Doctor Who, can tell you. So I was rendered somewhat dumbstruck when my wife surprised me with a visit to Brooklyn’s The Way Station. The main reason for my dumbstruckness (dumbstrickenness?) was that I had no idea the place existed or why it was so cool until we walked through the door and I spotted a police box parked at the far end of the bar — this despite the fact that my sister-in-law had mentioned the place in a fairly lengthy email outlining all of the attractions we might visit on our weekend visit to her neighborhood. And while the fact that I was so surprised might also suggest that I don’t always read lengthy documents that I claim to have read, it also underscores the value in not reading such documents. After all, had I read my sister-in-law’s email, I would not have had the pleasant surprise of discovering what I can only describe as The Greatest Loo in the Galaxy.