Who Turned Out the Lights?: Doctor Who and Gothic Conventions in Science Fiction

Doctor Who has long been a television staple and a model of science fiction programming. Though it has always centered around a character known simply as the Doctor, an eccentric but generally good-natured humanoid extraterrestrial Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, the show has drastically changed throughout the course of its over fifty-year run. Doctor Who has managed to achieve its longevity through its main character’s ability to regenerate into a new body and adopt a different personality while maintaining the same memories. This allows the show to preserve its basic premise and keep the essential elements of the Doctor’s character intact without the concern for character discontinuity, even in spite of the constant shifts in the show’s lead actor. However, the popularity of Doctor Who can arguably be attributed to its incorporation of a variety of styles and genres, such as melodrama, comedy, romance and the Gothic into its science fiction setting. Its forays into the Gothic include such foes as the Weeping Angels and the Silence, in addition to settings such as the train on “Mummy on the Orient Express” and the manor house in “Tooth and Claw.” However, the episodes that most epitomize the blend of Gothic conventions into the show’s science fiction backdrop is the two-part episode: “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead,” from season four of the revival series. Telling a continuous narrative around the monstrous Vashta Nerada, the carnivorous “piranhas of the air” existing within the darkness that move and hunt as shadows, the narrative of “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead” brilliantly incorporates a host of Gothic conventions in order to create suspense and induce terror as the Doctor and his then companion Donna Noble fight to survive against an impossible foe that you can neither see nor hear. Its elements of setting, atmosphere, and the inexplicable are all utilized to great effect to weave the Gothic throughout a science fiction story.

The Library, the primary setting of this Doctor Who narrative, maintains the gothic convention of sublimity in its design, constituted by vastness and obscurity as its primary features. Within the story, The Library is an entire planet composed of skyscrapers and railways, dark rooms and sunbeams. As described by the Doctor, “It’s a world. Literally, a world. The whole core of the planet is the index computer, biggest hard drive ever. And up here, every book ever written. Whole continents of Jeffrey Archer, Bridget Jones, Monty Python’s Big Red Book” (Silence in the Library, 2008). The vastness of The Library amplifies sublimity in its power to arouse awe and subsequent terror when the Doctor and Donna quickly realize that the planet is abandoned, with thousands of people having mysteriously disappeared from The Library a hundred years prior. The Doctor and Donna being the only living humanoids present at the beginning of “Silence in the Library” contributes to their smallness, especially in comparison to the dimensions of the planet. They are completely isolated in a place that was constructed with the express purpose to be visited and utilized, not empty. This reflects Edmund Burke’s theory of vastness as described in his 1757 treatise A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, “greatness of dimension is a powerful cause of the sublime. This is too evident, and the observation too common, to need any illustration; it is not so common to consider in what ways greatness of dimension, vastness of extent or quantity, has the most striking effect,” because vastness possesses the ability to make people and their ordinary experiences feel small and insignificant, which in turn causes the sublime. This idea of vastness also applies to the antagonists of “Silence in the Library,” the Vashta Nerada. Although they act as the heroes’ primary obstacle across the two-part episode, a single Vashta Nerada would not normally engender terror in the audience, or even the Doctor himself as described within the text. Within this particular narrative however, the Vashta Nerada present a viable threat, comparable in their ability to induce terror like other Doctor Who foes such as the Cybermen or the Daleks, due to their sheer quantity, or vastness, not through their ability, strength or intellectual strategy. The Vashta Nerada are conceptually monstrous in how they are manifestations of darkness that eat living beings, but given that they operate as a hive mind, and as such have no individual aims of villainy or a personal motive of vengeance against the Doctor such as the renegade Time Lord, the Master, they would be significantly less menacing if presented as a single entity. As they are typically a swarm found in small clusters as described within the lore of the narrative, the Vashta Nerada are made considerably more frightening due to their vastness, given that more than one trillion of them inhabit The Library. As such, their capability to inspire terror and intimidate the heroes and the audience derives primarily from their unprecedented vastness in comparison to the humanoid lifeforms present on the planet, which adds to the feelings of sublime that are conveyed throughout the narrative.

Doctor Who villains, four robots, known as Daleks, fly with lasers firing, while below them, five humanoid robots, known as Cybermen, march
Doctor Who villains march. Daleks & Cybermen.

In addition, the interior production design of The Library lends itself to gothic conventions by way of its naturalistic furniture within grandiose rooms, which contributes to an atmosphere of foreboding when utilized in conjunction with the darkness of the Vashta Nerada and in contrast with the futuristic equipment of the Doctor and Strackman Lux’s archaeological expedition crew. As the Doctor and the archaeologists travel through The Library, they are dwarfed by a labyrinth of large bookshelves and dark corridors as they flee from the Vashta Nerada and attempt to avoid the shadows. The narrow aisles of the shelves entrap the characters, generating a sense of claustrophobia as they are forced to find alternative methods of escape. The Library’s largely wooden interior and preservation of physical books is representative of the need to cling to an archaic past, especially in the context of a 51st century information center. “In the Gothic the past is never completely finished with; instead, it has a nasty habit of bursting through into the present, displacing the contemporary with the supposedly outdated” (Ghosting the Gothic, 2009). This persistence of the past into the future creates a paradoxical and quintessentially Gothic setting.

Throughout the narrative, the Gothic is also presented in The Library through the use of high contrast lighting, with pronounced black shadows against bright rays of sunlight and tungsten lamps. The characters are consistently surrounded by darkness as they struggle to remain within the light due to the threatening presence of the Vashta Nerada. As the episodes progress, the shadows expand and the interior of the Library darkens as more of the crewmates are killed and the stakes are raised. The representation of the Vashta Nerada as shadows is a natural fit for the Gothic as it reflects Burkean sublimity: “A quick transition from light to darkness, or from darkness to light, has yet a greater effect. But darkness is more productive of sublime ideas than light” (Burke, 2005), because the darkness lends itself to obscurity, since that which hides within the darkness cannot be seen. The Vashta Nerada are made all the more effective at generating terror because they are obscured, remaining imperceptible to the characters and the audience, and The Library is transformed from a mundane object to a source of terror given the extent to which ominous darkness pervades it. The sublimity of The Library is ultimately enhanced because any and all shadows threaten the possibility of death; it is only when the audience witnesses the monsters kill that the episodes transcend into horror.

The Library functions like a gothic space akin to those of other gothic works, such as the manor in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House given the more preternatural occurrences happening within it. In “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead” the inexplicable is expressed primarily through Charlotte Abigail Lux, who acts as both the manifestation of The Library’s character, and the original ghost which haunts it. Adapted to fit the science fiction genre, The Library is haunted through its artificial sentience, being controlled by the technological “ghost” of Charlotte. Referred to as CAL throughout the majority of the story, Charlotte was the youngest daughter of The Library’s creator, Felman, the grandfather of Strackman Lux. Though when she became deathly ill as a child, her father created The Library and uploaded her consciousness into the computer’s mainframe where she could dream of and explore any book in the universe for eternity. Though Charlotte physically exists almost exclusively in the episodes’ other primary setting, the virtual reality within the data core where she dreams of a normal life, she maintains a semblance of control over the inner workings of The Library while acting as the data computer; she causes books to fly from shelves, doors to open, and The Library to initiate a self-destruct countdown by pressing buttons on her television remote while in the virtual reality. Her consciousness also manifests in The Library as a security camera and the face of the data core. In Gothic fiction, as demonstrated through the subplot concerning Charlotte, stories are “bound up with notions of ‘ancestry’ and inheritance, with establishing an imaginative connection to the now anachronistic past rather than the present or the future” (The Ghosts of Time, 2009). Charlotte is representative of the past which has been hidden; she is the secret at the heart of the Library. When her true identity is revealed toward the end of “Forest of the Dead,” Mr. Lux maintains that the protection of his family, particularly Charlotte, was his first priority and the motivation behind his actions. The revelation of the Lux family secret after the Doctor, River Song, and Strackman descend into the data core, located at the center of the planet, “recontextualises the library as a family mausoleum, perhaps the epitome of gothic locations” (Curtis, 2015). The data core, indicative of a burial ground, operates both as Charlotte’s resting place and the residence of Mr. Lux’s ancestral secret, one that must be revealed to the Doctor in order for Charlotte’s spirit to be put to rest, and The Library to be restored to proper functionality. In the end it is Charlotte, acting as The Library, that must overcome the Vashta Nerada. However, given that her act of sacrificial heroism, uploading the souls of The Library’s patrons into her consciousness, caused her to live in a state of agony in which she does not remember who she is or her original purpose, she is illustrative of a past that must be rectified in order for the present to return to normalcy. By the conclusion of the narrative, the data core is restored by The Doctor and River Song, allowing Charlotte to remember her identity and rest in peace.

In addition, the discorporation of The Library’s patrons into the data core also contributes to the atmosphere of mystery and foreboding. Though it occurred a hundred years prior to the events of the two-episode narrative, the attack of the Vashta Nerada and the subsequent lockdown and disappearance of The Library’s four-thousand-twenty-two visitors is the catalyst of Mr. Lux’s expedition to the planet. Led by the archaeologist Professor River Song, along with a crew consisting of the pilot Proper Dave, Other Dave, Anita, and Miss Evangelista, the expedition’s sole purpose as stated in “Silence in the Library” is to determine the cause of the lockdown and the fate of the people present when the planet was sealed; their only clue is a single message from the data core: “The lights are going out … 4022 saved. No survivors” (Silence in the Library, 2008). Foreboding permeates the two-part episode as the Doctor and the expedition crew fight to survive, running from the ever-expanding shadows of the Vashta Nerada. As they run, however, the assumed death of The Library’s patrons remains a harsh reminder, to both the characters and the audience, of what may befall them if they fail to escape The Library.

The Gothic convention of the double is also utilized to create an atmosphere of suspense through the inexplicable. In “Forest of the Dead,” the Doctor discovers that Charlotte saved the souls of The Library’s visitors within her virtual reality in order to protect them from the Vashta Nerada. Inside the data core, Charlotte, the Library patrons, and Donna, after she is mistakenly uploaded, live a half-life in the data core’s virtual reality. These doubles are artificial replications of their original selves, copies that must be reprogrammed by Dr. Moon, the virus checker, to ignore the inconsistencies and deficiencies of their virtual lives, and accept their artificial existence as reality. Commonplace in Gothic fiction, “a double can be read as embodying repressed desires not admitted to the daylight of consciousness … the literary double symbolizes a narcissistic longing to escape death, to preserve a self intact” (Wasson, 2011). The existence of Charlotte Lux demonstrates this convention of the doppelganger, enhancing the inexplicability of “Silence in the Library.” Inside the data core, Charlotte dreams “of a normal life, and a lovely dad, and of every book ever written” (Forest of the Dead, 2008). True to the Gothic genre, Charlotte’s double in the virtual reality is indicative not only of a resistance of death, but also of her hidden desires. In reality, Charlotte’s existence in The Library is a tragic one. With her consciousness hooked up to the mainframe, Charlotte exists between life and death. Though her body has long since passed, her mind remains, alone on a planet where she functions as the command node of a computer mainframe. And when the Vashta Nerada attacked prior to the events of “Silence in the Library,” she was forced to upload and contain the souls of the four-thousand-twenty-two surviving library patrons, and later Donna, within her consciousness, causing her to forget who she really is. Conversely, within the data core, Charlotte is able to live the life she never had and experience a childhood unhindered by illness. Her virtual days consist of drawing pictures, watching cartoons, and dreaming of her own fantastical library. Though her double is able to experience some semblance of a normal life, an ideal existence, Charlotte is just a mind trapped inside a computer on a dangerous planet, where she is responsible for the lives of the thousands of people within The Library.

Two people, Doctor Who and Donna, look concerned as they stand together.
Doctor Who and Donna from Doctor Who, “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead”

Furthermore, Donna’s experience in the data core is also emblematic of the inclination to avoid death, as well as her hidden desires, in the strict context of Freudian psychoanalysis. For Donna, the world she is presented in the data core epitomizes her dream life. Given that she is a character defined by her low self-esteem, a woman who is brash because she otherwise wouldn’t be heard, the life of Donna Noble’s double reflects her desire to be loved and listened to. Introduced in the series’ third season when she is betrayed by her fiance who offers her as a sacrifice to the Empress of the Racnoss, an ancient alien race of spider-like carnivores, Donna’s internal conflict is defined by an overwhelming need to feel important, even though she’s ‘just the temp.’ As such, in “Silence in the Library,” Donna’s artificial life includes a husband that cherishes her and the two children they have together. As she herself muses in regards to her artificial husband Lee McAvoy, “I made up the perfect man. Gorgeous, adores me, and hardly able to speak a word. What’s that say about me?” (Forest of the Dead, 2008). Although the Doctor’s response of “everything” could be a simple Freudian slip, the truth remains that Donna’s life in the data core was tragic, not because it was a miserable existence, but because it wasn’t real.

The inexplicable is also presented in the deaths of the expedition crew members. By the end of “Forest of the Dead,” everyone except the Doctor, Donna, and Mr. Lux has died. Despite taking such precautions as setting up lights, putting on their helmets, and increasing the density of their protective suits, the crew is unable to do anything substantial to stop the Vashta Nerada. Miss Evangelista, the first crew member to die, epitomizes the more stereotypical woman in distress whose naivety causes her to venture off on her own, where she is quickly and unwittingly killed by the monster. Her death is followed by that of Proper Dave, whose arrogance leads him to ignore the Doctor’s advice regarding the shadows. This is succeeded by the deaths of Other Dave and Anita, which are not shown directly on screen, and then the sacrifice of River Song when she uploads her own memory space into the data computer so Charlotte can release the thousands of library patrons that have been trapped within her virtual reality, dying in the process. “The darkness that contains the Vashta Nerada is contagious and ignores the protective space suits worn by the archaeologists. Once the extra shadow disappears, the individual is consumed and a faceless skull is all that remains of their former identity. Such a skull is an uncanny reminder of what lies beneath the flesh,” (Curtis, 2015). The remaining presence of the skeleton in the suit heightens the uncanny through its inexplicability. The walking suit with the skeletal face is a remnant, a stark reminder of the recently deceased. The method of the crew members’ deaths defy explanation due to the invisible presence of the Vashta Nerada, and the speed in which they kill their victims. For the Vashta Nerada, it only takes a moment to strip the flesh off the crew members, killing them instantly. After death, the crew members are left in a process of ‘ghosting,’ in which the comm links of their space suits hold the “impression of a living consciousness for a short time after death” (Silence in the Library, 2008). Unaccustomed to this feat of 51st century technology, Donna and the audience are horrified as the crew members’ final moments play out before their consciousness is trapped in a never-ending loop in the comm link, unable to get out. This illustrates a theory expressed within Sigmund Freud’s The Uncanny, “we have particularly favorable conditions for generating feelings of the uncanny if intellectual uncertainty is aroused as to whether something is animate or inanimate, and whether the lifeless bears an excessive likeness to the living.” Like Charlotte, the data ghosts have become trapped between the binaries of living and dead, as their still functioning consciousness remains even after their body is gone. This state allows the audience and Donna to contemplate the definitions of life and death, as the data ghosts retain their cognitive awareness and can still communicate with the living. The horror induced from this element of the uncanny, through the inexplicable and peculiar, contributes to The Library’s melancholy atmosphere, which ultimately gives way to terror for both the audience and the characters as they have to reckon with the possibility of meeting the same fate.

a person dressed in all black, including face cover, like a funeral outfit, in Doctor Who's Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead
Doctor Who, “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead”

The narrative told within Doctor Who’s “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead” presents an indicative blending of Gothic tropes into the realm of science fiction. Drawing from the Gothic tradition, this two-part episode imbues sublimity, the inexplicable, and the uncanny into its settings and characters in order to create a haunting two-hour experience of sci-fi television. I would argue that the extent to which the Gothic permeates western culture, evidenced by the popularity of horror movies, the novels of Stephen King, and of course, Doctor Who narratives, is because it provides us with a channel to contemplate our insignificance in the face of sublimity, and the inevitability of death in a way that provides catharsis and satisfies our need for perspective.
Villegas 11



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