Skip to content

Aliens with a Human Face: The Human-like Non-Humans of Doctor Who

For a show that has been television’s longest running Science Fiction series centred on an alien hero and his space and time-travelling telephone box, it’s hard to miss out on the fact that at least half of the show’s action happens on Earth, and very often in England. The logistics for that is not too hard to figure. However, what is even more fascinating is that most, if not all of the alien life forms depicted in the show have a recognizably human or “humanoid” shape or take the shape of a human for their purposes. There are relatively fewer non-human species depicted in the show that neither resembles humans nor transforms into a human-like shape, or has some connection to humanity in their physical embodiment.

In terms of appearance, the various anthropomorphized alien life forms Doctor Who has depicted during its fifty-odd years of airing could be broadly indentified as belonging to one or more of the following categories:

  1. Recognizably human-like, such as the Thaals, the Time Lords (the species the Doctor himself belongs to), the Logopolitans, the Sycorax, the Kahler, Shoal of Winter Harmony, and so on.

2L to R: Sycorax, Kahler, Shoal of Winter Harmony

  1. A mixture of human and other recognizable plant or animal species, such as Menoptera (human and bee), Silurians (human and reptile) Forest of Cheem (human and tree), Catkind (human and cat), Tritovores (human and fly), Vinvocci (human and cactus), Judoon (human and rhinoceros), Leonians (human and lion), and so on.

1L to R: Jabe of the Forest of Cheem, Brannigan of Catkind, a Tritovore

  1. Humanoid form with features not resembling any particular or known species, such as Sontarans, Zygons, Ood, Hider, the Teller, Trivoli, Skovox Blitzer, the Fisher King, etc.

3L to R: Ood, the Teller, the Fisher King

  1. Taking the appearance of humans for their purpose, whose original appearances may be of any of the other categories. Examples of this kind are Zygons, Carrionites, the Tenza, Saturnynians, Teselecta, Colony Sarff, the Mire, Sandman, etc.


Video clip from the 50th Anniversary Special, “The Day of the Doctor”, showing the Zygon impersonating Kate Steward turning back into its original self. / Youtube

4Left: Saturnynians in their original form. Right: Saturnynians in their humanoid form. From the episode “Vampires of Venice” from Series 5; Courtesy: doctorwhoworld.net

  1. Parasitic or disembodied life-forms that occupy human bodies and consciousnesses and act and communicate through their hosts, and therefore are represented in the series in human form. Ex. the Great Intelligence, Gelth, Slitheen, Isolus, Pyroviles, Vashta Nerada, the Flood, etc.


The Flood taking over human bodies from Series 4 Special Episode “The Waters of Mars” / Youtube

5

The gaseous species Gelth occupying human bodies for their survival in the Series 1 episode “The Unquiet Dead”; Courtesy tardis.wikia.com

  1. Entities that were once human or humanoid, but have become enhanced and different because of processes that they have undergone, such as the Daleks, Cybermen, the Face of Boe, Toclafane, the Headless Monks, etc. This category may loosely be stretched to include clone races like the Messaline clones, Gangers and Grunt as well.

6L to R: Cybermen, Gangers, the Headless Monk

As can be observed from the modest attempt at broad categorization above, the list of anthropomorphic creatures and alien life forms runs long in the history of the show. So, why is it that most aliens in Doctor Who are humanoid? Why, in particular, does the Doctor look “human”? Is it merely a result of budgetary necessity? That sure does provide an explanation, albeit a limited and unimaginative one. A considerable majority of alien species and characters during the run of Classic Doctor Who did after all belong to the first category (recognizably human-like). This was a time when television series were allocated less budget and lacked the technology to produce more sophisticatedly “alien-looking” aliens.

7L to R: Drahvins (1966), Diplosians(1978), Chimerons (1987). Humanoid aliens from various episodes of Classic Who.  

Times have changed, however; the budget for typically producing one episode has increased from £2,000 to a little less than £1 million, though it still continues to be described by show-runners as “limited.” And a lot more advanced options for special effects and editing are available now than fifty years ago, making depictions of non
-humanoid creatures that much more believable. Yet the show in its revived form has not only stuck with many of the humanoid alien depictions but has also introduced many newer species which are humanoid or choose to appear and communicate in a human form.

There is a history to the notion of the “humanoid” and the deployment of the trope of the “humanoid” in works of Science Fiction. According to the Oxford English Dictionary Online, the earliest recorded use of the term “humanoid,” in 1870, referred to indigenous peoples in areas colonized by Europeans. For obvious reasons, this usage eventually became redundant. More generally, the term has come to mean anything with uniquely human characteristics and/or adaptations, such as having thumbs, having two eyes, or having the ability to walk on heels in an upright position.

Humanoid or human-like aliens was a trope used in Hollywood Science Fiction cinema of the 1950s to represent the Red Scare in the USA, as aliens who could pass for humans became metaphors for Americans who were secretly Communists or Communist sympathizers. In Japanese Anime, however, the humanoid or human-like alien attempted at invoking a more empathetic understanding of aliens as not so different from humans after all. Doctor Who, the new revived series in particular, has made use of these tropes and themes and turned them over on their head to ask critical questions about human history, conflict, difference, reconciliation and shared experiences.

There is a remarkable scene in Series 5 Episode 2 of the revived Doctor Who, titled “The Beast Below,” where the Doctor’s newest human friend Amy Pond is surprised when she finds out that the Doctor is not human. Amy says to him, “You look human”. The Doctor retorts, “No, you look Time Lord. We came first.” This, for many viewers, was akin to breaking the fourth wall in the history of the series; a character in the show admitted something that was odd but had been taken for granted by its viewers. A popular theory is that this is probably why the Doctor, even with a time-travelling spaceship at his disposal which can take him anywhere and anytime in the history of the existence of the universe keeps coming back to earth – because humans reminded him of his own people.


“You look human.” Series 5, Episode 2 “The Beast Below” / Youtube

Further, by asserting that it was indeed humans who looked like Time Lords (and not the other way around), the show has consciously or otherwise been setting a standard of evolutionary progress among species. Humans, a species barely ten thousand years old, being mirror images of Time Lords, a billion year old civilization, leaves a lot to say about the human species. Even though the difference in terms of technological advancement between the two species is repeated ad nauseam (Time Lords came to be called so because of their ability to harness time itself, while most humans cannot even grasp the concept of time travel), in pronouncing the Time Lords as the most advanced species in the universe, the Time Lord form, and by extension the Human form is privileged over all other species inhabiting the universe of Doctor Who.

One could go so far as to say that there is a clear resistance to the idea of even enhancing the current Human form any further. Almost all such attempts are inevitably met with disastrous implications and the creation of a malicious, destructive force. The creation of the Daleks and the Cybermen, two of the Doctor’s longstanding arch-nemeses are apt examples of this.

8L to R: A fully armed and armoured Dalek, and a Kaled mutant inside Dalekanium and Polycarbide exoskeleton. Courtesy: tardis.wikia.com

Although Daleks look entirely robotic, they are in fact cyborgs, with a living body of a Kaled mutant encased in and supported by an armed and mobile outer shell of Dalekanium and Polycarbide. They are the mutated descendents of the humanoid Kaleds from the planet Skaro, technologically enhanced to become self-sustaining war machines devoid of emotions and a conscience. Similarly, the Cybermen are a race of cybernetically augmented humans and humanoids. Cybermen frequently attempt to physically and mentally re-engineer humans and other humanoids into Cybermen, via a process called “cyber-conversion” or “upgrading” as they believe that all of humanity must be “upgraded” to cyber-form so that information would never be lost and that the humans’ physical and emotional weaknesses could be eliminated.


A clip from Series 2 finale “Doomsday” sees Cybermen and Dalek having a face-off. / Youtube

The trope of the alien cyborg, with the cyborg having been a human or humanoid in the past, simultaneously warns about the dangers of melding together ‘man’ and ‘machine’, while exploring eternal questions plaguing philosophers from the beginning of human existence – how to negotiate with affect, something supposedly unique to humans as a species. The great advantage of Daleks and Cybermen, or so they claim about themselves, is that they are not burdened by what they consider human weaknesses, the emotions of love, joy, pain, sorrow, guilt, compassion, and so on. The Doctor opposes this, claiming that it is precisely the capacity to feel a unique range of complex emotions that defines humanity – take that away, and they are human no more.

In the Doctor Who universe, it is not just humans who have complex emotions and psyches, and possess self-awareness. The vast range of humanoid creatures are also depicted as being equally capable of love, pain, joy, sorrow, compassion, vengeance and other supposedly unique human emotions. In fact, this is one of the factors that helps differentiate between humanoid and non-humanoid creatures portrayed in the show. With a few exceptions, while the driving force behind most non-humanoid creatures such as the Reapers, Adipose, the Swarm, Krafayis, Kantrofarri, etc., are either questions of survival or dominance, it is the humanoid species that display the widest and most complex range of motivations in their actions. The closer to human in approximation, the more nuanced and complex are their interactions, even when their motivations are also those of survival or dominance.

9

The Weeping Angels, one of the deadliest predators in the universe, centre their entire existence as quantum-locked stone humanoids on zapping humans to the past and letting them live out their lives in a different time period, as it allows them to feed on the remaining time energy of the victim’s life, the potential life the victim could have had. 

The show argues that while enhanced humans are not only not necessarily better humans but may be a potential threat to the existence of the universe itself, humans intermixing with other species add to the diversity and richness of the history of the universe. If this sounds like an argument for multiculturalism wrapped in a Science Fiction package, it’s because that’s exactly what it is. The Doctor has, through the entirety of both the old and the new series been a staunch champion of inter-species cooperation and co-existence, and while not having entirely managed to avoid demonising alien others, has increasingly managed to move back and forth between celebrating humanity and critiquing its darker proclivities, particularly its penchant for war and violence. This is another aspect in which Humans are shown as being similar to Time Lords.

In this respect, the show does not shy away from critiquing the seemingly good and peaceful intentions of even its lead character. A guy who claims to be against war and genocide has the blood of entire species in his hands, even if they were species hell-bent on destroying reality as we know it. The guy who goes by the name of ‘Doctor,’ meaning ‘healer,’ gives new meaning to that name through his history of rampaging around the universe, till a point comes when the people of the Gamma forest understand the word ‘Doctor’ to mean ‘mighty warrior.’


“All those years ago, sailing off to see the universe, did you ever think you’d become this?”
Clip from Series 6, Episode 7 “A Good Man Goes to War” / Youtube

“The Beast Below” was a remarkable episode also because it was one where a key running theme of the show, that of humanity, is explored with a great deal of sensitivity. A very central question that Doctor Who has asked persistently during the history of its run is a question that almost all works of Science Fiction inevitably ask – is humanity worth saving? The Doctor is almost always embattled between the interests of the human species and that of other competing alien species. Matters become a lot simpler when the Doctor is tasked with saving the entire universe from one particular diabolical and advanced alien species, even if that is his own species. He chooses humanity even over his own people. However, in a twist to the usual plot of alien species invading or attacking unsuspecting and ill-prepared humans, “The Beast Below” explores the story of the English nation in the 29th Century, on the verge of being decimated by solar flares as other nations escape the Earth on their spaceships, find themselves with a spaceship that is unable to fly and instead, capture the last Starwhale in the universe and torture it to hitch a ride across space.

During the opening scenes as Starship UK becomes visible to the Doctor and Amy, the Doctor waxes lyrical, “Starship UK. It’s Britain, but metal. That’s not just a ship, that’s an idea. That’s a whole country, living and laughing and shopping. Searching the stars for a new home.” However, soon the ‘idea’ of the metal Britain shows its sinister colours as the true story of “the spaceship that could never fly” begins coming to light. And the Doctor is now truly faced with “an impossible choice” between humanity and the alien – and not even a humanoid alien which can behave or communicate in a human way (and speak for itself and be more relatable), but an enormous whale-like creature from outer space whose intentions are unsure.


“Nobody Human has anything to say to me today!” Series 5, Episode 2 “The Beast Below” / Youtube

Ironically enough, and that perhaps is the point after all, it is a human who saves the day. Amy Pond, who the Doctor had only recently befriended, saves the Starwhale, the humans of Starship UK as well as the Doctor himself, by being able to relate the Doctor with the Starwhale as ancient beings with boundless compassion, despite their apparent differences. Amy realizes that the Starwhale, last of a species that had guided early space explorers, had not just appeared like a miracle but had come on purpose to rescue a burning civilization. Humanity had failed the noble creature’s kindness, but the Starwhale did not, and once the torture ended the Starwhale was able to carry Starship UK on its back with greater speed across the stars.

In the “Beast Below,” the series upturns a trope that it had itself created linking anthropomorphism to higher intelligence and sentience in the person of the Starwhale, who is as far from humanity morphologically as is possible but is obviously a highly intelligent and sentient being. A story that had initially looked like another alien attack on innocent and unsuspecting humans travelling in space, turned out to be quite the opposite. For once, the Doctor was truly faced with a dilemma over which species was more worth saving, and he would have had to choose one over the other, if not for a human, impulsive and imperfect all the same, taking a huge risk that could potentially have backfired. But it was a risk that had to be taken.

starwhale

The Starwhale carrying Starship UK across the universe. Courtesy: Wikia

All images from thedoctorwhosite.co.uk unless mentioned otherwise.

Mithila Review: Fund Drive

Urna Mukherjee
Urna Mukherjee is a research scholar of modern history at Jawaharlal Nehru University, with one foot in the past and the other straining for the intergalactic future. Her interests include fantasy and folklore, science fiction, poetry, cats, and the anthropocene.

One Comment

  1. Utpal Mukherjee Utpal Mukherjee

    Fantastic. Unbelievable. I am very much proud to see her observations among past and future.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *