Monster of the Week: The Ood (Doctor Who)

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Ah, the Ood, those lovable tentacle-mouthed aliens. These New Who creatures alternate between Lovecraftian horrors and prescient sages who just want to teach us about empathy.

For the uninitiated, the Ood are a species of aliens who have appeared on Doctor Who a number of times since its 2005 reboot. They have powerful telepathic abilities which they control through a second, external brain that sticks out of that tentacled mass on their faces. Every Ood is also telepathically connected to a single massive brain which functions a bit like a hive mind.

Now, now. I know what you’re thinking, angry Whovian, and you’re right. The Ood are not monstrous, they’re just alien. That’s an important distinction.

“Alien” is relative. Alien to what? In this case, and much of science fiction, aliens act as a foil to all of humankind. The way that a writer characterizes their aliens tells us a lot about what they believe it means to be human.

Monsters are also defined by what makes them inhuman, but with a darker focus. Aliens are strange while monsters are both terrible and strange; most monsters are alien but not all aliens are monsters. Squares and rectangles. But—and here’s where our nice geometry metaphor breaks down—often the most horrifying monsters are the ones that are most familiar.

And this is what is interesting about the Ood. I’ll be the first to admit that their story was not always handled elegantly: their first appearance in The Impossible Planet left many questions unanswered, and while they were being manipulated by a stronger telepathic power, they didn’t have much of a chance to transcend their role as monster of the week. They were treated primarily as a threat, and every Ood in the story ended up dead by the end.

Flash forward a few seasons. Finally, the Ood get their own storyline—they’ve been enslaved by a futuristic human empire and have begun to throw off their psychic shackles. We learn that the Ood are not naturally disposed to violence at all. Humans threw them out of whack when they replaced the external brains that controlled the Ood’s emotions with a translation device. Well done, humans.

Their peaceful characterization becomes heavy-handed and even patronizing at times—“Oh, they are so gentle and kind! Innocent, like children!”—but the point comes across. The Ood, introduced as a threat, have become sympathetic. The script is flipped. The Ood remain alien but the humans become the real monsters—in ways that are all too familiar.

It’s been said of Mary Shelley’s classic book that “knowledge is knowing that Frankenstein is not the monster. Wisdom is understanding that he is.”

While the humans in this story did not create the Ood, they did create their circumstances. And the way they did so—through cold, clinical corporatism—contrasts neatly with the Ood’s power, which draws strength from community and empathy. The episode sets these two things together to challenge our perceptions, asking us which is familiar and which is alien—and whether that is something we should be proud of.

So, while the Ood themselves are not monsters in the end, they do what every good monster should do: hold a mirror to the darkest parts of ourselves. That is scary.

Not viscerally, like the Ood’s tentacles trying to grab your face. What’s really scary on a philosophical level is how easy it is to imagine humanity doing that to another kind of intelligent life just because they are different—and just because we can. You don’t have to imagine; humanity has already done that to itself hundreds of times. Just read a history book.

It’s interesting that Doctor Who, a British TV show, would produce this kind of story. In a way, this is a story about white guilt. It’s always dangerous to map human history onto sci-fi, especially when your “humans” represent “white European humans” and you’re using aliens as a parallel for a non-white human society. Despite its flaws, it brings up an important idea: a lot of science fiction is really about colonialism.

Alien invasion stories reveal colonialist societies’ fear that someone else will do to them what they’ve already done to other people. Stories about space colonization are often just a projection of our own planet’s history outward. Hey, we’re still doing this crap, this episode seems to say. Let’s cut that out before we get to other planets, it would be a real shame if we fucked those up too.

What could strengthen the Ood’s characterization? Well, why do they have to be so innocent and harmless? If they had fought the human visitors instead of welcoming them, would it have somehow been okay for the humans to enslave them? I’d have liked to see a few more rough edges on them besides the flaws that humans created.

Despite its awkward racial and geopolitical metaphors, there are parts of the Ood storyline that work quite well: the contrast of empathy and community against commerce shows how sci-fi elements can strengthen thematic ones. The Ood’s story also suggests that naming someone else a monster—and treating them accordingly—actually makes you one.

Prompt: Hone in on a deeply human flaw and create a “monster” that brings out the worst in the people they interact with. The “monster” can and should be flawed, too, but by the end of your story or tabletop gaming session it should be clear that it’s the protagonist or player characters who have really behaved monstrously.

What do you think—am I on target with my thoughts about the Ood? Maybe you have different thoughts on how to make aggressors seem monstrous without infantilizing the people they’re hurting. Share your story and game design ideas!

One Comment

  • Jeremiah Reply

    Personally I think they are a great example of society (or I guess in this case Human society) as the real monsters. The creators do such a good job making the species look monstrous and act in a strange and threatening manner seemingly to throw you off balance for the twilight zone like twist. Good choice for a different and self-reflecting monster.

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