H.P. Lovecraft envisioned a universe where humanity is a small minuscule particle of sanity in a vast morass of evil and madness. In this kind of universe normalcy is an exception and not the commonality: where humanity is either ignored by vast alien intelligences, or horrifically used by malign entities.
Even trying to understand this vastly liquid and alien universe beyond human understanding is dangerous because the person that tries will go utterly insane … or cease to be human entirely. This is a view of the universe created by Lovecraft in his works and you can see how difficult it would be to make a television program out of such a thing or even a movie.
And what’s worse is that Lovecraft was born before the time of Gene Roddenberry: the latter who decreed in his Star Trek science fiction universe that all aliens have to be portrayed as humanoid in order to convey similar human expressions of emotion. Lovecraft’s creatures aren’t even that, and the most polite things you can say about them–when you can envision what they are from how they are described–is that they are the stuff of nightmares. We don’t even have the monster to relate to in this strange place just behind our own existence.
So how can a viewer relate to a universe that is terrifying beyond human comprehension?
I believe that a human answer to a Lovecraftian universe is Doctor Who.
The Doctor is basically Christmas-incarnate with nonsensical wonderfulness, ingenious bluffing skills, and a bad-ass core of fire and ice. And when I say he is Christmas-incarnate, I don’t mean that he’s Christian but that he is just the embodiment of an event that you look forward to at least once a year.
He is a renegade Time Lord on the run that understands time and existence far differently than we do but is light-hearted enough, and wise enough, to appreciate the little things that the grandiose horror of such inhuman non-humanoid horrors like the Daleks miss every time. The Doctor lives in and adapts to an intrinsically frightening, potentially nihilistic universe by being as ridiculous and as tangential as possible: while unifying everything into a haphazard way that–quite miraculously and somehow–works.
It may be that he is insane: and by our human standards he might be. Hell, even by his former fellow Time Lords’ standards, he is probably considered crazy. It doesn’t hurt that he Regenerates into different people each time when he dies, refuses to fight with a gun, and that he travels through time and space, or that he is over eight or nine hundred years old his time. He is the weird. He is the strange. But he is also the laughable: the person the viewer laughs with but also sympathizes with.
The Doctor is the Other with a very humanoid face: but he is still the Other. I appreciate the irony of this statement on at least two levels in that I use the Other as someone who is other than human, and that there is a possible back-story to the Doctor’s character in that he was once an older Time Lord and founder Time Lord society called The Other. But more than that, The Doctor–whose real name we never know and we fear the unknown–is portrayed as the champion of normalcy and sanity against the more destructive and twisted elements of the universe that humanity doesn’t understand.
At the same time though, he challenges normalcy and sanity through his mostly human Companions: changing their lives forever in what they see with him. He shows them that the alien universe, for all it challenges human preconceptions, still has wonders and isn’t always evil. Sometimes, it is quite relatable–the other aliens, worlds, and stars–and although not humanocentric, humanity is definitely a part of the strange and entertaining mosaic.
I’m sure that there have been other articles and essays about The Doctor and the Lovecraftian. Certainly, some older series of books put them both in the same universe: including run ins with the Great Old Ones and so forth. But even if you look at The Doctor’s universe and the villains within as influenced by Lovecraftian literature, I think the thing that really hits home for me–when I look out at how large and terrifying and insensible the world can be–is the image of The Doctor as a hero: armed against all that strangeness and eldritch horror with only his telephone box-fixed TARDIS, his sonic screwdriver, some strange suit, a new face, daring, and a whole lot of curiosity.
And somehow, when I think about it like that, he is one of the few heroes that can make me smile–make me glad to see him–each and every time.
Now, I wonder who or what will be the answer to a Vonnegut universe …