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.
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 the 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.
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.
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.”