Those Pig-Men Things




Doctor Who, species, science fiction

How to Cite

Mills, B. (2010). Those Pig-Men Things. M/C Journal, 13(5).
Vol. 13 No. 5 (2010): pig
Published 2010-10-17

Since its return in 2005 the science fiction series Doctor Who (BBC1) has featured many alien creatures which bear a striking similarity to non-human Earth species: the Judoon in “Smith and Jones” (2007) have heads like rhinoceroses; the nurses in “New Earth” (2006) are cats in wimples; the Tritovores in “Planet of the Dead” (2009) are giant flies in boilersuits. Yet only one non-human animal has appeared twice in the series, in unrelated stories: the pig. Furthermore, alien races such as the Judoon and the Tritovores simply happen to look like human species, and the series offers no narrative explanation as to why such similarities exist. When the pig has appeared, however, it has instead been as the consequence of experimentation and mutation, and in both cases the appearance of such porcine hybrids is signalled as horrific, unsettling and, in the end, to be pitied. The fact that the pig has appeared in this way twice suggests there is something about the human understanding of this animal which means it can fulfil a role in fiction unavailable to other Earth species.

The pig’s appearance has been in two stories, both two-parters. In “Aliens of London”/“World War Three” (2005) a spaceship crashes into London’s Thames river, and the pilot inside, thought to be dead, is sent to be scientifically examined. Alone in the laboratory, the pathologist Doctor Sato is startled to find the creature is alive and, during its attempt to escape, it is shot by the military. When the creature is examined The Doctor reveals it is “an ordinary pig, from Earth.” He goes on to explain that, “someone’s taken a pig, opened up its brain, stuck bits on, then they’ve strapped it in that ship and made it dive-bomb. It must have been terrified. They’ve taken this animal and turned it into a joke.” The Doctor’s concern over the treatment of the pig mirrors his earlier reprimand of the military for shooting it; as he cradles the dying creature he shouts at the soldier responsible, “What did you do that for? It was scared! It was scared.” On the commentary track for the DVD release of this episode Julie Gardner (executive producer) and Will Cohen (visual effects producer) note how so many people told them they had a significant emotional reaction to this scene, with Gardner adding, “Bless the pig.” In that sense, what begins as a moment of horror in the series becomes one of empathy with a non-human being, and the pig moves from being a creature of terror to one whose death is seen to be an immoral act.

This movement from horror to empathy can be seen in the pig’s other appearance, in “Daleks in Manhattan”/“Evolution of the Daleks” (2007). Here the alien Daleks experiment on humans in order to develop the ability to meld themselves with Earthlings, in order to repopulate their own dwindling numbers. Humans are captured and then tested; as Laszlo, one of the outcomes of the experimentation, explains, “They’re divided into two groups: high intelligence and low intelligence. The low intelligence are taken to becomes Pig Slaves, like me.” These Pig Slaves look and move like humans except for their faces, which have prolonged ears and the pig signifier of a snout. At no point in the story is it made clear why experimentations on low intelligence humans should result in them looking like pigs, and a non-hybrid pig is not seen throughout the story. The appearance of the experiments’ results is therefore not narratively explained, and it does not draw on the fact that “in digestive apparatus and nutrient requirements pigs resemble humans in more ways than any mammal except monkeys and apes, which is why pigs are much in demand for [human] medical research” (Harris 70); indeed, considering the story is set in the 1930s such a justification would be anachronistic. The use of the pig, therefore, draws solely on its cultural, not its scientific, associations.

These associations are complex, and the pig has been used to connote many things in Western culture. Children’s books such as The Sheep-Pig (King-Smith) and Charlotte’s Web (White) suggest the close proximity of humans and pigs can result in an affinity capable of communication. The use of pigs to represent Poles in Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (Spiegelman), on the other hand, has been read as offensive, drawing on the animal’s association with dirt and greed (Weschler). These depictions are informed by debates about pigs in the real world, whereby an animal which, as mentioned above, is similar enough to humans to be useful in medical research can also, for the food industry, go through a slaughtering process described by Bob Torres as “horribly cruel” (47).

Such cruelty can only be justified if the boundaries between the pig and the human are maintained, and this is why pig-human representations are capable of being shocking and horrific. The hybrid nature of the human-pig creature draws on the horror trope that Noël Carroll refers to as “fusion” which works because it “unites attributes held to be categorically distinct” such as “inside/outside, living/dead, insect/human, flesh/machine” (43). He explains that this is why characters in horror narratives do not find such creatures simply fearful, but also “repellent, loathsome, disgusting, repulsive and impure” (54); their failure to conform to accepted cultural categories destabilises assumed norms and, perhaps most horrifically, undermines ‘the human’ as a stable, natural and superior category. As Donna Haraway notes, “‘The species’ often means the human race, unless one is attuned to science fiction, where species abound” (18). Science fiction therefore commonly plays with ideas of species because it is often interested in “the image of the scientist ‘playing god’” (Jones 51) and the horrific outcomes of “the total severing of scientific concerns from ethical concerns” (53). That the result of human/non-human experimentation should be regarded as horrific is evidence of the need to maintain the distinctions between humans and other creatures; after all, a pig/human can only be thought of as horrific if it as assumed that there is something unnatural about the destabilisation of the human category. And it is precisely the human which matters in this equation; it is not really as if anyone cares about the pig’s categorical stability in all of this.

In both these stories, the appearance of the pig-creature is narratively structured to be surprising and shocking, and is withheld from the audience for as long as possible. The first appearance of a Pig Slave in “Daleks in Manhattan” constitutes that episode’s pre-credits cliff-hanger, with the creature appearing out of the shadows and bearing down upon the camera, directly towards the audience viewing at home. At this point, the audience has no idea why such a creature exists; the meaning of the pig-human hybrid is contained purely in its visual appearance, with the horrific fact of its contradictory appearance perhaps drawing on the pig’s historical association with evil and the Devil (Sillar and Meyler 82). Similarly, in “Aliens of London” we see Sato’s shocked reaction to the pig far earlier than we actually see the creature ourselves, and Sato’s scream is clearly intended to construct what we have yet to encounter as horrific. The Doctor’s search for the creature is similarly signalled, as he roams dimly-lit corridors trying to find it, following the trail of the grunts and noises that it makes.

That the pig might constitute a horrific—or at least unsettling—site for humans is unsurprising considering the cultural roles it has often played. There is, after all, an “opposition between civilization and piggishness” (Ashley, Hollows, Jones and Taylor 2) in which (incorrect) assumptions about pigs’ filthy behaviour helps mark out humanity’s cleaner and more civilised way of living. While this is true of all human/non-human interactions, it is argued that the pig occupies a particular role within this system as it is a “familiar beast” (4) because for centuries it has been a domesticated animal which has often lived alongside humans, usually in quite close proximity. In that sense, humans and pigs are very similar. Demarcating the human as a stable and natural “conceptual category ... in which we place all members of our own species and from which we exclude all non-members” (Milton 265-66) has therefore required the denigration of non-humans, at least partly to justify the dominion humans have decided they have the right to hold over other creatures such as pigs.

The difficulties in maintaining this demarcation can be seen in the documentary The Private Life of Pigs (BBC2 2010) in which the farmer Jimmy Docherty carries out a number of tests on animals in order to better understand the ‘inner life’ of the pig. Docherty acknowledges the pig’s similarity to humans in his introductory piece to camera; “When you look in their piggy little eyes with their piggy little eyelashes you see something that reflects back to you—I don’t know—it makes you feel there’s a person looking back.” However, this is quickly followed by a statement which works to reassert the human/non-human boundary; “I know we have this close relationship [with pigs], but I’m often reminded that just beneath the surface of their skin, they’re a wild animal.” Perhaps the most telling revelation in the programme is that pigs have been found to make certain grunting noises only when humans are around, which suggests they have developed a language for ‘interacting’ with humans. That Docherty is uncomfortably startled by this piece of information shows how the idea of communication troubles ideas of human superiority, and places pigs within a sphere hitherto maintained as strictly human.

Of course, humans often willingly share domestic spaces with other species, but these are usually categorised as pets. The pet exists “somewhere between the wild animal and the human” (Fudge 8), and we often invest them with a range of human characteristics and develop relationships with such animals which are similar, but not identical, to those we have with other humans. The pig, however, like other food animals, cannot occupy the role afforded to the pet because it is culturally unacceptable to eat pets. In order to legitimise the treatment of the pig as a “strictly utilitarian object; a thing for producing meat and bacon” (Serpell 7) it must be distinguished from the human realm as clearly as possible. It is worth noting, though, that this is a culturally-specific process; Dwyer and Minnegal, for example, show how in New Guinea “pigs commonly play a crucial role in ceremonial and spiritual life” (37-8), and the pig is therefore simultaneously a wild animal, a source of food, and a species with which humans have an “attachment” (45-54) akin to the idea of a pet. Western societies commonly (though not completely) have difficulty uniting this range of animal categories, and analogous ideas of “civilization” often rest on assumptions about animals which require them to play specific, non-human roles.

That homo sapiens define their humanity in terms of civilization is demonstrated by the ways in which ideas of brutality, violence and savagery are displaced onto other species, often quite at odds with the truth of such species’ behaviour. The assumption that non-human species are violent, and constitute a threat, is shown in Doctor Who; the pig is shot in “Aliens of London” for assumed security reasons (despite it having done nothing to suggest it is a threat), while humans run in fear from the Pig Slaves in “Evolution of the Daleks” purely because of their non-human appearance. Mary Midgley refers to this as “the Beast Myth” (38) by which humans not only reduce other species to nothing other than “incarnations of wickedness, … sets of basic needs, … crude mechanical toys, … [and] idiot children” (38), but also lump all non-human species together thereby ignoring the specificity of any particular species. Midgley also argues that “man shows more savagery to his own kind than most other mammal species” (27, emphasis in original), citing the need for “law or morality to restrain violence” (26) as evidence of the social structures required to uphold a myth of human civilization. In that sense, the use of pigs in Doctor Who can be seen as conforming to centuries-old depictions of non-human species, by which the loss of humanity symbolised by other species can be seen as the ultimate punishment. After all, when the Daleks’ human helper, Mr Diagoras, fears that the aliens are going to experiment on him, he fearfully exclaims, “What do you mean? Like those pig-men things? You’re not going to turn me into one of those? Oh, God, please don’t!” In the next episode, when all the Pig Slaves are killed by the actions of the Doctor’s companion Martha, she regrets her actions, only to be told, “No. The Daleks killed them. Long ago”, for their mutation into a ‘pig-man thing’ is seen to be a more significant loss of humanity than death itself. The scene highlights how societies are often “confused about the status of such interspecies beings” (Savulescu 25). Such confusion is likely to recur considering we are moving into a “posthumanist” age defined by the “decentering of the human” (Wolfe xv), whereby critiques of traditional cultural categories, alongside scientific developments that question the biological certainty of the human, result in difficulties in defining precisely what it is that is supposedly so special about homo sapiens.

This means that it is far too easy to write off these depictions in Doctor Who as merely drawing on, and upholding, those simplistic and naturalised human/non-human distinctions which have been criticised, in a manner similar to sexism and racism, as “speciesist” (Singer 148-62). There is, after all, consistent sympathy for the pig in these episodes. The shooting of the pig in “Aliens of London” is outrageous not merely because it gives evidence of the propensity of human violence: the death of the pig itself is presented as worth mourning, in a manner similar to the death of any living being. Throughout the series the Doctor is concerned over the loss of life for any species, always aiming to find a non-violent method for solving conflicts and repeatedly berating other characters who resort to bloodshed for solutions. Indeed, the story’s narrative can be read as one in which the audience is invited to reassess its own response to the pig’s initial appearance, shifting from fear at its alien-ness to sympathy for its demise.

This complication of the cultural meanings of pigs is taken even further in the two-part Dalek story. One of the key plots of the story is the relationship between Laszlo, who has been transmuted into a Pig Slave, and his former lover Tallulah. Tallulah spends much of the story thinking Laszlo has disappeared, when he has, in fact, gone into hiding, certain that she will reject him because of his post-experimentation porcine features. When they finally reunite, Laszlo apologises for what has happened to him, while Tallulah asks, “Laszlo? My Laszlo? What have they done to you?” At the end of the story they decide to try re-establishing their relationship, despite Laszlo’s now-complicated genetic make-up. In response to this Martha asks the Doctor, “Do you reckon it’s going to work, those two?” The Doctor responds that while such an odd pairing might be problematic pretty much anywhere else, as they were in New York they might just get away with it. He reflects, “That’s what this city’s good at. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, and maybe the odd Pig Slave Dalek mutant hybrid too.” While there is an obvious playfulness to this scene, with the programme foregrounding the kinds of narrative available to the science fiction genre, it is also clear that we are invited to find this a good narrative conclusion, a suitable resolution to all that has preceded it. In that sense, the pig and the human come together, dissolving the human/non-human divide at a stroke, and this is offered to the audience as something to be pleased about. In both narratives, then, the pig moves from being understood as alien and threatening to something if not quite identical to human, then certainly akin to it. Certainly, the narratives suggest that the lives, loves and concerns of pigs—even if they have been experimented upon—matter, and can constitute significant emotional moments in primetime mainstream family television.

This development is a result of the text’s movement from an interest in the appearance of the pig to its status as a living being. As noted above, the initial appearances of the pigs in both stories is intended to be frightening, but such terror is dependent on understanding non-human species by their appearance alone. What both of these stories manage to do is suggest that the pig—like all non-human living things, whether of Earth or not—is more than its physical appearance, and via acknowledgment of its own consciousness, and its own sense of identity, can become something with which humans are capable of having sympathy; perhaps more than that, that the pig is something with which humans should have sympathy, for to deny the interior life of such a species is to engage in an inhuman act in itself.

This could be seen as an interesting—if admittedly marginal—corrective to the centuries of cultural and physical abuse the pig, like all animals, has suffered. Such representations can be seen as evoking “the dreaded comparison” (Spiegel) which aligns maltreatment of animals with slavery, a comparison that is dreaded by societies because to acknowledge such parallels makes justifying humans’ abusive treatment of other species very difficult. These two Doctor Who stories repeatedly make such comparisons, and assume that to morally and emotionally distinguish between living beings based on categories of species is nonsensical, immoral, and fails to acknowledge the significance and majesty of all forms of life. That we might, as Gardner suggests, “Bless the pig”—whether it has had its brain stuffed full of wires or been merged with a human—points towards complex notions of human/non-human interaction which might helpfully destabilise simplistic ideas of the superiority of the human race.


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Author Biography

Brett Mills, University of East Anglia

Senior Lecturer in Film and Television Studies, and Associate Tutor for the Open University.