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Less is more - or less

There was a Doctor Who episode on recently. It had a Cyberman in it.

For those who haven’t as yet entered the Tardis, a Cyberman is an ordinary human converted to a type of emotionless automaton. They walk (or clank) like a human, but they’ve had their emotions removed, they work on logic (assuming it’s logical to want to take over the universe by cyber-ing a planet at a time) and they’re almost impossible to kill.

Phew. There. See, there was this Doctor Who episode on recently. It had a…

Oh. I did that bit already :-).

No, I’m not here to tell you how amazing Doctor Who is, or that Stetsons (don’t ask :-P) are cool. But there was this Doctor Who episode and it had a Cyberman in it. And it’s that little ‘a’ I was thinking about.

Now, I’m not going to say how I thought this Doctor Who episode was amazing, wonderful, fantastic – or even terrible, awful, bad. But, and yes it’s only a personal view, the Cybermen are at their most horrifying, scary or otherwise effective not when it’s just one, but when it’s a company or a regiment of emotionless automata, marching in clanking lockstep towards some unsuspecting, er, unsuspecting thing. I mean, sure. The Doctor always wins in the end. But there’s still this horde of clanking silver robo-people to get by first.

There was another episode of Doctor Who. The Doctor landed in a rich American’s underground museum of alien artifacts. And in this museum, there was one artifact that was different. It was still alive. Working. Moving. It wasn’t a Cyberman. It was a Dalek. Daleks don’t look like people. They look like big pepper-pots. They don’t clank, they glide. Sure, they still want to take over the universe, but not by turning the inhabitants into other Daleks. More by turning them into frazzled heaps and rolling over the top of them. But, in any case, this Dalek was securely chained down in a locked room, busy being tortured in the name of science.

Yes, it escaped :-).

It didn’t just escape, it rolled (and levitated, but that’s another story) through the complex, pretty much impossible to kill or stop. And it was implacable, and it was nasty – and it was scary. Even though there was only one of it. But at the end of the story arc, there was another episode. With lots of Daleks. Hundreds of lots. Hundreds of lots of… well, you get the idea. And you know what? Again it’s still just a personal view, but they were nowhere near as scary as that one Dalek rolling through the museum.

In John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’, there’s only one Thing. A shape-shifting alien that assumes the form of the people it kills. One. Would 'The Thing' have had the same impact if there had been hundreds of ‘Things’? Or even ten? In ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’, in the beginning there are just a few undiscovered pod people, and at the end there are just the last few humans (or apparently last person if we look at the 1978 remake with Donald Sutherland) surrounded by pod people. Would ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers' have been as nasty if there was one, um, snatcher? In Alfred Hitchcock’s 'The Birds', the scariest scenes aren’t of one bird pecking out someone’s eyes – they’re of lots of birds. Still birds. Silent birds sat all together on, for instance, a school climbing frame.

OK. The birds are a bit different. However scary having one’s eyes pecked out may be, you might think you can fight off one bird. But not ten. Twenty. Not a hundred cawing, psychotic flapping… not a hundred. But if we go back (briefly – don’t worry :-P) to those Daleks and Cybermen for a moment – both are nasty. Both are nearly unstoppable. But, and yes, it’s a personal opinion, in one case a single Dalek is more scary than a hundred thousand, and in the other the impact comes from a troop of emotionless silver soldiers severely in need of shock absorbers and an oil change.

So sometimes, less is more, and sometimes less is, well, less.

In the first ‘Alien’ movie, there’s only one Alien (yes, lots of pods and threats, but for most of the movie only one Alien) lurking and looming around the spaceship. In the second movie – there’s lots. Running and clawing through the tunnels and access pipes – there’s lots. Which is more scary? More impacting? In Antonio Mercero’s ‘La Cabina’, we start with one man trapped in a telephone kiosk, and we end with… but no. Look it up. See it. And, for the record, you don’t even need to know Spanish :-).

So sometimes, in my view at least, less is more. And, sometimes, more is less.

Or maybe not. The floor’s open. What do you think?


DM's picture

I agree, Graeme, less is often better. Unless you're sitting in a surround sound theater with a humongous screen that's filled with alien robots. But then, they have no personality.

Graeme's picture

Welcome again!

For me, it's not so much that I think less is better, or that it's worse. More that 'it depends' - and that some things work better one way and some the other.

For instance, a haiku is a very minimalist poetic form. And it has impact and serves a purpose. But would something that was ten verses, each a haiku, work in the same way? The purpose of the form might well be lost. On the other hand, Beowulf would be hard to write as a haiku, and still convey the same impact and purpose as the original 3,182 lines - even if I spoke West Saxon :-).

Thoughts? Comments?

Kelly Hashway's picture

Graeme, I agree with you. Sometimes I want less because it leaves more to the imagination, but other times when less is used, I find myself wanting more. Maybe we're just never truly satisfied? Oh, here I go raising more questions.

Graeme's picture

And there's another blog post lurking there. Which is more satisfying? Answers to questions, or the potential to use answers to make us think of more mysteries, more questions? It's a bit like the same question asked of travel - do we want more to arrive, or to make our way?

I suspect the answer is different for each that poses themselves the question :-).

Elizabeth Maginnis's picture

Your description of the Doctor Who episode reminds me of the Cylons of Battlestar Galactica fame. I'm a huge fan of the retooled series and always found a multitude of these mechanical creatures more frightening as adversaries than one lone "toaster." Same with "Aliens." The threat posed by multiple unknown entities is scarier than a one-on-one battle.

Graeme's picture

Greetings again!

And that's really it - or 'it' as I was trying to say it. There are times when more is a good thing - or, in the case of thy Cylons, a better Bad Thing. And there are times when less has more impact.

For instance (and again, it's a personal opinion), one zombie shambling towards you (one hopes on a screen :-P) isn't as impacting a twenty. But Dracula and you alone is his castle is more scary than twenty vampires, most of whom would be kicking each other in sensitive parts of their anatomy to make sure they got the feast for themselves :-)).

Elizabeth Maginnis's picture

Ah, yes, Dracula. Gary Oldman's Dracula was as frightening as a room full of Cylons. To further support the "less is more" point of view, to date the scariest film I've ever seen is the original version of "The Haunting," which employed sound and shadows to great effect, enough to scare the stuffing out of me. No monsters or deafening sound effects were necessary.

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