In its half-century history, the British sci-fi/fantasy series Doctor Who has crossed over with just about every genre imaginable. Many of the best and most beloved episodes have strong overtones of horror. In these articles, I’m taking a look at the most horror-centric episodes of each era.
A basic overview for the uninitiated: The Doctor is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, who travels in time and space via a sentient ship called the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space). When Time Lords are dying, they have the capability to regenerate into a new body. Thus, when one lead actor leaves the show, another can take over the role without violating continuity, and the show can go on more or less forever.
Doctor Who is generally discussed in terms of the “classic series” and the “new series” (although narratively the two are continuous with one another). The classic series ran from 1963-1989, consisted mostly of half-hour episodes which formed serials ranging from 2 to 12 episodes in length, and contained the runs of 7 Doctors. The new series began in 2005 and is still running, consists of hour-long self-contained episodes and occasional 2-parters, and is currently on its fourth Doctor. In the interim between the two series, there was a TV movie made.
This entry will discuss the seventh and eighth years of the series, which were the beginning of Jon Pertwee’s five year run in the role of The Doctor.
The William Hartnell Years
The Patrick Troughton Years
“Spearhead from Space” (1970, 4 episodes, written by Robert Holmes)
Pertwee’s first Doctor Who story saw the introduction of some big changes, the biggest of which were the switch to color and the temporary loss of The Doctor’s ability to travel in space and time, leaving him grounded on modern Earth. This new set-up allowed the show to explore more thoroughly one very specific type of horror: the idea of everyday places and objects becoming suddenly threatening.
Spearhead from Space has a meteor crash to Earth which contains a life form called The Nestene Consciousness, a sort of amorphous living plastic which can be molded into other shapes, and which function as a hive mind.
The Nestene manage to take control of a plastics factory, and have themselves made into shop window mannequins, which are already one of the most uncannily creepy things most people are exposed to on a regular basis. They make people sufficiently uncomfortable that, when the disguised aliens – know and Autons – come to life in the story’s final episode, they are playing out a pretty common nightmare.
Just as unnerving, though, is the focus throughout the story on shots of unfinished dolls in the factory – like looking at rows of disassembled babies – and the visits to a wax museum, where we learn that some of the displays are actually living people who have been set aside and replaced by Nestene duplicates. And there, the serial taps into another fear, that a person we know may stop being themselves, replaced by an alien intelligence.
The creepy factor of this story is further enhanced by its being the first Doctor Who story shot entirely on film, where typically that medium was used only for location work, with studio material shot on video. Somehow, seeing the interiors all shot on film becomes disturbing simply because this is not what Doctor Who is supposed to look like.
“The Ambassadors of Death” (1970, 7 episodes, written by David Whitaker)
The Doctor likes to solve his problems by talking things out, as often as possible, and he generally has the convenient ability to communicate in the language of any alien he meets. In fact, science fiction in general tends to come up with convenient ways that we can communicate with alien presences right off the bat. So part of what makes The Ambassadors of Death so scary is the simple fact that, for most of the story, The Doctor cannot figure out how to talk to the aliens, and almost nobody else seems very interested in trying.
And the Ambassadors themselves are pretty unsettling. Having encountered a manned space mission, they have taken the astronauts prisoner and come to Earth using the stolen space suits. This creates horror in two ways: first, because they are taking the guise of human astronauts, again hitting on the notion of people we know being replaced; second, because their faces and forms are obscured, making them all the more mysterious. We can neither see nor understand them.
Oh, and they can kill with a mere touch.
Scary though the Ambassadors may be, though, they’re not the real danger here; the possibility of a peaceful resolution is disrupted repeatedly by a governmental and military conspiracy. Not only are we confronted with unknowable killer aliens, we must also face that the people we trust to protect us are more than ready to let us die – even to sacrifice us – for the sake of their own agendas.
“Inferno” (1970, 7 episodes, written by Don Hougton)
There’s a lot going on in this story: a seismic event that threatens to wipe out all life on Earth, a primordial goo that transforms people into sort of green werewolves called Primords, and a lengthy visit to a parallel universe where The Doctor’s usual allies are all part of a fascist regime.
So, we’ve got an environmental apocalypse (and, thanks to the parallel universe story, we actually get to see how this would play out, raising the stakes considerably when The Doctor gets back to “our” Earth to save the day), which offers a very pragmatic form of horror. Since this is all caused by a massive drilling project, it fits especially well into the eco-horror sub-genre which was so popular in the late 60s and early 70s.
We’ve also got the Primords, the most classic kind of monster, a senseless, brutal melding of beast and man.
And, once again, we have the people we know transformed into strangers; if we cannot trust our dearest friends, if identity itself is called into question, what hope of safety can there be?
“Terror of the Autons” (1971, 4 episodes, written by Robert Holmes)
To launch Pertwee’s second season, Robert Holmes brought back the monsters he’d introduced a year earlier, the Nestene Consciousness and its Auton avatars. This time, however, in addition to taking the form of mannequins, the Nestenes branch out into dolls, plastic flowers, and even phone cords. Everything plastic in our lives – and our lives are just full of plastic – suddenly becomes threatening. The danger isn’t just out in the streets, it’s already inside the house with us.
This is also the story that introduces The Master (Roger Delgado), like The Doctor a fellow renegade Time Lord. Unlike The Doctor, however, The Master is an amoral megalomaniac bent on universal conquest. Conceived as a Moriarty to The Doctor’s Sherlock Holmes, The Master is terrifying not only for is malevolent genius, but also for his ability to hypnotize people into doing his bidding, to perfectly disguise himself as other people, and to kill using a device (later named a tissue compression eliminator) which shrinks people down to only a few inches in height.
Although he would soon become a kind of camp figure, in this first appearance The Master is genuinely frightening. His abilities to control minds and to steal identities are further examples of the recurring theme of not being able to trust the people you know and rely upon. Thus, like the myriad forms of the Nestene consciousness, The Master gives us further reason that the threat may already be alongside us, in our own homes and safe spaces.
“The Daemons” (1971, 5 episodes, written by Robert Sloman and Barry Letts under the pseudonym “Guy Leopold”)
The early 1970s saw a brief wave of English horror movies focused on rural British pagan communities reverting to human sacrificial practices and summoning devils. With Doctor Who’s focus at this stage still on contemporary England, this was an ideal trend for the series to participate in.
In addition to indulging the rural horror genre, this is also one of several Doctor Who stories to deal with Von Danikenism, the then-ever-so-trendy notion that ancient human myths and legends were actually distortions of historical visits by alien life forms who helped to shape our civilization and technological development. Here – as in Hammer’s beloved film Quatermass and the Pit (1967) – it is Satan himself who owes his origins to an alien figure.
The story is set in the village of Devil’s End, where an archaeological team is investigating a Bronze Age burial ground. Little do they realize that the site is actually the home to an ancient alien space craft. Nor do the local villagers realize that their new pastor is actually The Master, who seeks to awaken the ancient alien Azal that they might conquer the world together.
While Azal himself is given limited screentime – it wouldn’t do to reveal your gigantic, all-powerful devil before the story nears its end – there is consistent danger not only from The Master and the fanatical cultists who follow him, but also from Bok, a gargoyle brought to life by Azal’s power. Bok is not only creepy looking – like all garogyles – he’s also functionally indestructible, and can disintegrate people just by pointing at them.
A strong ending to Pertwee’s second year of Doctor Who, “The Daemons” is one of the best examples of the show exploring a style of horror movie popular at the time of production.
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