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 roughly the second three year span of the classic series, the period during which the Doctor was played by Patrick Troughton.
The William Hartnell Years
NOTE: Many episodes from the series’ first six years were wiped from the BBC’s archives and are regarded as lost. For the purposes of these articles, I will be including only serials from which enough episodes still exist that they have received individual DVD releases. This is particularly frustrating with regards to the Troughton years; only two stories from his first year are even 50% complete, and much of his second year (generally classified as “the monster season”) is missing. His final year is almost completely in tact, but it is the least horror-themed period of his run.
“The Moonbase” (1967, 4 episodes, written by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis)
This is a sequel to “The Tenth Planet” (discussed in the previous entry), which introduced the falsely-enlightened self-made cyborgs who seek to share their gift of emotionless rationality with the rest of the universe. This time, the year is 2070, and the Cybermen are staging an attack on – as the title reveals – a base on the moon.
Alas, much of the philosophical depth and uncanny horror present in their prior appearance has been stripped away. They are no longer the embodiment of an existential nightmare; they are basically just evil robots – even redesigned so that there are no longer any visible human parts.
Still, the episodes are played as atmospheric horror, and effectively so. At the story’s start, the Cybermen are – unbeknownst to the heroes – already hiding aboard the base, infecting crew members with a virus which allows them to be mentally controlled, and which manifests black lines on the skin as it travels through the nervous system. The threat is still, as in their previous appearance, a combination of body horror and threat of the loss of identity. And the revelation that the monsters are hiding among them – a kind of, “The call is coming from inside the house” – is used to chilling effect.
Later, as the Cybermen lay siege to the base (“base under siege” became a default mode for the show in this era), and the heroes have to keep coming up with new and more clever ways to defend themselves, there is a real sense of tension. The stakes feel high, and the Cybermen themselves are still pretty scary.
“The Tomb of the Cybermen” (1967, 4 episodes, written by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis)
Yes, it’s the Cybermen again. They were the major villains of the era, appearing in a total of 5 stories from 1966-1968 (but this is the last one I’ll be covering). This story is set in the far-off future, and this time, rather than the Cybermen coming to wipe us out, it’s a group of humans who are seeking the eponymous tomb, located on the planet Telos. The leader of this party is a brilliant logician, Kleig (George Pastell), who seeks to become a disciple of the emotionless cyborgs.
Right off the bat, the idea of human beings seeking to follow in the path of the Cybermen is a return to the more philosophically terrifying implications of their first appearance. The original Cybermen were certain that re-making humans in their own image would be doing us a favor, and here is a human who agrees with them – at least, insofar as he even understand the implications of becoming a creature of pure logic. When he begins to understand what the Cybermen really represent, his response is altogether emotional: he is repulsed and terrified… but his realization has come too late; the Cybermen are on the attack.
Really, though, the emphasis once again isn’t on the philosophy, it’s on the atmosphere. In this case, it’s all designed to feel like a mummy movie; Kleig is basically the high priest of a cult, entering the cyclopean temple that he might re-awaken ancient, mystical forces.
The highlight of the spookiness is the much-praised sequence in which the awakening horde of Cybermen tear their way out of their plastic-shrouded tombs. It’s stark and surreal, and stands among Doctor Who’s most iconic images.
“The Web of Fear” (1968, 6 episodes, written by Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln)
Robot Yeti with cobweb guns invade the London Underground. That’s the basic set-up for one of Doctor Who’s most notoriously creepy stories.
This was the second appearance of the Yeti robots, which are controlled by a disembodied alien consciousness calling itself The Great Intelligence. Unfortunately, most of the episodes of “The Abominable Snowmen” (1967) are lost. Almost all of “The Web of Fear,” however, was recently re-discovered and released. And it proved to be as eerie and atmospheric as the received wisdom of fandom had long promised.
After an ominously shadowy and cinematically intense opening, in which the return of the robot Yeti is set into motion, the story leaps forward by months, with the Doctor and his companions arriving only after London has been evacuated, leaving behind small groups of soldiers patrolling the dark, dank, cobwebbed-infested underground tunnels in search of the giant, vicious robots.
With each episode, things become more tense and desperate, as soldiers are killed off by the Yeti, first one by one, later in a virtual massacre. Meanwhile, it becomes clear that someone – maybe one of the soldiers, maybe the Doctor or one of his companions – has become a possessed spy in service of The Intelligence.
Eerie, cobweb covered tunnels; giant, killer robots; mounting anxiety and distrust among the trapped heroes; possession by a cold, inhuman force of evil; and, towards the end, even a re-animated corpse – “The Web of Fear” is one of the most nightmare-inducing tales ever to grace Doctor Who.
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