Doctor Who and Horror: The William Hartnell Years

In the early years, the Doctor confronted horrors both material and existential

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’ll take 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 first three years of the classic series, the period during which the Doctor was played by William Hartnell.

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. As a result, this entry is a little short.


TheEdgeOfDestruction“The Edge of Destruction” (1963, 2 episodes, written by David Whitaker)

This is the third Doctor Who story produced, and it’s a bit of an oddity. It is a “bottle episode,” set entirely aboard the TARDIS, and offers the first suggestions that the ship is in some sense conscious. It is also very much a work of experimental, surrealist theatre. Basically, there is a fault in one of the TARIS mechanisms, and, in order to communicate the fault to the crew, the ship… makes reality itself, and everyone on board, go crazy. At one point, we are told, “We had time taken away from us, and now it’s been given back to us because it’s running out,” and we are expected to take this as some kind of reasonable explanation about what’s going on.

Outside of one character, in a kind of possessed or hypnotized state, becoming a clear threat while armed with a pair of scissors, there’s not a lot of straight-out horror at play here. But the overall atmosphere of the uncanny, the way that nature is bent to serve symbolic a purpose, is very much in keeping with a strain of existential horror, based on the chilling notion that reality is not nearly so fixed as we like to believe.


The-Dalek-Invasion-of-Earth-2“The Dalek Invasion of Earth” (1964, 6 episodes, written by Terry Nation)

The Daleks – NAZI-esque alien mutants who move around in heavily armed metal travel machines – are the most iconic – and most frequently appearing – of the Doctor’s many enemies. The majority of their stories don’t quite make the cut in terms of the most horror-themed episodes of Doctor Who, but this, their second appearance, includes some genuinely unsettling and even scary moments.

The Doctor and company find themselves in London in the latter half of the 22nd century, at a time when the bellicose Daleks have taken over the Earth and wiped out most of its population. The protagonists join up with a group of freedom fighters, and eventually lead the charge that drives the Daleks off of the planet. The story is largely about the anxieties felt by British citizens during the blitz (a theme the show will re-visit on multiple occasions), specifically the fear of a NAZI occupation (while the characters speak of world conquest by the Daleks, the story never moves beyond England).

Early on, images of the Daleks – emerging from the Thames, roaming the desolate streets – are played for maximum tension and fear. And the ruined cities the characters inhabit are suggestive of a post-apocalyptic nightmare.

Alongside the Daleks we also meet the Robomen, humans enslaved by the Daleks and robbed of their free will. Minus their humanity, reduced to mere extensions of the Dalek drive for conformity and control, friendship and love disappear, brother can be made to kill brother.

Most disturbing at all, though, are the brief glimpses of the true madness of the Daleks. The best moment of the serial comes when one of the Daleks obsessively repeats to itself, “We are the masters of Earth,” its grating, metallic voice suggesting not so much certainty as a desperate need to convince itself, a kind of pathetic, deranged obsession.


The-Tenth-Planet“The Tenth Planet” (1966, 4 episodes, written by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis)

This is the final story of Hartnell’s run as the Doctor, and the first appearance of another beloved recurring Doctor Who enemy, the Cybermen. As with the Daleks, not all Cybermen stories quite make it as horror, but their first appearance definitely qualifies.

The Cybermen originate on the planet Mondas, an Earth-twin which, millennia ago, left the solar system and drifted to the farthest reaches of the universe. There, the Mondasians experienced what Who scholar Philip Sandifer refers to as “Qlippothic enlightenment,” a sort of profound realization of the emptiness of spiritual values. The Mondasians responded by remaking themselves as emotionless cyborgs, the empty shells of humanity driven by pure logic. Their rejection of emotion has not just reduced them to machines, though; because they have come to this through a sort of religious awakening, they are compelled to spread the good word of their faith. The Cybermen want to deprive the human race of their capability to feel, and what makes it really horrifying is that they believe they’re doing us a favor.

In the way that they have surgically transformed themselves into living machines, the Cybermen – at least in this first appearance, when they are still bandaged and show visible traces of their humanity (future incarnations will be completely encased in metal) – are almost a masterpiece of body horror. But it is the existential horror they represent that makes them so effective here. The Tenth Planet is not just about monsters who want to wipe us out or take us over, it is about our own very human impulse to give up our humanity, to give in to our sense of emptiness and futility, to respond to the cold and uncaring nature of the universe – or of God – as proof that we should be cold and uncaring ourselves.

With their strange, sing-song voices (altered in later stories to be more traditionally “robotic”), their empty eyes, and their human hands emerging from clunky, pieced-together mechanized bodies, the Cybermen in this first incarnation are particularly unsettling.  As they march across this story’s blank, white arctic setting, they are a vision of truly terrible uniformity.

Doctor Who has done spookier stories since; it has presented scarier monsters; but it has rarely reached this level of philosophical horror. Because, truth be told, we’ve all had moments when we felt like the Mondasians, when we looked into the abyss and contemplated allowing ourselves to become that empty.


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