Doctor Who’s Best Horror EpisodesThe Dark Herald
I hadn’t really planned to have a Halloween theme this year, it just sort of happened but since I’ve been leaning so heavily into British Sci-Fi Horror, I would be remise in duties as an internet hack if I didn’t pick the lowest hanging fruit available.
For thousands of years The Doctor, a judgmental emo-Mister Spock has sailed across all of time and space in a particularly British peculiarity. He constantly weighs the human race and always finds us wanting but you will notice he never picks a member of a different alien race to be his companions. You can’t help but get the feeling the Doctor needs somebody to look down on. Not a good look.
However, when he was being well written you could get passed his leftie bitchery because of the quality of the storytelling.
As I’ve said before: “America is a young country and it affects our view of the world. Americans are intellectually aware that human history goes back farther than 1700 but we don’t feel a bone-deep connection to it. It simply isn’t real to us in the same way it is to someone whose family has lived in the same village since a year that had only three digits in it. America has only ever been called “America,” whereas Britain got its name from Prince Brutus of Troy.
Before that it was Angleland, and before that Albion, and before that elfydd (maybe). My point is this, the ancient feels real to the British in a way that is simply alien to Americans, it may as well be Conan’s Hyborean World so far as our instincts are concerned. And for cosmic horror to work, the ancient is a bedrock requirement.”
The British can do cosmic horror in a way that we just cannot. You get the feeling that it feels real to them. They have a connection to ancient terrors that we severed when we came to America.
Consequently, Doctor Who has always excelled when it came to the elements of horror. A quick review of those elements are: Fear, dread, and shock. Examples are below.
Fear: You are trapped in an old building with IT.
Dread: As you are walking around in the building you begin to suspect that IT is following you.
Shock: You turn around and IT is reaching for you.
Lets take a look at a few of my five scariest episodes of Doctor Who.
Pyramids of Mars
If you saw this one as a little kid, don’t see it again, it will lose a lot. That said, was a fairly decent one off. The enemy was Suhtech (The Egyptian god Set) a member of a lost and godlike race called the Osirins. Suhtech feared that one day a race would come along that would surpass his, so he destroyed all sapient life wherever he could find it. For this Horace imprisoned him for eternity within one of the pyramids of Mars (they had just been discovered at the time).
The Doctor was starting in an interesting place. The last incarnation that could do whatever he wanted was William Hartnell. The previous two had been in a kind of limited exile on 1960s Earth. The 4th Doctor was starting to cut his ties to that place and time. He didn’t know what he was anymore.
The TARDIS is forced to land in a country estate in 1911. There is a forcefield that keeps the small cast in the immediate grounds of the manner house. Suhtech, despite his imprisonment is incredibly powerful just by the strength of his mind. This sets up a power imbalance against the Doctor and Sarah.
This serial maintained a sense of fear throughout its run. It’s still a surprisingly pleasant viewing experience mostly because there is a Hannibal Lector quality to Suhtech, he is chained demon but can still harm you badly if he gets his mental hooks into you.
The God Complex
This one dates from Stephen Moffat’s era as showrunner of Doctor Who. Today, Moffat gets blamed for everything that started to go wrong with the show. That really isn’t fair, when he got the job he legitimately seemed like the best man for the job. The whole fan base was excited when we heard he got the job and for good reason. During the Davis era, the Moffat episode was the one that everyone looked forward to all season. It usually was the best one of the year.
Sadly, his turn as showrunner was a notable underperformance. Moffat’s strengths were in short form stories and in setups. He had no trouble coming up with a hook that would draw you in but where he often fell apart was in making the payoff of that setup commensurate. I now strongly suspect Russel T. Davies was rewriting his endings for him.
The God Complex dates from the period in the show when Moffat had no one to do that for him. The setup was great. There is a hotel where each room holds someone’s deepest fear and one of them is of course, yours. It was a take off on the Shining and Moffat attempted to use a small group of disparate people gathered together to explore this place.
The setup worked. There is a sense of dangerously uncanny over the hotel, the fact that you know something really mind-breakingly terrifying is one of those rooms give you a low level sense of fear the whole time you are there.
Half the show worked. The other half did not because it was built on Moffat’s atheism and Stephen Moffat had already begun his motif of the Doctor as Space Jesus. He couldn’t really reconcile the two and never came close to creating a connection between the hotel where your deepest fear resided and a monster that devoured faith that was at the heart of it all.
He may have thought he did but he really didn’t come close.
This one was truly excellent horror.
It’s a master class on how to construct it.
The three elements of horror are there and all three are administered correctly in this confined tale. It feels a lot like John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness.
The setup is that the Doctor is on a tourist bus on the planet Midnight where it is always day. Midnight is made completely of diamond, has no atmosphere and the light is provided by exo-radiation (yeah it’s techno babble) that will burn you to ashes in seconds if you directly exposed to it.
The bus is headed for a sight called the Saphire Falls. It never gets there. The tour company provides cacophonous entertainment that the Doctor sabotages in order for the passengers to have conversations with each other. They and by extension the audience spend a few minutes getting to know each other. Just quick little slice of life stories that establish everyone’s characters.
Then the bus breaks down which is supposed to be a mechanical impossibility, none the less it happens and rescue shuttle is sent for and will arrive in one hour. So no problem.
Then the world’s shortest horror story starts.
On this completely uninhabited and uninhabitable planet, there is a knock on bus’s door.
The atmosphere of fear was maintained once the knock started. Dread was provided by one of the passengers smiling slightly and repeating everything that everyone says. The shock happens when IT appears to have transferred itself to the Doctor, except that IT didn’t it was still in the woman. IT encourages the passengers throw him out of the bus, which they finally try to do.
This is good all around horror story.
Impossible Planet/Satan Pit
This is a great one. The Doctor and Rose arrive in an outpost on a planet with no atmosphere. That’s not the impossible part, what defies the laws of the universe is that this planet is in a stable position above a black hole. A well worn trope of cosmic horror is that the universe has stopped obeying its own rule is now in play. There appears to be some ancient piece of machinery deep within Krop Tor that is generating the gravity funnel, allowing the planet to exist and for there to be the a corridor that allows the expedition to get to Krop Tor in the first place. The station is there to tunnel down and find it with a view towards back engineering it.
A piece of the station the TARDIS is in falls into a crevasse, thus trapping the Doctor and Rose on Krop Tor.
The setting itself provides the fear, the dread comes from writing that is so ancient the Tardis can’t translate it. Also the Ood. This was their first appearance and someone in costuming went ham on this idea.
They are a hivemind of empathic servitors that function as a hivemind. In this early iteration (before Moffat fucked them up) the Ood couldn’t really care about individual Oods and didn’t mind if they died. They were gentle and harmless at first but were very vulnerable to the creature imprisoned deep within Krop Tor, the being we refer to as Satan (in the Whoneverse anyway). Ood are almost pitiable until they start chanting, “He is awake.” That provides the dread.
We start getting little shocks when the crew gets taken out one by one.
This two parter is easily the second best Doctor Who horror story of all time. There are some people that claim it’s actually the best. But they are bad and they’re wrong because the last episode on my list is easily the scariest Doctor Who story of all time.
When people first watch this episode, they often find themselves refusing to blink for days and being petrified of cemetery statues.
Blink is a very unusual Doctor Who episode it that there is almost no Doctor Who in it. David Tennent and Freema Agyeman to film Family of Blood while a different crew was filming Blink.
The story begins with a woman named Sally Sparrow doing some photography in a derelict house. Sally pulls down some wallpaper and finds a message that that has been painted on the house wall addressed directly to her telling her to “Beware the Weeping Angels.” It’s dated 1969.
Sally brings her friend Kathy Nightengale back with her to the house. The Weeping Angels strike when there is a knock at the door. Kathy is sent back in time to 1920. At that moment, Kathy’s grandson Malcolm delivers to the house a message from 1987 about the long life Kathy led. Before leaving, Sally takes the TA RDIS key hanging from the hand of a statue. Sally visits Kathy’s brother Larry at work to tell him Kathy loves him, as she was asked to in the message.
Larry explains that he has been documenting DVD easter eggs (remember those?) that have been found on 17 DVD titles and only those 17. The easter egg is the Doctor having one half of a conversation. Turns out those are the only DVDs that Sally owns and any number lower than 50 was very, very weird in 2007. Skipping ahead here.
This is Stephen Moffat’s best Doctor Who episode and he earns that credit here. The tension of fear wasn’t present through out and it didn’t need to be. Moffat managed to fit in two micro-love stories in this episode that actually scanned. But when horror was needed it not only worked on the screen, it followed you home. My wife still gets creeped out by weeping angel statues in cemeteries.
This is the end of my listicle.
Doctor Who is rising from dead at the end of November. I have some very serious doubts about how long it’s going to be able to stay out of the grave. There was too much damage done to the canon during Chris Chibnall’s era as showrunner and it is damage that Russel Davies is clearly not permitted to walk back. The BBC simply cannot allow the Timeless Child to be explained away, they are drastically overcommitted to the destruction of their own IP. Making the BBC no different from any other “entertainment” company in 2023.
Discuss on Social Galactic