It being the season for such things I thought I’d round up some lesser-spotted scariest moments in Doctor Who. We’ll take it as read that the Weeping Angels and Daleks are frightening and while most of the stories of the Hinchcliffe and Holmes eras are shrouded in horror tropes, I’ve chosen some moment and themes that have personally shaken me up over the years.
The list is potentially massive; Doctor Who is acknowledged as a scary programme, perhaps before it’s acknowledged as a science-fiction, a fantasy, a kids’ or a family show: Think of the the iconic moments in the series’ history – most are set up to be explicitly scary.
The expressionless dummies of Spearhead From Space and Terror of the Autons; the wonderful direction of Image of the Fendahl as the victims look in dread towards the camera as we share the view of the approaching Fendahleen; the dissonance of seeing Yeti shambling through London streets and Tube; the doom-laden ambiance of Graeme Harper’s two contributions to the original series and Roger Limb’s evocative scores; the body horror of The Ark In Space, Seeds of Doom and Frontios; the set – an actual set – in Planet of Evil; classic monster reveals such as The Sea Devils, Full Circle and Curse of Fenric; the Chief Clown in Greatest Show and androids from Earthshock.
But I wanted to get away from the usual lists of Weeping Angels, Silents, Daleks and Cybermen. I’ve rooted out some that go under the radar or moments you may not have considered (or seen) before.
It’s my belief that Doctor Who is at its best when it’s frightening: it’s what people remember and it’s how people make those formative associations that translate into a lifetime of fond memories and nostalgia – the things that keep us watching.
That being the case, what better way to celebrate Doctor Who and the spookiest time of the year than with ten lip-tremblingly frightening moments? These are, in my opinion, the scariest moments in Doctor Who.
Scariest Moments in Doctor Who
Midnight – Repeating
“We must not look at goblin men…”
I’m not sure Russell T Davies is especially interested in scariness in Doctor Who. For example, every single moment that could be played dramatically in Rose is played for laughs – or just sort-of happens. The scene in restaurant with Auton Mickey and Rose, for example, flirts with being eerie but ends with the Doctor actively laughing at the threat and a lot of comedic sitcom actors screaming.
Davies’ preference is much more for psychological horror but even this tends towards humour or just being glossed over. Ursula’s rejuvenation as a paving slab, a fate surely worse than death, is mined for a blowjob joke in Love And Monsters. However in Midnight, Davies takes off the reins and constructs an unashamedly horrifying episode.
This reaches its apotheosis in the initial reveal of Sky Silvestri copying everyone’s language. This is a fundamentally uncanny notion and the unspoken implications are even worse – all of the his fellow travellers sense it, but it’s really only the Doctor himself who recognises exactly what the creature is doing. Somehow, through their language and mannerisms, it’s assimilating their voice, their behaviour, their essence: their very being.
When the Doctor finally succumbs it’s the sort of moment that make your hair stand on end.
Inferno – The Primords
“The sound of the planet screaming out its rage!”
When the Primords go ‘the full Levene’ – all Frying Tonight werewolf hair and plastic teeth – they’re ridiculous. But the feral, furious, ragged creatures roaming around the Stahlman complex, smashing people’s heads in and emanating a terrible heat are terrifying.
Inferno plays on our fears of chemicals, science-gone-wrong. The idea of the green sludge being dredged up from the depths of the Earth, regressing anyone it touches to a brutish fury, is disturbing on a primal level. The idea that it screeches is similarly… weird.
But fundamentally it’s the visuals and startling music concrete that do it. The picture on the front of the Target novelisation always stayed with me – that unthinking, inexorable fury of creatures like us, but unalike. Lurking around the corner. Shambling towards us with that grating, screeching breath… if they touch you, you become one of them, assuming they don’t kill you first.
Inferno is Doctor Who doing zombies that run 30 years before anyone else thought to do it. In a parallel world gone wrong, full of fascistic avatars of familiar, comforting people it’s utterly nightmarish.
The Deadly Assassin – The Matrix
“You were a fool, Doctor, to enter into my domain”
The Deadly Assassin isn’t quite the sum of its parts, to me. But it does have one episode that’s unlike anything that went before or has come since. The adrenaline-fuelled journey of The Doctor duelling with Goth in the Matrix looks stunning – David Maloney making clever use of location filming, stock footage, Tom’s willingness to do his own stunts, Robert Holmes indulging every action-horror trope he can throw at us.
Amongst some wonky moments, the Matrix has moments of undiluted horror: the screech of some monstrous, unseen creature as the Doctor stands in an outsized egg; a clown’s face appearing in a mirror the Doctor stares into; a dentist bearing down with an insistent drill and enormous syringe; a WWI soldier and horse clad in gasmasks stumbling across a battlefield. The new series could never – would never – do it and when we got a similar set-up for a universe of terrors in The God Complex it didn’t even attempt to be as frightening as The Deadly Assassin.
The experience of episodes two and three of The Deadly Assassin is almost as disorientating and unpleasant for us as it is the Doctor. That it ends with a moment that made Mary Whitehouse have one of her recurring convulsions – and a ticking off for the production team – just feels like an inevitability given the horrors we’ve already experienced.
Survival – The Master
“I will be free of it…”
The reveal of Anthony Ainley’s Master was, perhaps, Doctor Who’s last ever unspoiled spoiler. For me, at least. It’s impossible to avoid them these days if you dwell online, and the nature of the show’s adoption of revelation as a routine shock tactic leads one to constantly second guess it.
But Ainley’s reveal at the end of the the first electric episode of Survival is a huge treat. With the show enjoying a new lease of life it felt as if it had convincingly moved on from the first JN-T era that spans 1980-1987. And in the then-contmporary suburban mise-en-scene of backwater north-west London it just doesn’t feel as if the Master could work.
But work he does, in a way that The Master is rarely intended to: openly insane and devolving into a creature that kills by instinct the Master, all yellow eyes and animal instincts, in a shabby flat in North-West London is the most giddily disturbing juxtaposition in all Doctor Who. It’s so much more visceral than the traditional ‘Yeti in Toothing Bec’ scenario because it’s Doctor Who moving out of a fictional space into something alarmingly everyday.
It’s the same dissonance that makes stuff like Web Of Fear so good, but reprogrammed and given a kick up the arse. It’s precisely this stuff that RTD borrows to great effect when the programme returns but I don’t think it’s ever done so well as Anthony Ainley staring into the mirror in Midge’s flat or glaring through the window of a second-hand bike dealership; wrestling with contamination, subversion, regression. In Perivale.
Such is Survival’s power that somehow Doctor Who has broken into the real world and this pantomime villain is now a real monster. Now fearful, atavistic and vicious – and now here to kill you.
The Leisure Hive – The Tachyon Generator
“He’s terribly hurt.”
The Leisure Hive is cherishably odd, with a distinctly Bidmeadish flavour. It’s a form of Doctor Who very much out of fashion and much-derided at the moment, but I find a lot to enjoy in the funereal Season 18. It has a doom-laden atmosphere that’s particularly evident in Warrior’s Gate and the TARDIS scenes of Logopolis but there are also moments of extreme horror, such as the electrocution of Lazlo and Sagan in Warrior’s Gate or the death of the Marsh Child and spider attacks in Full Circle.
The best of the lot is the first cliffhanger in The Leisure Hive. Investigating a series of deaths, the Doctor enters the Tachyon Generator, a machine that is designed for the manipulation and rejuvenation of physical bodies. We’ve already seen the machine malfunction, tearing a luckless visitor apart limb from limb – in a grisly scene we even see a small pile of arms and legs – and, sure enough, we’re building to a cliffhanger, skilfully directed by Lovett Bickford.
Romana watches in horror as the Doctor appears on a screen, only for his arms, legs and head to be pulled apart in different directions. The Doctor screams, actually screams in pain and the camera zooms into his face and mouth as the howl of the theme kicks in. Watching it 30 years later is still a WTF moment and while the effect of mixing a scream into the closing theme is later repeated in Terror of the Vervoids, it simply doesn’t have the visceral power of this utterly astonishing moment.
Robots of Death – Borg’s blood
“What do you want?”
“To kill you.”
The remorseless, impassive visages of the Vocs in Robots of Death mine the uncanny valley – explicitly referenced as Robophobia or Grimwade’s Syndrome here – that places them somewhere between living and dead people. There are two disturbing moments where a horrible realisation hits the crew of the sandminer: firstly when Chub realises that the robots he has walked among all his life are about to kill him; second when Poul discovers… well, we’ll come to that in a second.
Despite the death toll, Robots of Death is all rather bloodless. That is until – as Poul discovers a deactivated robot’s hand covered in what can only be Borg’s brains – it stops being bloodless, quite literally.
The revelation precipitates a devastating nervous breakdown for Poul. To the viewer Dudley Simpson’s accompanying synthesizer sting seems to represent the unravelling of Poul’s sanity, but as an aesthetic accompaniment to the hideous sight on screen it works equally well.
That Borg’s death takes place off-screen and clearly following a mighty battle makes the reveal all the more horrible – what did the robot have to do to him to finish him off? As ever, suggestion is far more hideous than anything that could have been shown on screen.
Horror of Fang Rock – The Doctor
“Leela, I’ve made a terrible mistake.”
Terrance Dicks’ exercise in horror writing has plenty of frights – the Rutan’s possession of the gruff-but-avuncular Reuben allowing for some moments of genuine uncanny as he smiles horribly at his victims – and is expertly handled by Paddy Russell and most of the ensemble cast. Yet it’s perhaps Tom Baker who really makes it.
In a famously bad mood during the filming of the story, Tom’s sulk informs the Doctor’s behaviour, where he’s rude, offhand and – crucially – frightened.
It’s the Doctor’s fear that is most frightening in Horror of Fang Rock, as if the lonely island somehow works its magic on him. The Doctor has faced deadly threats before with a smile, a joke, a jelly baby.
Yet in Fang Rock’s lighthouse he seems almost paralysed by fear, once when brooding on the nature of the threat that faces them while the others bicker – and again when he makes the terrible realisation that, far from saving everyone, he may have signed everyone’s death warrant.
It all rather falls apart in the last episode, but for the majority of the story we genuinely feel the Doctor’s disquiet – and it’s infectious.
Fury From The Deep – Oak and Quill
“Is there something that you want?”
I have a soft spot for Fury From the Deep and devoured the novelisation again and again when young. The unknowable quality of the seaweed creature, despite its intelligence and apparent glee in the form of the possessed Mr Oak and Mr Quill, makes it rather intriguing. That very little is ever explained in the story makes it a fascinating mood piece that, in places, functions on an almost avant-garde level.
This scene in particular is instructive, being almost without any dialogue and employing a number of camera tricks to build to something disorientating and frightening. The unnerving smiles, the expressions on their faces and the fact that Mr Oak appears to be wearing lip liner all create a weird atmosphere. Set it against an eerie soundtrack and the heartbeat that denotes the seaweed beast’s presence and it’s reminiscent of The Haunting, no less.
Somehow the fact that we never really understand what the creature constitutes – or what it wants – makes it all the more disturbing.
Terror of the Zygons – Harry tries to kill Sarah
There’s a terrible sense of doom shrouding Tulloch in Terror of the Zygons: a sadness, eerieness – a feeling that the place is haunted. Geoffrey Burgon’s atmospheric incidental music has a lot to do with, as does Douglas Camfield’s direction (it’s no surprise that they come together again with similar success in The Seeds of Doom).
The loneliness of the moor, the forbidding Foregill Castle, the silent woods the Doctor, Harry and Sarah materialise in: everything is aligned towards a mournful ambiance. Angus MacRanald is even playing a lament for the dead on his pipes. In a way, Terror of the Zyons seems like a dry run for The Nightmare Man a few years later.
Perhaps the most unsettling moment in Robert Banks Stewart’s serial takes place in a haybarn, when a Zygon duplicate of Harry tries to kill Sarah with a pitchfork. Ian Marter looks believably murderous as he jabs the weapon at Sarah’s face; Camfield’s point-of-view shots, extreme close-ups and low lighting accentuates the terror.
Burgon’s music does nothing to lessen the horror, while Marter and Lis Sladen sell it for all it’s worth. Harry, perhaps the most affable of all Doctor Who companions is trying to kill Sarah-Jane with a pitchfork. The icing on the cake is the on-location film stock, which provides an additional dose of mid-70s folk horror.
Doctor Who makes surprisingly little use of the ‘evil duplicate’ conceit – unlike the Star Trek franchise – but it’s pulled off with style here to create something genuinely nasty.
Other notable moments in the story include the terrific cliffhanger to the first episode when a Zygon attacks Sarah at the hospital, the duplicate Sister Lamont’s eerie stillness and the eyes on The Fox Inn’s mounted stag head swivelling horribly to observe the landlord – and his terrified reaction. Even Tom seems more alien, less familiar than usual.
There’s something distinctly chilly about Terror of the Zygons; cruel even. And in those memorable moments it represents the apotheosis of what Hinchcliffe and Holmes were about.
The Talons of Weng-Chiang – Mr Sin
“It revels in carnage.”
You get the feeling that Philip Hinchcliffe went all-out with Talons in a way he might not have, were he not leaving the show. There’s much to admire – and fear – in his swansong. The Talons of Weng-Chiang dares to mine some of the depths of depravity that Litefoot alludes to in the Limehouse: sexual undertones, drugs, mutilation and even nudity – Louise Jamieson spends a whole scene in what amounts to a wet t-shirt at one point, with predictable results.
The most horrible thing in Talons is, however, Mr Sin. When Joseph Buller rounds a corner in a foggy, damp East end of London to see the homunculus shuffle towards him (and us), a cruel-looking knife in its hand, it’s surely the most nakedly alarming moment in Doctor Who.
To later learn that the creature has the cerebral cortex of a pig and that it went haywire when its ‘swinish instinct’ overcame its programming is to lend another somehow unsavoury aspect to Mr Sin. When we see it laughing as it guns down its own men it’s similarly disturbing.
The Peking Homunculus feels like a parting shot from the Holmes-Hinchcliffe axis. Throw it into any era of Doctor Who and, as a concept and in its realisation, it’s profoundly nightmarish.
Kinda – Teagan’s Dream
“You will agree to believe in me sooner or later. This side of madness or the other.”
The Fifth Doctor’s era tends to shy away from explicit horror, favouring action and hard sci-fi tropes. But two of the era’s best stories are mined for a kind of psychological horror not really seen elsewhere in Doctor Who.
Teagan’s possession by the Mara is profoundly sexual, amounting to a kind of liberation and freedom of expression that doesn’t seem to be in her repertoire otherwise. In a way she’s liberated by her possession. That she drops apples on Aris as she tempts him, develops blood-red lips and has a snake tattoo on her arm is the sort of thing that probably has certain Doctor Who bloggers flexing their fingers in preparation for a 10,000-word treatise. It’s hardly subtle.
But it is as powerful as it is obvious. Janet Fielding is wonderful as the possessed Teagan and seeing a companion behave as she does is uncanny in itself. But her dreamlike encounters with the various manifestations of the Mara are horrifying; her mental anguish hard to watch. Companions have been threatened before, even killed. But we’ve never really seen them psychologically tortured.
Kinda, along with Snakedance, mines a strand of horror that’s at the outer reaches of what Doctor Who could realistically get away with. A psycho-sexual nightmare that is resolutely not for children – and hard to shake off. It’s the most profoundly unsettling thing in all of Doctor Who.