Time Lord Gothic: How DOCTOR WHO Does Classic Horror

Since the very beginning, Doctor Who has had a close relationship to horror. Its very first episode, “An Unearthy Child,” is incredibly eerie and unsettling. It’s fifth episode, which began the seven-part story “The Daleks,” had a cliffhanger where the titular mutant-in-a-trash-can menaces poor companion Barbara. Part and parcel to the show’s success has been the way it can scare its audience in a relatively family-friendly way. With a sci-fi take on haunted houses on the horizon in this week’s episode “Knock Knock,” I got to thinking about all the great Gothic horror pastiches the show has undertaken over the years.


After King Tut’s tomb was unearthed in 1922, interest in Egyptology skyrocketed. Much like the Universal Monster movies did decades prior, early Doctor Who combined the adventurous and the horrific in its tackling of the subject matter. The first, as far as I can tell, story that apes traditional horror movie tropes was 1967’s “The Tomb of the Cybermen.” The episode finds the Doctor and his companions on the planet Telos, where an Earth expedition uncovers a tomb… a tomb of Cybermen.

In 1975, during Season 13–which, spearheaded by producer Philip Hinchclife and script editor/writer Robert Holmes, was a year full of literary horror references–the story “The Pyramids of Mars” did the Hammer Horror-style take on mummies, with most of it taking place in and around a Victorian manor house. The sci-fi twist on this one was to say that the Egyptian gods, specifically Sutekh (or Set, commonly), was an ancient and powerful being from Mars with the power to raise the dead to be his slaves.

Mummies were again the focus, as was general Victoriana, in 2014’s The Mummy on the Orient Express. Here, what appeared to be an Egyptian mummy aboard a spaceship made to look like that famous Earth train kills the passengers one by one, going unseen all the while (except by imminent victims). Mummies, and their rags and decrepitude, will always be scary, even if they turn out to be something slightly different.


Vampires took a lot longer to show up in Doctor Who, because unlike mummies, vampires *whispers* aren’t actually real. But they are one of filmdom’s earliest monsters, and it’d be silly not to use them in a popular show such as this. When they finally showed up in 1980’s “State of Decay,” it was to give us an ancient-alien explanation for humanity’s centuries-old vampire lore, which culminates in a tower-like space ship being used to “stake” a giant, monstrous vampire creature. Pretty cool.

While Doctor Who was mostly devoid of horror between 1978 and 2005 due to outcry that the show had become too scary (“State of Decay” an obvious exception), the end of the classic series saw a couple of returns to straight-up horror. One of these was Season 26’s “The Curse of Fenric,” which used a WWII setting to tell the story of an ancient godlike entity returning to battle the Doctor, and people becoming barnacle-covered “haemovores,” which feed on blood (obviously) and look an awful lot like usual movie vampires when they’re first made.

The most recent appearance of vampires was in 2010’s “The Vampires of Venice,” which supposed that said Venetian Vampires are actually weird fish people using perception filters, and they aren’t drinking the hemoglobin from people, but drinking water from their bodies. This episode isn’t the best, but it does attempt to answer a few staples of vampire mythology using the lens of science (i.e. the no-reflection thing, and their hatred of sunlight).


Werewolves have proved to be a bit more wily in the Doctor Who realm, as trying to explain why humans turn into giant bipedal canine creatures using anything approaching even the show’s tenuous classification of “science” is a lofty prospect. However, there has been one honest-to-goodness werewolf story: 2006’s “Tooth and Claw,” which explains lycanthropy as a hereditary disease… what’s more, one that runs through the royal family’s veins. An interesting theory, and one that works perfectly well for the show’s purposes.

There have, in addition, been a couple of other stories about people turning into hairy, vaguely wolflike beasts. In the masterful “Inferno” from 1970 (incidentally, my favorite story of all time), drilling into the Earth’s core releases primeval forces that turn scientists and soldiers alike into things that are called “Primords.” And in 1976’s “Planet of Evil,” another from Season 13, an energy creature infects a scientist and turns him into a beast. (Also a reference to Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, incidentally).


There’s not a ton of religious overtones in Doctor Who–in fact, there’s almost zero in the history of the show–but we’ve seen a few depictions of the Devil (or an alien that seems demonic) or cults that worship it/the ancient evil. 1971’s “The Daemons” combines Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit–which, among other things, explains that horned aliens are the reason we have the idea of the Devil in the first place–with Dennis Wheatley-esque folk horror, like The Devil Rides Out.

A few years after that, in 1977, “The Image of the Fendahl” told the story of a group of cultists believing in an end of the world conspiracy involving an ancient and hideous alien called the Fendahl, which–not unlike Cthulhu or other Eldred Old Gods–would make any sane person lose their mind.

The new series gave us a really terrific take on this in “The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit” which has the Tenth Doctor and Rose go up against an evil, devil-like entity, which is physically a giant horned and winged hell beast, but does most of its damage by taking over the minds of unsuspecting humans.


Surprisingly (to me, anyway) there have not been many riffs on ghosts or hauntings in Doctor Who–at least not until relatively recently. The earliest that I can think of is the 1989 story “Ghost Light” (incidentally, the very last story filmed for the classic series), in which the Seventh Doctor and Ace visit an old Victorian house where sundown brings strange goings-on. Spoilers: it turns out to be an alien being cataloging Earth creatures over the course of thousands of years.

The new series, however, has many, many examples of the ghost or haunted house story, beginning with 2005’s “The Unquiet Dead.” The episode brings Charles Dickens into the proximity of vaporous aliens that awaken the dead. “Blink” also has a haunted house vibe, though the ghosts are Weeping Angels. “Night Terrors,” though taking place in a dollhouse, definitely feels like a creepy old haunted place, and “Listen” touches on the horror of that unknown something you feel is lurking just out of sight when you’re home alone at night. “Hide” is probably the one that’s closest to a proper haunted house story, even if it does end with a semi-sappy alien love story.


There are other stories that have Victorian-esque Gothic horror elements, including “The Brain of Morbius” which is a Frankenstein pastiche (yes, I know Frankenstein is a Regency-era book, but the Hammer films are very Victorian), “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” gives us a mixture of a million Victorian horror tropes (and also has a TON of inescapably racist elements, unfortunately), and “The Horror of Fang Rock” places our heroes in a Victorian lighthouse being overtaken by something in the fog (it’s an alien shapeshifter). This kind of story wouldn’t show up again until 2013’s “The Crimson Horror,” which is a penny dreadful type of story, with the Doctor himself as the monster.

This week’s “Knock Knock” looks to fall firmly in the haunted house story, and really these episodes feel refreshing to me. There’s kind of only so many spaceships and robots I can take, naamean?

What’s your favorite horror episode of Doctor Who? Let me know in the comments below!

Images: BBC

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor and the resident Whovian for Nerdist. Follow him on Twitter!

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