I was born in 1984, so only knew of Doctor Who somewhat vaguely (much deriving from my Mother, who's been a big fan since the original show first aired).
At the time of Russel T. Davies's resurrection (regeneration?) of the franchise, I had just started university; an extremely green-around-the-gills 21 year old with rampant insomnia, social anxiety and at the outer-edge of a bout of depression that had lasted almost a decade.
I remember tuning in with sincere scepticism, my tastes in science fiction running more to the likes of Phillip K. Dick's existential paranoia and William Gibson's cyber-punk fare than the somewhat more fantastical, light hearted subjects I associated with the Timelord's adventures.
The first episode I tuned in for was entitled Dalek, that marked the return of the Doctor's most iconic antagonists. Much of my intention for doing so was, admittedly, perverse; the promotional material made this episode look like the stuff of nightmares, yet I couldn't comprehend how something so patently ludicrous as the Daleks, with their pepper-pot forms, egg-whisk lasers and sink-plunger appendages, could ever be threatening.
Needless to say, the episode made it a point of demonstrating just that: most Doctor Who episodes have some sort of body count; it is, after all, the nature of the franchise to include some sort of murderous alien or psychotic cyborg. The episode contains only one Dalek; a lost and damaged thing, initially barely alive. By the end of the episode, it has murdered the equivalent of a small settlement; trained soldiers, security staff, scientific personel and technicians...the episode does everything in its power to demonstrate how the Dalek's superficial absurdity and lack of elegance has no bearing on its capacity to, well, EXTERMINATE, which it does with surprising alacrity.
It's a fantastic example of how something intrinsically ridiculous can be leant degrees of threat and horror by its framing and presentation. This is before we get a glimpse inside of the “pepper pot,” and get to see the Giger-esque nightmare of the Dalek's interior form (a sort of octopoidal brain creature with a single, madly glaring eye).
As already mentioned, almost every episode of Doctor Who has an element of horror involved; the central tension is usually established around an opening scene in which some uncanny threat is presented; a victim running afoul of some alien, robot, ghost or malfunctioning system. Some episodes are more explicit in this regard; following Russel T. Davies's initial series, it became part and parcel for there to be at least one “horror” episode per season, which ramped up the sense of dread and tension, paying homage to the genre's tropes and traditions.
Being produced by a variety of writers, directors etc, the quality of these episodes and the nature of the horror they reference obviously varies, meaning that it's a rare instance in which any one episode appeals to all tastes and sensibilities, but it is notable that the vast majority of the “horror” episodes (from The Empty Child to Dalek, from The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit to Don't Blink) consistently appear on “top ten” and “must watch” lists.
The strongest of these episodes are those that not only pay homage to some form of horror trope or tradition, but attempt to transcend it; stories that acknowledge the bounds and parameters of those sub-genres (be they gothic, surreal, science fiction) and breaches or lampoons them to certain degrees. Doctor Who is a perfect vehicle for such genre-defying experiments, since it potentially contains any and all stories that might ever be told (the Doctor and his companions not only regularly travel through time, but -surprisingly often- end up in parallel worlds or universes or end up destroying and re-setting reality altogether, meaning that possibilities are endless). Not only that, but, being the hodge-podge of influences that it already is, adding in extra layers and depths of flavour doesn't poison the stew as it might for some, but generally allows the show to flex its muscles and demonstrate how complex it can potentially be.
The fact that the show is bounded by its intended audience and airing time generally doesn't do much to hamper its horrific elements; though you'd never find grindhouse or gorenography levels of grue here, it generally doesn't shy away from moments of incredible pain, torment or mutilation; it merely delivers them in a more subtle, implied manner (for instance, the classic antagonists known as Cybermen are created by removing a human being's brain and nervous system from their body via -often involuntary- surgery, then transplanting them into a cybernetic exo-skeleton. The procedure, whilst not graphically detailed, is explained with somewhat gruesome relish by the Doctor, and is often implied via extremely unpleasant suites of sounds and fragmentary glimpses of the horror unfolding). That a show which airs on prime-time BBC even contains such elements is something to be grateful for; at its very best, the show serves to expose audiences of various ages and generations to material that they might otherwise be insulated from; not only emotions and sensations, but concepts and images specifically designed to lodge in developing imaginations and inspire as well as horrify, just as the show's original incarnations clearly did (writer Neil Gaiman, now a semi-regular contributor to the show, is verbose about his enthusiasm and the effect it has had on his world-renowned writings).
What Doctor Who in terms of horror -at its very best, mind; a promise that it doesn't always fulfil- is a massive, mainstream platform for experimentation and exposure: the horror must necessarily be clever and witty and subtly conveyed in order to work and be acceptable to the vast range of eyes it reaches on a semi-regular basis (not so regular in recent years, sad to say). It has the potential to truly unsettle, disturb and inspire, as all the very best horror material does. That it doesn't always or even regularly is a massive disappointement and somewhat despair-inducing, as those of us who keep up with the show have seen it at its best, and crave more.
It tends to diminish itself through a sense of complacency; when the writing becomes overly indulgent and self-referential, when it feels too secure in its status and position. The truly deviant and inventive stuff tends to come about in climates where it isn't certain of itself; when it's finding its feet and therefore wide open to experimentation and a degree of external influence. As with all such franchises, it's when it becomes closed off; hermetically sealed and protected (largely as a result of success and a great deal of money being made) that creativity and deviance start to wither; when we start to see certain tropes and concepts being repeated ad nauseum (try to count the number of episodes in which a seemingly supernatural phenomena turns out to be the result of some failing technological system. I dare you). This is when any semblance of horror necessarily dies, as it's impossible to distress or disturb the audience with stories whose every turn they can predict through sheer familiarity.
Among the most notable examples of this are the truly superlative episodes The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit. Occuring mid-way through David Tennant's first season, the episodes stand as a giant love letter to myriad forms of horror cinema, their sound-design, lighting, pacing and direction referencing far too many examples of film and even video game to catalogue, though there is a notable influence from the video game Doom in terms of concept, imagery and even certain sound effects lifted directly from the game itself.
Dread starts to curdle early, as they happen across a central chamber, writing scrawled across one wall that neither the Doctor nor Rose can read (an extremely sinister concept, as the Doctor's ship, the TARDIS, automatically translates all spoken and written languages). As the Doctor himself opines, this makes the writing impossibly old. That the Doctor himself is flummoxed (and more than a little unsettled) becomes a theme for the entire story, which continually throws impossibilities into his path and rarely stoops to explaining them. The situation grows more uncertain with the introduction of the Cthulhu-esque “Ood,” a species of tentacle-faced aliens that ostensibly seem to be a psychically-linked slave-race to humanity, almost mindless and lacking in all but the most subserviant impulses. Then there's the base itself, situated -as explained by its human occupants- on a planet that cannot exist, suspended by unknown means on the brink of a black hole, but never breaking orbit, never being consumed by the phenomena.
Something formless, faceless, but that whispers to the base's crew, inducing horrific visions in the weakest of them, eventually possessing him, resulting in one of the most brilliantly horrifying scenes in the show's entire run.
Whilst the horrific set pieces are superbly well realised, what makes the story so atmospheric and engaging is the concepts at play; a formless, invisible entity, more of an elemental force than something defined, which even the Doctor can't describe or even, as it transpires, accept, when he comes face to face with it. This is the point at which Doctor Who shifts from science fiction into other realms; where it plays with metaphor and abstraction and opens up its own universe to eldritch and horrifying unknowns.
Interestingly, this is one of the rare instances in which the “monster” in question (hardly a suitable term, in this instance) isn't diluted by recurrences and over-familiarity; what is refered to most commonly as “The Beast” (yes, as in: Satan, Lucifer; the Devil himself, but, as the entity proclaims, not merely the Devil from Abrahamic mythology, but from ALL mythologies; an abstract creature that is the source and manifestation of all evil and negativity in the universe. Pretty hard to top that in terms of threat) never occurs again, though it is referenced passingly (there's less a story and more a potential suite of them waiting to be explored here).
In stark contrast, the likes of the Daleks and Cybermen have, sadly, been diluted enormously by their consistent appearance and defeat: it's very difficult to continually promote a creature as threatening; the “...ultimate in genocide,” when they are consistently foiled by one guy and his entourage in a flying blue box. This is the problem with iconic enemies such as the Daleks, which have become so commonplace now as to have lost any semblance of the threat they exercised in previous seasons. They've even appeared in latter seasons as simply incidental, “cannon-fodder” threats that are simply the de rigeur “monster” in any Doctor Who episode when one is required to advance the story. An enormous shame, considering that there's certainly still potential in the core concept of both Daleks and Cybermen (for my money, they are at their most distressing when details are provided as to their natures and life-cycles; there's certainly an element of body horror to both species, since they are essentially surgically mutilated and/or genetically modified entities grafted into mechanical shells). The episodes that take time to explore the inner-workings of these creatures tend to exercise some of the most iconic imagery, especially since it provides a little insight into the true monstrosity that informs their natures (any episode which features a glimpse of the seeping, flailing, malformed thing at the heart of a Dalek, for example, lends the creatures a certain sense of dread and disturbance that they don't otherwise exercise when pristine in their outer shells. Similarly, episodes in which we catch glimpses of the butchered humanity at the heart of the Cybermen helps to enhance their horror).
Certainly one of the most iconic entities to arise from the show in recent years are the “Weeping Angels,” entities that first occurred in one of the strongest episodes in the entire run: Blink. Manifesting as stone statues of seemingly crying angelic figures, the entities (like most of the horror-themed monstrosities in the show) are built around a central conceit that they can't move if someone is looking directly at them; in the sight of any creature, they “quantumn lock” (a form of self defence) and turn to unliving stone. However, they are so fast and vicious that even a blink is enough for them to stir and pounce on their prey.
The “Angels,” by contrast, are horrific not only in terms of their appearance and actions, but their description and mythology; they represent a bursting apart of the Doctor Who universe, in that they are creatures that operate outside of standard notions of possibility or physical law.
In their original appearance, they are beautifully framed, rendered even more threatening by their scarcity; they rarely appear in full shot, and even then not for very long, leant an illusion of motion and speed by the movement of the camera itself. They are also one of the few Doctor Who monsters that are genuinely threatening from the off; the moment it becomes apparent what they are and what they do, they become terrifying, and beautifully so.
Unfortunately, as with the Daleks, degrees of over-exposure have diminished the angels quite significantly; they next appear in a two part story in the Matt Smith era, in which there is initially assumed to be a single specimen -threatening enough in itself-, but which is later revealed to be only one of an entire swarm (Choir?) in a state of hibernation, awaiting their opportunity to awake. Whilst this two-parter certainly has some stand out moments (a sequence in which companion Amy Pond is trapped in an enclosed space not with an angel, but with the flickering, projected image of an angel, that is purportedly just as deadly as the actual entity, is extremely fraught and beautifully directed, as is the conceit of the angel somehow entering her mind, making her count down throughout the episode towards...well, that would be telling, wouldn't it?).
The problems regarding the angels and horror in Doctor Who in general are not specific to these episodes as such, but rather to the propensity of the show to overplay what proves to be successful: creatures such as the angels are terrifying and threatening because of their initial rarity; they are entities the like of which we rarely see in a Doctor Who episode (whose monstrosities tend to be of a more science fiction or technological bent), but which become less and less threatening the more they occur. When we finally reach the conclusion of Amy Pond's run as the Doctor's companion in the episode Angels in Manhattan, the entities have effectively become parodies of themselves; a trajectory that echoes those of recurring villains such as the Daleks and Cybermen.
The Weeping Angels encapsulate all that is fantastic and abysmal about horror in Doctor Who: an enduring, culturally resonant image characterised by a witty and effective in-built conceit (“Don't blink. Not even for a second. Blink and you're dead.”), framed and shot and designed beautifully, but fundamentally limited by the same strengths: once the central concept becomes familiar, it is immediately in danger of being over-played, which sadly renders all subsequent appearances of the angels more and more diluted, to the point whereby they become just another background monster.
This serves as a superb example of how horror generally works in Doctor Who: most of the creatures that occur in the overtly horrific episodes tend to be high concept; they have a particular idiosyncrasy, tick or characteristic that makes them identifiable and culturally resonant, from the “Are you my Mommy?” gas-masked child of The Empty Child to the ticking, whirring clock-work men from The Girl in the Fireplace, the use of particular sounds, repeated phrases, strange physical ticks and tremors, all serve to lend the menagerie of monsters and entities Doctor Who provides certain degrees of identification, but also a Pavlovian sense of dread that, in the hands of good writers and directors, can be used to pre-empt and manipulate audience reaction, cued at just the right moment to elicit dread, shock or repulsion.
Another superb example derives from the latter stages of the Matt Smith era in the form of “The Silence,” entities that resemble the classic, “Area-51” greyling alien of pop-culture myth (evoking a certain culturally ingrained response through design alone), but also exhibiting a central concept that lends them not only a superb element of dread but also in-built narrative tension: they can only be observed when they are looked at directly; the instant someone turns away or they shift out of view, the observer instantly forgets that they even exist, rendering them bizarrely invisible. This allows for some truly fraught and beautifully executed set-pieces, in which characters have to rely on markings and warnings scrawled on their own skin in order to remember what they are fighting. Again, a conceit that works beautifully in the first episode or so in which it occurs, but which loses bite and significance with every repetition. Another issue concerning the Silence, but which also has wider ramification for the series as a whole, is that the format of conceptualising monsters and antagonists around very specific central concepts is that the concept itself has the quality of distracting from or drowning out actual story; there is a marked tendency for monsters such as the Silence to occur in stories that are under-baked or lacking in certain key areas, because far too much emphasis is placed on the concept rather than the wider mythology, framing and plot. This often has the effect of iconic creatures dwindling to common or garden Doctor Who dross following their initial exposure, as, outside of the core concept, they have no wider relevance or potential; nowhere to go in terms of wider story. This is certainly the case for the Silence, who feature fleetingly a few times more before being wrapped up entirely at the conclusion of the Matt Smith era.
Amongst them stands what is arguably the most effective “horror” episode in the entire canon: the superlative Midnight, which is not only a fantastic Doctor Who episode, but a rare and brilliant example of how to orchestrate horror in a limited space with a rarefied cast of characters and, fundamentally, no monster; no big special effects, no grand reveals or explanations, which renders the entire episode chilling by contrast alone.
The episode begins unusually, in that it isolates the Doctor; separating him from both his TARDIS and his companion (in this instance, Catherine Tate's superb Donna Noble), not by throwing him into some contrived calamity, but innoccuously; the Doctor embarking on a kind of group safari across the uninhabitable diamond wastes of the eponymous planet, whilst Donna elects to stay behind in a luxury resort. Almost the entire episode is filmed within the confines of the armoured carrier that escorts the guests out across the wastes and protects them from the planet's lethal
radiation. The early scenes are extremely casual and banal, though entertaining; the Doctor taking time to speak with each of his fellow passengers, allowing the audience to engage and identify with them, which, of course, makes events that follow all the more horrific:
Inevitably, the carrier breaks down whilst taking a slight detour through the wastes, owing to apparent avalanches of the surrounding crystal glaciers. Whilst speaking with the pilot of the carrier, a moment of subtle dread is introduced: as the shutters come down to protect the crew from the lethal radiation, the pilot claims to have glimpsed a figure in the distance, running towards the carrier.
The audience is shown nothing.
This is the kind of horror that Doctor Who can potentially do so well; making a virtue of its lack of budget in the same manner as independent horror films; drip feeding and suggesting what might be happening rather than making matters overt in the forms of big, latex, rubber and CG monsters which, whilst part and parcel of the show's ethos, are also often in danger of becoming formulaic and over played (at its worst moments, the show effectively becomes “situation and monster of the week” with very little to distinguish between one episode and the next).
Returning to the primary cabin, the Doctor finds a situation of escalating tension, as people start to panic, as theories run wild, as people feed on one another's fear in an extremely tense and claustrophobic environment. A central part of the horror in this episodes derives not from any external threat, but of what humans will do and exhibit when in fear for their own survival.
The situation starts to degrade as something starts to bang on the carrier's hull, seeming to answer when the Doctor knocks back. The phenomena is rendered even more threatening by the absolute conviction of those on board that nothing, nothing can possibly be alive on Midnight's surface, rendering the potential entity beyond the remit of reason or science.
It's at this point the episode ramps up the horror, not showing any invading or hostile entity, instead focussing on a particular passenger who begins repeating everything that the others say, glaring at them each in turn in a distressing, reptilian manner.
The episode lives or dies at this point by its framing, direction and performances, and all are superb. Absolutely superb; the episode is highly experimental, inverting many of the standard traditions of Doctor Who in general, providing no abstruse, science fiction explanations, no overt monster, rendering the Doctor almost powerless by the episodes end, as the entity inhabiting the character Skye Sylvestri begins to not only repeat his words, but to pre-empt them, effectively stealing his voice and rendering him catatonic, playing on the fear and paranoia of the other passengers, urging them to hurl him out of the carrier, into Midnight's lethal wastes.
By placing the Doctor in ignorance and jeopardy, the episode unsettles the audience to such a point that they feel almost afraid to watch, that they operate in states of tension and paranoia that echo those of the characters themselves. That the Doctor is almost murdered by this unknown, unseen entity; that the human characters he was happily interacting with barely an hour before are so willing to sacrifice him, renders the episode not only terrifying, but also fairly misanthropic; a far from flattering commentary on the state of humanity at its most desperate.
Turn Left is perhaps the most remarkable example of this, in that it presents a “what if?” scenario in which time and destiny are synthetically altered so that Catherine Tate's Donna Noble never met the Doctor, meaning that he died long, long before current events, and wasn't present to insulate the earth and the wider universe from a series of calamities that ultimately brings humanity to the point of extinction, the universe to unravelling.
The horror presented in Turn Left is of a very, very different flavour to that present in almost the entirety of Doctor Who; not deriving from any immediate or specificied threat, it rather relies on audience knowledge of what should be, whilst protagonist Donna Noble remains blithely ignorant of her significance. There is no specific “monster of the week,” here, save for the entity by which time is synthetically altered, no immediate threat or situation; rather, the episode serves as an overview of past events, providing alternative outcomes had the Doctor not been present to solve them. As such, the state of planet Earth quickly degenerates, as catastrophe upon catastrophe, invasion upon invasion, slowly reduces the planet to an immense warzone. Throughout this chaos, Donna Noble wanders with a vague but unspecified sense of how wrong it all is, that things should be different, but not knowing how or why until the re-emergence of long-absent companion and fan favourite, Rose Tyler, who provides the means by which she might set time back on its correct course, but also makes clear the sacrifice that is required.
The episode exercises a kind of dull inevitability; a dread of an entirely more expansive, slow-burning kind, that grows and grows as the state of the Earth degenerates, as atrocity after atrocity accumulates, resulting in a final calamity whose cause isn't determined in the series until its closing episodes, in which the stars begin to blink out one by one, leaving the night sky empty... a chillingly brilliant image, that crowns a series of hopeless and hideous moments, the episode rare and unusual amongst the canon of Who in so many ways, not least of which for almost entirely excising the Doctor and allowing the companion to take centre stage (a gamble which so often does not pay off, but here provides one of the strongest episodes that has ever aired).
More recently, the show has demonstrated a penchant for abstruse -but not always successful- experimentation, playing with established literary tropes and ideas deriving from a wide variety of genres, attempting to lampoon them in such a manner as to distinguish itself through its writing and storytelling, rather than the relative intrigue of whatever monster it happens to feature.
A fantastic example is the Peter Capaldi episode Listen, which features no monsters or entities that the audience is privy to; only the suggestion and possibility thereof, focus instead shifting to a hypothesis on the Doctor's behalf; that there are unseen entities that have evolved such a perfect camouflage, that they are never observed, only ever felt in a vague and unsettling manner, that are always present, but have never been identified; that lurk in secret places such as in closets and under the bed.
The relative success of the episode relies upon how willing the audience are to put aside preconceptions of what Who is and how the show functions; it is highly unusual, in that there are no action set-pieces; no moments of high energy, only a slow burn of escalating dread, as the Doctor seeks almost obsessively for evidence of an entity that may or may not exist, culminating in a moment at the very end of all time, when there is nothing beyond the walls of the vessel in which he and companion Clara Oswald find themselves, at least, nothing that can be readily conceived...
Likewise, the high concept episode Sleep No More features a variety of novel techniques and concepts in Who, not least of which being that the episode is shot almost entirely in the first person, from the perspective of what appear to be helmet and wall mounted cameras, but which are later revealed to be something entirely other. The episode thereby references the classic tropes of documentary horror, in that the format becomes part of the mythology; the “camera” itself a conscious entity and agent within the story. The episode maintains a certain status (stigma?) in the Doctor Who fandom, in that its conclusion polarises to extreme degrees: some regard it as a work of subtke genius, others of ill-written vagary. Either way, the episode maintains a certain fascination, in that it can be returned to again and again, new subtleties and details becoming apparent with every viewing.
Following companion Clara Oswald's death in the previous episode, the Doctor is teleported against his will to what appears to be an ancient castle that is, despite its decrepitude, equipped with a variety of advanced equipment (not least of which being the teleporter that transported him there). Exploring the castle, he finds a variety of bizarre clues as to what has transpired there to render it so utterly abandoned (a pile of ash on the floor, in which is scrawled the word “bird,” a pile of wet and discarded clothes that match his own, a variety of sealed doors, rooms and corridors that lead nowhere). Pursued by a shambling, fly-blown figure -always heralded by a carrion buzzing-, he comes to the conclusion that the castle is some form of personal torture chamber, designed by an unseen enemy to harass and torment him. Whilst in flight from the shambling, undead figure, he recounts a memory from childhood, in which he saw one of his fellow Timelords dead for the first time; an image that the spectre seems specifically derived from, to terrify him into revealing secrets and betraying conspiracies that are the only means of escaping it (the figure always pauses if the Doctor recounts something true and deeply personal; something he has kept hidden from the universe all his long life). Likewise, the castle itself shifts and twists around him, altering its structure to allow him access to different areas at varying points in its cycle. He soon discovers that there is no escape; the castle has no means of exit, surrounded on all sides by an ocean whose depths are littered with the skulls of previous incumbents, his TARDIS sealed behind an immense wall of diamond-hard matter.
The entire episode is structured as a simultaneous dark fairy tale and metaphysical mystery; close focus is paid to the Doctor in the aftermath of Clara Oswald's death, the episode featuring no other characters, no one and nothing for him to play off but himself and his own haunted memories (of which the castle seems to be some sort of expression). The quiescence, the strange silence; the depths that the Doctor reveals through his confessions...all conspire with the threat provided by the creature that stalks him to instill a sense of profound and waxing dread; one that, unlike in most Doctor Who episodes, culminates with not only the Doctor's defeat, but his death. Many, many times over, each time resulting in a new resurrection from the teleporter that initially brought him there, time moving forward incremently through billions upon billions of years as he slowly chips away at the diamond hard matter sealing him away from his TARDIS, until, finally, one of his latter incarnations breaks through...
This is where Doctor Who shines not only in terms of its potential for horror, but for simply playing with ideas. At its very best, the show operates as kind of playground or theatre in which abstruse or unusual subjects and forms of storytelling can be played with, not to mention introduced to audiences that might otherwise not be exposed to them. That the show is marketed as a family product; suitable for all ages, regardless of its content, renders its occassional successes in experimental horror, science fiction et al all the more appealing, as it provides younger audiences access to subjects, forms and materials they may not otherwise have opportunity to experience (certainly not until much later). The restrictions imposed by its intended audience may, conceivably, act as a parameter to certain forms of horror (you will rarely find anything approaching extreme gore or bodily mutilation in Doctor Who, though it does play with those subjects on occasion), but also force a certain degree of invention when it comes to its presentation; much of its threat and overt horror elements are implied rather than explicit, which renders them all the more engaging and immediate, as the audience is forced to fill in the blanks with their own imaginations.
But when it gets it right, it is cause for sincere celebration, as it not only trespasses beyond its own parameters as a show, but also pushes those of the myriad genres it features.