The Scariest Classic Doctor Who Episodes To Watch This Halloween
By Jesse Baker
The original 1963–1989 Doctor Who series was both a landmark sci-fi television series, and one that created a new standard of horror for TV audiences. At it’s creative peak during the Tom Baker years, the show was attacked by censors and moral busybodies for being too violent and scary for kids. The horror fueled tone of the series traumatized a generation of kids and coined the phrase “watching behind the couch”; a term used to describe 1970s kids in Britain watching the show from behind the living room couch and ducking down during the scary parts. In the spirit of Halloween, I offer a list of essential stories from the classic series, suitable for Halloween viewing.
The Green Death (Season 10): Probably the most nightmare fuel filled Doctor Who serial ever made, even factoring in the modern relaunch of the franchise. The Third Doctor and companion Jo Grant face off against a corrupt company (run by an evil super computer) that is using toxic chemicals to create an army of giant man-eating maggots to take over the world. With some of the best special effects in the classic era, the producers manage to pull off the serial’s giant maggots with disturbing levels of realism, making for one of the most stomach wrenching, scariest stories of the franchise.
The Horror of Fang Rock (Season 15): One of the most bloodiest stories from the Fourth Doctor/Tom Baker era of the show, “The Horror of Fang Rock” is often held up as the zenith point of the show’s “Gothic” period. The Fourth Doctor and his new companion Leela end up at a Victorian era lighthouse where they take shelter during a storm. Waiting out the storm with them are a bunch of shipwrecked wealthy types embroiled in their own intrigues, when one by one people start dying violently. The Doctor and Leela fail to stop the monstrous killer from claiming the lives of everyone around them, adding to the tension as the usually unflappable Doctor faces a creature one step ahead of him in gruesome game of cat and mouse.
Kinda (Season 19): With a serialized format that often saw stories run 4–6 thirty minute episodes, classic Doctor Who often has had a pacing issue problem. But the slow burn approach pays off mightily with “Kinda”; a Fifth Doctor adventure that is one of the few classic Doctor Who stories to have a direct sequel made of it. In “Kinda”, Fifth Doctor Teagan is possessed by a malevolent psychic entity and the Doctor must perform a psychic exorcism to liberate his companion. The pay-off is when we finally see the physical form of the entity plaguing poor Teagan following it being purged from Teagan’s mind. A monstrous snake brought to life by way of animatronics and puppetry, which led to many a nightmare for many a child watching at home.
Curse of Fenric (Season 26): The second to last Classic Doctor Who story to run on TV, serves as Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy’s best work as the Seventh Doctor. A trip to a British military base during the Second World War, brings various subplots of the series under the Seventh Doctor to a head as an ancient evil seeks to free itself. The Doctor and Ace face a final round of a deadly chess game the Doctor started centuries ago, against a cosmic horror from before the dawn of time. With it’s army of vampires and a deadly nerve toxin being worked on by the British military, Fenric seeks to bring about the end of all humanity. The threat of Fenric, the unstoppable nature of his vampiric horde, and the sight of the normally unflappable Seventh Doctor terrified make this one of the most tense, truly apocalyptic horror themed serials of the original incarnation of the series.
The Tomb of the Cybermen (Season 5): One of the most famous classic serials of the series, “The Tomb of The Cybermen” was thought lost forever until the complete serial was found in the early 1990s. Long considered a lost classic, the series was one of the show’s first dabbling into horror: recasting the ancient mummy story tropes into a haunting, tension filled Cyberman story. The Second Doctor and companions Jamie and Victoria find themselves on an artic planet where an expedition team of scientists seek out the legendary tomb of the monstrous Cybermen. While helping the expedition team out, circumnavigating the deadly traps left to protect the sleeping machine men, several of the expedition team secretly seek to wake the Cybermen as part of a plan to conquer Earth. The scene where the Cybermen awake from their suspended animation pods is one of the most scary moments of the black and white era of Doctor Who.
The Web Planet (Season 2): The First Doctor’s trip to a world filled with giant insects, represented by actors wearing elaborate insect garb is one of the franchise’s first examples of dabbling in high concept storylines and character designs. The costumes are both creepy and a disturbing, made even more so filmed in black and white and compensate the admittedly weak script. Though often criticized as one of the weakest Doctor Who stories of the classic era, it’s take on insect humanoid life retains a sinister scary aura towards it.
The Image of Fendhal (Season 15): Of all the Doctor Who serials to dabble in cosmic horror, “The Image of Fendhal” is the most overt about it. A Lovecraftian love letter from start to finish, the serial features all of the trademarks of the genre: a cult that worships a cosmic horror entity they seek to bring to earth, horrific body horror complete with a character taking his own life to avoid being turned into a Lovecraftian monstrosity, an ancient conspiracy and cursed artifact, and the implication that humanity is just another entity’s science experiment gone wrong. But in the midst of all of this madness and horror, the show still keeps it’s sense of humor with Leela and the Fourth Doctor perfecting their double act of the worldly bohemian and the alien warrior woman from a primitive civilization.
The Daleks (Season 1): Though plagued with pacing issues and the fact that much of the lore established in the story would be invalidated with later retcons, the very first Dalek story retains a level of potency to it in how it terrified and captivated audiences. “The Daleks” borrows heavily from the plot of the HG Wells story, “The Time Machine” with the Daleks as pepper shaker versions of the Morlocks preying on the peaceful Thals. The writers masterfully build tension for the first onscreen appearance of the Daleks and manage to create a tense cat and mouse game between the First Doctor and arch enemy over the course of the six part storyline. The success of the serial would make the Daleks a household name in terror in the UK, and arguably the most popular of the Doctor Who monsters.
“The Deadly Assassin” (Season 14): Something of an experimental story, “The Deadly Assassin” is the only story from the original series that featured the Doctor adventuring without a companion. It’s also a terrifying horror thriller, with the assassination of the President of the Time Lord society and the Doctor being hunted by a masked killer seeking to frame him for the deed. The titular “deadly assassin” in turn, works for the Master. Embargoed from usage after the original actor playing him (Roger Delgado) died in a tragic car accident, the character was brought back with a hellish new look: a rotting zombie like corpse being wrapped in a charred black cloak. But it was the titular assassin attempting to drown the Fourth Doctor (and the BBC’s decision to end an installment of the serial with the Doctor’s face underwater unable to breath) that drew the full wrath of the British censorship movement onto the network. The drowning scene was cut from the print of the episode in question for all future airings, though thankfully it was restored for the DVD release.
The Invasion of Time (Season 15): The fear of the unknown was never scarier than this classic Doctor Who story, which featured a chilling performance of Tom Baker. The Doctor and Leela make a surprise stop to Gallifrey and from the moment they leave the TARDIS, the Doctor is suddenly acting very strange. The evil kind of strange. After making arrangements to have himself declared President of Time Lord Society, the kindly, friend to all children everywhere Fourth Doctor suddenly goes full evil dictator. The Doctor banishes Leela from the royal palace and things go to hell in a handbasket as the Doctor goes mad with power. Though midway through the story it is revealed that the Doctor is just pretending to go evil and that his actions throughout the serial are actually him engaging in a long con for the greater good, Tom Baker’s performance is a chilling one that terrified many a kid watching the show as they saw their childhood hero turn villain.