These are sad days, my friends. Sad days indeed. Netflix has taken the Doctor from us, eight seasons of adventures through space and time, wiped from our queues in a most unkind fashion. As the great JM Barrie once opined,
“We never understand how little we need in this world until we know the loss of it.” A smart man, Mister Barrie was. I bet he saw many things vanish from his Netflix queue the day he came up with that one.
But I am not here to mourn the loss of the good Doctor! No, I come to praise him, to remember the greatness of Eccleston, Tennant, Smith, and Capaldi in their various versions of the Time Lord with the Sonic Screwdriver. Let us all, in this time of sorrow, remember those moments when DOCTOR WHO scared us the most with the five best horror episodes from the series…
I firmly believe that the best DOCTOR WHO episodes are usually the ones where The Doctor takes a backseat to other characters. Not unlike Neil Gaiman’s classic SANDMAN, the character works best when we see him, and his world, through the eyes of others who have no real knowledge of the strangeness that exists in the universe.
BLINK may be the best of this kind of story to appear on DOCTOR WHO (though my heart holds a special place for LOVE & MONSTERS, but that isn’t really a horror episode). In it, a video rental store… well, if you haven’t seen it, I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll tread careful… A woman starts to receive messages about weeping angels hidden under the wallpaper of an abandoned house, then all hell breaks loose. It is creepy as all get out, and the Doctor is barely in it, which adds to the fear – even he is afraid of these things!
While this list isn’t in order of best to 5th best, BLINK shows up first because it is certainly the best of the horror based episodes of the series. I have friends who hate DOCTOR WHO but love horror and they went gaga for this episode. If you haven’t seen it, you don’t need to know squat about the series, hell it may work even better if you don’t know much about the show. Watch it, I really don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
THE EMPTY CHILD/THE DOCTOR DANCES
There is an image that seems to create great unease to the British. It shows up in a lot of British punk art, and it is all over Pink Floyd’s THE WALL. Here in America, the image is creepy, but we don’t have the same connection to it that the British, and much of Europe, does – a child wearing a gasmask. Gasmasks themselves are creepy looking, and the connotation of them is doubly frightening – the idea that the very air surrounding you is deadly is scary. Put it on a kid in his British school uniform with the tie and the shorts (why do British school children wear shorts all the time?) and you have yourself a real freaky deaky horror design. Now, have those kids, in their adorable prepubescent British voices repeat the same phrase, “Are you my mommy?” over and over again as they walk towards you, eyes hidden by the reflective glass of the gasmask eyes, and I don’t know how you don’t wet your pants. THE EMPTY CHILD and THE DOCTOR DANCES, the only two-parter on this list, takes this image and plays it to the full fright factor. I imagine many a child had nightmares the week this episode aired on BBC One. The story, itself, does a great job of mixing horror with melancholy, set during the Blitz of World War II, you feel for the kids in the episode for so many reasons. This story does a great job of straddling the line between straight horror and straight DOCTOR WHO. The story also introduces John Barrowman as the great Captain Jack Harkness, a character you’re not likely to see on American TV – a bi-sexual time traveling conman.
This is easily one of my five favorite DOCTOR WHO episodes in general. In it, the Doctor finds himself stranded on a broken down tourist tram on a planet that can not sustain life, and yet somehow, something begins to knock on the doors. Again, I don’t want to give away too much to anyone who hasn’t seen this, but it is great. This is more like THE TWILIGHT ZONE than it is DOCTOR WHO, and if it were a TWILIGHT ZONE episode, it would be considered one of the greats.
David Tennant, everyone’s favorite Doctor, is especially great in this episode. He has a chance to play the Doctor in a way we don’t see very often – honestly scared and confused. The Doctor is stuck with everyone, he can’t talk or Sonic Screwdriver his way out of the dilemma at hand, and with no companion with him, he has no one he can trust to help him out. The monster in the episode is truly frightening. Like, nightmare inducing. And the best part about the monster? Well, you’ll need to watch the episode to find out…
Like BLINK, this is an episode of DOCTOR WHO you can watch and enjoy without knowing anything about the series, a true standalone. Unlike BLINK, this episode didn’t get diluted by having the monster show up again and again and become easy to deal with.
This is the most recent episode to show up on the list, but it is no less creepy. This is the only episode on the list that really plays with a well-worn horror concept – something is under the bed – and mixes in what makes DOCTOR WHO such a great show – traveling through space and time with reckless abandon as well as unending hope – and create something that is both creepy, and lovely. Sometimes, the thing under the bed is there to help, not hinder.
Unlike BLINK and MIDNIGHT, this one is for DOCTOR WHO fans. If you don’t know the show well, there is so much stuff happening that will be confusing, but for those of us who are fans of the series, this episode was important for two reasons…
LISTEN is the first episode of season (series) eight that gives us an idea of where the Peter Capaldi era is heading – that the Doctor has a lot of internal issues he needs to work out, and working them out won’t be pretty (or much fun – the show has become something of a downer, which is a real bummer). It also served as the episode that firmly set up what that season (series) would be focused on – what Danny Pink’s place in the universe is, and how he will come to save it. Like I said, not a standalone episode.
I have to admit, I almost didn’t include this episode. I almost chose SILENCE IN THE LIBRARY, but the more I thought about it, the more I think ROSE is better. For one thing, as the first episode of the new series, anyone can watch it without needing to know anything about DOCTOR WHO. For another, the living mannequins are seriously terrifying. When I first watched this episode, I could not believe that this was a show for kids. Sure, there’s no blood or sex or language, but the mannequins themselves are really freaky. Like, super freaky. Add in that Christopher Eccleston plays the Doctor like he’s shot out of a Grant Morrison comic, all energy and insanity (I personally loved Eccleston’s version of the Doctor) and you have a great introduction to the world of DOCTOR WHO as well as an episode with some honestly scary stuff in it. Another great thing with ROSE is how the mannequins would show up again in future episodes. They never got an episode of their own again, but they would be mentioned as this moment when Earth could no longer act like there wasn’t some strange things going on in the universe – humanity could no longer hide its head in the sand. I like that this moment not only starts off the series, but has lasting effects on everything that came after, even if it isn’t overplayed.
*Photos: BBC Television