Fear of the Unknown: What makes a Doctor Who episode scary?

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David Selby investigates what exactly it is that makes us scared of Doctor Who.

What comes into your mind when I say ‘scary’? I’m not just talking about Doctor Who here: what must a horror/suspense thriller do to make you unnerved; to give you nightmares? I’m not a horror movie watcher myself, but I know a fair bit about what makes me scared from Doctor Who.

Is it the suspense-induced trepidation? Is it the gore (rarely seen in Doctor Who these days)? Is it some of the suggested notions? Or is it something deeper: the fear of not knowing? Today I will adventure into what exactly it is that makes us scared of Doctor Who, and some of the basic principles in terrifying your audience.

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I think I should use Steven Moffat’s ‘Empty Child’ as an example here. These gas-masked-zombies were the nightmare of my childhood. There was something about them which really agitated me – actually, several things about them. The concept itself – a young boy killed tragically in the blitz and reborn via future technology – is actually quite lovely. But Moffat decided to pervert this image by adding some less desirable features; the fixed gas mask, the cure turned into a plague, the innocent but chilling calls for mummy – all of which distressed my 6-year-old self. What Moffat did here was intimidate the audience by making them assume that this mysterious child was actually a force for evil, when, in fact, he was simply lacking a few basic morals. It was the image here that was scary; not so much the idea. I’d say that’s the best way to worry children.

Adults have done all the creepy-child movies, though; they’re used to these elementary scaring techniques. I’m often chagrined that a villain is deemed terrifying purely because it looks/sounds creepy; I’m looking for something more than just in the five senses, but exploring a deeper horror; what sick motives inspire this creature? Where did it come from? Is it obeying a higher force as a mere puppet, or does it have its own agenda; its own plans for the universe? A lot of the time, raising questions like this early on can add to the mystery of an antagonist, thus mounting tension; what, accordingly, is it capable of?

Some of the enticing, often transitory concepts and philosophies are what truly disconcert me. The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit is undoubtedly the episode which discomforts me the most. A lot of this is because of the dark thinking – one of which is ‘the world before time’, where the Beast is supposedly from. There’s the disturbing theory of Winter Quay; the human battery farm – a place where the Angels (malevolent and concerned only with keeping you alive, not with your wellbeing), driven by their ravenousness, take captive any humans they can, trapping them to live out the same life perpetually, in a cold, damp room. There’s no escape. Your only company is with sadistic statues. How ghastly a thought is that? Sometimes, it’s not seeing the idea in action that does it, it’s letting the mind’s eye speculate; evoking foul and dark imagery.

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Something I’m averse to is excessive violence. I’m not suggesting that it should be avoided to the extent of undermining realism (with BBC ruling, we don’t even get blood when people are shot now – utterly absurd and a ridiculous exaggeration of an otherwise sensible rule), but in the case of detracting from certain audiences (those whose moral beliefs say to avoid immoral/gory content, those are repulsed by blood and gore, the children whose parents have seen the show and been turned against letting their children watch it), it’s necessary. Overuse of violence is, for the most part, demonstrating a lack of effort, inspiration and/or originality from a writer’s half, because it’s a clichéd, tried-and-tested device. It may be visually appealing to some, or, in certain cases (depicting a macabre comeuppance), required, but if it pervades a narrative, and is the main technique to frighten a viewer, it’s proof that the writer either can’t be bothered or is obviously unable to think of an alternative. To paraphrase: whilst it is at times crucial, it’s not the best methodology.

One of the last few options I’m going to mention is showing the magnitudes of an action/victims of a villain. It’s one of the places where Moffat’s capacity for horror becomes prominent, viz. the Great Intelligence. They’re a manipulating force for decades, and their appearance is usually saved to the climax of a story. You see how they go about their tasks; abducting their employees as children and brainwashing them – Miss Kizlet, for an example, exhibits iniquity and superiority for most of The Bells of Saint John, then, it is dramatically revealed that, in fact, she is an indoctrinated child inside a woman’s body. The Great Intelligence is the true evil, the true Machiavelli – experimenting with an idea or a character over a series gives a chance to fuel tension and pose more questions, plus create numerous examples of what they are capable of.

Finally, I move on to the titular modus operandi: The Fear of the Unknown (xenophobia being closest as the fear of foreigners and unfamiliar customs). It’s commonly used in fantasy and paranormal tales, hence being the main feature of this Hide anticipation article. Because Doctor Who is categorically science-fiction, most unexplained events usually require an explanation; otherwise the fans get quite rightfully narked. Occasionally, though, the writer ventures outside the realm of sci-fi, and enters a new area of speculative fiction with some kinds of ghostly undertones. An example of this: The Satan Pit, where the Beast is able to tell details about the characters, possess things transcendentally, survive outside on an uninhabitable plain (you could put this down to a psychic field, the psycho-grant (the name Cassandra gave to her “Goodbye trampoline, hello Blondie” contraption) and a strong physical form respectively, but, let’s be honest: he was the devil). Sometimes giving a methodical scientific justification for something takes away from the mystery and terror of it – this would have been the case if the Beast was clarified. Another example is Gwyneth’s death in The Unquiet Dead; it’s so haunting, because you know she couldn’t have helped them if she was dead, yet she did. It leaves the episode on a mystical note. It’s a small part of the narrative and thus isn’t detriment to the overall storyline for more fastidious viewers, but, conversely, keeps to the pseudohistorical-fantasy/horror genre addressed to the episode.

Hide will almost certainly be divisive. The Doctor Who fandom is split into three categories: theist, atheist, and agnostic (as is the rest of the world). Some agnostics or even some atheists will happily accept, for the enjoyment of the episode, some kind of afterlife or spiritual existence. There will be some, however, who will considerably irked if the basis of the story is a celestial and wraithlike one. I’m open to either endings myself. If the ghost is explained with tentative care (say, there’s been some kind of ‘time eruption’, which has caused the vortex to bleed, and the fragments, dispersed through time, have been able to restore the ‘spirit’, the entity, of those who have died in the house. To close the gap, the lost spirits would then have to be at peace so that the bridge is open for the Doctor to seal permanently – to do this, they’d have to bring justice to their killer, or help their loved ones come to terms with their loss, etc.), then possibly it could be done, but I still think the idea of for once keeping it preternatural is more desirable, like The Satan Pit, The Chase, The Mind Robber (not counting novelised explanations for the Land of Fiction) or The Unquiet Dead. They’re stories which bear more of an impression because of this divine undercurrent (maybe not my classic examples, because they’re literary manifestations).

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It’s interested me how Neil Cross (who, after The Rings of Akhaten, I have full confidence in), has decided to add in the character of a clairvoyant. I’m a huge fan of ITV’s fantasy drama Afterlife, and that is primarily a character study of Alison Mundy (Lesley Sharp – aka Sky Silvestry), a medium, who is locked in solitude, desperately trying to escape the voices of the dead. The echoes of the deceased plague her, because they can get through to her – as she describes it, they’re drawn to her ‘like a magnet’. She’s overwhelmed by compunction if she doesn’t help them but she wants them to go away. She’s a recluse because no one will believe her. Those she helps end up suffering – their loved ones grow to hate Alison because they think she’s clinically insane. The more she tries to help, the more she does wrong. The more she doesn’t help, the guiltier she feels.

I’d like to see Cross tackle the same sort of character in Hide – also because it means that even if we get an explanation as to why there are ghosts in the house, there’s still the underlying mystery of her character, whom you can have your own opinions on.

There’s much more to be anticipating for Hide, including a (or maybe more than one) romantic backstory. It’s also set in the 70s, which is an era I’ve been longing to see revisited. I hope I’ve increased your anticipation for Hide, now, which I’m fully confident, will deliver the goods.

Step back in time...