Classic Doctor Who on BritBox: Earth legends and mythology
Mark Harrison | On 29, May 2022
Offering 626 Doctor Who episodes broadcast between 1963 and 1996, BritBox UK is bigger on the inside. If you’ve watched all of the new series already, then why not join us as we turn on the TARDIS randomiser for a monthly primer on the adventures of the first eight Doctors…
Last month’s Legend of the Sea Devils is far from the first time that the Doctor has tackled monsters and threats that originated on Earth. Legends and mythology are a rich source of inspiration for all kinds of story, and Doctor Who is no exception.
With so many stories to choose from on BritBox UK, this month’s column sorts through some of the stories that take a lead from mythology and all kinds of cultures, be they inspired by Greek, Roman, Norse or even English stories.
Looking over many of Classic Doctor Who’s adventures, here’s our spoiler-lite reckoning with the Doctor’s ventures into Earth myths and legends, from the realm of pure fiction to the secret identity of Merlin, via a whole bunch of minotaurs and minotaur-like creatures.
The Mind Robber (Season 5, 1968)
“You can’t blow up a fictional character, Zoe.”
Starting with the Second Doctor, we find the TARDIS in quite a state of disrepair by the conclusion of Episode 1. Upon arriving in the Land of Fiction, the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe run across fictional and legendary characters such as Medusa, Rapunzel, Sir Lancelot and a minotaur while fighting their way to the Master (not that one – this character pre-dates the rival Time Lord character’s introduction by four years.)
Boundlessly creative, the Mind Robber is one of the quintessential Second Doctor serials, which muddles cleverly around the cast’s availability (the solution to Frazier Hines’ absence in Episode 2 is nothing short of genius) and the high-concept premise (the bit where the Doctor can’t fight a fictional character he can’t tell for sure is fictional is brilliant), and co-writers Derrick Sherwin and Peter Ling serve up an all-timer of a story.
The Daemons (Season 8, 1971)
“Devil’s End is part of the dark mythology of our childhood days. And now, for the first time, the cameras of the BBC have been allowed inside the cavern itself.”
After a whole season of the Master (yes, the Roger Delgado one, this time) mucking about, this final serial of Season 8 finds the mad Time Lord trying to steal the power of ancient alien Azal in the village of Devil’s End one Mayday. the Third Doctor runs up against both his old friend and a race of aliens that has treated the entire history of Earth as their experiment.
The gargoyle-like appearance of the Daemons is memorable enough even without the immortal Brigadier line: “Chap with the wings, five rounds rapid.” Co-written by producer Barry Letts and writer Robert Sloman, this diversion into folk horror remains one of the more popular Classic Who stories.
The Time Monster (Season 9, 1972)
“Once reality became unbearable for them, they would invent a legend to tame it.”
According to 2015’s the Magician’s Apprentice, there are at least three versions of Atlantis in Earth’s history. the one we need to be concerned with here features in another Jon Pertwee finale involving the Master. This time, he’s trying to take control of Kronos, an out-of-time monster that inspired the Greek myths about the father of the gods.
With casting connections to a whole lot of Doctor Who outside of this one, the Time Monster offers up a mad quest to find a city that’s not so much lost underwater as lost in time. Watch out for further in-show mythologising about the Doctor’s own experiences as a young Time Lord…
Pyramids of Mars (Season 13, 1975)
“I bring Sutekh’s gift of death to all humanity.”
As well as loosely adapting the Mummy, Robert Holmes creates one of the great Doctor Who villains in Sutekh – inspired by the ancient Egyptian god and usurper Set in the script, but the inspiration for that character in story. Imprisoned on Mars, this powerful alien presents an apocalyptic threat to the Earth in 1911, and even ruffles the Fourth Doctor’s feathers in the process.
Voiced by Gabriel Woolf, Sutekh is a truly memorable one-off antagonist for various reasons, not least the iconic sequence where Sarah Jane gets a glimpse of a potential future where they don’t manage to stop him. If you’ve only seen newer Who, you may remember Woolf as the unmistakable voice of the Beast in 2006’s the Impossible Planet.
Underworld (Season 15, 1977)
“Myths often have a grain of truth in them, if you know where to look.”
The Fourth Doctor’s era merrily riffs on pre-existing stories for its sci-fi ideas throughout the 1970s, but seldom as blatantly as Underworld, a tale that’s directly compared to Jason’s search for the Golden Fleece by the Doctor (although K9 is having none of it). Captain Jackson and his crew of Minyons (not the Despicable Me lads) track the P7E spaceship (Persephone anyone?) on a quest to restore their race and they drag the Doctor and Leela into their battle with a maniacal super-computer in the process.
Writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin turned in some ambitious scripts, at a point when there was next-to-no budget for them – accordingly, the story is filmed entirely in-studio and makes extensive use of Colour Separation Overlay (CSO) techniques. This limits of this proto-green-screen technology are obvious to anyone who’s seen the story, but there are a couple of witty bits to enjoy thanks to Tom Baker and Louise Jameson’s performances.
The Horns of Nimon (Season 17, 1980)
Flipping heck, it’s been a while since Doctor Who last had a minotaur, so here’s another minotaur-inspired alien! Set between the planets of Skonnos and Crinoth, the Horns of Nimon charts the journey of a transport ship carrying sacrifices to the all-powerful, all-worshipful titular aliens, secure in the heart of their labyrinthine power complex.
Like Underworld, this Greek-mythology-flavoured runaround isn’t Doctor Who’s finest hour, but it may lay a claim as the best story to watch after a few pints. Witness the Fourth Doctor and Romana II being out-mugged from all quarters of the guest cast! Wonder if they’re really planning to sacrifice future Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis! Marvel at the one-off performances by Malcolm Terris and Graham Crowden as zealots of different stripes! What could be finer???
The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (Season 25, 1988)
“You ain’t seen nothing yet!”
At the end of the show’s 25th anniversary, the Doctor reckons with his own legacy and place in popular culture while also reckoning with the Gods of Ragnarok at the Psychic Circus. Battle at the end of the world is strangely fitting for the general mood of the final two seasons, with the BBC’s axe hanging over the programme.
In the complete opposite situation to Underworld, the Greatest Show in the Galaxy makes the most of its limited resources, and the various strike-related restrictions during shooting. This is a properly creative story and handily, the notion of a battle at the end of the world seems to chime with the general mood about this show coming to an end in this galaxy or another, sooner or later.
Battlefield (Season 26, 1989)
“We know you of old, Merlin – you will not kill.”
On a more cheerful note, the very next story is a slightly less fatalistic take on a legend. the opening serial of the final season of the original run delves into Arthurian legend and gives us Morgaine summoning a monster from another dimension while the Brigadier and UNIT fight England’s battles.
All else aside, this is a story that looms large in script editor Andrew Cartmel’s ultimately unfulfilled plan to restore some mystery to the Doctor. Here, he’s painted as an old enemy of Morgaine and even called Merlin, suggesting past lives that even the longest and most faithful viewers have never seen. Showrunner Chris Chibnall did something similar with the Timeless Child bombshell, but we daresay the original reconfiguration of the title character’s mysterious origins were more effective precisely because they were never fully explained…
Other myths and legends
– Focusing on modern myths. the Web of Fear (Season 5, 1968) marks the return of the Yeti from the thus-far missing serial the Abominable Snowman, while Terror of the Zygons (Season 13, 1975) comes up with as good an explanation as any for the legend of the Loch Ness Monster.
– Getting all biblical for a moment, there are multiple cases of humans leaving Earth in an ark-like craft to avoid extinction. the Ark (Season 3, 1965) sees the First Doctor, Steven and Dodo arrive on a human colony ship 10 million years in the future, but must not be confused with the Ark in Space (Season 12, 1974), which has the Fourth Doctor, Sarah Jane and Harry arrive on an aged space station a mere 10mm in the future.
– Norse mythology figures outside of the Greatest Show in the Galaxy too, but it’s much more dog-centric, be it Terminus (Season 20, 1983), where the fearsome Garm is inspired by dogs that guard the gates of hell in Greek mythology, or the Curse of Fenric (Season 26, 1989), which settles an age-old grudge match between the title character and the Seventh Doctor while also setting this season apart with Ace’s character.
– And then there’s Perpugilliam “Peri” Brown! Played by Nicola Bryant, this companion is named after Peri, a beautiful fairy in Persian mythology. She travels with the Fifth and Sixth Doctors, earning a strangling for her trouble in the latter’s first serial, the Twin Dilemma (Season 21, 1984), which also features twins called Remus and Romulus, inspired by Roman mythology. He cheers up a bit after, but it takes a long while after for this particular Doctor-companion relationship to be watchable.
– Also on BritBox UK, the Sarah Jane Adventures offers up Eye of the Gorgon (Season 1, 2007), featuring Miss Smith and her intrepid crew of kids’ battle against the age-old creature of Greek mythology, and the Day of the Clown (Season 2, 2008), in which future companion Bradley Walsh plays a terrifying rendition of a certain character from German folklore.