Classic Doctor Who on BritBox: Spooky stories for Halloween
Mark Harrison | On 25, Oct 2020
Offering 626 Doctor Who episodes broadcast between 1963 and 1996, BritBox 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…
Some may find it surprising that a show as synonymous with PG-level horror as Doctor Who has never gone in for a Halloween special over the years. Although 2015’s The Zygon Invasion (a story appropriately about aliens going out in disguise) was first broadcast on 31st October, and 2018’s The Witchfinders was at one point designed as a spooky special before scheduling changed, Halloween has never really figured in the show proper.
It’s possibly because Halloween is really more of an American thing that’s come across the pond, where shows like Who are more concerned with sending kids scurrying behind the sofa all year round. Since 2005, the series has earned back plenty of its scary credentials with a wide variety of horror stories that occasionally broach the 12-certificate as well.
The new series has got you covered for spooky stories on BBC iPlayer or Netflix (choosing just one episode per Doctor, we’d say The Unquiet Dead, Blink, Hide, Knock Knock, and It Takes You Away will cover you pretty well) but what of the classic series selection available on BritBox? While the following classic stories (again, one per Doctor) aren’t necessarily scarier than what the more modern incarnation has to offer, they often feature or take inspiration from some classic Halloween monsters and tropes.
The Chase, Episode 4 – Journey Into Terror (Season 2, 1965)
There’s no arguing with the Daleks’ place as Doctor Who’s A-list, top-tier monster, so let’s start with a single episode that throws them into a proper monster mash. Throughout the third Dalek serial, the First Doctor (along with Ian, Barbara, and Vicki) retreats through time to stop his old foes from capturing the TARDIS.
Episode 4 takes them to what appears to be a haunted house-share between Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, who stalk Team TARDIS as they scramble for safety. It’s not an especially scary episode, but it’s a graveyard smash that plays perfectly at this time of year. Plus, if you’ve ever wondered how Frankenstein’s monster would fare in a fight with a Dalek, this is definitely the one to watch.
The Tomb of The Cybermen (Season 5, 1967)
Staying in monster movie territory, the Second Doctor serial The Tomb of The Cybermen starts out in the vein of 1964’s The Curse of The Mummy’s Tomb, with an archaeological expedition to the planet Telos, some 500 years after its resident cyborgs apparently went extinct. But beneath the icy surface of the planet, an entire army of Cybermen is waking up.
When Terry Nation tried to spin off the Daleks outside of Who, the Cybermen became the show’s Big Bad de rigueur for a few years, (as mentioned in our column about their evolution over time) but it’s the horror elements that make Tomb stand out among the abundance of Cyber-stories during this time. Whether it’s the introduction of the scuttling, scarab-like Cybermats or the iconic sequence where the Cybermen burst out of their cryogenic capsules, this is an early statement of the scarier Who format.
Terror Of The Autons (Season 8, 1965)
Again, the terror is implied by the title, but this has one of the best showcases of Doctor Who’s knack for everyday horror. The story brings back the Nestene Consciousness, the malignant alien intelligence that controls the Autons as well as various other plastics, to menace the Third Doctor. It’s also notable for introducing Katy Manning as new companion Jo Grant, and Roger Delgado’s devilish Master.
Even more so than the previous season’s Spearhead From Space, this goes all out on mining terror out of everyday sights, from toys and fake flowers to policemen who may or may not be Autons. Later cited in a House Of Lords debate about the effect of mass media on children, this sequel presses the horror even further, most notably with a telephone wire that comes to life and wraps itself around the Doctor’s neck as the closing credits scream…
Image Of The Fendahl (Season 15, 1977)
Early on, the Fourth Doctor’s era was known for its monsters and gothic horror leanings, but even after producer Phillip Hinchcliffe left the series, (see Other Spooky Who-ings) Season 15 gave us Image Of The Fendahl, a horror story partly inspired by Hammer’s Quatermass And The Pit.
Arriving in the small village of Fetchborough, the Fourth Doctor and Leela have to contend with the evil that emanates from a 12-million-year-old human skull, as well as its snake-like minions and a local black magic cult. What’s more, the serial originally started on BBC One the weekend before Halloween, making it one of the most seasonally appropriate spooky stories.
The Awakening (Season 21, 1984)
In a similar locale, this two-parter sees English Civil War re-enactors driven to madness by a psychic alien presence trapped in the village of Little Hodcombe. Intending to visit Tegan’s grandfather, the Fifth Doctor and his companions find themselves in the thick of it, racing to stop the malevolent force from gathering its full strength.
Unusually for a 50-minute story, the abbreviated running time works in favour of Eric Pringle’s spooky scripts. Although Part 2 feels a little rushed in places, the mystery builds up to an almighty reveal by the time the Part One cliffhanger rolls around. Plus, with most of the story shot on location, there’s a filmic look that enhances the folk horror atmosphere.
Revelation Of The Daleks (Season 22, 1985)
Under the stewardship of script editor Eric Saward, the Sixth Doctor’s era brought the series under fire for its scary and violent content once again. Having written the dark thriller Resurrection of The Daleks in Peter Davison’s final season the previous year, Saward contributes Revelation Of The Daleks, a story that is ghoulish in the extreme.
Quite aside from the Sixth Doctor being haunted by a premonition of his own grave on the planet Necros, the story finds the Daleks’ creator Davros pretending to be a healer at the galactically renowned funeral home Tranquil Repose. Without getting into the specifics of his plan, Saward effectively makes this a zombie story, giving us the indelible Grand Guignol image of a transparent Dalek casing and its screaming innards among other terrors.
The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (Season 25, 1988)
And finally, some scary clowns for all the coulrophobes out there! When the TARDIS picks up an ad for the intergalactically renowned Psychic Circus, the “Greatest Show in the Galaxy”, Ace confesses to not liking clowns and the Seventh Doctor duly sets course for Segonax for a fun-filled afternoon of mortal danger. As well as contending with amoral explorer Captain Cook (T.P. McKenna) and the Chief Clown (Ian Berrington) with his mechanical harlequins, they soon discover that the entertainments are put on to appease something altogether more sinister.
Doctor Who’s penultimate season shows a series on the up after a creative lull throughout the mid-1980s. With this story, writer Stephen Wyatt and script editor Andrew Cartmel seem to be in a contemplative mood about how much longer it can go on, but The Greatest Show in the Galaxy presents us with a Doctor that’s still got some tricks up his sleeve. Though the production was affected by strike action at the BBC, the solution of creating worlds within tents is happily on theme for a scary circus story and it’s cleverly written and played all around. In addition to prodding any residual Pennywise-related shivers, the serial’s scariest moment comes in Episode 3’s cliffhanger with the reveal of another classic horror monster…
>Other Spooky Who-ings…
– Vampires? Doctor Who’s got vampires for you. Beyond the Haemovores who back up the Big Bad in The Curse Of Fenric, (Season 26, 1989) the Fourth Doctor’s era gives us vampires known as the Great Ones in State Of Decay (Season 18, 1980) and these ancient enemies of the Time Lords return to menace the Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Doctors in the current Time Lord Victorious multimedia event.
– If you’re looking for dark magic and unexplained murders in a small village, you can’t go wrong with The Daemons (Season 8, 1971) which sees the Third Doctor and UNIT arriving in a small village called Devil’s End. Coming at the end of a season-long run of stories featuring Delgado’s Master, the story is set on May Day but still serves up witches, living gargoyles, and a bunch of other spooky doings more fitting for the Halloween season.
– Much to the chagrin of campaigners like Mary Whitehouse, Doctor Who reached new heights of popularity during the Phillip Hinchcliffe era by borrowing liberally from the horror genre. If you really fancy a marathon, Season 13 riffs on classic gribblies such as the Loch Ness monster (Terror Of The Zygons), Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Planet Of Evil), The Mummy again (Pyramids Of Mars), Bodysnatchers (The Android Invasion), Frankenstein (The Brain Of Morbius), and even The Thing From Another World (The Seeds Of Doom).
Classic Doctor Who is available on BritBox as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.