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The Doctor: Everyone has nightmares. Even monsters from under the bed have nightmares. Don’t you, Monster?
Reinette: What do monsters have nightmares about?
The Doctor: Me. Ha!

(2.4: The Girl in the Fireplace by Steven Moffat)

If you’ve ever taken a look at the BBC’s official Doctor Who website you may have found yourself surfing through its various features, one of which is entitled “Fear Forecast”. This section details the reactions of some of Doctor Who’s younger fans to the fear content of a particular episode from the new series. In highlighting this aspect of Doctor Who the BBC makes it quite plain that watching its flagship science fiction programme may involve some degree of emotional discomfort. Yet surely fear is something unpleasant and bad, an emotion which ought to be avoided at all costs? After all, is it not one of the root causes of anger and suffering – or does that sound like another piece of science fiction?

Enough of the armchair psychology; experiencing fear may well be an issue in some circles but within the realm of story telling it is surely one of the main attractions. Feeling fear, being scared, tasting terror – describe it however you wish the nature of the beast remains strikingly unchanged and just as popular. It is that stomach-knotting moment when the pupils dilate, the adrenaline glands kick in and, in more intense cases, the tiniest film of perspiration appears upon the skin which tells you that you are in a state of fear. On some occasions it may be goose bumps on the arms or shivers down the spine; it could be the hairs on the back of the head standing up on end or even, allegedly, the colour of the hair itself turning to white. Undergoing any of these many and varied sensations could be the result of who knows how many different stimuli, but for many a fan of Doctor Who they are most likely to be the consequence of watching one of the series’ scary moments.

Take away the time travel and the companions, the monsters and the mystery, and the element which stands out is the scary moment – the point in which fear takes the wheel and the sofa is quickly hid behind. Any random sampling of Doctor Who reveals how markedly a set of stories can differ in terms of the quantity and intensity of the scary moments they present. The wide diversity of fear-making instances means that most viewers at some point will find themselves experiencing the feeling of their blood pressure rising and their heartbeat quickening. For some it will be a spaceship’s claustrophobic interior or perhaps a shadowy menace stalking a darkened house. The skin pulling antics of the monster-revealed is one example, and the transformation of someone into something is another. Whatever fires your brain stem in terms of getting just that little bit frightened, Doctor Who has probably managed it on one occasion or another, and almost certainly if you watched the series as a child.

If the evidence were not patent enough consider some of the story titles: ‘The Web of Fear’, ‘Terror of the Autons’, ‘Horror of Fang Rock’, ‘Terror of the Vervoids’ and most recently ‘Fear Her’. Each title cries out at the viewer that it wants to frighten, to scare, to induce nerve-numbing fear. Importantly, this feeling of fear is intended to be evoked within the safe confines of the family home, or at least that is the hope. It is not designed to genuinely terrify or disturb but rather to stimulate a sensation which many people, both old and young alike, find strangely appealing – at least in small doses.

A past master of delivering a fright or two is writer Steven Moffat. His scripts for the new series are jam-packed with them, and in a style which is traditional and family-oriented. On at least two occasions Moffat employs a well worn and highly popular device to set up a moment of tension: namely, the monster is already in the scene, only hidden. In ‘The Doctor Dances’ and ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’ the Doctor asks how something can be working when in point of fact it should not be (the tape machine in the isolation room in Albion Hospital and the clock in Reinette’s bedroom respectively). In each case the scary moment is derived from setting up a scene in which the characters appear to be in a safe environment, only to reveal that their location is anything but safe. In Doctor Who Confidential Cut Down: Fear Factor Moffat references this fear-making technique: “The most regular device I can think of in terms of scaring kids, or scaring the audience, is actually the monster is already here,…already in here with us.”

Hidden monsters is one way of devising a scary moment – when the ordinary becomes threatening is another. Robert Holmes’ ‘Terror of the Autons’ locates the frightening and the fearful in everyday suburbia, providing it with greater resonance for the viewer than a bug-eyed menace on a nameless world. Over the course of the adventure the commonplace is dressed up in the garb of the sinister: plastic flowers, a telephone cord, police officers and a doll, all prove to have insidious intentions. However, it is perhaps the plastic chair, which literally suffocates and crushes the poor McDermott which is the key moment. Holmes’ deliberate use of a piece of harmless household furniture as a killing device is as shrewd as it is chilling, presenting an iconic moment of terror in the series.

Creating a scary moment is as much about knowing where to draw the line as anything else. The Fourth Doctor’s first three seasons, all under the astute guidance of producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes, drew upon the horror content of story telling more than most, creating some of the classic scary moments of the series. The use of torture, for example, by Styre in ‘The Sontaran Experiment’ or the transformation of Winlett into a Krynoid in ‘The Seeds of Doom’ and the Matrix’s virtual nightmare in ‘The Deadly Assassin’ each spell out horror in no uncertain terms. It was during this period that Doctor Who arguably came closest to leaving behind the safe confines of family viewing. To cross the line from that which is perceived as appropriate family viewing to that which is not is to invite heavy criticism and serious consequences (season twenty-two is proof enough of this point). However, Hinchcliffe’s adroit stewardship and Holmes’ accomplished script editing avoided these perils and in concert they went on to produce some of the most widely acclaimed stories in the series’ history and, in the process, took its popularity to new heights.

The above example of Winlett’s transformation from animal to vegetable draws attention to a further instance of the scary moment. Body horror, as it is sometimes called, is almost guaranteed to deliver a fright on cue. The Cybermen epitomise body horror; they take sensible flesh and blood and convert it into senseless metal and plastic, triggering what is perhaps many people’s worst nightmare. The Daleks also employ this fear-making tool, although it is not until season twenty-two’s ‘Revelation of the Daleks’ that the true extent of Dalek body horror is made apparent.

The monster-revealed is another tactic in the writer’s scare-making armoury. A plethora of villains and monsters have been physically unmasked over the years, providing ample cliffhanger opportunities and a decent helping of scariness to boot. The unmasking of the villainous Scaroth at the end of the first episode of the Fourth Doctor adventure ‘City of Death’ is a prime example. The revelation that the seemingly human Count Scarlioni is in point of fact a grisly green one-eyed alien is one thing; having that revelation occur by way of the character suddenly shedding his facial mask is altogether something else. This instance of the monster-revealed derives its fear factor from the act of replacing that which is apparently human with that which is alien, and unpleasantly alien at that. When a writer employs this plot device they can ratchet up the tension in a scene considerably and trigger a scary moment which is almost certain to quicken the heat rate of some viewers.

Fear is as much about what you can see as about what you cannot see, and Christopher H. Bidmead’s story ‘Frontios’ is a case in point. Although Bidmead’s stories tend to be cerebral, ‘Frontios’ opts for the scary in good old-fashioned style. The initially unseen Tractators (giant-sized burrowing insects which look disturbingly like woodlice), which can manipulate gravity to pull their victims under the ground, thereby appearing to bury them alive, effortlessly frame the frightening. The fear-making element of this story is further emphasised by portraying the traumatised reaction of the Doctor’s companion Turlough to these underground horrors (and if you think the televised version is frightening enough, Bidmead’s novelisation takes its scarier aspects to another level).

Perhaps the most important ingredient in setting up and presenting a scary moment is the direction of the scene. Chris Clough’s craftsmanship in ‘Terror of the Vervoids’ evidences this point. The moment in which the Doctor and his assistant Mel discover the mutated body of Ruth Baxter in an isolation room aboard the Hyperion III spaceship is spot-on; Clough’s direction draws in the viewer to Ruth’s ruined face only to deliver the real scare when she suddenly awakes and transforms a purely visual horror into a tangible, mobile threat. Combining the visual with the sudden and unexpected is the mark of a classic scary moment and this example convincingly taps into this tried and tested formula.

The litany of scary moments in Doctor Who could fill a library. The Seventh Doctor’s blood-draining Heamovores deserve a mention, as do the Ninth Doctor’s gas-masked zombies. The Tenth Doctor, too, has shown us the frightening: a stalking werewolf, ghoulish witches and the face-stealing Wire are all fine examples, revealing that the taste of terror is as much a part of Doctor Who as it ever was. What is more, with the success of the new series there are opportunities aplenty to enjoy the odd scare for sometime to come. Bearing this last point in mind, don’t be surprised if you tune in to Doctor Who and experience an unnerving sensation, the sort of sensation that you would usually expect to feel in the confines of a dark, deserted house or upon vast open moorland in the dead of night. It is undeniably the fear factor at work, and your sensing of it is proof that Doctor Who is doing its job. Just don’t forget where you keep your sofa.

© Copyright Jez Strickley & Doctor Who Online, 2007.
 Page Last Updated: 29/1/2009

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Written by:
Jez Strickley



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