Doctor Who & Horror: How Much is Too Much?

Doctor Who has always been known and even loved for its scary moments, but just how far can it go with its horror?

One of the best things about Doctor Who is that it can tell a story of almost any genre. While it’s always been broadly science fiction (very broadly at times), it has told many stories that have been predominantly other genres along the way. Some examples are the pure historical stories of ‘Marco Polo’ and ‘The Aztecs,’ the light-hearted comedy of ‘The Lodger,’ and the heartbreaking drama of ‘Vincent and the Doctor.’ But my favourite genre of story for the show, and certainly one that’s proven to be very successful over the years, is horror.

With a large focus on evil aliens that usually get labelled as “monsters” throughout many of the show’s stories, plus the virtual guarantee that someone in the guest cast will get killed off, there’s always at least been a hint of it in the show. In fact, the further the show goes into the genre, the more popular the stories seem to be: ‘The Empty Child,’ ‘Blink,’ and ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ are arguably still regarded as modern classics.

In particular, the early years of Tom Baker — with Robert Holmes as script editor and Philip Hinchcliffe as producer — were and still are some of my favourite seasons of the show, due to their high focus on horror stories with high body counts. Stories like ‘Pyramids of Mars’ and ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’ were gloriously stylish serials that didn’t pull any punches. The eight-year-old me loved it. Even as an adult, I still love it, and feel like I’m eight years old again watching these stories.

But when it comes to horror, how much is too much, especially for a show like Doctor Who? Where exactly do you draw the line? You want to scare the children, and possibly the adults too, but you don’t want to traumatise them. Doctor Who isn’t Supernatural, which has gotten away with shocking amounts of violence at times, and it shouldn’t try to be. Doctor Who tells stories across a lot of genres, but I think that the most important thing it needs to be is ultimately a family show.

It always amuses me when I read comments online about why children shouldn’t watch Doctor Who, when they’re arguably the most important audience. In the eighties, the show did try to move toward being less family-friendly, with stories like ‘Vengeance on Varos’ and ‘Revelation of the Daleks’ being not just violent, but rather grim, too. They are enjoyable stories in their own right, but as a kid, perhaps off-putting.

This is kind of funny, considering that I mentioned that, as a kid, I enjoyed the horror and death of Tom Baker stories. So what made those different, and why do I think they’re more acceptable to a child-friendly audience?

Oddly enough, I think the fact that those stories were clearly horror helped digest the violence more, particularly when the violence usually involved “monsters” attacking humans instead of humans attacking each other, as the mid-80s seemed to focus on. And while the early Tom Baker seasons certainly pushed limits at times (a rather bloody shooting in ‘The Brain of Morbius’ instantly springs to mind), I don’t think it quite exceeded them as some moments in the eighties did.

But I don’t think it’s just the level of violence that’s important in regards to what’s good for a family audience to watch. In fact, I think the story that pushed it the most in terms of horror in the show’s revival, and possibly the show as a whole, was a story that didn’t have any on-screen violence at all: ‘Midnight.’

As I mentioned in my review of the episode, one of the reasons that ‘Midnight’ is so great is how it not only features your usual evil Doctor Who monster (although even this one is very unusual), but how ordinary, nice people can be driven to do very horrible things terrifyingly quickly. And this is exactly the reason why, while it is definitely one of my favourite episodes of the New Series, I don’t think it should reach this kind of psychological horror for every episode.

Personally, I think that when kids watch Doctor Who, they should laugh, they should be thrilled, they should be heartbroken, and yes, perhaps most important of all, they should be scared. But it arguably should be a safe scare. They should be reassured that, while there’s danger out there in the universe, there’s hope and heroes like the Doctor who can save the day, or better still, inspire ordinary people like us to do it ourselves.

What makes ‘Midnight’ not just less “safe” but possibly one of the most dangerous episodes ever is that this time, the Doctor is not only at his most vulnerable and so close to being murdered (perhaps closer than ever), but murdered by a group of people who were perfectly nice a short time before, including parents. Because nothing says “family show” quite like an episode presenting the idea of people just like your parents murdering your hero!

I’m not complaining about ‘Midnight,’ far from it. I still love that, after over 50 years, the show still finds ways of really testing its limits. But, while I hope the show continues introducing youngsters to horror, it also continues knowing where and when to draw the line.

What do you think? Is Doctor Who currently doing the right thing by having just the right amount of horror in its stories? Or do you think that the show would benefit by having more psychological horror episodes like ‘Midnight’? Please comment your thoughts below.