Since its creation in 1963, Doctor Who has created monsters out of innovation and imagination. Originally created by Sydney Newman, C.E. Webber, and Donald Wilson, the ancient time traveler has faced largely faced villains constructed by the show’s writers, leaning on the sci-fi elements of the BBC show to create alien nightmares. But Doctor Who is also a horror series, and the show has frequently dipped into the well of classic monsters in order to send children behind their sofas. From folk legends to the mainstays of the silver screen, Doctor Who has never been too shy to seek outside inspiration. What has always been the case is the emphasis on space, and so the origins of all of those creatures can be found among the stars as opposed to a source among humanity. Here are just a few examples of when Doctor Who has used classic monsters in its stories
Ghosts — “The Unquiet Dead”
“The Unquiet Dead” is written by Mark Gatiss and directed by Lyn. The Doctor (Christopher Ecclestone) and Rose are in Victorian Cardiff, running into Charles Dickens (Simon Callow). The legendary author’s show is interrupted by a reanimated corpse sitting in his audience, moved there after a ghost invaded the body and traveled there. But the Doctor, Rose, and Dickens soon discover that the ghost is one of many, looking for more dead bodies to inhabit.
One of the first episodes of the revived series in 2005, “The Unquiet Dead” channels just how the Doctor Who writers channel classic monsters. The famous faces that the Doctor and his companion encounter are often accompanied by the creatures from their pages. For Dickens, that is ghosts. A brilliant mesh between cultural relevance at the time and character development for the Doctor, the ghosts had a haunting quality. Known as the Gelth, the translucent creatures are made from gas, with blue streaks in the air creating faces and a trailing body. But their shrieks and eerie innocence send chills down the spine. The twist within the tale adds far more venom and scariness to the bodiless beings.
The Mummy — “Mummy on the Orient Express”
“Mummy on the Orient Express” is written by Jamie Mathieson and directed by Paul Wilmshurst. The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) are brought on a spacefaring train ride, modeled on the Orient Express. Onboard is a mummy that can only be seen by the victim, and kills exactly 66 seconds after the lights flick.
The mummy aspect of this episode is purely for the frightening visuals and the play on words in the title, with not much else important about the figure. Called the Foretold, the creature could have been anything causing carnage on a cosmic train filled with scientists and wealthy passengers. But as a creation, the Foretold looks phenomenal. Incredibly detailed with the decomposing body largely visible underneath the wrapping, it is certainly terrifying enough for younger viewers, with an unsettling noise accompanying it. Visually, the idea was absolutely not wasted, but within the context of the story itself, there is very little relevance elsewhere.
Vampires — “Vampires of Venice”
“Vampires of Venice” was written by Toby Whitehouse and directed by Jonny Campbell. The Doctor (Matt Smith) lands in Venice in 1580 alongside Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill). Girls are disappearing or being taken to the mysterious Sisters of the Water, where the matriarch appears to be turning them into vampires. When Amy is kidnapped and the Doctor and Rory are forced to investigate further, they find out there is more to the vampires beneath the surface of the water.
“Vampires of Venice” is the perfect example of how Doctor Who uses stereotypes to have fun whilst telling an alien story underneath. The visages of vampires are an illusion, used to draw in viewers and raise suspicions. The signature traits of vampires are still there, however. Fangs, pale skin, invisible in mirrors—Rosanna (Helen McCrory) and her growing coven fit the bill in this Italian Rennaisance story, with much more of a focus on the waterways as the episode progresses. Despite the suggestion of bloodsuckers, this episode is much more fun-loving than horrific. It relishes the romance of Venice, and the Transylvanian tropes are used for laughs. With some corny accents and a swashbuckling swordfight, it’s an energetic adaptation far beyond Bram Stoker.
Werewolf — “Tooth and Claw”
“Tooth and Claw” is written by Russell T Davies and directed by Euros Lyn. The Doctor (David Tennant) and Rose (Billie Piper) land in Scotland, running into Queen Victoria herself, played by Pauline Collins. While staying in a stately home, it soon becomes clear that an order has started worshipping the moon, unleashing a werewolf aiming to infect the royal bloodstream.
This episode is much more loyal to the image of a werewolf than The Vampires of Venice is for vampires. It follows the connection of the wolf and the moon, centering the entirety of the narrative around those two. The notion of a bite or a scratch continuing the curse is also key to the story. “Tooth and Claw” contains a flesh and blood werewolf. It’s a stunning CGI design for 2006, looking fantastic close to two decades later. It’s an intense, heart-pounding episode, with the heroes constantly running from a brutal, snarling monster. The lore of the wolf has been altered to match the sci-fi concept, with the curse coming from the stars. Ridiculous kung-fu monks aside, it’s a sinister, brilliantly constructed series with one of the best creature creations in Doctor Who’s history.
Witches — “The Shakspeare Code”
“The Shakespeare Code” is written by Gareth Roberts and directed by Charles Palmer. The Doctor (Tennant) and Martha (Freema Agyeman) take a trip to the past to see the world’s greatest playwright, William Shakespeare (Dean Lennox Kelly). As he starts gathering excitement for a play that is lost to history, a trio of witches seek to use his words for power.
In a similar vein to “The Unquiet Dead,” the historical author’s own narrative devices come back to haunt them. Elizabethan London is stunningly recreated. Like with the werewolf, the lore of the witches is faithful in the script despite the otherworldly origin. The three witches, called Carrionites within the show, love voodoo dolls and the occasional broomstick whilst watching events unfold through a cauldron. By design, they are also classic. They’re hagridden and scraggly, aside from their leader who took the disguise of a beautiful handmaiden to lure victims. The superstition of the era and the fear of witches is instilled quickly.
Throughout Doctor Who, monsters come in all forms, and the approaches to how they are implemented vary due to the unique nature of every single episode. Especially those whose place in legend is assured before they’ve even been written into Doctor Who. Each of those mythical creatures has been spun so that they fit the intergalactic remit, but many of the writers used the lore to enrich the story. And the lasting impression they made on the audience is a testament to not just the writers, but the brilliance of the practical and visual effects departments of the BBC.
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