Doctor Who: 50 great scary moments

Feature Andrew Blair 22 Nov 2013 - 06:43

Andrew counts down Doctor Who's 50 scariest moments, feat. Daleks, Cybermen, and Nicholas Parsons...

Doctor Who exists to scare children. It introduces them to Horror in a way that can prepare them for the increased intensity and gore of adult films, while its limited budget and family viewing constraints also mean it has to get under your skin in more creative ways. This list is not intended as anything remotely definitive, more a collection of fifty scary moments, scenes, and ideas that the show has given us over the years. There are obviously hundreds more out there, and a Comments Thread waiting for your suggestions. We begin at the beginning, but not necessarily in that order.


1. The first TARDIS journey

Following an unsettling twenty-five minutes of investigation, torture and kidnap, our favourite family show was born. The Doctor decides schoolteachers Ian and Barbara have to come with him and Susan, the first TARDIS journey takes them away from London. The camera pans out from the city, into space, into time, the vortex of the opening titles (which are also scary, and early tests featuring faces appearing in them looked positively demonic) and finally the ship lands.

Ian and Barbara, our way into the story, are unconscious. That's before we even consider what might be outside...


2. Susan's journey across the wastelands

Skaro was often filmed on location in a quarry, but for sheer oppressive atmosphere you can't beat the original; a studio set of petrified trees and metallic lizards. Susan has travelled through the foothills by the Dalek city, through the jungle back to the TARDIS to get anti-radiation pills for her sick friends. She's not as alone as she thought she'd be.

And now she has to go back.


3. Aaaah-aaaah, Sensorite

Once we know more about the Sensorites, their menace diminishes somewhat. In Strangers in Space our first glimpse is, as became a cliché, the monster reveal at the end of the episode. Having trapped the human crew of an orbiting ship using mind-control, the Sensorite ships begin their approach.

Which is why it's a bit of a shock when Ian sees one looking in through the window.


4. 'Death is very far away...'

Barbara Wright quietly went about setting the bar very high for future companions. Famous for being the first character in the series to see a Dalek, the cliffhanger to the third episodes of The Crusades is a different sort of scare.

Kidnapped by El Akir after publicly humiliating him, the scarred Saracen promises Barbara: 'Death is the only pleasure left for you, and death is very far away.'

It's the kind of line that would be on a t-shirt within minutes if it appeared in Game of Thrones.


5. The Cybermen revealed

The first appearance of the Cybermen yields no clue as to what they are, and thus, it's really weird. Spaceships land, and the crew of the Antarctic base are busy investigating the TARDIS. They are not prepared for cloth faced monsters with a punch like a sledgehammer, and as such, said monsters break their necks.

The creepiest bit is when a Cyberman reaches down to one of the corpses with its human hand, and its face seems to register surprise. Like it's remembered warm blood.


6. Lesterson Precedes Davros

In The Power of the Daleks the colony's chief scientist, Lesterson, powers up some dormant Daleks and defends them against the Doctor's accusations. When they eventually reveal their true nature, Lesterson attempts to buy the Doctor more time by reasoning with them, saying:

'You wouldn't kill me. I gave you life.'

'Yes,' a Dalek replies, 'You gave us life.'

They kill him.


7. The Cyberman appears instead of Packer

This is a pretty simple one. Packer, Tobias Vaughn's uber-dench henchman extraordinaire, communicates with his boss by video-screen throughout The Invasion. Near the end, when the Cybermen crush the unexpected human resistance, Tobias Vaughn's factory is being over-run. He calls for his trusted sidekick, but there is no-one onscreen.

Then a Cyberman's face suddenly looms large in the scanner.

In the great DVD commentary in the sky, Dougie Camfield chuckles to himself.


8. Total Destruct

The Autons are creepy enough as it is, with their blank faced, when's-it-going-to-move, big-explodey gun with the frog-screaming-in-a-wind-tunnel sound effect. It's all bad.

So, when one slices into a tent with its fingertips and shoots someone off a table it's somewhat traumatising. But then, oh then, it gets worse.

It fires again. And poor Ransome's body completely disappears.

When I first saw this, my Grandad gave me some raisins to make me calm down.


9. The Many Deaths of Geoffrey Palmer

If you see Geoffrey Palmer in Doctor Who, don't get attached. His character is going to die promptly. His first, and most memorable death, is in The Silurians, when Masters carries the Silurian plague from Derbyshire into London, and gradually succumbs to it as the infection sweeps through the city.

Palmer - his face dotted with scabs - flops forward onto some railings, and then slithers down them. It's like his spine's melting.


10. Outstretched arms

Many Doctor Who monsters operate on the good ol' reliable system of 'DON'T LET IT TOUCH YOU', lest you be killed or transformed. The Ambassadors of Death is an excellent example. Combined with the unsettling astronaut image, and the violence of some of the deaths we've seen already, the excitement of waiting til next week must have been unbearable when the Doctor crouched down to examine a corpse, only for an astronaut's outstretched arm to reach slowly towards our hero. Cue credits.

This is perhaps why so many of us fans fear human contact.


11. Suffocation by Daffodil

Understandably, the production team got into quite a bit of trouble for Terror of the Autons with its killer dolls, seats and policemen. Most unnerving of the lot of them, for me at any rate, were the plastic daffodils handed out by Autons in grotesquely friendly masks. These sprayed a plastic film over the nose and the mouth, suffocating their victims and then melting away. Widespread asphyxiation and heart failures are soon reported across the country.

As the Master says 'Death is always more frightening when it strikes invisibly.'


12. Statue or Stalker?

Death to the Daleks Part One is mainly set in the dark. It's unsettling enough that the TARDIS is seemingly dead, but to find the cause the Doctor and Sarah will have to head out onto a mist-wreathed planet full of strange rock formations. It seems dead, all is dust, all is OH MY GOD ONE OF THEM MOVED.


13. Invisible Spiders on Your Back

The arachnids in Planet of the Spiders are not your unassuming, fly-eating just-quietly-trying-to-get-on-with-their-lives spiders of your dwelling-place. Instead, they're big, power-hungry, invisible,  can control your mind, and they're possibly on your back (just out of sight).

Yes, that's probably just an itch.


14. The Wirrn

The Ark in Space is more famous for its use of bubble wrap (even though it works quite well) than the underlying horror of its monsters. Consider the Wirrn's wasp-like modus operandi: the Queen lays her eggs in a host body. The larvae consume the body and mind, absorbing knowledge as they eat. We never see what happens to the bodies of the people they attack, but they're completely gone by the time we return. They're literally going to eat us alive.


15. Davros. In General

Davros is obviously Hitler. The Nazi parallels of the Daleks have long been established, and here we have their creator: a ranting, persuasive, driven megalomaniac with messianic aspirations. Davros's responses to everything are so detached and analytical that he responds to hypothetical queries about mass genocide like a man who's heard an amusing witticism. By this stage, admittedly, he's just wiped out most life on Skaro just to safeguard his creation.

If he was played by Michael Wisher as a humanoid scientist, Davros would still be terrifying.


16. Aptly named

Terror of the Zygons has some brilliantly monstrous images, thanks to some wonderful still and sinister performances by the guest cast. The face of the titular monsters, out-of-focus in the background, has a cruel and demonic sneer to it. We see close-ups of eyes, a hand, an arm, and then from nowhere the full reveal.

Even when you know it's coming, the cliffhanger of Part One still delivers. It's a combination of editing, the camera-zoom, the sheer unexpectedness of it, and Lis Sladen's immaculately timed yelp. And it all happens so fast, you don't fully have time to process it.


17. Namin is killed by the Servant of Sutekh

Namin seems a very humourless man. He spends much of his screentime in Pyramids of Mars looking angry at Englishmen and stirring himself into a nigh-on religious fervour. He's already shot and wounded Doctor Warlock, and now it looks like he's going to summon Sutekh the Destroyer. All in all, it's been a good episode's work for the henchman.

It's therefore quite a nasty surprise when the figure in black that greets him is not Sutekh, but merely the henchman one level up from Namin. He communicates this by slowly roasting Namin alive with his hands, impassionately intoning (altogether now):

'Die. I bring Sutekh's gift of death to all humanity.'


18. Kneel at the might of Sutekh

Not content with killing his allies in a fit of demarcation, Sutekh is also capable of torturing the Doctor with his mind, chuckling at his effortless superiority. It's rare that you'll see the Doctor so helpless, and Tom Baker and Gabriel Woolf sell the scene completely. The point where you realise how helpless the Doctor is comes when he is instructed to kneel, and resists, only to meet laughter and a will stronger than his.

The Doctor kneels. At this point, it's impossible to see how he can win.


19. The Master is having a bit of a shocker

Various explanations have been offered for the Master's skeletal, Death-like appearance in The Deadly Assassin, but let's just accept the obvious one: Robert Holmes wanted to scare us. Do you know what the Grim Reaper lacks? That sense that all the flesh has been burnt off him, being entirely motivated by hate,  a giant positronic brain, and access to huge train sets.


20. Choo Choo! - The Deadly Assassin

So far, the Doctor's trip to the virtual reality Matrix has been a total hassle. It's a place of lots of 'AND SUDDENLY's. There's all these clowns and snakes and samurai being generally unexpected and freaky, so it's generally been quite unsettling.

AND SUDDENLY there's a train track. And the points have been changed by a masked man, trapping the Doctor's ankle. This is painful enough, but relatively speaking, it's going to be a walk in the park compared with what happens when that train reaches him.


21. “The door is not a barrier.”

Robots of Death is perhaps a bit of a giveaway as titles go, but (feet aside) these creepy mechanical men have never been matched. It helps that some of them have subtle personalities, despite the neutral inflections of their voices. This tone makes their death threats all the more disturbing. As one tries to break in to murder a crew member, it says simply 'The door is not a barrier'.

Doors, traditionally, are barriers. The only thing worse than having someone break into your house and murdering you is for it to coldly tell you how little protection you have first.


22. The Doctor gives Stael the gun

The Doctor is 'never cruel or cowardly', as Terrence Dicks famously said. This is kinda boring though, and patently untrue. You might want to dispute both, but where there's shades of grey you get a more interesting character.

For example, in Image of the Fendahl, you could argue that the Doctor giving the doomed Stael a gun so he can kill himself is being cruel to be kind. You could argue that it's a cowardly act. You could argue that where there's life there's hope.

It's conjecture, really, but it's hard to square those two statements:

The Doctor is never cowardly or cruel.

The Doctor gives Stael the gun.


23. The Doctor's Power Trip Part 1

The Invasion of Time is often remembered for its production flaws (tinfoil aliens, redbrick TARDIS interiors, Cockney Sontarans) rather than its inspired opening gambit: has the Doctor gone bad?

Returning to Gallifrey to claim the Presidency, the Doctor dismisses Leela and appears to be in league with the invading Vardans. Obviously he can't really be. Obviously. But then again...


24. Ogridi, ogrida, life goes on (briefly)

It really shouldn't work. If you read or heard a writer going on about standing stones that move around and drain their victims' blood, you'd probably not see that concept working on screen.

Still, they can't help but look imposing from the point of view of two campers who wake to find two pillars of stone outside their tent. You can't really blame them for assuming that these objects wouldn't divest them of all their flesh, but them's the breaks.


25. The Doctor's Power Trip Part 2 – The Armageddon Factor

The thing about the Fourth Doctor is that, due to his general behaviour being outlandish, when he goes mad it's somewhat extreme. Having assembled a nebulous artefact called 'The Key to Time', the Doctor decides that it's too dangerous an object to possess. He illustrates this point by rolling his eyes back inside his skull and ranting about his will being the most important thing in the universe.

And just for a second, it looks like he means it.

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Firstly, stellar stuff as ever Mr Blair. I always really enjoy your Doctor Who lists, long may they continue.

Anyway, nice to see that Sarah-Jane Smith/Spider picture as my earliest ever TV memory is of Planet Of The Spiders. I would've been just shy of my 4th Birthday. Those big-ass spiders apparently gave me nightmares for months (my Mum still likes to mention it every time the subject of Doctor Who arises) but I kept coming back for more each and every Saturday tea-time. I don't know why I kept doing it to myself as over the next few years there were many moments when I genuinely felt terrified, but I just couldn't stop!

Over the last few weeks I've been re-watching episodes with my daughter, she's only been watching Who for a couple of years so I've been giving her a potted history before the 50th. There have been some scares but overall she's been fine with everything, until we watched The Girl In The Fireplace a couple of days ago, she was pretty terrified and I know it was bugging her at bedtime too. I thought maybe we should give it a break but the next morning she said "can we watch another one tonight?". I was very proud :-)

Hilarious read!
And yes, I did jump.

Even without the administration of raisins? Atta girl!

Seconded. Good article.

I'm not a whovian, but what was that vampire doll creature from the black and white episodes? I think it came to life with human warmth and then attacked, or something. Thats the most fierce creature I've seen on doctor who, but can't remember the name.

Terror of the Autons, I think. The Troll Doll.

Count Scarlioni's ageing ray in City of Death scared me (not to mention his big reveal) as did the cobweb strewn Davros in Destiny. The Davros one is my very earliest DW memory.

And while the clowns in The Greatest Show were creepy it was the werewolf transformation that gave me the willies at the time.

Oh soooo with you there Paul. Both of them scared the bejesus outta me as a kid. Also the vampire girls in Fenric. Brrrrr!
But I still consider Davros to be the scariest thing they ever did in Who.

Just how many times have you watched the Google homepage graphic today huh Richie?

I've just spent 30 minutes playing the game.

Nice name you've got yourself there !

What about Sara Kingdom's death? Rapidly ageing then disintegrating must have been pretty horrifying back in 1965.

The Mara scared me as a child, I was old enough to have a very active imagination by then...

Great article as always but I wouldn't include either the Cybermen in the sewers or Toby entries. The redesigned Cybers just ain't creepy and Toby was easily out-ranked on the scare scale by the Ood in those episodes. Personally I'd swap them out for the awakening scene from Tomb of the Cybermen and the cliff hanger from The Empty Child. Actually, that's a good point, how the heck did "Are You My Mummy?" fail to make the cut?

For me, it's the Angels, the Silence and Midnight. Though the Angels win because of that first, absolutely spine tingling moment when you see it's uncovered its eyes. Supremely terrifying, and I'm generally immune to modern attempts at horror. The Angels got less scary as time went on (and physically seeing them move in The Time of Angels was outright terrible), but they're still fantastic.

The Silence because anything humanoid but slightly wrong is just plain disturbing. That and they remind me a lot of Slenderman, with the long, reaching arms and black suit. Plus their ability to wipe themselves out of your memory provides some great scare opportunities.

And finally, Midnight, because Nothing is always scarier. If you have an active and varied imagination, as I have, you'll have found that episode utterly gripping, just because the entity never states what it is, what it wants, and never even has a single hint of a physical reveal. If Moffat's proven anything with his time on the show, it's that he knows how to scare the crap out of us.

An excellent list, though I'm amazed the empty child didn't get a mention! "Are You My Mummy?" AAAAAHHHH!

The one thing that scared me to death as a kid was in Masque of Mandragora when they rip of Hieronymous' mask and there was no face. One of my earliest memories.

How about The Doctor's Power Trip Part 3? The Waters of Mars and declaring himself the Time Lord Victorious.

I'm sure it was no mistake that the light in his space helmet cast skeletal shadows on his face as he strode back to Bowie Base One.

Brooks thought it such a terrifying concept that she blew her own head off.

As of the two last series, my most terrifying moment would have to be the death of the crime boss in The Angels Take Manhattan. It was so scary because 1) it was two different types of Angel, and 2) the expression on that one lady statue's face. And then the out-of-focus movement in the background...Brrrrr.
Also, the clown in the matrix is still near the top for me, so confusing and terrifying because of it. Honestly, what is that? And fully agree with you on #41, mate.

Vashta Nerada in the Silence of the Library/Forest of the Dead? Definitely had me scared of the dark after that one.. although its mainly remembered for first meeting River now, it was definitely a scary one at the time

I was pretty young when I first say the ep with Toby in- it was one of the first eps I ever saw- and remember having to turn off the tv i was so scared by him. The Ood I wasn't as scared of because everyone knew they were scary

Pity the pic you used for The Crusade shows Barbara with Saladin rather than El Akir.

"Are you my Mummy" surely has to get on the list. Its the episode that hooked me into the series and introduced Who to Moffat

Where is the spoiler full review?

God bless all the Whoniverse!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I know! I want to see if RichieC has recovered yet.

I dont think there was a press launch of the episode, so they won't have prewritten it.. or DoG has had a meltdown at how awesome it was

Little bit of column A ..... little bit of column B!

Still at it, have been since 7.30am. Off to watch The Five(ish) Doctors now.

Great list but would have definitely had Oak & Quill attacking Mrs Harris from Fury From The Deep - that scene gives me shivers just thinking about it!

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