Doctor Who: 50 great scary moments
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.
26. The Master’s Calling Card
The Master is the most sporting villain in creation, a strong believer that ‘forewarned is forearmed’. Thus, when he knows the Doctor’s mind in advance (a very useful tactic that is never mentioned again) he decides to leave him a few clues in the form of the shrunken, action-grip corpses of Aunty Vanessa and a policeman in the former’s car.
What’s upsetting about this is that we see them desperately struggling against the force of the Master’s Tissue Compression Eliminator, as he merrily chuckles at their forlorn attempts to survive.
27. Inside Tegan’s mind
The segments of Kinda set in Tegan’s head are probably the most incisive characterisation of a companion during the Eighties. A mocking blond man talking in riddles confuses the hell out of her, while two fusty alien geniuses talk gibberish amongst themselves, next to an impossible, nightmarish box. It’s almost monochrome, the picture is so bleached out, and it says more about how Tegan sees herself in the TARDIS than anything else on screen.
It transpires an evil entity called the Mara is trying to take over her body, but initially it’s just cold, stark and bewildering.
Snyder, being from the future and all, has probably seen Aliens. That will doubtless be no comfort to her as her life-signs disappear from the scanner, and her former comrades unwittingly tread all over on her steaming, green, viscous remains.
29. Snake Skulls
There’s a lot going on in Snakedance, and the build up to Part 1’s cliffhanger is a microcosm of its subtext (why yes, I am stroking my beard as I type). But mainly, it’s a skull exploding a crystal ball and the herald of oncoming evil.
30. The Death Zone
Peter Howell can make a synth howl like an electric hyena having its balls kicked into a threshing machine. He’s like the Mark Knopfler of synths, only good. His theme music sting is the stingiest theme music sting, floating like a bee and stinging like a paper cut.
Thus, when presented with some shots of the Death Zone, and corridors in the Tower of Rassilon, he turns them – via the medium of blaring synth – into memorable, scene-setting spinechillers.
31. Malus come
Funny how things look different when you’re a child. Now, the Malus looks like a chicken-wire model, or a slow-moving giant head prop. You have to suspend disbelief. On first viewing, however, it was a demonic entity with a monstrous roar, a being so large that its body is buried beneath the ground and only its head appeared in the local church; and yet, it was also this tiny changeling creature that had somehow breached the TARDIS, and was now spewing green vomit everywhere.
32. Not a Homo-Reptilia to be Seen
Frontios’ budget couldn’t quite stretch to dragging actors beneath the earth, but as ever with Doctor Who it’s nothing a little bit of imagination couldn’t cover up. A few special effects, some horrified reactions, and some of Christopher Bidmead’s most evocative dialogue:
‘He said the Earth was…hungry.’
More effective than any visuals could ever be.
33. The Master’s Madness Manifest
The drums, the endless drums are not remotely sufficient to explain the Master’s insanity. In The Mark of the Rani the Master dresses up as a scarecrow and stands in a field so that the Doctor – if he happens to walk past – will think that he’s a scarecrow. It’s almost as if he’s never heard of walls. And houses. And his own TARDIS. Then, after he’s divested himself of his cack-strewn straw vestments, he kills a dog. Take that Hollywood, the Master cares not a jot for your conventions.
While this is all quite amusing on some levels, on others, it’s vastly more disturbing than percussion based megalomania.
34. ‘We are all to become Daleks’
Davros is converting humans into Daleks. He believes that this is what people of intellect and ambition would want of their dying bodies. This isn’t widely known outside of the cryogenic facility, so it comes as something of a shock to Natasha to discover the remains of her father as a Dalek embryo.
It then alternates between begging him for death and ranting about racial supremacy, until she shoots him.
35. You killed Peri…
The Doctor is watching at his trial, and he doesn’t know what’s about to happen.
Brian Blessed plays the role of the Warlord Ycarnos exactly as you’d expect him to, and yet the tentative romance between him and Peri works because of all the shouting. There’s something to contrast. So when he sees Peri’s animated corpse, replaced by the conscience of the slug-like Kiv, he reacts with horror, denial and then slow motion roaring before he fires his laser.
It’s later retconned, but at any rate the Time Lord’s villainy in letting Peri die is barely mentioned after the next episode anyway. At the time, though, it’s astonishing.
36. The Vervoids
It’s the thorns. That’s what does it.
The Vervoids are walking plants, and perhaps the costumes aren’t the most flattering. They’re very effective scary monsters nonetheless, combining tried and tested methods: the hissing voice, the human hybrids, the grotesque MO, and the hiding in dark places.
Mainly though, it’s the thorns. The thought of their piercing your skin, hurting even before the life drains out of you.
37. The Chief Clown
Clowns are inherently wrong. They’re meant to make you laugh, but they’re caked in crusting falsehoods.
The Psychic Circus’ Chief Clown has a pointed smile which hides a malicious streak. The bit where it becomes palpably uncomfortable to watch is when he mimes delight at a suicide he – but not the viewer – can see.
Fans of the Chief Clown might wish to know that actor Ian Reddington plays the villain in one of the greatest Big Finish stories ever, A Death in the Family and its prequel The Word Lord. Seek them out.
38. Nicholas Parsons is dead inside
The two Cockney vampire girls are out to get the Reverend Wainwright. ‘Everyone is lost,’ they tell him. They kill him, and because he’s a good man he can’t do anything. He can’t fight, and his faith has been crushed by war. It was always going to be this way.
Sometimes The Curse of Fenric is really depressing.
39. Please be quiet while I’m murdering you
Eric Roberts’ Master comes in for some stick for being a tad outré, however, one of the very first thing he does is completely Masterly. Having taken over the body of ambulance driver Bruce, he promptly kills Bruce’s wife and puts his fingers to his lips.
The Master would appreciate it if no-one discovered him killing you. It’s only polite.
40. Ah, so that’s where the line is
New series, new dangers. After so long off the air, one of the challenges was knowing how far was too far when it came to scaring a whole new generation.
Turns out it was the bit where the guy’s dead mother was re-animated as a zombie and broke his neck. That was too far.
41. Why yes, I am going to sucker you to death
How to turn a running joke into a lifelong fear of plumbing.
42. Silent Exterminate
Sweet ol’ Lynda. A better companion than some who actually travelled in the TARDIS. Obviously she had to die. The Daleks are burning down the door, and her fate is inevitable. What no-one was expecting, though, was for Daleks to appear outside in the vacuum of space, and for their lights to silently flash.
The glass explodes. The camera cuts back to the Doctor. You can only imagine.
43. Clockwork stabbings
The Girl in the Fireplace is probably the best combination of cleverness and emotional heft that the show has ever managed. Being Moffat, though, it also features a brief bout of terrifying the bejeezus out of children. What else could that noise be, but the monster beneath our beds?
Tick tock. The tension builds.
Tick tock. The Doctor lifts the bedsheets, and…
Bet you jumped.
44. Cybermen in sewers
Homaging a fair few Sixties Cybermen stories, Rise of the Cybermen features a brilliantly tense sequence where Cybermen come to life in the tunnels beneath Battersea Power Station. The Doctor and Mrs Moore run for their lives, as Cybermen awake, and reach out, grasping towards them in the dark…
45. Toby (or not Toby)
Gabriel Woolf’s voice is a gift to Doctor Who, but spare a thought for his loved ones. His wife gets home from a hard night at the opera, and she’s greeted by a disembodied malevolent voice telling her that he’s done two hot water bottles so there’s no need for the electric blanket.
Returning to the fold in The Impossible Planet, the simplicity of the scare is breathtaking in its ability to induce terror:
‘Don’t turn round. Don’t turn round, or you’ll die.’
46. Don’t blink
Try not to blink. Go on. Try it. It’s really, really difficult, and all you’re doing is reading a list of scary things while looking at a picture of a Weeping Angel on your monitor.
By the way, that which holds the image of an angel becomes itself an angel.
Try not to blink.
The creature’s ineffability isn’t the scariest thing about this one, it’s the realisation that the Tenth Doctor’s veneer of bonhomie and charisma is so thin, so delicate, that it’s a wonder he lives as long as he does. Nobody is safe from the creature, but equally nobody is safe from each other, and that includes the Doctor. Even if he’s clever.
48. One drop…
There are a lot of zombies on this list. There are a lot of creatures who can possess you based on touch, because it’s cheap and effective and doesn’t require blood. What’s impressive is the sheer number of ways people have come up with to overcome the limitations of the show’s timeslot and audience to produce many of the horrors of Romero zombie flicks without anyone getting torn apart.
In The Waters of Mars, Russell T. Davies and Phil Ford take the socially responsible angle of making water something so terrible that one drop robs you of your humanity. Roman is caught by one drop. We never see him again.
No deaths from dehydration have been reported.
49. Enjoy the Silence
The Silence remain ineffable, confined to Series 6 and with their back story only hinted at. As well as their ‘Forget-me-lots’ stylings and screaming skull-like appearance, they also feature in one of the few expertly done daintily-paced creepy reveals of recent times, as Amy investigates an abandoned orphanage, only to find the Silence outside the fifth wall.
Don’t look up.
50. Live Chess
Steve Moffat throws away great ideas as window dressing much like Philip K. Dick. One of his best comes from The Wedding of River Song. After a game of ‘Live Chess’, the Doctor follows Gantok to the Seventh Transept, where skulls of the Headless Monks were stored. As sudden deaths go, being buried alive in and then eaten by severed skulls is certainly unnerving.
Then, purely to keep us on our toes, the skulls turn to face the Doctor, as if to say ‘…AND?’
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