How Doctor Who series 8 tapped into horror

The directors of Doctor Who's latest series brought back the scares in a big way. Well, fear is a superpower...

Warning: contains spoilers for every episode of the eighth series of Doctor Who.

We were promised back in August that the Peter Capaldi era of Doctor Who would mark a departure from the adventurous fairy tale approach of Matt Smith’s run.

“Darker” and “edgier” are buzz words that have been applied to countless Hollywood sequels, but the eighth series actually lived up to that promise and by September, the tabloid press were dispensing think-pieces about whether or not it had become too scary for children (“scary” here standing in for “complicated” in Smith’s era and “heretical” when David Tennant got a lift off a couple of angel robots in Voyage Of The Damned.)

All moral panics aside, this series brought back the scares in a big, bad way. With Smith’s final full series and specials pursuing high concepts over single-part 45-minute stories, it was all getting a little frenetic. Something of Who‘s quintessential horror was squeezed out of certain episodes. That’s been back in spades over the course of the most recent run.

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Still, head writer Steven Moffat didn’t change things up too much. As far as The Caretaker at least, the early episodes felt like a transition into the style of Capaldi’s more abrasive and alien interpretation of the character. A run of episodes from new blood – Peter Harness, Jamie Mathieson and Frank Cottrell Boyce – kicked it up a gear and by Saturday’s finale, it really did feel like a brand new show.

While television is usually considered a writer’s medium as opposed to the director-led cinema, there’s a great deal to be said for TV directors. Just as it was in 2010, when the arrival of directors like Adam Smith and Toby Haynes brought in a visual overhaul of the series in terms of cinematography and style, they’re the ones who have led the way to a darker and scarier show.

Ben Wheatley – The enemy inside

Hiring Wheatley, the prolific director of such surreal horror fare as Kill List and A Field In England, was the first indicator of a scarier timbre to the new episodes. A self-professed fan of the series since Tom Baker’s run, the director took on Capaldi’s début, Deep Breath and the following episode, Into The Dalek.

Between them, the two stories exhibit the kind of contrast that only Doctor Who can do in the space of just one week, going from gothic body horror, to a futuristic voyage.

The Half-Faced Man’s M.O was a throwback to the macabre repair droids of The Girl In The Fireplace and there are plenty of chills like the Doctor peeling a human face off a metal skull. The standout sequence gives the episode its name, as Clara holds her breath and tries to get past the dormant droids- Wheatley shoots it from her perspective, racking focus and flashing red across her vision to put us right in her oxygen-deprived head-space.

The subsequent episode may have been more action-packed than creepy and subtle, giving the director the chance to deliver some of the most beautiful Dalek explosion shots ever produced, but he also finds some interesting and uncanny angles on the interior of the galaxy’s most dangerous metal bastard.

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The method of establishing a new Doctor by pitting him against the Daleks is made literal by Phil Ford’s dialogue, explaining that the Doctor himself defined himself as the opposite of them after first encountering them. But the Twelfth Doctor is still finding himself, (“Am I a good man?”) and over the course of two episodes, Wheatley made fine work of dramatising that uncertainty to unnerving effect.

Paul Murphy – Killer robots!

In addition to the delusional repair droid and the faceless metal Daleks that kickstarted the run, this series of Doctor Who has seemed a little robot-heavy. It must have really seemed that way to Paul Murphy, who chaired Robot Of Sherwood and The Caretaker. The two episodes also have “monster of the week” plots running secondary to their character-led A-plots.

Of course. the first was more of a celebrity historical romp than a horror story. Robot Of Sherwood and Time Heist sandwiched a more experimental filling (Steven Moffat’s Listen, but we’ll get to that) and the top slice played out to more comical effect, amping up the rivalry between “folk heroes” Robin Hood and the Doctor over the robotic knights that made do for the monsters of the week.

Unusually, a scene that sounds like the big horror money shot of the episode was cut out in the week before broadcast. Due to sensitivity to real life world news, the BBC decided to excise a scene where Ben Miller’s Sheriff of Nottingham was decapitated. This would originally have been the reveal that he too was a robot, as his body picked up his head and re-attached it.

Apparently, the BBC are sticking to their guns and releasing the broadcast version on DVD, so it’s difficult to say how scary that could have been. There were more opportunities for scares in The Caretaker, with the murderous robot Scovox Blitzer raining chaos on Shorditch and Coal Hill School and Murphy seized them with gusto.

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There are a couple of intense excellently shot chase scenes to enjoy here, which make the most of a limited monster (played by Jimmy Vee in a distinctly “toyetic” costume.) The story stakes are more personal to the Doctor, Danny and Clara, but it’s on the strength of the direction that a skittering chair, belched out of the time vortex to herald the return of the killing machine, still brings oodles of dread.

There’s a long running tradition of killer robots in Doctor Who, a trope that Moffat has picked up once more for his Cybermen-heavy finale, but under Murphy’s direction, these still stand apart from admittedly more memorable foes, even while the emphasis is rightly placed on the protagonists instead.

Douglas Mackinnon – The spooky sandwich

The only director this season who had helmed Who before, you may remember Mackinnon’s work from the 2008 Sontaran two-parter with the Tenth Doctor, and from last year’s episodes The Power Of Three and Cold War.

He also directed the first three episodes of Steven Moffat’s 2007 update of Jekyll, which had more of a horror flavour than most of his Who episodes, until this year. Mackinnon returned to direct three episodes in this run, including two of the scariest that the series has ever produced.

Listen is easily the most singular use of the requisite “low budget one” of the run since series four’s Midnight and one of several stories  this series that have made more out of moral quandaries and ideological concepts than the traditional alien adversaries. Still, this is the first new Who story to go without a monster altogether.

It’s a story about fear itself and Mackinnon was instrumental in visualising a hugely philosophical piece from Moffat. The script carefully makes rational explanations for every scary thing that happens in the episodes – it’s just a kid playing a prank, it’s just air settling, it’s just a piece of debris – and then asks “but what if it wasn’t?” What is unseen is unknowable and that’s how you do a Doctor Who story without a monster.

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The direction preserves that ambiguity by generating shivers and holding shots for longer, rather than throwing in big jump scares, to say nothing of that out-of-focus… something that stood behind the Doctor, Clara and young Rupert at the children’s home. The ending makes it something of a divisive episode, (for this writer, it definitely wasn’t a cop out) but whatever you think of the denouement, the creep factor lingers.

The following week’s Time Heist is back to the kind of genre basics that have characterised all of Stephen Thompson’s Who scripts to date, (if the aforementioned Robot Of Sherwood is the top slice and Listen is the filling, this would be the base) but it did carry over that theme of the enemy within. While fear is a superpower in Listen, guilt is a great big giveaway to the Teller.

We haven’t really had an iconic new villain this series, but the Teller may well be the closest thing. In a series where knowledge is power, our heroes have had to wipe their own memories, lest their knowledge betray them and lead them to get their skulls pancaked. That concept and the imagery it provokes is the most lasting part of Time Heist, which also has that terrific jump scare when the Teller sneaks up on the Doctor in the vault.

Mackinnon also returned for Flatline, which had another villain which was more conceptual than physically imposing. The two-dimensional creatures, christened as “the Boneless” for what we hope will be a return in the future, are a rare example of a mindlessly malicious monster in the Moffat era and they lend themselves to some brilliant visual horror moments.

There’s fun to be had with the shrunken TARDIS and the Doctor’s face only just fitting in the door frame, but like some of the show’s scariest villains, there’s no negotiating with the Boneless because their mode of communication is so bizarre. Plus, Mackinnon delivers another mighty jump scare when a very three-dimensional hand grabs poor Al from out of the darkness of the Tube tunnel and drags him to an unfortunate death.

Having previously wrangled contemporary UNIT stories, Mackinnon has fulfilled the promise of the claustrophobic but rushed Cold War in his work this series, responsible for the biggest jump scares that the series has given us in years, while also bringing some lasting psychological chills.

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Paul Wilmshurst – Life in space is impossible

Possibly the breakthrough director on this series, Wilmshurst directed a mid season double bill of off-Earth stories, Kill The Moon and Mummy On The Orient Express, building a claustrophobic atmosphere in each setting.

Writer Peter Harness has said that Moffat asked him to “Hinchcliffe the shit out of the first half” of Kill The Moon, referring back to legendary Who producer Philip Hinchcliffe. That’s as overt a statement of scary intent as we could have going into an episode this year and even if the moral dilemma and character development came to the fore once again, it wasn’t at the expense of the horror.

The giant bacteria, which look an awful lot like massive spiders, are scary enough to any arachnophobes in the audience, but it’s the Doctor’s deliberate departure that rightly lands with the most weight. In an episode where certain budget restrictions become apparent, (we never see that sea of amniotic fluid on the pregnant Moon, do we?) Wilmshurst still ramps up the visceral and emotional terror of Clara’s predicament.

The consequences of that story hang over Mummy On The Orient Express, but as it was double-banked with Flatline, (notice how Clara spends a lot of time in one location here, much as the Doctor is confined to the TARDIS in the latter story) the focus is on a favoured horror paradigm of Moffat’s and Western horror in general.

Sight is a key tenet of horror fiction and monsters like the Weeping Angels, the Silence and Prisoner Zero have all tampered with notions of sight to horrific effect. The Foretold is in much the same vein here- anyone who sees this mummy has only 66 seconds to live.

By throwing up the countdown on screen and letting that terror unfold in real time with each victim, Wilmshurst really emphasises the visual end of it and further reaps the benefits of a truly terrific mummy costume. He’s set to return for this year’s Christmas special and on the strength of his work in this series, we can hope that we’re in for new Who‘s first properly scary Christmas story.

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Sheree Folkson – Stranger on the inside

Unless you count 2011’s David Tennant-starring romcom The Decoy Bride, there’s not much horror on this director’s CV. But in all fairness, neither do most of the new directors in this run and In The Forest Of The Night is not by any means a horror story. In fact, the episode’s most deliberate attempt at scariness is a three-headed six-armed thing – the Doctor’s idea of looking like too much bother for a wolf to eat.

With some parallels to much scarier episodes like Kill The Moon (for its environmental message) and Listen, (there isn’t a monster in sight, unless you count some escaped zoo animals doing what’s only natural when released into an overgrown London) Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s episode is deliberately more of a fairy tale than anything else we’ve seen since Smith departed. But even if it’s not a scary story, it’s hard to think when the interior of the TARDIS has ever looked more alien than it does here.

Utilising point of view shots from wide and low angles when Maebh enters the TARDIS at the beginning of the episode, the cinematography is entirely different to any view of the console room that we’ve seen before. As far as the motif of the internal unknown goes, this feels even more literal than going inside a Dalek for an episode. Hopefully Folkson, whose fine TV track record includes Russell T Davies’ Mine All Mine and Casanova, (another Tennant collaboration) will have another go in the next series.

Rachel Talalay – Three words

Ben Wheatley covered the first two episodes and the two-part finale was helmed by another film director, Rachel Talalay, whose early work included 1991’s Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, (spoiler alert: this was not the end for Freddy) 1993’s computerised slasher Ghost In The Machine (also known as Deadly Terror) and 1995’s Tank Girl.

Since then, she’s been a TV stalwart of sci-fi and horror series like Haven, Continuum, Supernatural and The Dead Zone. On the strength of her work on Dark Water and Death In Heaven, it has been strongly suggested that she’ll be back for more in series nine, having already brought all of the horror motifs of series eight to bear on the Doctor, Clara and Danny at once.

Early on, there’s a foray into Freddy Krueger territory, when Clara betrays the Doctor in a volcanic hellscape, only for it to turn out to be the result of an induced dream state. Then there’s the formidable image of giant tanks of water draining out to reveal Cybermen in hiding. And of course, there’s Doctor Who‘s first proper cliffhanger since 2011 as the Mondasians swarm St Paul’s and the Twelfth Doctor is utterly horrified to realise that his mortal enemy snogged him about 20 minutes ago.

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But as in so much of this series, the horror in the two-part finale is more emotional than visceral. Danny’s sudden death is played out over the phone to Clara, to mortifying effect right from the start. From there, the story elaborates on the glimpses of the afterlife/Nethersphere/Promised Land we’ve been seeing all series and it doesn’t get much prettier from there.

People have gotten upset about the three words that give “aftercare” corporation 3W its name, but that’s absolutely the desired reaction. The highlights of Dark Water weren’t the brilliant visual beats, but the precise delivery of two bombshell twists – the dead are connected to their bodies on Earth (“don’t cremate me”) and Missy is the latest incarnation of the Master.

With the Cybermen back in force, so is the kind of body horror that has gradually crept back into their betrayal since Moffat’s The Pandorica Opens in 2010. Fulfilling Missy’s promise that every grave on Earth will give birth to a Cyberman, we find metal hands bursting from graves early on in Death In Heaven.

Although it’s more action-packed than the previous episode, it hits many bases of horror in quick succession. The image of Danny’s face stuffed inside a Cyberman’s armour is emotionally disturbing in a very sustained way, whereas Missy’s murder of poor, nerdly Osgood is a dash through slasher movie territory. The Master has never been more hateable in any incarnation than  Missy is in that scene.

Talalay did a stonking job on the darkest series finale that new Who has yet mustered and it made for a bleak but enthralling capper to a world-beating run of episodes. If we were at Roath Lock, we’d be champing at the bit to get her back for more next year.

Conclusion

In hindsight, certain horror motifs recur have recurred through series eight in the run-up to the finale. Killer robots and fear of the unknown (including the afterlife) have both cropped up in Who before, but this time around, the horror has been far more introspective.

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The Twelfth Doctor professed right from the start that he’s made a lot of mistakes in his life, but he’s actually made a lot more since then. How many times this series has he miscalculated or been wrong about something, be it the reality of Robin Hood or Clara’s reaction to the Moon fiasco? More than the first series of either Tennant or Smith, Capaldi’s Doctor has an unknowable quality about him. Is he really a good man, or not?

In many ways, the climax of The Day Of The Doctor made it the perfect 50th anniversary story because it’s the apotheosis of the character – a man who is never cruel or cowardly, who will always strive to do the right thing, but also has the ability to have another go if the right course of action doesn’t immediately present itself.

You can get away with that on birthdays and maybe at Christmas, but series eight has put a great deal of effort into bringing back the sense of jeopardy after the anniversary jamboree, principally by exploring primal fears but eventually by restoring the notion of consequences to the wild and dangerous lifestyle that team TARDIS leads.

Seeing as how this Doctor is more hostile and alien than his predecessors, the fear behind the scarier adversaries and more difficult problems is felt more keenly than ever. We’ve also seen Jenna Coleman’s Clara grow into a truly great companion as she clashes with the new Doctor and experienced the thrills and chills of that new dynamic right along with her.

Hopefully, this has shown how the directors have brought about this shift in tone alongside the writers, even in a medium where Moffat et al clearly steer the ship. Most importantly though, Doctor Who hasn’t become too scary for kids this series. We’ve said that horror is good for young viewers before, but in Doctor Who especially, fear is your superpower.