Tabula Rasa

Tabula Rasa

Search / Site Map


Doctor Who







Young Girls





DW Fandom



Season 5

Season 14

Stones of Blood

K9 and Company novel

Arc of Infinity

Season 22

Revelation of the Daleks

Doctor Who: Voyager

Doctor Who: Voyager (again)

Seasons 25 and 26

Season 26

Curse of Fenric novel

Timewyrm: Revelation


Fan fiction

Tabula Rasa

Box of Jhana


by David Carroll

First Appeared in Burnt Toast#1, 1990

Fear is with all of us and always will be...
     The Doctor
Doctor Who was not conceived as a horror program, just as the Doctor was not conceived to be a Time Lord, it just happened that way. And of course actually calling it a horror program detracts from the overall variety that goes into its production. Doctor Who is a comedy, and a drama, and a satire, and a space opera and an action/adventure show, among others, and in many of these aspects it excels. But despite all this it is the horror that holds a special significance for many people. Indeed the two greatest periods of the shows history, in my 'umble opinion anyway, that of seasons 13-14 and seasons 25-26 both achieved their successes through formats intended to scare, whilst the other era of the Doctor Who horror story, seasons 4-5 holds a similar fascination to those who have actually seen it. Time and again the show has proven it can send shivers up the spine, often with exhilarating results. It's the sort of thing that would inspire one to write a fanzine dedicated to it, and as an introduction to this column I'm going to take a general look at the horror genre, why it is so effective, and why it is so important to Doctor Who.

I suppose the first question is, What is Horror? and particularly that wonderful subgenre called Gothic Horror. Well, at first glance the dictionary doesn't help much. According to Chamber's Twentieth Century horror is 'n. (obs.) shagginess, raggedness: a shuddering: intense repugnance' whereas gothic is defined as 'adj, of the Goths or their language: barbarous: romantic'. While the first definition probably explains the appeal of the Abominable Snowmen it is the second that is more important. The Gothic genre is both barbaric and romantic, an essential contradiction [1]. It is neither the gratuitous blood-letting of the splatter-movie or the more realistic approach to horror as typified by Stephen King. The Gothic story depends on shadows and implied violence, a feeling that something is very wrong coupled with a deep familiarity. It need not be intended to scare, The Addam's Family is supremely gothic, but when called upon to do so certainly can. It is often very traditional, relying a great deal on mythology and legend, but uses modern twists, it can be uplifting or fatalistic, tragedy or comedy, surreal, but relevant.

And that, more or less, is my definition of Gothic Horror, which probably explains why I've never worked as a dictionary compiler. Long-winded as it is, however, we can start to see the attractions of the genre, why it is so popular. But perhaps more importantly is why anybody would bother in the first place, why do people enjoy scaring themselves? Fear is a negative emotion, so is horror a form of masochism, should we all be locked up? As can probably be expected this question has been examined many times, particularly in relation to Steven King, who is really the first modern author to introduce horror to a mass market [2]. Writing to inspire terror, horror and repulsion, in order of preference, he sees his profession as an alternative to the analyst's couch and many people would agree. In this rather chaotic mess we call society horror is a release valve, and as in any times of disorder, the genre is currently flourishing.

In America during the Great Depression many people were turning to stories and comics such as the Shadow, and later on Batman, to forget their empty stomachs, whilst the vampire tale which had just immigrated from England was there to stay. This was the era of H.P. Lovecraft and Algernon Blackwood, and of course many other's who haven't passed the test of time so well.

Other examples aren't hard to find, either. Victorian England, the background of many horror tales itself, Talon's of Weng-Chiang and Ghostlight among them, was the creator of many horrific stories. With the sharp contrasts between the "deeply conservative morality and intense nationalism" [3] of the time and the often appalling fate of many of its lower castes it again provides the contradictions inherent in the gothic form. The "penny-dreadfuls", cheap and lurid fiction published weekly, were a prime example, and the most famous of them, Varney the Vampire, or the Feast of Blood made it's villain as known then as Dracula is today. Forming a huge novelisation, the story ran for over a hundred instalments (the three sources I've read giving it's length stated 108, 109 and 801 episodes, does anyone know of a reliable figure?) before Varney threw himself into a volcano in a fit of remorse. Apart from that most famous of detectives Arthur Conan Doyle often wrote ghost stories and the like, whereas three of the most major influences on modern horror and science-fiction came from this era, Dracula, Frankenstein and Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde.

Similarly at the moment, when the problems are different but the feelings are the same, the upsurgence in interest in all things dark and dangerous is hardly surprising. The recent release of the Batman movie is indicative of the general mood. Like many of the modern 'pop icons' Batman has returned to his roots as a very dark character. [4] Equally indicative is the movies apparent failure in Australia. The only people I know who actually enjoyed it are the hard-core gothics or fantasists (and many of them have reservations, myself included, though overall I thought it was very good) whilst the many people who went along because of the hype simply did not have a good idea of what they were going to see. Horror has always had to work harder to establish itself in Australia, not only doesn't it fit in with the typical Ocker image, but our habitually sunny skies have a rather different effect from England's gloom and America's snow-bound winter. Yet even here I've noticed the Daily Telegraph recently start printing regular excerpts from Stephen King's The Dark Half, which aren't particularly pleasant in places. Whilst it does appear to have been shred by the editor, he obviously wasn't after the gory bits. You know what Stevie-baby's usually like: "His testicles were still were they belonged; his penis had been stuffed into his mouth. There was plenty of room, because the murderer had cut out Mr Bigshot's tongue and tacked it to a wall", just the sort of thing you'd want to read over breakfast.

And what about our favourite television show? As I've said it is a show of great variety, an anthology of stories as Dallas recently called it, and seems to shift its whole emphasis every three years or so (it's still too early to tell if the shorter seasons will protract this). Certainly at the moment it is in a period where gothic horror plays a major part, and there is no doubt Doctor Who does it very, very well. It seems strange that a show which, whilst not a children's program, has children as a significant part of it's audience, can achieve this. But like its content, the maturity of the intended audience fluctuates, often quite rapidly. A friend of mine once commented that Greatest Show was so creepy and occasionally shocking, not because it was as graphic as any of the current horror movies, but because it was a Doctor Who story, something we have grown up with. The production team has long realised the effect of using familiar objects, from daffodils to clowns, to inspire fear, and this may be reflected in our own attitude to the show itself. And since the program never can be (or should be) a slash-movie it uses shadows, the implied and the unknown to great effect. The occasional use of shock tactics, such as Mag's transformation and some of the more repulsive puns from Ghostlight certainly doesn't hurt either.

The roots of the current trend can be found in Paradise Towers, a story which successful combined the general silliness of season 24 with much darker overtones. Then suddenly the show became deadly serious. In contrast to the hard sci-fi of much of Remembrance of the Daleks the strange girl, played so beautifully by Jasmine Breaks, was the first example of what came to dominate the season (children with power can often be an incredibly powerful motif in print, but rarely does it work so well on screen. More on this in a later column). Then came The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, The Happiness Patrol (not true gothic, but a very close relation, mock-gothic, as we've come to call it), and a year later the superb Ghostlight, the even better Curse of Fenric, and Survival (almost mock-gothic itself) in Season 26. Shows like Battlefield and, to a lesser extent, Silver Nemesis were also very dark, reflecting the overall maturity of the seasons. This maturity has other benefits as well. Because they are horror stories the opportunity is there to use other scenes that, whilst not necessarily scary, have a similar emotional impact. Ace's 'distraction' of guard being the prime example from Curse (This point can be extrapolated to show one of the great uses of horror in a literary sense. It can be used to example some of the more unpleasant aspects of human nature with sometimes surprising honesty and insight). With all this, it's easy to see why we've had a wonderful two seasons worth of entertainment.

Whether all this will last is uncertain, not helped by the uncertainty of the show's actual future. Looking at the past we saw the first horror era turn into the short-lived science-fiction of season 6 and then the action/adventure of Jon Pertwee's reign, whilst the second era was more-or-less forced into the silliness of latter Tom Baker by the growing 'public concern' over the show's often violent content. What happens now is anybody's guess, depending largely on who receives the rights to make it. Call me a stick-in-the-mud traditionalist, but to say I'm hoping that Sylvester and Sophie will remain with the program and current themes similarly stay a while would be an understatement. As always, time will tell, it usually does.


[1] Or is it? It has been pointed out to me that Bram Stoker's Dracula, a very Gothic tale, does not rely on the usual incongruities. Unlike some of the latter movie adaptions the Count is always repulsive, always the monster. It is interesting to speculate the effects of this on our definition, but perhaps it is the three women that Jonathan Harker is so beguiled by that sustains the current theory.

[2] Two books I've read and enjoyed on the subject are King's own Danse Macarbe and the anthology Kingdom of Fear.

[3] New Knowledge Library, vol 32, Bay Books, 1981

[4] See Alan Moore's introduction to The Dark Knight Returns or The Dark Knight Doctor in The Frame#12 for more on this.


©2008 Go to top