Mary Whitehouse’s Worst Nightmare: 8 Frightening Serials From Doctor Who’s Classic Era


“Tea time brutality for tots.”

That was the term that a woman named Mary Whitehouse used to describe Doctor Who in 1975.  Mary was the founder of the National Viewers and Listeners Association and, in her crusade to return Britain to decency, she often leveled her harshest criticism at Doctor Who, a show that she regularly claimed was too scary for television.

Did she have a point?  Of course not.  Even children who were scared of the Daleks when they were nine or ten eventually grew up to realize that all you had to do to escape those mutant bastards was run up a staircase.  Still, Doctor Who did occasionally have its memorable horror moments.

Here are eight frightening episodes from Doctor Who‘s classic era:

  1. State of Decay (4 episodes, 1980)

Everyone remembers this classic from the Tom Baker years.  The TARDIS materializes on a planet where the villagers live under the shadow of a dark tower.  Ruled over by three cruel lords, Zargo, Camilla, and Aukon, the villagers are forced to regularly sacrifice their young to appease their rulers.  The Doctor, Romana, K-9, and Adric investigate and discover that Zargo, Camilla, and Aukon are vampires!  After being defeated by the Time Lords, the vampires retreated into E-Space, where they found a new planet to rule.  Of course, that little tosser Adric wants to become a vampire.  Why Romana and the Doctor didn’t leave Adric behind on the vampire planet, I’ll never understand.

2. Horror of Fang Rock (4 episodes, 1977)

This underrated serial is also from the Tom Baker era.  The Doctor and Leela land on the Island of Fang Rock, just off the coast of England, in the early 20th century.   The inhabitants of an isolated lighthouse are being killed, one-by-one, by an alien known as a Rutan.  This episode is full of gothic atmosphere and, despite the Doctor’s best efforts, almost everyone dies.

3. The Talons of Weng-Chiang (6 episodes, 1977)

Of all the Tom Baker episodes, this is my personal favorite.  The Doctor and Leela find themselves in Victorian-era London, where they investigate a murder and discover that they are not the only time traveler in London.  When most people talk about this serial, they focus on the terrible giant rat and the wonderful supporting characters of Jago and Lightfoot.  What I always remember is the Peking Homunuculus, a psycho killer who looks like a puppet and squeals like a pig!

4. The Deadly Assassin (4 episode, 1976)

One final Tom Baker episode.  The Deadly Assassin is unique in that it features the Doctor with no companions.  When the Doctor travels to Gallifrey, he discovers that The Master (played by Peter Pratt) is still alive and determined to destroy the Time Lords.  Having used all of his regenerations, The Master is now not only at his most evil but also horribly disfigured and decaying, a sight to give nightmares to any impressionable viewer!

5/6. Kinda (4 episodes, 1982) and Snakedance (4 episodes, 1983)

Peter Davison was an underrated Doctor and never was he better than in Kinda and its sequel, Snakedance.  In both of these episodes, The Doctor must deal with the efforts of the Mara to possess his companion, Tegan.  Both of these episodes were more creepy than scary but, thanks to the performances of Peter Davison and Janet Fielding, they were effective nonetheless.

7. Spearhead From Space (4 episodes, 1970)

Jon Pertwee made his debut as the Third Doctor in this serial.  The Doctor is exiled to Earth just in time to deal with an invasion by the Nestenes.  Serving as the Nestenes’s invasion force are the Autons, life-size plastic dummies that come to life at inopportune times.  With their stiff movements and expressionless faces, the Autons were regularly cited as one of the Doctor’s creepiest enemies.

8. The Daemons (5 episodes, 1971)

The Third Doctor vs. The Devil!  The Master as a vicar!  A killer statue!  Not even the Brigadier’s order of “Chap with wings!  Six round rapid!” could lighten up the atmosphere of this Jon Pertwee classic.

The Doctor and friends

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