The Doctor is an alien humanoid over two thousand years old, has two hearts, and has regenerated a dozen times (uh, thirteen if you count The War Doctor). He’s a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey traveling in a sentient time machine known as a TARDIS—“Time and Relative Dimension(s) in Space.” He regularly seeks out evil and squashes it with sometimes nothing more than his superior intellect and a sonic screwdriver. Yes, very much a science-fiction program, but in the BBC show’s rich 54-year history, it has run the gamut of genres. The following are some of the best recent offerings of mystery and horror:
“The Unquiet Dead” (2005)
A spooky number written by Mark Gatiss finds The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) and his bubbly new companion Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) arriving in 1869 Cardiff and meeting an apathetic, lonely Charles Dickens (Simon Callow). Nearby, a funeral director named Sneed (Alan David) is having humorous difficulty keeping the dead from returning to life, and in a boisterous scene, an on-the-loose corpse attends a Dickens theater performance. As the great man references Marley’s ghost, he and his audience are jolted by a spirit exiting the stiff, swirling about the auditorium before assimilating into the gas light.
The Doctor concludes that there’s a rift—a weak point—in space and time that’s getting wider and “something is sneaking through.” But what could it be? Friend or foe? A servant girl—Gwyneth (Eve Myles), who grew up close to the rift—has reoccurring visions, and during a séance she begins communicating with the displaced entities.
Heart-tugging lines from The Doctor when Rose is baffled that she’s going to die before she is even born. He’s regrets, “Time isn’t a straight line, it can twist into any shape. You can be born in the 20th century and die in the 19th. And it’s all my fault.”
“School Reunion” (2006)
A mystery followed by a good amount of blood-thirsty horror—though the gore mostly happens off-camera. The Doctor (David Tennant) is undercover as a high school physics teacher, and Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) is, to her annoyance, working in the kitchen. Anthony Head (of Buffy The Vampire Slayer fame) is Mr. Finch, the headmaster who is feasting on some of the kids and using others for some unknown agenda.
Two welcoming surprises in “School Reunion”: first, there’s Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), who had said goodbye to the Fourth (Tom Baker) in 1976. The Doctor is overwhelmed with emotion to see her, but Sarah Jane wonders why he never came back for her and why he never mentioned her name to Rose. He explains the curse of immortality is that he has watched too many people die, and leaving some of the companions behind like he did with Sarah Jane is bittersweet but easier. Second kick is seeing K-9, the robot dog that was also a fixture during the Fourth Doctor’s tenure. Back then, he was somewhat of a clumsy and annoying companion used more often than not for comic relief, but the mechanical mutt’s upgrades in this episode’s climax kick butt.
Sarah Jane Smith quote: “No. The universe has to move forward. Pain and loss, they define us as much as happiness or love. Whether it’s a world, or a relationship ... Everything has its time. And everything ends.”
One of the finest episodes in the shows’ long history. The Doctor (David Tennant) and companion Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) are trapped in 1969. They were sent there by The Weeping Angels, a race of statue-like assassins that are quantum-locked; they move incredibly fast when no one is looking but are frozen still when being observed. If they touch you though—zap!—off you go to some past era while they feast on the energy that you would have had in the present. The Doctor quips, “The only psychopaths in the universe to kill you nicely. No mess, no fuss.”
Sally Sparrow (memorable Carey Mulligan performance) enters an old abandoned house to snap photos, when warning messages are discovered under the peeling paint of the wall. The Doctor left cryptic scrawls to beware the statues fast approaching her and to help him in preventing the angels from taking the TARDIS. He then continues communication with her via DVD Easter-egg extras that he has left, and though he’s in 1969 and she’s in 2007, they won’t meet until 2008. It all comes together in what the Time Lord would refer to as a “wibbly wobbly... time-y wimey” manner. Brilliant!
Warning: “Don’t blink. Blink and you’re dead. They are fast. Faster than you can believe. Don’t turn your back. Don’t look away. And don’t blink. Good Luck.”
In 1974, on a dark and stormy night (always works best for a haunted house story, right?), a psychologist, Alec Palmer (Dougray Scott), and an empathic psychic, Emma Grayling (Jessica Raine), are searching for a ghost in the 400-year-old Caliburn House. Nicknamed by local folklore “The Witch of the Well,” the ghost always appears in photos with a tortured scream on her face. Palmer says that it is written, “Her presence was accompanied by a dreadful knocking, as if the devil himself demanded entry.”
Genuine creepiness as the witch moans “help me,” but also a laugh-out-loud riot when Clara Oswald (Jenna-Louise Coleman) tells The Doctor (Matt Smith) he doesn’t need to hold her hand. When both realize it’s something otherworldly that’s actually holding her hand, they shriek like little kids and take off running.
In a poignant moment after The Doctor travels through several billion years of the Earth’s history, including the planet’s end, his seemingly nonchalant attitude disturbs Clara. She asks if humans are nothing to the Time Lord. In a heavy hearted reply he sighs, “You are the only mystery worth solving.”
Sobering warning from Emma to Clara about The Doctor: “Don’t trust him. There’s a sliver of ice in his heart.”
“Time Heist” (2014)
A Doctor Who crime caper! The bank at Karabraxos is the most secure in the universe, with its vault buried deep underground, and it’s never been robbed—until now. The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara Oswald (Jenna-Louise Coleman) are joined by Psi (Jonathan Bailey), an augmented human hacker, and Saibra (Pippa Bennett-Warner), a shift-shaper.
As the episode opens, they are already in the bank with their memories of how they got there wiped clean and security pounding on their door demanding they open up so they can be humanely incinerated! On the run, they get to know more about each other, and we learn in flashbacks how they got there in the first place. Such a clever, clever premise written by Stephen Thompson and Steven Moffat, with Capaldi settling into his role nicely, and the ever-stylish Ms. Coleman channeling Audrey Hepburn cool.
Nifty tech: when The Doctor uses a dimensional shift bomb to blow a hole in the floor, the exploding particles go to another plane leaving the “crooks” unscathed.
The Doctor: “Big scarf, bowtie. A bit embarrassing. What do you think of the new look? I was hoping for minimalism, but I think I came out with magician.”
“Mummy on the Orient Express” (2014)
In a futuristic homage to Agatha Christie written by Jamie Mathieson, The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) takes Clara Oswald (Jenna-Louise Coleman) on what he calls, “our last hurrah.” She has decided she can’t keep up the pace of being a companion and also having a regular social life. In honor of all they have been through, he lands the TARDIS on an Orient Express that is hurtling through space with passengers dressed up like it’s the 1920s.
Unfortunately for several of the unlucky on board, there is an immortal creature called The Foretold—the mythical mummy. According to legend, “The number of evil twice over, they that bear The Foretold’s stare has 66 seconds to live.” The myth first appeared over 5,000 years ago, and according to The Doctor, a specific word or riddle is supposed to make it stop. Of interest to the Time Lord, the passenger manifest is made up of experts in alien biology, physics, and mythology. Apparently, someone has gathered them together to study The Foretold and indirectly their own deaths.
The Doctor: “I could do with an extra pillow, and I’m very disappointed with your breakfast bar and all the dying.”
“Under the Lake” and “Before the Flood” (2015)
It’s 2119, and The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara Oswald (Jenna-Louise Coleman) arrive at an underwater mining facility in Caithness, Scotland. The crew has located an alien space ship and with it a ghost that begins transmuting, one by one, members of the facility into ghosts. The specters can walk through walls but only come out at night when the state-of-the-art compound is in night mode.
The Doctor is ecstatic saying, “... these people are literally, actually dead!” Wow!” He manages to capture three of them and discovers they are repeatedly mouthing the words “The Dark. The Sword. The Forsaken. The Temple.” But what could that possibly mean?
The Doctor goes back in time to find out what happened before a dam broke and flooded the area, and he is later seen adrift in the water having apparently become an apparition himself. The conclusion, “Before the Flood,” is a little less mystery (though a good helping of fright), as The Doctor is warned by Clara that he is going to be dead soon. She pleads with him to alter events, but the Time Lord insists he can’t—that any dabbling could cause serious damage to history like “ripples on a pond.”
The Doctor: “Every time I think it can’t get more extraordinary it surprises me. It’s impossible. I hate it. It’s evil, it’s astonishing. I want to kiss it to death!”
David Cranmer is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP. Latest books from this indie powerhouse include the alternate history novella Leviathan and sci-fi adventure Pale Mars. David lives in New York with his wife and daughter.