Horror in Who: Self

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, what frightens humans most of all…?

Across a startlingly excessive array of serials, Doctor Who demonstrates distillations of us, horrific intentions behind our own visages. They look like us; they sound like us; they use us; they are us.

Monsters, it turns out, come in many forms.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Like Clara, we are all, to some degree, control freaks. But while Miss Oswald likes to control things she shouldn’t have any power over, most of us are content with having control of ourselves.

But there are aliens who seek to take dominance.


Literature is littered with body snatchers, creatures that inhabit our bodies and our minds. Traditionally, of course, body snatchers were humans who would dig up graves, their purpose often being to sell cadavers on for anatomical study, especially throughout the 19th Century. However, when it was frowned upon for physicians to deviate from the work of Galen – whose theory of the Four Humors was practised for hundreds of years – discoveries were made from illegal dissections of corpses, furthering the incredible practises of geniuses like Andreas Vesalius (whose anatomical study, De humani corporis fabrica, remains one of the most influential tomes in history) and William Harvey, the first to accurately describe the process of blood circulation.

The Body Snatcher, by Robert Louis Stevenson (best known for The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), focused on this premise, taking an even more sinister turn when it becomes apparent there is a murderer in amongst the central characters’ clan.

However, since 1955, the term ‘body snatchers’ has become synonymous with aliens, thanks to Jack Finney’s popular, if not exactly critically-acclaimed novel, The Body Snatchers. It was serialised in America but really caught the public’s imagination when a film adaptation, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, was released the following year. Since then, three remakes in 1978, 1993, and 2007 retained the property in our imaginations and spawned the term, ‘Pod People.’

In the book, plant-like pods fall to Earth and replace sleeping humans with perfect duplicates. These live only half a decade and cannot sexually reproduce, so their aim is to move on to a different planet once Earth is barren.


The idea is likely inspiration for 1976’s The Seeds of Doom¸ in which we meet the Krynoid, capable of infecting and digesting the peoples of any planet. “On planets where the Krynoid gets established,” the Doctor says, gloomily, “the vegetation eats the animals.” The greenery is essentially a virus – which brings us onto a further example of a body snatcher: the Nucleus of the Swarm from the subsequent year’s The Invisible Enemy. Similar to Finney’s “Pod People,” the Swarm’s only aim is to survive.

That, too, is a common trait… not that it’s exclusively a good-intentioned thing.

In Mindwarp (1986), Lord Kiv wanted to outlive his current form as a Mentor, but shed no tears at the expense of others, firstly having his brain implanted in another and once that was outgrown, moving his consciousness to Peri, sporting a newly-shaved head. Prisoner Zero, in 2010’s The Eleventh Hour, was prepared to sacrifice not just those whose images he had used but also the entire planet – simply because if it were to die, “let there be fire.”

Similarly malicious, the Slitheen demonstrated their ruthlessness by using a compression field to slim down into the skins of those they killed in 2005’s Aliens of London/ World War Three. In Boom Town, writer Russell T. Davies let us mull over nature-versus-nurture when Blon Fel Fotch Pasameer-Day Slitheen is given a second chance at life – only after she has realised how accustomed she has become to her human environs. Mind you, she still planned to set a nuclear power plant to destroy Wales.


In their 1975 introduction, the Zygons were portrayed as through-and-through adversaries to the human race, but some ambiguity was added in The Day of the Doctor (2013), and expanded in The Zygon Invasion/ The Zygon Inversion (2015), showing they’re capable of the best – in Osgood – and the worst, in Bonnie… but also a change of mind. Just like us. Likenesses are highlighted in the stand-off between Kate Stewart and Bonnie at the conclusion of the Zygon’s most recent outing.

The Resemblance is Uncanny

Not all aliens enslave our minds and/or bodies, though. Some just look like us, or, in some cases, exhibit what our future might hold.

Mechanical beings that hope to replicate humans appear in The Android Invasion (1975), Androids of Tara (1978), Let’s Kill Hitler (2011), and 2014’s Deep Breath and Robot of Sherwood.

But why do they scare us?


It boils down to an essentially Freudian theory of the “Uncanny,” something familiar yet alien, sometimes associated with cognitive dissonance – that is, anxiety caused from contracting beliefs or ideas in an individual. This generally causes humans to reject or be repulsed by the uncanny. Though it was expanded upon by Sigmund Freud, it was firstly explored by German psychiatrist, Ernst Jentsch, who explained that, in story terms, the uncanny creates effects “to leave the reader in uncertainty whether a particular figure in the story is a human being or an automaton and to do it in such a way that his attention is not focused directly upon his uncertainty, so that he may not be led to go into the matter and clear it up immediately.”

Freud’s example was “the idea of being robbed of one’s eyes” – which is certainly the matter with the Half Face Man, who declares that he “has bad eyes” and thus needs them replaced!

It was further specified by Japanese robotocist, Masahiro Mori as ‘Uncanny Valley,’ linking emotional response to anthropomorphism of a robot, varying depending on movement. He hypothesised that the more life-like and visually similar to a human something not living appears, the greater our negativity towards it.

It might be because they appear halfway between life and death; it might be because they remind us of all those sinister stories about an A.I. overthrowing the human race.

Deep Breath - Faces

It’s certainly one reason the Cybermen are scary. Neil Gaiman, writer of 2013’s Nightmare in Silver, said:

“I looked at The Moonbase [Cybermen] and they have this weird, impassive, uncanny valley thing of just the two eyes and the mouth, in the position they would be on a human face. It’s just really unsettling, and I wanted that… It’s that effect we’re going for – a very simple circular eye, a slash for the mouth, and they are where they are on a human face. Don’t get creative, because the more creative you get, the more we lose the uncanny valley. And for me there is that wonderful uncanny valley of how little it takes to make you go ‘This is a face’. It just takes two eyes in the right place and proportion, and a little mouth. And it’s absolutely impassive, which makes it really scary.”

Associations with negative experiences perhaps account for our repulsion of 1967’s The Faceless Ones (the unprocessed Chameleons left with burnt-like faces, devoid of features after an explosion on their home planet), and The Empty Child/ The Doctor Dances (2005), with gas-mask ‘zombies’ during the Second World War.

A Reflection of Us

Even more frightening are the serials that reveal something grim either ingrained in our DNA or that we grow into.


The Doctor Who production team were brave enough to view us in a less than favourable light very early on: 1964’s The Aztecs mainly focused on the morals of changing time, but the plot was particularly dark with repeated talk of sacrifices and hierarchy. Even though it was presented in a comical fashion, the following season’s four-part serial, The Romans portrayed the ruthless times, laced with even darker undertones, where slavery and poverty was rife, and murder was easy. (If you want these themes expanded upon further, try the excellent Byzantium! by Keith Topping.)

Likewise, Planet of the Ood (2008) notes that, where there’s profit, there’s an ambiguous morality. Quite aside from those selling the Ood, people blindly buying into ignorance are definitely guilty of ignoring the plea of slaves.

Throughout the Third Doctor era, officials are ruthless and often immoral. The Mutants (1972) is a great example of this, and ably demonstrates the hostility we may feel towards aliens once we venture into space.

Elsewhere, we are heartless in our pursuits of extending our life, whether this be through sacrificing those we love (The Lazarus Experiment) or torturing the innocent, an act so appalling we force ourselves to forget it (The Beast Below). Those instincts are studied in the final serial of Classic Who, Survival, which hopes we can overcome our primal urges, the Doctor commenting that “if we fight like animals, we die like animals!”


J. G. Ballard’s High Rise is often cited as inspiration for Paradise Towers (1987) – they even both feature a luxurious swimming pool on the top floor! The former is a very visceral, threatening examination of devolution, and the latter, while not quite capturing the same mood, nonetheless puts across the general atmosphere of unease and distrust.

Right from the get-go, Doctor Who has sowed the seeds of doubt, not just in the human race in general but also our heroes: the Doctor is immediately cold and bitter, not afraid to potentially kill a caveman with a rock in An Unearthly Child. It’s telling that the Doctor and his people, capable of greatness as well as incredible evil, look just like us. The tensions between the original TARDIS crew were underlined in 1964’s The Edge of Destruction, which even saw Susan threatening Ian with a pair of scissors. It was a decision the production team regretted, but remains a brave move; none of them are in the right frame of mind, yet it still shows our capacity to lash out at our friends.


“Human race,” the Master says in The Last of the Time Lords. “Greatest monsters of them all.”


It’s a sentiment we all occasionally feel: when we hear bad news, when we’re being philosophical, when someone misuses a semi-colon.

It’s rare we really think we’re the worst thing that’s ever happened to the Earth (even though that’s probably true), but Doctor Who is a long tale of the good and the bad. Humans have been blamed for atrocities but we can’t all be tarred with the same brush. Not all reflections of ourselves are bad: Listen (2014) tells us not to be afraid of being afraid, and 2007’s Gridlock shows how faith brings us all together; that not everything is as bad as it seems; that essentially, there’s always light at the end of the tunnel.

The Doctor is pretty quick to judge us anyway, but he’s not got the rosiest of pasts – as we’ll soon discover…

(Adapted from an article originally published on Kasterborous in October 2014.)