Horror in Who: The Doctor

Whovians beware: we’re in for a scare.

The Doctor isn’t the most trustworthy of folk. He betrays, he kidnaps, he kills.

But like many monsters, he’s good-intentioned. So that’s okay. Right…?

“You Are All I Have, Monster”

The central character of our favourite show was conceived as a mystery and will remain a mystery. We come close to finding important information out about him, but the veil is never fully lifted. We’re teased with his ultimate secret, but are instead lead to his grave – and furthermore, it may not even be his grave, thanks to him cheating death on Trenzalore!


The core question is, of course, Doctor who? But viewers in 1963 were introduced to an elusive, seemingly-cold and bitter man who was, without doubt, an alien.

With this inhumanity, he’s obviously going to have a different set of values: a set of principles and morals born of a different world, a contrasting society.

And he was immediately harsh. In An Unearthly Child, he may be the Doctor, but he’s not quite the Time Lord who would land on a planet, overthrow the Government, defeat the monster under the bed, and disappear again without so much as a goodbye.

That debut serial definitely plays around with Christopher Volger’s well-recognised 12-part Hero’s Journey (an expansion on Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, a sequence detailing a typical hero’s actions throughout a tale); first and foremost because the Doctor isn’t really the hero! The Doctor is, if anything, an anti-hero, leaving Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright to take centre stage. In a famous scene, the First Doctor contemplates murder when he picks up a rock while looking at the injured Za who is unintentionally stopping them from getting back to the safety of the TARDIS.

In the following story, The Daleks, he is selfish enough to pretend they need to venture into a city on Skaro in order to obtain mercury for the fluid link. The TARDIS team all work against each other in The Edge of Destruction and it’s not really until Marco Polo that we get to know that grumpy man a little better. Nonetheless, his motivation remains getting back to his beloved Time-Space Ship. Gradually over Season 1, he takes on more heroic characteristics, but in The Aztecs (1964), he displays some otherworldly morals: he simply wants to leave the Aztecs to get on with sacrificing each other to their Gods, simply because history has to take its course.


By The War Machines (1966), however, he’s recognisably the Doctor he is today.

Not that today’s hero doesn’t suffer from his own monstrosity: in fact, it’s something that seems to haunt him.

“Am I A Good Man?”

“Every lonely monster needs a companion,” the Doctor says in 2013’s Hide. So does the Doctor see himself as something horrific? Doctors Eleven and Twelve have both questioned if the Doctor is a good man, and in Flatline (2014), it seems he’s made his mind up.

Why does the Doctor think of himself in such a negative light? Since the Time War, he might’ve thought the atrocities of battle have made him a darker, more tragic figure than before, but he must’ve surely been more upbeat in the instances between the end of The Day of the Doctor and the beginning of The Time of the Doctor.

It might be Trenzalore that has forced the Doctor to reassess himself: after getting over the Time War (at least partly – his family were more than likely killed sometime, though again, we know very little about them), he is slung into another seemingly-endless battle, one which would inevitably end with his own death, sans regeneration.

Thank the Time Lords (and Clara) for breaking some serious science there!


While the Eleventh Doctor put on a cheery visage in general, there are glimpses into the darkness: he lashes out at humanity in 2010’s The Beast Below; he won’t help Rosanna save an entire species in The Vampires of Venice; he might’ve sacrificed Craig so the makeshift time machine would let go of him in The Lodger; he shows his manipulative side in The Impossible Astronaut/ Day of the Moon (2011); he makes Amy lose faith in him in The God Complex; he is responsible for the death of Solomon in 2012’s Dinosaurs on a Spaceship; and he contemplates sacrificing Kahler-Jex in  A Town Called Mercy.

Things got particularly grim in A Good Man Goes To War (2011), and The Girl Who Waited, and in the following story, The God Complex, the Minotaur describes him as “an ancient creature, drenched in the blood of the innocent, drifting in space through an endless, shifting maze. For such a creature, death would be a gift.”

And he completely betrays his positive outlook after he loses Amy and Rory to the Weeping Angels (and time), turning into a recluse in The Snowmen (2012).

The Twelfth Doctor has expanded on this moody persona, from the get-go questioning his motives and exactly who he is. There are further darker tones in Into The Dalek (2014), in which he doesn’t really bother saving Ross; Listen (which focused on his fears and obsessions and how they can put his friends in danger); Time Heist, showing off his “professional detachment”; and The Caretaker, in which he is appalled that Clara has taken a former-soldier to her heart – perhaps as Danny is too much a reflection of himself.


Without hesitation, his darkest hour came in Kill The Moon: he may’ve seen it as something nice, but it felt ruthless and heartless to Clara and at least some of the audience. Series 9 introduced the idea that it’s actually Clara (and by extension, other companions) that pushes him too far: Missy describes him as “without hope”, capable of burning everything because Clara’s seemingly dead in The Witch’s Familiar; Bennett questions his morality in Before the Flood as he’s willing to alter time to save his companion; and his bringing Ashildr back to life continues to haunt him throughout the 2015 run of stories.

But these glimpses at darkness certainly aren’t confined to his most recent selves.

A History of Betrayal

Like it or not, the Doctor kills. That hits home in The Name of the Doctor when the Great Intelligence lists a small number of his victims and tells Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax that Trenzalore was “a minor skirmish by the Doctor’s blood-soaked standards.”

A notable questioning of his methods comes in 2005’s Boom Town where he has to dine with the woman he’s taking to her death. Whether he actually would’ve delivered her to her executioner remains unknown, thanks to the TARDIS’ timely intervention. It’s an interesting notion, though – certainly because the Doctor has a unique way of undermining his heroic status.


In The War Games (1969), the comedic character seems to turn on his companions. It’s a truly shocking thing, mainly as the Second Doctor always seemed so loyal. The First Doctor was capable of this sort of betrayal, but this “new” man showed few signs before that. In his final adventure, viewers in 1969 must’ve wondered how far the Time Lord would’ve gone to continue unhindered by his own kind.

The Third Doctor was always saying how insufferable humanity and UNIT were, but his seeming betrayal in 1971’s The Claws of Axos, too, is a shock. He really was bitter against those who grounded him…

The change from the Fifth Doctor to the Sixth is a huge juxtaposition: in an infamous scene from The Twin Dilemma (1984), he tries to strangle the woman he had saved about ten minutes before!

In the subsequent tale, Attack of the Cybermen, he does the unthinkable and uses a gun. Mind you, that was against a Cyberman, who are, you could argue (and the Doctor definitely would), already dead. The Sixth Doctor was aloof throughout his tenure, only really showing his affection for Peri in his final story, The Trial of a Time Lord (1986).

We had got used to the idea that those with the same faces as the Doctor could be evil (see The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve, The Enemy of the World, and The Face of Evil), but The Ultimate Foe went even further: the Valeyard was the sum of all his darkness, manifesting between regenerations. That the Doctor has a hidden darkness is an idea revisited in 2010’s Amy’s Choice.


Probably the most unpredictable of Doctors is the Seventh: he was a grand manipulator who pushed his main companion further than any previous ones. Ace must face up to her fears in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (1988-89), Ghost Light (1989), and Survival. In 1989’s The Curse of Fenric, he cruelly forces Ace to lose faith in him (and in that way, she somewhat outgrows him), a move repeated in The God Complex. Both Ace and Amy get their confidence back in the old Time Lord, but it gives the audience a nice reminder of what he’s capable of.

The Ninth Doctor suffered from terrible survivor’s guilt (but notably couldn’t kill a Dalek in cold-blood once Rose talks him down), but it was the Tenth who really took things into darker territory. Such is the way with many incarnations, things grew grimmer the longer the Tenth Doctor lived, and culminated in The Waters of Mars (2009), in which he betrays not only the audience but also himself. He’s had the same morals since his inception, even refusing to help in The Fires of Pompeii (2008), but this was a Doctor whose ego got the better of him.

Perhaps the Doctor’s biggest betrayal is one he does relatively frequently: regeneration. It’s a necessity to survive (isn’t that, too, what many of his own enemies have argued?), but nonetheless unveils a new layer of himself that he’s kept hidden – to his companions, to the audience. That first ‘renewal’ in The Tenth Planet (1966) must’ve been ground-breakingly shocking, and since then, he has gained our trust, made us love each face and persona – and then he changes.

Time Lord Victorious


Okay, so the Doctor is a bit scary. But let’s not forget what he really is, to all of us: a hero. Steven Moffat said it best:

“When they made this particular hero, they didn’t give him a gun; they gave him a screwdriver to fix things. They didn’t give him a tank or a warship or an x-wing fighter; they gave him a call box from which you can call for help. And they didn’t give him a superpower or pointy ears or a heat ray; they gave him an extra heart. They gave him two hearts. And that’s an extraordinary thing. There will never come a time when we don’t need a hero like the Doctor.”

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