Grim Visitations: A Brief History of the Reaper in Doctor Who

Death is a constant companion of the Doctor’s, at least according to Clive in Rose (2005). He’d have you believe that the Grim Reaper follows the Time Lord around all reality, ominously swinging his scythe, bones chattering, and breath frosting in the breeze.

Except it’s not true, is it? Death might follow in the Doctor’s wake, but there’s actually only been one appearance of the Grim Reaper in Doctor Who – and that wasn’t even the Reaper itself.

This was, of course, in The Visitation (1982), where the locals were scared by a sparkly android which has donned a black cloak and acted as a portent of doom for the superstitious. It’s understandable that the villagers were jumpy: the serial’s setting of 1666 comes towards the end of the so-called Great Plague of London, the last major epidemic of bubonic plague that claimed some 100,000 victims in the UK’s capital alone in just 18 months. This particular bout of plague was at its height in 1665, and with the benefit of hindsight, we know it didn’t last into 1667; alas, it must’ve seemed a particularly troubling time in the year of The Visitation‘s setting, as if perpetually standing on the edge of a precipice.

The imagery of the Grim Reaper, however, came into prominence at the start of the Second Plague Pandemic (a span that encompassed over 400 years and many outbreaks across Europe), beginning with the especially devastating Black Death period. Fear of the disease naturally crept into artistic renditions as a skeletal figure, typically carrying a weapon. The scythe quickly caught on, as the idea of death cutting down humans like wheat in a field.

(If you’re looking for a particularly good short story featuring this imagery, check out Ray Bradbury’s The Scythe, which begins slowly and builds to a chilling conclusion that, in retrospect, makes earlier activities in the tale utterly horrible. It’s a gloriously dark affair, well worth reading!)

Many religions have a deity of death, and some believe the Reaper originates with the Greek God, Chronos – which might ring a bell. Sometimes known as “Father Time”, this was the personification of time, which, likely due to time’s association with mortality, morphed into death. Their entwined meanings resulted in the bird-like Kronos in The Time Monster (1972). It’s not precisely an appearance of the Grim Reaper in Doctor Who, but nonetheless remains an interesting allusion.

We can find a further connection between time and the ominous figure in Father’s Day (2005). Depending on your vintage, mentioning Doctor Who in the same sentence as the Reaper will conjure up either the aforementioned android or the beings that came to cleanse the wound in time after Rose Tyler saved her father, Pete in 1987.

They were never called “Reapers” on-screen, but the moniker hailed from the original script by Paul Cornell, which pictured the creatures as Grim Reapers (the name was later used for the comic event, The Four Doctors, also by Cornell). This would be the closest the show would come to including the gloomy presence aside from The Visitation.

The Terileptil’s robot, played by Peter Van Dissel, was created by the show’s visual effects department and costume designer, Odile Dicks-Mireaux – indeed, this was the first of only two serials Dicks-Mireaux worked on, the other being Castrovalva (1982). It was realised, in Odile’s own words, as a “jewelled prince” which then donned a grim mask and dark cloak to hide its disco appearance. In The Essential Doctor Who: Adventures in History, the costume designer recalled: “We were without the internet then so you got inspiration the old-fashioned way of going to libraries, and the BBC had a really good library… I think it came from looking at Buddhist sculptures, things like that, giving it that Far Eastern quality.”

Though she laments that the Reaper mask was difficult to fit onto the bejewelled design, much of its precision was left unseen due to harsh lighting. “It could have looked more mysterious, couldn’t it?” Dicks-Mireaux said. “It had all that relief and texture on it that I like and maybe with a bit of softer lighting, it might have come across as more interesting.”

There was a beauty in the android, dazzling underneath the mask but lacking underneath studio lights. Still, it made a wonderful impression, and it’s a surprise that – in over 50 years, and discounting similar creatures in The Time Monster and Father’s Day – the Grim Reaper has never made a return appearance in Doctor Who.

Death might follow the Doctor at every turn, but it’s very much a metaphorical figure.