I’m going to level with you straight up – this post isn’t going to have a lot of archaeological or academic content (except inasmuch as Lovecraft’s stories themselves are intrinsically archaeological and scholarly in character), so if that’s what you come here for you might want to sit it out and wait for the next one.
The original run of Doctor Who last more than quarter of a century from 1963 to 1989 and in that time the good Doctor fought everything from the well-known Daleks and Cybermen to the more eccentric – robots made of sweets, gigantic prawn-viruses, rubber-clad men with aerials on their heads, and so on. More than once he’s come up against ancient, unknowable evils ‘Eeeevil, evilsincethedawnoftime!’ as Sylvester McCoy’s seventh Doctor once put it (unfortunately the clip doesn’t seem to be up online anywhere), and especially in the 70s, he’s also seen his fair share of sinister cultists. These are, of course, staples of the works of H. P. Lovecraft, and you’d expect a fair bit of overlap between the kinds of people who read his stories and those who watch and write for Doctor Who.
Sure enough, once the series was cancelled and the Doctor’s ongoing adventures moved to a series of monthly original novels for the 1990s, some of the fans writing these books tried to forge explicit connections between the cults and formless evils of the old days and the handily out-of-copyright Lovecraftian Cthulhu mythos. There had been a universe before this one, a couple of stories said, and it had its own physical laws and its own equivalent of the Time Lords, the Doctor’s powerful race of time-travellers. When that universe ended, a few of them found ways to survive and emerge into our own, where they acquired previously undreamt-of powers. These became the Great Old Ones, and a number of the Doctor’s old foes were among their numbers. It’s a bit of a silly retcon, of course, an unnecessary link between two bodies of work almost diametrically opposed in their values, attitudes and approaches. But on the other hand, it is kind of fun, and part of Doctor Who’s raison d’etre is mashing itself up with things that don’t quite fit.
So with this in mind, let’s go for a whistle-stop tour through time and see just how Lovecraftian original-flavour Doctor Who could be.
The Web Planet (1965)
AKA, the only story in the series’ history where there’s a full guest cast but the regulars are the only human-looking people. The eponymous planet Vortis is filled with butterfly men, giant ants, insects that are also guns… there’s strange, dance-like movement (the episode actually includes a credit for ‘Insect movement by Roslyn de Winter’) and odd vocal choices. The camera is often smeared with vaseline to add to the dreamlike, surreal quality of the story. It’s somewhere between a school play about insects and early avant-garde cinema.
So why’s it on this list? The villain of the piece is the Animus, a glowing, tentacular bladder thing of unknown but extraterrestrial origin, at the centre of an organic, weblike palace known as the Carcinome. It exerts mental influence over the Zarbi, a previously cattle-like species of giant ant which now act as its thralls.
The 90s novels link it to the Lloigor (‘the Welsh monster’, as we call it when playing Eldritch Horror), which first appeared in August Derleth and Mark Schorer’s 1932 short story ‘The Lair of the Star Spawn’, but the resemblance doesn’t seem particularly close, beyond the vague eldritchness of tentacles and it being an unknowable and malign force from space. Tonally, if the Web Planet resembles any of Lovecraft’s work, it’s probably more his dream stories than his horror.
Verdict: 1 squamous tentacle out of 5, waxing gibbous.
The Abominable Snowmen (1967)/The Web of Fear (1968)
Things start to feel a bit more authentically Lovecraftian with this pair from the show’s fifth season. In the former, a Buddhist monastery in 1930s Tibet is menaced by Yeti, which are revealed to be (a) robots and (b) controlled by a formless, whispering intelligence which has possessed the monastery’s master, granting him unnaturally long life. In the sequel, the action moves to 1960s London. The English explorer who assisted the Doctor in the previous story is now elderly, and the relics he brought back with him allow the Intelligence to gain a foothold in the London Underground, filling it with a strange web and more robot Yeti.
There’s nothing on-screen to link the Intelligence with the Animus, but its penchant for webs, psychic control of thralls and whispering malignancy all recall it. It would be tempting to see it as the same being rendered incorporeal, though the much more recent story ‘The Snowmen’ (2012) offered a different origin.
The 90s novels would have us believe that the Intelligence is Yog-Sothoth, one of Lovecraft’s more famous creations, which appears in or is mentioned in several of his stories, perhaps most notably ‘The Dunwich Horror’. It’s implied to be an omniscient being outside time, usually manifesting as glowing orbs, sometimes with tentacles. The link may be inspired by the glowing spheres the Intelligence uses as a focus and to control its Yeti.
Verdict: The Abominable Snowmen – 3 blasphemous idols out of 5, with a sense of unplaceable dread.
The Web of Fear – 2 unholy relics out of 5, with a side-order of unpleasant racism.
The Silurians (1970)/The Sea Devils (1972)
No all-powerful alien horrors here, no tentacles, no cultists. The 90s novels have little to say. But for me these are among the most Lovecraftian episodes of classic Doctor Who. In ‘The Silurians’, scientific experiments awaken a species of reptile-men from their hibernation in caves beneath the Peak District. It’s revealed that this intelligent civilisation flourished before the evolution of mankind and now want their planet back. ‘The Sea Devils’ has a similar premise but transferred to a maritime setting, with the eponymous sea creatures said to be marine cousins of the Silurians. In both adventures, the Doctor unsuccessfully attempts to negotiate a peace between the reptile creatures and humanity, in the face of xenophobia and military interference on both sides (see also the considerably inferior 1984 and 2010 sequels ‘Warriors of the Deep’ and ‘The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood’).
Despite the lack of an occult or horror tone in any of these stories, there’s lots here that feels pulpy and especially Lovecraftian. The idea of intelligent civilisations dominating the Earth before humanity is present throughout Lovecraft’s works – a city of pre-human reptile creatures features in his early story ‘The Nameless City’, for example – and he also occasionally alludes to the Serpent Men from the Conan stories, which later writers incorporated fully into the mythos as followers of Lovecraft’s snake-god Yig.
What makes the portrayal of the Silurians and Sea Devils feel particularly Lovecraftian rather than generically pulpy is the reaction they prompt in humanity. The 70s stories claim that humanity’s ape-like ancestors were hunted by the Silurians as pests, and race memories of this mean that encounters with the reptile creatures now cause strong atavistic terror and insanity in most humans. This has been downplayed in more recent outings, especially when a Silurian became one of the eleventh Doctor’s best friends, but the idea that brushes with ancient pre-human entities reduce humans to gibbering, terrified madmen is thoroughly Lovecraftian.
The Sea Devils have all that plus the sea-creature aspect so prevalent in Lovecraft’s monsters. With their bulging, batrachian eyes and fish-like head-fins, they strongly resemble his Deep Ones. We learn nothing about Silurian or Sea Devil religion in the TV series, but in this area the 90s novels do have something to say: of course they have it that just like the Deep Ones, the Sea Devils worshipped the Lovecraftian (and real-world Canaanite) deity Dagon.
Verdict: The Silurians – 3½ insane researchers out of 5, scrawling cave-paintings on the wall.
The Sea Devils – 3½ terrifying seafood platters out of 5. No chips.
The Claws of Axos
A ship full of beautiful, seemingly-benevolent aliens arrives on Earth and offers their technology. But it’s all a ruse! They’re actually weird tentacle-creatures who want to drain human life-force, or something. To be honest, apart from the tentacles and the vague allusion to vampirism, this one doesn’t have much going for it in the Lovecraftian horror stakes. It’s more psychedelic than cosmic horror.
Verdict: 1 tentacular monstrosity out of 5. Sticky tape on the windows.
The Masque of Mandragora (1976)
Another one that seems to have fallen under the radars of the 90s novelists. Set in Renaissance Italy, this one features the Mandragora Helix, an ancient and alien energy being. A key theme of the story is the struggle between reason and superstition. Like many good Lovecraftian baddies, the Helix relies on a conjunction of the stars for its ability to manifest, its prime servant being Hieronymous, a sinister astrologer. Hieronymous is revealed to be head of an ancient cult known as the Brotherhood of Demnos, which as allegedly survived since classical times (not a real Greek or Latin deity or cult, I should add – there’s your Classics for this post!).
This cult is the full shebang – they meet in creepy catacombs, wear sinister robes, conduct human sacrifice in their horror-summoning rituals, everything you could want. Plus, as a nice counterpoint to the Lovecraftian aspects, the nice young prince and his ‘friend’ who help the Doctor and represent reason and progressiveness are also one of Classic Doctor Who’s most blatant gay couples.
Where this falls down as a Lovecraftian story, as with so much Doctor Who, is in tone. This era of the show is generally regarded as the closest it ever gets to being a proper horror series, with the influence of the Hammer films readily apparent. But even so, this is presented as a swashbuckling adventure, not horror. There’s little sense of dread and as a BBC period drama it’s as concerned with the sumptious décor and pretty frocks as it is with unknowable horrors from beyond.
Verdict: 3½ cultists out of 5. Half a cultist is never a good sign.
The Seeds of Doom (1976)
John Carpenter’s work has often been seen as Lovecraftian, and his 1981 The Thing is no exception. From the Antarctic setting that recalls ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ to the appalling tentacle-horror of its monster and its focus on the psychological fragmentation of its characters, there’s a lot of the familiar elements of Lovecraft’s stories, without it being a straightforward adaptation. I mention this because like The Thing, ‘Seeds of Doom’ is effectively an adaptation of John W. Campbell’s 1938 short story ‘Who Goes There’ (via the 1951 movie The Thing from Another World).
In the Doctor Who story, alien seed-pods (bearing a remarkable resemblance to the eggs from Alien) are discovered in the Antarctic ice, which, once thawed, begin converting the humans they come into contact with into plant-like tentacle-creatures (in fact, the same tentacle-creatures as in ‘The Claws of Axos’, but spray-painted green). The action soon shifts back to England, where things get even more out of control, until the adventure climaxes with a country house being sat on by a colossal, formless tentacle-alien.
This could so easily have gone down the Lovecraftian horror route, but instead, as is so often the case with Doctor Who, it’s played for action-adventure. While the Antarctic sections and the monster vaguely recall Lovecraft’s oeuvre, it lacks the deeper resonances of The Thing. A few measly cultists would have helped…
Verdict: 2 devastating Antarctic discoveries out of 5.
The Image of the Fendahl (1977)
I’d like to be able to claim that ‘The Silurians’ or ‘The Sea Devils’ are the most Lovecraftian Doctor Who stories, just to be counter-intuitive. But I can’t. Because this one exists. The big one. The proper Doctor Who Does H. P. Lovecraft story, and as blatant as you get until the 1990s. I mean, just look at this monster:
I mean, yes, it’s a penis-slug with tentacles coming out of its face. And yes, it looks less effective in motion than it ever does in still photos, but for me it’s one of the weirdest and most horrific creatures Doctor Who ever put on screen. As a Doctor-Who hungry kid, even the VHS cover was so scary-looking that I left it in the local library’s shelves, sure that I’d never be allowed to take it home and watch it.
So let’s back up. What’s this story about? Palaeontologists uncover a 12-million-year-old human skull, which when X-rayed reveals a pentagram in the bone of the scalp. This impossibly ancient skull is psychic, naturally, and a focus for a horrific alien creature known as the Fendahl, something so terrible that it used to give the Doctor nightmares. The Doctor’s people had thought they had sealed the Fendahl away aeons ago by trapping its world in a time-loop, but it sent the skull to Earth and through its malign influence guided the whole of human evolution in order to bring about its return. This it eventually does with the usual repertoire of possessions, cultists, human sacrifice at pagan altars, pentagrams and horrible penis-tentacle-slugs.
All of which takes place in a suitably old-fashioned wood-panelled manor house.
It’s not pure Lovecraft, of course. The direct influence is closer to home, in the shape of ‘Quatermass and the Pit’, but while that had been a source of inspiration for Doctor Who for years, none of the other stories it spawned are anywhere near as pure occult horror in tone as this one; none have such a weird (or should that be Weird), Lovecraftian-looking monster. This was the last gasp of the mid-70s horror-influenced phase of the show, and while it’s not the best story in that time, it is the one that to me feels closest to Lovecraft’s work.
Unsurprisingly, it got a 90s novel sequel that took things in a different direction but made the Lovecraft elements much more explicit. The Taking of Planet 5 by Simon Bucher-Jones and Mark Clapham is largely set in Antarctica and draws heavily from ‘At the Mountains of Madness’, though unlike earlier Doctor Who-Lovecraft mash-up novels it makes quite clear that Lovecraft’s works are fictional in the Doctor Who universe, and only exist here because of Time Lord technology rendering them real. Is it any good? I really enjoyed it as a teen, but found it pretty unreadable when I tried to revisit it more recently. Your mileage may vary, as they say. It’s also closely tied into the novels’ ongoing story-arc of the time, so I’m not sure how accessible it would be if you weren’t familiar with that.
Verdict: 4 face-tentacles out of 5, with an elder sign carved on top.
The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (1989)
Doctor Who stepped away from horror, cultists and the supernatural for the later 70s and much of the 80s, but as that decade ended and the people working on the show start to be a lot of the same ones who went on to write those 90s books, things unsurprisingly start to pick up again. At first glance this story doesn’t seem to offer much for devotees of the eldritch: it’s set on an alien world at a ‘psychic circus’, which is pretty much the same as a normal circus, but less well-attended. As the story progresses, however, it’s revealed that the circus has fallen under the sway of three implacable entities known as the Gods of Ragnarok, which crave entertainment and kill any who do not satisfy. It was intended as a none-too-subtle allegory for how the show was on borrowed time with the BBC bosses, but these days it plays as a weird version of ‘Britain’s Got Talent’, but with more creepy clowns.
It’s left extremely vague as to what the Gods of Ragnarok actually are, but once again the 90s novels identify them with Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones. This time they don’t specify any particular one, and this is surely the biggest stretch. Neither in design nor action do the Gods resemble anything Lovecraftian particularly closely. There are no tentacles, no sea-creatures, no cultists, no occult elements at all. I’m afraid I don’t buy it.
Verdict: 0 vengeful cosmic deities out of 5. The end is nigh.
The Curse of Fenric (1989)
This is more like it. Classic Doctor Who’s penultimate story is an absolute tour-de-force, one of its best by any standard. Its complex plot weaves together Second World War cryptography and computing, Viking mythology, vampires and that Eeeevil, evilsincethedawnoftime! I mentioned at the start. That evil is Fenric, an all-powerful, incorporeal entity sealed away in an ancient jar by the Doctor long ago. It comes with the full repertoire of psychic powers – most notably possession – and has a race of blood-sucking, once-human sea-creatures as foot soldiers (the oldest of which even has a few tentacles).
Like the Fendahl, it’s revealed to have been meddling in history to bring about its release – in this case by shaping the lives and destinies of certain individuals, including the Doctor’s companion, making them a sort of unwilling cult acting in its interests. According to the novels, Fenric is none other than Hastur the Unspeakable, a deity first mentioned in a 19th-century story by Ambrose Bierce and later alluded to by pulp writers such as Robert Chambers and H.P. Lovecraft, before later writers incorporated it fully into the Lovecraftian mythos.
‘The Curse of Fenric’ is definitely horror and has distinct occult undercurrents. The 1940s setting also helps add to the vaguely Lovecraftian feeling, without it ever seeming especially close. Part of this – and this is absolutely a good thing – is that ‘The Curse of Fenric’ is one of Doctor Who’s most heart-on-its-sleeve progressive stories, incorporating themes of single motherhood, homosexuality and female sexual empowerment. Lovecraft would doubtless not have approved, but Lovecraft was a dick, so neurr.
Anyway, this gets at one of the reasons that even when it’s fairly close in imagery and story elements, Doctor Who never really feels like Lovecraft. Where Lovecraft is driven by fear, hatred and crippling insularity, Doctor Who is at its heart an optimistic series about getting out, seeing the universe and letting it make you a better person. There’s a lot of striking imagery and ideas in Lovecraft’s works, but ultimately it’s a misanthropic, petty oeuvre. Perhaps, rather than looking for Lovecraftian elements in Doctor Who, we should be asking which Lovecraft stories are the most Doctor Who-like. But that’s a whole different blog post.
Verdict: 3 outraged old bigots out of 5.
I’m not going to tackle the novels themselves or the rebooted series here (maybe one day). If you want to check the books out, the main ones to look for are:
White Darkness by David A. McIntee (1993). Zombies in Haïti, Lovecraft himself as a character, Cthulhu. It’s a long time since I’ve read this, so I can’t vouch for its quality.
All-Consuming Fire by Andy Lane (1994). Sherlock Holmes/Doctor Who/Lovecraft crossover. I’m re-reading this now and the Holmes pastiche works pretty well. My memory is that it goes downhill a bit as things get more Lovecraftian, but we’ll see. This is the one that names does a lot of the tying together of classic monsters and the Great Old Ones. It was adapted into an audio adventure with the original cast in 2015, but I haven’t listened to that. If you have, let me know if it’s worth checking out!
The Taking of Planet 5 by Simon Bucher-Jones and Mark Clapham (1999). Elder Things and Time Lord soldiers in prehistoric Antarctica; unknowable cosmic forces coming to blows. See above under ‘Image of the Fendahl’.
Have I missed anything? Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments.