Anthropological Horror in Doctor Who

A couple of weeks ago I watched the 1977 Doctor Who story Image of the Fendahl. It’s not the best example of the series, not by a long shot, but it’s lingered in my mind. Because despite the things that don’t work – the wonky pacing, the stilted performances, the fact that the monster doesn’t really do anything – there’s so much there that does. It’s bubbling with great ideas. The atmosphere is wonderfully spooky, the monsters look great when they’re not moving, even if they have nothing to do, there are some sparkling lines of dialogue. There’s an anthropologists’ dog called Leakey. I keep thinking about how you might rejig the story to really work.

155What really appeals about Image of the Fendahl is its use of palaeoanthropology. Many of the non-regulars are anthropologists, bringing novel scientific techniques to bear on extremely early human remains (or are they…) The idea of a human skull from too old a stratum that reveals a pentagram in the bone sutures when X-rayed is genuinely creepy, as is its concern with the deep time of human existence – all those long aeons before we organised ourselves into settled urban communities and started writing history. Anything could lurk in that vast span of years. What if there was something fundamentally off with humanity’s whole evolutionary process?

Thinking about these ideas led me to wondering about ‘anthropological horror’ as a subgenre, and whether it’s really a thing. Whether it could be. Google doesn’t turn up much. I should say now, I’m not the world’s biggest expert on horror fiction, and nor am I an anthropologist, except in the sense that any archaeologist has to dabble in the discipline to some extent. I do know Doctor Who, though, so that seems like a good place to begin looking for other examples of anthropological horror and to start to define what it is.

For all its reputation for making kids hide behind sofas, Doctor Who didn’t really try to do horror in earnest until the 1970s, and didn’t really hit its stride until midway through the decade, in the early years of Tom Baker’s tenure, when producer Philip Hinchcliffe started making darker, spookier and more violent stories, many of which wore their Hammer Horror influences prominently. Even so, there were a few hints at similar themes to Image of the Fendahl before this.

1971’s The Dæmons is more folk horror than anything, with its morris men, barrows and village cults. Nevertheless, its alien monster shares the Fendahl’s meddling in human development. In this case, though, the presentation is more archaeological than anthropological – the alien interference mainly focused on documented historical periods rather than the long prelude of human evolution. The previous year’s The Silurians isn’t really presented as horror at all, for the most part, but some aspects of it do verge on the territory we’re interested in. In particular, it explores the notion that humanity retains race memories from the earliest stages of our evolution, resulting in people reacting with uncontrollable, irrational fear when confronted with revived reptilian creatures which had once hunted our primate ancestors. This aspect – of people being sent insane by fear of long-dormant creatures which are both alien and not – is almost Lovecraftian, but The Silurians is generally more palaeontological than anthropological, and sci-fi rather than horror.

67e56e2e9feb02521ffcf0e7ee0cce31In 1977 – earlier the same year as Image of the Fendahl, and from the same writer, Chris Boucher, The Face of Evil is arguably the first story to place anthropological themes front and centre. This isn’t horror at all, but straightforward science-fiction, and its anthropology is a very different kind to the palaeo- variety explored by Fendahl. Instead it draws on ethnography, particularly in its old-fashioned, imperialist conception as exploring and explaining the practices and beliefs of ‘primitive peoples’. The story introduces a new companion for the Doctor – Leela – who hails from a far future tribal society and is repeatedly referred to here and in other adventures as a ‘savage’. In early publicity photos, actress Louise Jameson was even made up in blackface, but fortunately they decided not to go down that path for the series itself. The Doctor takes it upon himself to ‘educate’ her, in ways that echo and directly reference Victorian paternalist narratives, most explicitly in the 19th-century-set Talons of Weng-Chiang, a rich, wonderful but undeniably problematic blend of everything from Sherlock Holmes and Fu Manchu to the Ripper murders and My Fair Lady.

As well as introducing Leela, The Face of Evil has a plot which fundamentally revolves around how ‘primitive’ societies react to and interpret contact with advanced civilisation. Most strikingly this involves the revelation that on a previous visit the Doctor himself had inadvertently inspired a religion by leaving a trace of his personality in a malfunctioning computer, which subsequently set itself up as a god. Alongside this, it transpires that the planet’s inhabitants themselves are descendants of a human planetary survey team, who have forgotten their high-tech roots. This is used to explain everything from tribal rituals to ceremonial dress.


This is a very good hat.

In many ways Face of Evil is an intelligent and well-meaning story. It’s certainly a well-made pretty good example of late-70s Doctor Who. But it also exemplifies some very old-fashioned and harmful colonialist attitudes to ‘traditional’ or ‘indigenous’ societies. Its attitudes to social change and development are thoroughly rooted in Victorian notions of more and less ‘civilised’ societies, and the paternalist, patronising ‘civilising mission’ of the western imperialist. Its interest in ritual and cultural contact is informed by actual anthropological ideas, such as the phenomenon of cargo cults, and while these tribal ‘misconceptions’ are mostly not played for laughs or with deliberate cruelty, the idea of a white, western scientist visiting a tribal society and explaining to them why they’re wrong about the meaning and origins of their practices is not one that has dated well.

hqdefaultThese themes are handled somewhat better – and the horror (the horror!) is brought back by 1982’s Kinda. Another future alien planet, another brush between a tribal society and advanced European colonialists. This time, however, the echoes of imperialism are made explicit and problematised. From their pith helmets to their protective mech-suits, the human team surveying the planet and its indigenous culture are consistently portrayed as old-fashioned, belligerent, out of their depth and absurd. Unfortunately the portrayal of the indigenous population – as largely silent, spiritual, innocent and in harmony with nature – still draws heavily on patronising stereotype. The story also has a deep interest in human psychology, and Jungian archetypes, and this is the source of much of its horror, which tends towards the psychological and surrealist rather than the Hammer-esque gothic of the 70s. Again, Kinda is a strong story – one that I found pretty disturbing when I first watched it, in my early teens – but its approach to ethnography would have been dated even when it was made. There was a sequel the following year – Snakedance – which shifts the action to another world at another time, and explores ideas of ritual, belief and shamanism.


Say what you like; these stories do offer some of the best hats in TV.

Finally for the 1980s – and, indeed, the last story to be made for the original run of Doctor Who – is 1989’s Ghost Light. In many ways this revisits the setting, mood and themes of Image of the Fendahl, offering up a creaking old gothic house, haunted by secrets from the past, disturbing contemporary inhabitants, and ultimately a labyrinthine tale about evolution, taxonomy and Victorian scholarly practices. No, really. It’s great.


doctorwho-ghostlight9It’s a bit of a mess at times, but it’s great. Its most conspicuous influences are Darwinian naturalism, with drawers full of zoological specimens and discussions of survey practices and evolution by natural selection. But these are deliberately juxtaposed with anthropological themes and especially ideas of social evolution, betterment and ‘civilisation’. There’s a neanderthal butler, an insane Victorian explorer, a dark twist on My Fair Lady as one character seeks to ‘evolve’ into a ‘ladylike’. All this is played against the Doctor’s paternalist attempt to reform his companion, 1980s BBC-middle-class-juvenile-delinquent Ace and help her exorcise her demons, whether she wants to or not. Unlike with his attempt to civilise Leela over a decade earlier, this treatment of Ace is questioned and problematised repeatedly throughout the show’s final season; she’s given agency and allowed to shout her objections to it.


Ghost Light is rightly regarded as one of the best Doctor Who stories of the 80s, but also one that takes a lot of unpacking and isn’t quite as coherent or clever as it needs to be. It’s still very clever, though, and its blend of palaeoanthropology and ethnography, gothic spookiness and psychological horror, Victorian values and 1980s liberalism make it in many ways a fitting summation of and response to all the themes we’ve seen so far.

Combat_Rock_(Doctor_Who)Since its 2005 revival, Doctor Who hasn’t offered much in the way of anthropology; at least not that springs to mind. From the spin-off media, it’s worth mentioning the 2002 novel Combat Rock, which is very much in the ethnographic vein, with a tribal society and lots of violence. I’ll admit I haven’t read it since around the time it came out. I don’t remember it being all that good, either as a story or as a portrayal of the kinds of society it’s interested in. My memory is of exoticisation, patronisation and lots and lots of penis gourds. But it’s been nearly 20 years; I might be doing it a disservice.

So, where does all this get us with regard to defining anthropological horror, at least in Doctor Who. We can, I think, observe a few constant themes:

  • Horror deriving from extreme prehistory and/or aberrations in human early evolution.
  • The exoticisation and often patronisation of societies coded as non-western or indigenous.
  • An interest in contact between western high-tech modernity and ‘the other’.
  • An interest in explaining human behaviours, beliefs and rituals, often with reference to alien or occult interference.
  • Psychological horror, often paralleled with or related to notions of ‘civilisation’ or ‘savagery’.

Although the strongest influence is probably Victorian exploration narratives – and critiques of them such as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, we can’t end without mentioning the importance of so-called ‘anthropological science fiction’, which was also popular in the 70s and 80s. The influence of writers like Ursula LeGuin is strong in stories like Kinda, particularly. The difference is that by using these themes as a source for horror and unease rather to interrogate contemporary western society, these stories sometimes find themselves in deep water, where the other becomes associated with fear and the uncanny.

Ultimately, I think there’s great potential in anthropological horror, for Doctor Who and fiction more broadly. But it’s not ground to be trodden lightly or without thought for and sensitivity to the societies and cultures being drawn on. So long as we can do that in an intelligent way, anthropological horror has great potential for making us question who we are, where we came from and why we do the things we do.

And, you know, a few prehistoric skulls with pentagrams in the bone don’t hurt, either.

One thought on “Anthropological Horror in Doctor Who

  1. Hey Philip, great post! There’s an interesting paper on the theme of anthropological horror by Gavin Weston and others titled “Anthropologists in Films: “The Horror! The Horror!”. I wrote blog post on this paper for the Conversation a while back in case you’re interested. A few themes in there that intersect with your thinking. Enjoy!:


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