Horror runs through Doctor Who like a TARDIS through the Time Vortex. Since the first 25-minute episode was broadcast in 1963, the series has educated and entertained while sending generations of children scurrying behind their sofas.
The show soon became famous for its afternoon scares, with viewers expecting it to serve up a quirky mix of science fiction, comedy, and terror. For a series devised as a kids’ show almost 60 years ago, it’s certainly served up some surprisingly chilling moments over the years.
Here are the 15 Doctor Who stories that have scared viewers the most across time and space.
15. The Brain of Morbius (1976)
Doctor Who does Frankenstein. The Doctor has come up against many deranged scientists over the years, but Philip Madoc’s superbly entertaining Solon is the closest to Mary Shelley’s inventor. Solon is a fanatical scientist determined to reanimate a dangerous Time Lord on a barren planet of lightning and crashed spaceships. The patchwork creature he stitches together from scraps of different alien species is terrifying enough, but the shrill voice of its exposed brain is worse. It’s not a winning combination, especially when it introduces itself while companion Sarah Jane Smith is temporarily blind.
14. The Genesis of the Daleks (1975)
The Daleks were a phenomenon when they arrived in 1963. Over a decade and nine stories later, Terry Nation returned to take them back to the beginning. This Season 12 epic is full of horror, including an age-old war that’s killed billions, the threat of imminent nuclear apocalypse, irradiated mutants, and a heavy commentary on fascism. Then there’s the creator of the Daleks, one of the great misguided scientists of science fiction. Twisted, mutilated, obsessed genius Davros would go on to face the Doctor time and again.
13. It Takes You Away (2018)
Jodie Whitaker’s first year as the Doctor wasn’t packed with scares, but this atmospheric tale in present-day Norway provides some haunting moments. It brilliantly captures the creepiness of two clashing realities, adding a Doctor Who spin to monstrous kids’ stories. Although we know from the start that the threat isn’t what it appears, it manages to unnerve all the way to a hilariously surreal conclusion.
12. The Ark in Space (1975)
Tom Baker’s first season as the Doctor stands as one of the show’s finest. At the start of a loose arc, the Doctor and companions arrive at an old space station, soon discovering that the whole of humanity is held in suspended animation on board. Waiting for the earth to become habitable after a planet-wide apocalypse, the last thing they need is an invasion by the insectoid Wirrn (four years before Alien).
The stakes were already high in the Fourth Doctor’s second story. When this Doctor shows how unsettled he is to a fresh TARDIS crew, it quickly passes to us behind the sofa. Superbly written and directed (including one scene cut from the broadcast for being too scary), if you can suspend your disbelief at some alien bubble-wrap, the cliffhanger of the second episode will have you biting your nails.
11. Waters of Mars (2009)
Another base-under-siege story, this time one of the hour-long specials that ended David Tenant’s tremendously successful time as the Tenth Doctor. Waters of Mars features body horror in the best tradition of Doctor Who, with water-sprouting zombie-like stalking humans on a freshly colonized Mars. But the real enemy is the most dangerous and unstoppable the show’s ever encountered: History that can’t be changed.
10. Hide (2013)
A haunted house tale with a brilliant science fiction twist. Luther creator Neil Cross gave a couple of ghost hunters more than they could handle in this 1970s-set tale. Genuinely unsettling, it packs in time travel, a pocket universe, a rescue mission, and some of the show’s most unsettling alien creatures, complete with stop-motion twitching movements. Not uncommon for Who, a love story (or two) is at the heart of it, but there’s plenty of jumps to be had in this well-made mini-horror.
9. The Haunting of Villa Diodati (2020)
It was about time the television show paid a visit to the birthplace of modern horror, where Mary Shelley dreamt up the actual Frankenstein. The Villa of the title is packed full of phantasms and illusions that don’t disappoint. But it’s the slow, ominous arrival at this apparently haunted house of a horrific figure from another time that inspires the gathering on that dark and stormy night.
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8. The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (2006)
Another tale of alien possession, but it may be Doctor Who’s best. The devilish references and Exorcist stylings of the first episode give way to a full-on meeting with the gigantic satanic Beast in the second. On the way, the Tenth Doctor and Rose encounter some genuinely disturbing scenes, not the least of which is the sinister arrival of fascinating new aliens, the Ood.
7. The Tomb of the Cybermen (1967)
The Second Doctor’s era was when base-under-siege stories came into their own. It was also the heyday of the emotionless Cybermen. When the Doctor and TARDIS crew arrive in the far future after a devastating conflict had seemingly driven the cyber race to extinction, a mix of Universal Horror and Egyptology isn’t what anyone expected. Hidden behind logic traps, the tombs are ready-made for Cybermen to burst from⏤an image that the show used again, but never as effectively. Although Tomb was the Cybermen’s third appearance in a year, it remains one of their most definitive.
6. Mindwarp (1986)
Facing cancellation in the mid-1980s, the show’s production team fictionalized it by placing the Doctor’s sixth incarnation in the dock for the 14-part Trial of a Time Lord. Middle story Mindwarp divided fans then and now, but it ups the horror stakes. In the catacombs of an alien planet, the TARDIS crew encounters another Frankenstein-like Doctor, experimental mind transference, and an apparently horrendous fate for one of the best-loved companions of the 1980s.
5. The Curse of Fenric (1989)
Doctor Who loves putting the human race through Hell. As the Doctor states in Utopia, the humans may always return to a humanoid template, but they’ve evolved into gaseous creatures and downloads on the way. In 1989, we saw one of our most horrifying potential future forms, one that’s increasingly relevant today. Haemovores are amphibious humans, mutated by Earth’s ecological collapse half a million years in the future. A neat twist on vampires, they’re incredibly effective emerging from a sea fog in an English seaside town during World War II.
4. Listen (2014)
An experimental episode that put fear at its center. Freshly regenerated and still figuring out what kind of person he is, the Twelfth Doctor is set on exploring the existence of an entity that has the perfect ability to hide and may just be responsible for the universal childhood fear of something hiding under beds. Just as the Doctor should be careful what he wishes for, we shouldn’t expect easy answers.
3. The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances (2005)
When Doctor Who returned in 2005, it eased us in gently…until this. Future showrunner Steven Moffat proved his credentials with this scary two-parter set in Blitz-era London. The cliff-hanger is a horrific peak. The main characters are too busy talking to notice that a tape recording of a strange child in the gas mask ran out 30 seconds before, so why is he still talking? After many years, Doctor Who had brought terrors back to Saturday night BBC. Moffat would repurpose the trick in the future, but this is the original and best.
2. Midnight (2008)
With Midnight, showrunner Russell T. Davies set out to scare people. It is restricted to one claustrophobic set, features one of the show’s most chilling aliens, and is the peak of Doctor Who’s alien possession stories. Although we never really see the enemy, it has the power to get under anyone’s skin.
1. Blink (2007)
Hitting primal fears in the best tradition of Doctor Who, the Weeping Angels are the scariest monsters introduced since the show’s revival in 2005. Quantum locked statues that can only move when they’re observed. The stone-cold essence of terror⏤suspense and scares wrapped up in a familiar image⏤they became a firm fan favorite after their debut. While future tales would reveal new and malicious powers for these figurative jump scares, this is their almost perfect 45-minute horror film.