Body Horror and Bubblewrap: how Doctor Who helped shape my love of adult horror

Recently, it has come to my attention that the US channel Disney X.D. will start broadcasting David Tennant episodes of Doctor Who in the US. Apparently, there has been an outcry by a certain portion of fans over this, as they’re under the mistaken impression that Doctor Who is “not for kids” and that there aren’t many episodes that are “suitable for children”. This, of course, is bullshit. While a great deal of the expanded universe is most definitely aimed at the adult portion of the fanbase who grew up with the show, the television series is most definitely firmly aimed at creating new fans who have barely begun to grow up (at least in the physical sense, although the metaphorical sense definitely applies as well). In fact, frankly, it really does piss me off that a certain portion of the fanbase are so dismissive of the very idea of children watching Who when it’s always been such a big part of many viewers’s childhoods. It certainly was a massive part of mine, and in fact, helped to shape my taste in horror in later life. Here’s one of my earliest, clearest memories of being truly terrified from watching the show:

Noah has just shot his crewmate dead. There’s something clearly wrong with him, although it’s still not clear what it is. Suddenly, he looks down at his left hand, still in his pocket since being touched by some alien monster. Slowly, he starts to take it out…only it isn’t a hand anymore – not only has the human flesh gone, replaced by some bright green skin, but there aren’t even any fingers that make it look even remotely like a hand, or even human at all – it is just one green lump. As Noah looks on in complete horror and disgust, the all too familiar “sting” comes in and we cut to the end theme tune.

That my friend was the cliffhanger to part 2 of the Tom Baker classic, The Ark in Space. Only his 2nd serial in the role, it has been praised by Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat as one of the best stories of the classic series. First time I saw it at the age of 8, I was shocked, horrified and practically traumatised. I was also eager for more.

Despite the fact that the guy’s hand had clearly just been wrapped in bubble wrap that had been spray-painted green, it’s still one of my favourite cliffhangers. It was my first introduction to the idea of body horror, and it stuck with me in a big way. Not just how grotesque the idea of your body changing into something non-human is, but even worse is the idea of you being aware of how it’s changing, and how slowly you lose your humanity and sense of identity with it. This is the only example I can think of right now that gets across both the physical and psychological horror and yet is PG rated. That, my friends, is the fucking magic of Who – introducing truly horrific ideas to children in such a way that make it both family-friendly and still shit-your-pants fucking terrifying.

I watched a lot of classic serials in my new-Who deprived youth, but the ones I always enjoyed the most were the early Tom Baker serials – stories like Pyramids of Mars, The Deadly Assassin and The Robots of Death were grim, full of gothic scenery and classic horror influences (including Hammer), violence (sometimes shockingly so, ESPECIALLY for stories rated U or PG and yet clearly had a few nasty scenes, complete with excellent use of fake blood), and deaths. It scared the shit out of me, I fucking loved it as a little kid, and I still do now.

I had enjoyed a lot of other Who, including the time travel complexity of The Day of the Daleks or the historical intrigue of The Aztecs, but the ones that evoked horror the most were usually my favourites. It’s funny, because for the longest time, I actually had no interest in adult horror. Classic Who, especially Tom Baker Who, seemed to scare me just fine. And if a PG rated horror could scare me like that, then god knows what an 18 rated horror would be like to a sensitive sod like me.

Of course, eventually you realise that other than old-school Who, there’s little horror out there that could be considered family-friendly and yet still creep you the fuck out (my best recommendation for a fucking Disney film that can do that is The Watcher in the Woods. Holy shit, that film was creepy!), and I had to admit to myself that I had a taste for it. Especially body horror. After my experience with the Ark in Space and The Seeds of Doom, I was eager to find out more in the genre.

Unsurprisingly, I became a lover of movies like David Cronenburg’s The Fly and The Thing, both of which were considerably less cheesier and much more gorier and yet, oddly enough, still stuck to the same basic concepts that made me love the idea of body horror in Doctor Who. The claustrophobic fear I felt in Ark and Robots of Death was shared with films like the first Alien film, and the fresher takes on old horror tropes that were common in Baker’s era were to be found in films like An American Werewolf in London or the gloriously gothic Bram Stoker’s Dracula. As I’ve grown older, I realised the key differences between adult horror and the horror I watched as a kid (and still do now) include more mature themes and allegory like sex, puberty or coming of age (Ginger Snaps was a great example that I watched recently), sexuality etc. Ideas that would be difficult to translate for a younger audience (certainly compared to bloody violence, apparently).

I think one of my favourite things about the revival is that it’s not only still aimed at kids, but also, with particular stories, still aimed at traumatising them, too. The violence isn’t quite as graphic as it used to be in the 70s at times, but it’s still definitely scary. Even better, it does this by doing what the classic series did and finding adult horror sources and finding new ways to make them family friendly. Event Horizon minus the gore? The Impossible Planet. Aliens but with statues? The Time of Angels. Pure fucking paranoia, distrust, and how terrible humanity can be when under pressure? Midnight. I really can’t tell you how glad I am that Who still tells stories like these, but more importantly, makes sure that kids can still watch them. Barely.

When Doctor Who was brought back in 2005, it could’ve easily gone down the easy route and attempted to be ‘mature sci-fi’ like every other sci-fi show at the time. It can find ways to cater to that kind of audience more used to that kind of tone, certainly, but not at the expense of sex scenes or, just as off-putting to children, seriously in-depth exploration of alien culture and politics and using that as an allegory for the modern world. I enjoy that kind of science fiction as an adult, but I think it’s more important for Who to still continue to appeal to children, to give them a taste of what great horror is like without scaring them off permanently. Because, unlike most adult horror stories, as scared as they get, they know one thing – no matter how many monsters there are in the universe, there’s always the Doctor to save the day.

I’m gonna be honest: knowing that a channel more aimed at children is going to be broadcasting Who eps to a young American audience has made me so happy. Everyone in Britain knows that Doctor Who is supposed to be watched by children as well as adults, but I think that idea has been a lot more difficult to sell to an American audience at times. Broadcasting on the same channel as Star Wars: Rebels is a good way to help break down that image barrier. Here’s to hoping that Who will not only reach a wider audience in the US, but an audience that can grow up with the show, too. While getting the same experience I had as a child and getting as close to being deeply traumatised as deemed humanly possible.

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