Tuesday, April 18, 2023

#AtoZChallenge2023: Doctor Who Occult Themes

#AtoZChallenge2023: Doctor Who Occult Themes
The Doctor: This lot have still got one foot in the Dark Ages. If I tell them the truth they’ll panic and think it was witchcraft.
Martha: Okay, what was it then?
The Doctor: Witchcraft.

- The Doctor and Martha, The Shakespeare Code

Doctor Who is overtly a sci-fi series and a family show. So one would imagine that themes of the occult and horror would not pop up, but you would be wrong!

Doctor Who has a long-established tradition of "hiding behind the sofa" when the Daleks show up and with some of the scarier episodes.  While there are plenty of scary episodes and plenty more that met with the disapproval of Mary Whitehouse, I want to focus on ones that had occult overtones as befitting my typical interests around here.  I'll also look into that most quintessential of all British horror, Folk Horror.

The Dæmons

This one has the dæmons returning to Earth, but they are not diabolic, but rather a race of giants that have "sufficiently advanced science" that looks like magic. Though it does have the Master posing as a Satanic Priest and using rituals to summon the dæmon Azal.  There is even a white witch in this one.

The magic here is couched very much in the science of Doctor Who, it is just highly advanced.

This episode is very much a British Folk Horror tale. And there was that time where the 11th Doctor fought them off with the help of Buffy and her friends

The Dæmons

Image of the Fendahl

Talked about this one all the way back on "F" day.

The Stones of Blood

Here is another "Science disguised as Magic" the large standing stones are disguised blood drinking creatures and the alien of our tale is disguising herself as The Cailleach of Scottish and Irish myth. 

Of note: This episode gave me the idea for Gog and Magog.

The Awakening

Another British Folk Horror episode this deals with a demon-like creature and old pagan rites. In some ways it reminded me a lot of The Dæmons. So much so that I was disappointed it wasn't more closely tied to it. 

The Curse of Fenric

I'll go into this one in more detail later on, but there are some interesting occult associations here as well. 

The Unquiet Dead

Ghosts in Cardiff. Or really, the Gelth caught in a time rift. In Universe, this was the reason that Charles Dickens wrote about ghosts in A Christmas Carol. In the real world this gave us some background for the Torchwood series. 

The Impossible Planet / Satan Pit

Ah. Now this one was so good.  I might have to add this as my one "TV Episode" per year to my Horror movie marathon in October. This one is more straight up horror than occult, but the appearance of the "Devil" at the end sends this one into occult territory.

The Beast of this episode does bring to mind the Dæmons of the Pertwee era. They might even be related to this creature as their former ruler. Maybe it was them that chained him up in the Pit.

The Shakespeare Code

Ah. This is not the first Doctor Who episode to feature witches or witch-like creatures, but it is a fun one. This Tenth Doctor romp features a subtly bisexual Shakespeare ("Fifty-seven academics just punched the air,") and former HEX actress Christina Cole as Lilith. 

Again this episode implies that magic and "witchcraft" are just a different type of science. Maybe an older type.


Hide is a fantastic haunted house episode. Among other things, there is a monster, a psychic, a witch, and all sorts of strange goings on. Our psychic is played by the amazing Jessica Raine, who will have more involvement with Doctor Who and our monster...well it is a quintessential Doctor Who twist. The monster is just a poor alien trapped in time. The witch is a time traveler from the future trapped in every moment of time but stuck at this house. So in the words of The Doctor, "this isn't a ghost story, it's a love story."

The Witchfinders

Few things are as British occult as the witches of Pendle Hill. It is here in this episode the Doctor, now in the form of Jodie Whittaker, finds herself in the middle of. 

Again, no witches or demons here, just aliens. In fact the Doctor says "A brilliant man once said, 'any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.'" One of Arthur C. Clarke's Three Laws

While the Doctor will deal with various occult themes, the explanation will always be some sort of advanced science. It is a conceit of the show's universe and one that works well enough for me. 

A to Z of Doctor Who

All images are used with permission from the BBC and are copyrighted 2023 by the BBC.


PT Dilloway said...

That is neat how they use the occult but have a sciencey explanation for it. Of course sometimes that can backfire like in The Phantom Menace.

John Holton said...

Interesting analysis!

doccarnby said...

The Daemons is one of my favourite Doctor Who stories, the only one I have on disk though I'd like to fix that at some point.