As hideous monsters prepare to stalk the corridors of Space Babies, Blogtor Who looks at their long line of predecessors

The new series of Doctor Who is almost here! And it begins with the Doctor and Ruby coming face to face with… Space Babies! The proudly goofy title hints at a classic Russell T Davies season opener, full of laughs, fun, and silliness to get people invested before things get more complex and dramatic later in the run. But the trailers so far have also suggested that Space Babies falls within another sub-genre of Doctor Who: the scary space story.

Featuring a substantial crossover with the classic Base Under Siege, there are a few elements that makes a typical scares in space story. A space station or space ship in some remote corner of the universe, cut off from aid. A crew of distinct characters, often drawn from a diverse, multinational background. And something lurking in the dark, industrial corridors beneath the futuristic trappings, ready to pick them off one by one.

So let’s take a quick tour of six decades of screams in space, whether you can hear them or not…

 

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The Sensorites

The Sensorites isn’t, in fact, that scary. And only the first third or so is set aboard ship before the action moves to the Sense Sphere planet. But the 1964 story from Doctor Who’s very first series still deserves a mention as the first time the show dipped its toes into these dark waters. The TARDIS lands the Doctor, Susan, Barbara and Ian aboard a drifting spaceship and into a mystery. The crew appear to be dead at their controls, but are soon revealed to have been forced into a deep trance by an outside force. Meanwhile, one crewman, his mind broken by that same force, has been sealed off in one part of the ship for the safety of the other survivors.

But it’s not long before Susan and Barbara are trapped with the unstable John, while the creepy, black-eyed, bulbous headed Sensorites return to the ship to use their telepathic powers on the new arrivals.

It’s only midway through the second episode before it starts to become clear that there’s some sort of misunderstanding at work, and the Senorites are not as threatening as they first appear. But that first cliffhanger of them hanging eerily in space, peering through a window, and the Doctor’s companions making their way through a darkened spaceship corridor, being followed by some unseen menace, are genuinely unnerving. They also set a template that Doctor Who would return to again and again down the decades.

 

The Cybermen silently infiltrate a remote space station in The Wheel in Space (c) BBC Doctor Who
The Cybermen silently infiltrate a remote space station in The Wheel in Space (c) BBC

The Wheel in Space

Probably the first true example of the template is 1968’s The Wheel in Space. In some ways, it recycles a lot of the previous year’s The Moonbase. But the earlier story featured the slightly cosy environment and crew of the eponymous lunar colony, and a more straightforward assault on them by an army of Cybermen. The Wheel in Space injected tension between the space station crew themselves, with the mentally unstable space station commander Jarvis, the engineer Bill whose attempts to cover up his own mistakes unwittingly aid the Cybermen’s mission, and even Leo’s dislike of young genius Zoe.

This time the Cybermen are much scarier too. They’re a real physical threat, potentially around every corner or behind every door, towering over the human cast, and largely wordless, casually violent, killers. The disturbing soundscape for the story, and bizarre visuals like the Cybermen emerging from fetal positions to break out of their bubble like eggs to invade the wheel. Add in a race against time as meteors on a collision close in, and the ominous early scenes of a deserted spaceship and its sinister guardian robot, and the era of the scary space story had clearly begun.

 

In The Ark in Space, the Doctor discovers the Wirrn plot to lay their eggs in the bodies of the sleeping humans (c) BBC Doctor Who
In The Ark in Space, the Doctor discovers the Wirrn plot to lay their eggs in the bodies of the sleeping humans (c) BBC

The Ark in Space

The undisputed king of the 20th century space horror stories is The Ark in Space. New companion Harry’s messing with the helmic regulator lands the TARDIS in the distant future on Nerva, a literal ark in space safeguarding the last survivors of the human race. The Doctor, Sarah Jane and Harry begin to wake the crew from their long hibernation only to discover the sleepers are facing the most grotesque fate imaginable.

In many ways the 1975 serial is astonishing prescient of 1978’s Alien. Nerva shares with the Nostromo both the aesthetic of gleaming white cryogenic chambers mixed with dark, claustrophobic spaces below decks and the dynamic between a clinical, professional officer class and working class stiffs moaning about unions and doing all the real work. But more significantly, there’s the Wirrn. Giant, upright, alien insects they reproduce by implanting their embryos in a human host whose then consumed from the inside out. But before long they’ve grown to their towering full height and hunt the service ducts, power rooms, and corridors of the space station for prey.

The Wirrn costumes might not seem terribly convincing to modern eyes, but the cast sell the body horror magnificently. Tom Baker is equally tremendous in one of his earliest Doctor Who stories, his grim faced determination in the face of the Wirrn underlining just how bad the situation really is.

 

In The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, an ancient evil possesses the usually placid Odd, triggering a race for survival (c) BBC Doctor Who
In The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, an ancient evil possesses the usually placid Odd, triggering a race for survival (c) BBC

The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit

When Doctor Who returned to our screens in 2005, one of its first swerves into true space horror was the following year with The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit. The Doctor and Rose arrive at the flatpack assembled Sanctuary Base 6, clinging to survival on the black hole scorched surface of the planet Krop Tor. The original captain is dead, his replacement is filled with self doubt, and the entire crew are hiding personal traumas for their eldritch enemy to exploit. For far below the surface of the planet is an ancient entity from the dawn of time who just might be the Devil himself…

The grime and dirt of space as a work environment has never looked better or more convincing than in the cramped, strut filled corridors of SB6. And the guest cast superbly portray a crew already on their last nerve even before the murders begin. Meanwhile, the Ood are a superb creation. Originally inspired by the Sensorites as a starting point, their tentacle filled maws, expressive eyes and swollen bald heads make them a disconcerting presence even when meekly serving up rations in the canteen. But soon the Beast begins working its influence on them, and their behaviour becomes first increasingly unsettling and then pulse poundingly terrifying.

Perhaps what pushes the two-parter into absolute classic territory, though, is the spine jangling performance by Gabriel Woolf as the voice of the Beast as he sneers and mocks, threatens and cajoles with a voice deeper and more sinister than the Pit itself.

 

Few things in Doctor Who are more terrifying than when the Doctor themselves is frightened and helpless, as in Midnight (c) BBC Doctor Who
Few things in Doctor Who are more terrifying than when the Doctor themselves is frightened and helpless, as in Midnight (c) BBC

Midnight

By 2008 the late-in-the-season-scary-one had become a fixture of the Doctor Who template. Midnight was showrunner Russell T Davies’ first attempt to take on that slot himself and the result was a story scarier, and more unrelentingly tense, than many hasexpected from him. On Midnight, a planet so inhospitable that even the light is almost instantly fatal, tourists make an ill conceived journey across the surface aboard what’s essentially an armoured space age coach bus. But there’s something outside on the surface. Something no human has encountered before. Something that wants in.

Midnight twists the usual formula by making the cast up of smaller groups who are strangers to each other: the pompous professor and his meek student, the bickering family familiar from any flight to Benidorm, the newly separated woman just trying to get away from it all, the hostess, and the Doctor. It’s a move which ratchets up the tension in a script built on paranoia and the mob mentality, as people take sides, switch them, and then switch again. Contained within a single room, and using something as simple as the childish game of repeating what the other person said, it’s one of the scariest things Doctor Who has ever done.

All the more when so it mines its horror from a terrifying idea: what if the Doctor fails? Midnight’s a story of what happens when the Doctor’s charisma doesn’t get everyone to instinctively trust this odd, brilliant, man who’s suddenly appeared. When the cleverer he seems and the faster he talks, the more suspicious people are of him. And when he fails to appeal to humankind’s better nature.

It’s a 45 minute nightmare that leaves even the Doctor uncharacteristically shaken in its wake.

 

Sleep No More sees Doctor Who venture into the world of found footage horror (c) BBC Studios
Sleep No More is Doctor Who’s first found footage horror (c) BBC

Sleep No More

Doctor Who stepped into the world of found footage horror, a mere 16 years after The Blair Witch Project, with Sleep No More. So dedicated was it to its conceit that it even went without the opening theme for one of the few times in the show’s history. Instead we dove eyeballs first into a story told from the various viewpoints of people aboard the Le Verrier station orbiting Neptune in the 38th century. A military squad dispatched to investigate a communication failure finds corridors lit by emergency lighting on a deserted station. Deserted that is, except for the Doctor, Clara, and lone survivor Rassmussen. Experiments to all but eliminate the need for sleep have instead created a new species of murderous monsters – the Sandmen.

Sleep No More has all the elements to make it Doctor Who’s most terrifying story ever. The immediate handheld style, the dark concept, a shockingly bleak twist ending, and visceral scenes like the survivors hiding in hanging meat bags as the Sandmen prowl around them. … Yet, it’s not quite the sum of its parts. That last minute reveal doesn’t quite satisfy, and neither the idea of monsters made out of the accumulated ‘sleep’ in the corner of people’s eyes, nor the execution of them, is as threatening as they might be.

 

The spacewalking dead of Oxygen (c) BBC Studios Doctor Who
The spacewalking dead of Oxygen (c) BBC Studios

Oxygen

Zombies. On a space station. The spacewalking dead, if you will. It’s such a pure space horror idea that it’s amazing it took Doctor Who 54 years to do it. This being Doctor Who, of course, these are technically not actual zombies. Rather the corpses of the former crew are just passengers within the killer automated spacesuits pursuing the survivors through the station’s metal walkways and across its outer surface. All the same, Oxygen delights in playing with the familiar iconography of the grey faced, blank eyed dead, shambling slowly in pursuit of the living, arms outstretched to catch them in a fatal embrace.

Of course, no proper zombie movie homage would be complete without a bit of Romero style social commentary. So Oxygen has quite pointed things to say about the ways corporations abuse employees, and the dangers of working environments where employees are dependent on them for the very air they breath.

Possibly because the premise is quite horrific enough, the cast and direction treat the action with a fairly light touch. But there are still several strong moments to be found, not least when the Doctor apparently abandons Bill to the dead…

 

Despite some brutal deaths and hard hitting ideas like drug addiction, Nightmare of Eden's unconvincing monster, glittery costumes, and an outRAgeOUS accent deflate the horror (c) BBC Doctor Who
Despite some brutal deaths and hard hitting ideas like drug addiction, Nightmare of Eden’s unconvincing monster, glittery costumes, and an outRAgeOUS accent deflate the horror (c) BBC

…and the Rest

So far Blogtor’s listed those that are the strongest examples in our view. But there are plenty more to pick from. The Invisible Enemy contains many of the classic elements we’ve talked about, the action moving between two space bases in the grip of an epidemic that turns normal people into homicidal killers. But it’s probably a bit too whimsical and jaunty for this list. Terminus is set on a gigantic space station that functions as a futuristic leper colony, full of despair, terror and death. But it’s cuddly teddy bear of a monster and general tone of depressed misery rather than spine chilling terror counts against it.

In fact there are several examples where that well known Doctor Who mix of darkness of light tips an otherwise terrifying scenario out of horror territory. Trial of a Time Lord episodes 9-12 features plant men the Vervoids making compost piles out of the dead bodies of the passengers and crew of a space-liner. Nightmare of Eden covers similar ground as the Mandrels kill their way through through the cabins of another space-liner. But both are lit more like the sets of morning TV, with preposterous looking monsters and guest casts who’ve decided to embrace the camper side of Who.

 

Modern Doctor Who has increasingly made space a more dangerous place to live and work

Resurrection of the Daleks is certainly horrible enough, with flesh eating viruses dissolving people’s faces on screen. However, the way it divides its focus between the prison space station in the future, the Dalek attack ship, and present day Earth makes it hard to classify as pure space horror.

In more recent years, we’ve had The End of the World, The Long Game, Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways, 42, The Beast Below, Into the Dalek, Kill the Moon, World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls and The Tsuranga Conundrum and more. Between them they contain plenty of death, destruction, and scares aboard various space ships and stations.

 

Space Babies introduces a brand new monster to hunt the corridors of yet another dark and creepy space station (c) BBC Studios
Space Babies introduces a brand new monster to hunt the corridors of yet another dark and creepy space station (c) BBC Studios

Space Babies

So what can we expect from Space Babies? We’ve already had sight of its terrifying looking monster. But then we’ve also seen the talking babies also aboard, and what looks like lots of banter and hijinks before the Doctor and Ruby even arrive at the space station. Perhaps last year’s Wild Blue Yonder, also by Russell T Davies, can give some hint. It contained some terrifying concepts and eerie scenes but regularly pulled back from the edge to avoid being too scary. So perhaps this week will give us something similar. Petrifying creatures and tension filled expeditions down dark corridors. But also enough jokes and fanciful visuals to tease the little ones back out from behind the sofa.

 

The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson) in the TARDIS ,BBC Studios 2023,James Pardon Doctor Who
The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson) in the TARDIS ,BBC Studios 2023,James Pardon

Doctor Who returns at 0000 BST on the 11th of May 2024 with a double bill of Space Babies and The Devil’s Chord on iPlayer in the UK, RTÉ Player in Ireland, and on Disney+ everywhere else

 

 

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