The Poetry of ‘Doctor Who’

Shakespeare is stuck for a rhyme for TARDIS.

Shakespeare is stuck for a rhyme for TARDIS.

Poetry has come to play a large part in the way Doctor Who tells a story. If, for example, you wish to add an unsettling undercurrent to a cozy situation, why not have some children recited an eerily specific poem in a spooky way? Or sing a little song with dark lyrics?

And if you want to suggest gravitas, simply throw in an apposite quote from some classic verse. Both approaches suggest that the events that are about to unfold were always going to unfold, because in the future (or the past, the Doctor gets about), they are already legendary.

Here are as many examples as we could think of:

“The Beast Below”
A society that rides around on the back of a star whale will probably have its own nursery rhymes, and so it transpires for the remnants of England. There are two poems in this story, one at the beginning:

A horse and a man above, below;
One has a plan but two must go.
Mile after mile, above, beneath;
One has a smile one has teeth.
Though the man above might say “hello”
Expect no love from the beast below.

And one at the end:

In bed above we’re deep asleep,
While greater love lies further deep.
This dream must end, this world must know
We all depend on the beast below.

“A Good Man Goes To War”
There are two basic uses for poetry in the middle of Doctor Who. One is as an apposite illustration of something creepy that is going on (usually using well-known poems), and the other is a kind of prediction (usually written by the scriptwriters) of what is about to happen, delivered in a creepy childlike tone.

This poem is an example of the latter, proving that everyone knows that the Doctor can be merciless and even cruel when people close to him get hurt:

Demons run when a good man goes to war
Night will fall and drown the sun
When a good man goes to war

Friendship dies and true love lies
Night will fall and the dark will rise
When a good man goes to war

Demons run, but count the cost
The battle’s won, but the child is lost
When a good man goes to war

Although it’s by no means as creepy as the next poem on our list:

“Night Terrors”
Mark Gatiss wrote this nursery rhyme to add even more creepiness to the already very creepy story of an alien child making people into dolls. Once the story had aired, he shared the whole thing on Twitter:

 

The poem continues:
Tick tock goes the clock
And what now shall we play?
Tick tock goes the clock
Now Summer’s gone away?
Tick tock goes the clock
And all the years they fly
Tick tock and all too soon
You and I must die
Tick tock goes the clock
He cradled and he rocked her
Tick tock goes the clock
Even for the Doctor…

But that wasn’t the end of it. In “Closing Time” and “The Wedding of River Song” the rhyme was remixed and given fresh twists, whether by Madame Kovarian:

Tick tock, goes the clock
And all the years they fly.
Tick tock, and all too soon
Your love will surely die.

Or by the spooky children of destiny who recited these stanzas at appropriate moments:

Doctor brave and good
He turned away from violence
When he understood
The falling of the Silence.

Tick tock, goes the clock
He cradled and he rocked her.
Tick tock, goes the clock
Till River kills the Doctor

And finally:

Tick tock, goes the clock
He gave all he could give her
Tick tock, goes the clock
Now prison waits for River

“The Lazarus Experiment”
If you’re trying to convince humanity that you’ve got a cracking idea for an immortality machine, there are probably better poems to quote than “The Hollow Men” by TS Eliot.

“Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas, for example.

So, when Richard Lazarus starts creeping Tish Jones out with these lines:
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act…

And the Doctor replies with the next line—…falls the shadow—we know things are not going to end well.

And indeed it does not, as the Doctor later points out to Martha: “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper.”

“The Rings of Akhaten”
Just a brief poetic quotation, as the Doctor tries to convince Merry Gejelh that she does not have to give her soul to the mummified being in the glass box. The elements of the exploding star that now exist in her body also made “shoes and ships and sealing wax, and cabbages and kings,” a shrewd lift from Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” in which oysters are sacrificed to the greed of a walrus. Not a sacrifice, but a waste.

“The Shakespeare Code”
No particularly specific verses are spoken, but the whole plot revolves around putting an incantation into a Shakespeare script, and naturally it’s the only bit that doesn’t rhyme.

“Horror of Fang Rock”
Having seen off a shape-changing Rutan, the Fourth Doctor wanders away from a remote lighthouse quoting the following verse from “The Ballad of Flannan Isle” by Wilfred Gibson:

Aye: though we hunted high and low,
And hunted everywhere,
Of the three men’s fate we found no trace
Of any kind in any place,
But a door ajar, and an untouch’d meal,
And an overtoppled chair.

“Midnight”
Life tip: if you’re freaking out in a locked compartment because someone in your group can say exactly what you’re saying at the point you’re saying it, and you’re all huddled at one end watching them stare balefully at you, don’t quote the following passage from Christina Rossetti’s creepy “Goblin Market,” you’ll only give yourself the heebie jeebies:

We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry, thirsty roots?

“The Name of the Doctor”
The Whispermen may not have eyes or ears, but they do love a poem. The first is the one about them, gurgled in a Victorian prison by the villainous DeMarco:

Do you hear the Whisper Men? The Whisper Men are near.
If you hear the Whisper Men, then turn away your ear.
Do not hear the Whisper men, whatever else you do.
For once you’ve heard the Whisper Men, they’ll stop and look at you.

And then there are the rhyming couplets they hiss at pertinent points, as the Doctor prepares to wander through the wreckage of his own TARDIS:

The trap is set for the Doctor’s friends. They will travel where the Doctor ends.

His friends are lost for ever more, unless he goes to Trenzalore.

This man must fall as all men must. The fate of all is always dust.

The man who lies will lie no more when this man lies at Trenzalore.

The girl who died he tried to save. She’ll die again inside his grave.

Clearly not Ogden Nash fans.

“The Time of the Doctor”
This is, apparently, an extract from a poem called “Thoughts on a Clock” by Eric Ritchie Junior that Clara found in a Christmas cracker on the occasion of the Doctor’s regeneration:

And now it’s time for one last bow
Like all your other selves
Eleven’s hour is over now
The clock is striking twelve’s.

Note: Christmas crackers do not usually contain poems of such great specificity.

OK, which delights of rhythm and verse did we forget? Tell us here:

See more:
Steven Moffat: “‘Sherlock’ and ‘Doctor Who’ Are Obtusely British”
Five Of Matt Smith’s Funniest Moments
Five Regenerations That Never Happened
Five British Sweet Things The Twelfth Doctor Could Carry In His Pocket

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.

He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.

Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic

See more posts by Fraser McAlpine