The production team of Doctor Who has spent nearly 60 years trying to make horrific-looking things happen to people, on a tight budget. Sometimes they do a great job, and sometimes, with the benefit of hindsight, you can see the joints a bit.
But this is a tribute to those special effects – particularly those showing when people are being taken out by monsters – that have proven to be so very effective, that they’ve left Whovians wincing with pain.
Let’s start with the most recent example:
1. Being Disintegrated by SwarmIt may be tempting to scoff that this is just CGI doing CGI stuff, like you’d see in any Marvel movie, but there’s something genuinely horrific about the redness and the smokiness and the ghastliness of the way Swarm disintegrates people. It helps that he’s such a cold fish that he does it without so much as a grunt of satisfaction. That’s chilling. But also, it’s quite a quiet death by science fiction standards. Very permanent, of course, but very quiet. People just evaporate before your very eyes, possibly peacefully, but it looks like it BURNS.
2. Being Shot by a DalekThis is an example of an effect which was first conceived out of necessity and technological limitation. When the Daleks shot people in the earliest episodes of Doctor Who, the team would edit in the film negative, because that was one of very few special effects available to them. This gave those deaths an eerie glow, which is part of the horror of the Daleks. As effects became more sophisticated, the Dalek death gun acted like an on-screen X-ray, showing the skeletal forms of the people who had been shot, as they writhe in agony before collapsing to the floor. If they had been shot with a bullet, they may crumple around their wound, but Dalek victims suffer an all-body injury that looks agonizing. It’s as if their every nerve ending is suddenly on fire.
3. Cyber-ConversionThis is less about the impact of the visual effect and more about the brutal reality of a story told well. Cybermen are people who have been converted to cyborgs. That means they have had parts of their bodies removed and replaced with robotics. In order to remove those parts, some kind of butchery is necessary. We’ve seen the whirling blades on high (in “The Age of Steel”) and the hospital ward with wounded people in stockinged faces (“World Enough and Time”). But however it is portrayed – even in the relatively light-hearted “Closing Time” – the visual impact of the conversion from human to Cyber (and those expressionless Cyber faces) is always deeply unsettling.
4. Eaten by Alien Lice“Knock Knock” is a wonderfully odd Doctor Who story. We appear to have a sentient house eating its tenants. There’s a wooden lady who is far more eerily expressive than previous wooden people we’ve met before – the Trees of Cheem in “The End of the World” or the Wooden King and Queen in “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe” – and then there’s her quietly unsettling son. It’s the ending that provides the biggest ick. We discover that the wooden Eliza was kept alive by space weevils, she then instructs them to eat her and her son, and she holds him still while they do it. All we hear are his sobbing cries and protestations under a thick coating of CGI insects. It’s just horrible (and therefore wonderful).
5. Skullbent by the Teller In a way, the hard-boiled genre specific tone of “Time Heist” disguises some of Doctor Who’s finest visual ideas around what aliens should look like, and how they can attack humans. The teller is an incredible looking beast, the body of an upright elephant, with a face like a shaved buffalo and trunk-like horns with eyeballs on the end. The devastating affect of his telepathic mind-wiping powers are shown in the inverted skull of his victims, with a bowl-like cavity so deep you could eat cornflakes out of it. But the painful bits are also in the shrill tone that plays while the wipe is taking place, and the agony on the face of the poor victim. The Doctor may grimly characterize his tears as “soup,” but it’s a horrific way to die.
6. Catching PraxeusThe praxeus condition (as seen in “Praxeus”) must be among the most discomfiting Doctor Who illnesses ever shown on TV. As an allegory for plastic pollution across the natural world, it’s a very on-the-nose story. But seen as a special effect alone, the vaguely geometric, crystalline shapes across the skin of praxeus sufferers look sharp and deeply unpleasant. And when they suddenly escalate in speed, so that patients explode in a cloud of (presumably) plastic dust, you can feel the grit between your teeth.
7. Becoming an OodNo matter how righteous it may feel that the rotten, swaggering swine Mr. Halpern has to suffer the transformation into Ood-kind in “Planet of the Ood,” there is no holding back the involuntary shudder that occurs when he effectively peels back his own human scalp to reveal the Ood-ish skull beneath. There may be something unintentionally comic about the way he appears to vomit spaghetti in order to replicate those dangling arteries from the Ood mouth, but it’s the peeling skin that makes any laughter die in the throat. Just or not, that conversion looks like it really, really hurts.
8. Suffering Water DamageAnyone who has ever suffered chapped lips in winter will empathize totally with those poor crew members of Bowie Base One in “The Waters of Mars.” Not only have they been taken over by sentient wetness, but their poor mouths – which drool constantly – are cracked and sore, and it’s not like the lips are short of nerve-endings. It’s enough to make you buy a lifetime’s supply of Martian chapstick. Imagine trying to drink a cup of tea with that level of skin damage. You’d want to blow up a space base too.
9. Growing a Gas Mask out of Your FaceGas masks are eerie. They look like a cross between a skull and a vacuum cleaner, and much like the mask-like faces of Cybermen, they present a version of the human face that is vacant and unemotional. That, plus the creepy refrain “are you my mummy?” is what gives “The Empty Child” it’s horrific punch. But let’s single out a key moment for further applause. The transformation of Dr. Constantine into a gas mask zombie is played for total horror, with the eyes bulging and the mouth being stretched by the metallic lump of the gas mask’s filter as it passes through his face. Being a zombie is bad enough, but becoming one looks far worse.
Which Doctor Who special effect had the most visceral impact on you?!