Doctor Who: Steven Moffat’s monsters are a masterclass in fear

Steven Moffat wrote a great many Doctor Who stories: comedic, adventurous, tragic, romantic, and some absolutely terrifying. As we look back at the monsters that defined his era we consider why so many still haunt us.

We are all born with an understanding of fear.

It encircles our hearts like thorned pericardium sacs ready to take stranglehold, arresting our breath and inhibiting our movement. And yet, fear is also a herald and a catalyst of change; it is a delicious flicker of excitement that propels us forward when time around us seems frozen.

For generations Doctor Who has pulled us in with tales of thrilling dread, from Autons to Zygons and everything in between, and only the Doctor himself could grab our hand from behind the sofa and compel us to run.

In many ways, these villains have shaped our childhoods. They have shaped how we see the world, and ultimately how we have become who we have each fought to become.

During his tenure as both a writer and a showrunner of Doctor Who, Steven Moffat helped to craft scores of beautiful, breathtaking, and heart-wrenching stories for the Doctor and his friends. And while each of those has been memorable in its own way, it is his legacy of monsters which has most firmly been cemented into the foundation of the Whoverse.

Facets of fear

In order to convincingly write about fear, you have to understand it. Not just what makes you yourself afraid, but what could evoke fear in others. Not everyone is afraid of a spider for example, but by tweaking the circumstances surrounding an attacking arachnid (make it ginormous, poisonous, famished, immortal, etc.) you can create a scenario that will resonate with readers/listeners/viewers.

Yet, Moffat’s true genius is not in creating overly complex scenarios, but rather, in scrutinizing the world through a childlike innocence, stripping everything away and awakening in each of us our most primal fears. Fears that we did not realize we still carried with us: filling our darkness with swarms of carnivorous shadows, placing a monster in the furthest corner of our eye, being chased by stone assassins poised to attack the moment we look away.

Doctor Who

Daleks are a warrior race that found new life under Moffat’s run.
(Photo by Ronald Dumont/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Are you my mummy?

Some of Moffat’s most successful forays into fear involve a Houdini level of misdirection. In The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, is it the deformed mutant child that we fear, or his emptiness devoid of reason, devoid of memory? Or worse yet, is it the possibility that you or anyone around you can be similarly emptied?

Moffat continues to enhance this theme throughout his reign, further elaborating on the idea of an inescapable, enclosing threat. In Asylum of the Daleks, The Time of the Doctor, and The Magician’s Apprentice, Moffat takes the bread and butter of our fandom, the Daleks, and enriches their lore. No longer just armored killing machines, (for which any Whovian worth their salt had a decades-old plan to outsmart) Moffat creates a converting nano-cloud in which any organism dead or alive can silently and seamlessly be made into a Dalek-puppet.

What is scarier than a monster you fail to recognize? A monster that can be hidden in a friend, hidden in a corpse, or a skeleton, or in yourself…

Any shadow

It is these layers that have secured Moffat’s success. He was able to move the dial, transposing the faceless mannequins of old, into monsters that can have any face, can have any voice: your face, my voice. Ice cream. Ice cream.

But it isn’t only Angel Bob or Oswin Oswald that should be viewed with suspicion. Any crack in the wall, any statue, any dusty library can be hiding a forest of monsters, and a darkness that will devour you.

Yet, in my opinion, two of the most terrifying Moffat monsters can be seen in Heaven Sent and Extremis.

In Heaven Sent, the Veil is relentless, unswerving, and mute in his incessant judgment. The Doctor must stand alone, without friends, without the Tardis, and face himself before he can escape the confession dial.

Similarly in Extremis, the monster is unknown; hidden in a simulation where the Doctor is blind, alone, lost in a reality that is not real. And ultimately, the test of shadows does not just reveal the player to be an avatar in a game, it reveals the player to be a sacrificial pawn in a chess match where both sides are destined to lose.

Moffat’s most spine-chilling monsters were perfectly hidden, invulnerable, and single-minded. They manipulated the passage of time, your own memory, and every last vestige of truth in your arsenal. Decades from now they will be just as confounding and terrifying, and …memorable. And just like Moffat was influenced by classic monsters, so too will he surely influence and inspire the next generation of storytellers who may even now be hiding behind their furniture, waiting for the Doctor.

Next: Doctor Who: The veils we wear and why we wear them

Which of Moffat’s monsters was your favorite? Which other Doctor Who classic and modern monsters have haunted you? Comment below!

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