For a piece of fiction to be Gothic, what criteria, if any, must be met?
When one thinks of Gothic, often our thoughts go to one of two things – Gothic Horror, and Gothic Architecture. But whilst both of those things derive from the essence of what the nature of Gothic is, neither fully explore or explain what truly makes something Gothic, because there is no clear method of distinguishing one way or another. Gothic architecture is Gothic because it conforms to a set of styles commonly associated with the architectural style, a Gothic Horror is a Gothic Horror because it uses one or more Gothic elements in it to define what it is and how it appears to the audience. But getting to the root of the topic, defining what Gothic actually is, can be difficult.
It is because of this that many pieces of fiction can be described as Gothic even if the work itself contains none of the stereotypical Gothic tropes such as gargoyles, castles, ghosts or graveyards. For something to be ‘Gothic’, it must inspire a particular feeling in the viewer, as Gothic fiction creates an atmosphere of unease, tension and even paranoia, and deal with dark themes with deep psychological undertones that aim to give the audience something to think about. Often Gothic stories will feature a monster, usually male, pitted against some form of Gothic heroine – but even this is not clear-cut, as heroines in Gothic fiction can be anything from a damsel-in-distress to a sociopath.
So how does this link to Doctor Who? Well, in more ways than you might expect.
Doctor Who is a very Gothic work of fiction. It has used Gothic elements almost since its first episode, and there have been periods in Doctor Who’s history where the show seemed to turn from whimsical science-fiction adventure to haunting Gothic-horror style tales of monsters, dark deeds, terror, and betrayal. As is the nature of Doctor Who as a show with a perpetually changing identity, Gothic elements haven’t always been at the forefront of how the show presents itself, and there have also been periods in the show’s history where it seems as if it couldn’t be any less Gothic. But deep-rooted in the show’s collective consciousness there is a drive to constantly return to a ‘neutral-state’ of Gothic horror, to the point that episodes that are less Gothic feel that little bit less like ‘true’ Doctor Who.
To map out the evolution of the relationship between Doctor Who and Gothic fiction, it is necessary to isolate three distinct phases in the show’s history in which Gothic elements are at their most obvious. The first phase began when the show was in its infancy, and only appeared sporadically in the turbulent times of Seasons 1 and 2 when the show was first finding its feet. Despite being a program designed specifically for children at the time, William Hartnell’s era of Doctor Who dabbled a fair amount in the genre of Gothic Horror. This may come as a surprise to modern viewers, many of whom have come to consider Hartnell’s era boring, outdated, or at the very worst, irrelevant. And yet here, in the show’s earliest days, there are examples of a genuine Gothic feel to Doctor Who that began here and spanned over 50 years.
Of all Hartnell’s episodes, one in particular stands out as truly Gothic. The first is The Rescue, a short but shocking two-part story in which companion-to-be Vicki, having crashed on a hostile planet rife with danger, must care for the only surviving crewman whilst simultaneously tolerating the constant demands of a local alien warrior. Vicki fits the profile for a Gothic heroine – she is an orphan, trapped in unfamiliar territory by a monster who appears half-man, half-monster, and she appears helpless to resolve the situation and so must constantly sit by the radio of the ship and hope for rescue. The ship itself also embodies many elements of a Gothic setting. The warped hull, rotting and torn-down panels coupled with collapsed beams and a claustrophobic interior make it an ideal Gothic setting. The final act of the story sees the Doctor facing off against the alien in a cavernous underground occult church and, for the native aliens and the humans, the reveal at the end of the episode cast doubt over who is really man and who is monster.
This is only one example of many early Doctor Who stories that are driven by unmistakable Gothic elements, with other examples including The Dalek Invasion of Earth, The Crusade, The Tomb of the Cybermen, The War Games, and of course The Dæmons. In its early days, however, Doctor Who still for the most part adhered to the pretense of being a show for children but, during the transition between the Third and Fourth Doctors in 1974, the writing team decided to take the show down a different route. Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes began an era of Doctor Who that is most certainly Gothic, and is often considered to be the first Golden Age of Doctor Who for its quality of scripts, actors, sets, but most importantly, atmosphere.
In Part 2 of this article, I will discuss in depth the Gothic elements present in Seasons 12, 13 and 14 of Doctor Who and discuss what it is about the Gothic nature of this era that makes it so well-remembered, well-loved and well-respected even now, over 40 years later.