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Doctor Who in the 1970s: More occult than sci-fi?

It’s 2024 and Doctor Who is back on our TV screens once again. Ncuti Gatwa is officially the Fifteenth Doctor in this the 14th series since the New Who era began. Some people can’t help but point out that this is actually the 40th season of Doctor Who, however. The same people also say things like: “Do you realise that two of the canonical Doctors – Ten and Fourteen – are, in fact, the same Doctor?“. It can all get a little bit confusing. That’s the problem with 60-odd years of time-travelling and bodily regeneration: things tend to get complicated. All of this before we even get into Peter Cushing’s big-screen Dr. (not Doctor) Who, the War Doctor, or anything of that nature.

Instead of trying to untangle all of these complex timelines, let’s borrow the TARDIS and slip back a few decades instead. Back to a simpler time when Doctor Who was less complex, less controversial… no, wait, something’s wrong… we must have crossed over into an alternate history, or else something has been interfering with the past… because it looks like, half a century ago, beloved tea-time family entertainment Doctor Who was some kind of childhood-scarring, occult-influenced, black magic meets alien technology horror-fest.

Okay, we’re locking in on the 1970s now. The decade of the Third Doctor, played by Jon Pertwee (1970 – 1974) and the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker (1974 – 1981). There seems to be a significant accumulation of occult imagery and influence during this period. The Hauntology-ometer is picking up very high readings for folk horror, Quatermass-particles, and Radiophonic Workshop vibes. So, l think we’d better park the TARDIS here, and try to find out what this is all about.

The Dæmons (1971)

Five-part story The Dæmons first aired on BBC1 between May and June 1971.

An archaeological dig is about to take place at Devil’s Hump – a Bronze Age burial mound – near the English village of Devil’s End. Local White Witch, Miss Hawthorne, warns that if archaeologist Professor Gilbert Horner opens up the barrow as planned, it will bring death and disaster to the village. This is an opinion shared by many, it seems. A BBC TV crew are filming the Prof and his team at their work, documenting the dig and recounting something of the area’s history and legend in their broadcast. BBC3 presenter Alastair Fergus begins:

Devil’s End. The very name sends a shiver up the spine. The witches of Devil’s End, the famous curse, the notorious cavern underneath the church where the third Lord of Aldbourne played at his 18th century parody of black magic. Devil’s End is part of the dark mythology of our childhood days. And now, for the first time, the cameras of the BBC have been allowed inside the cavern itself. In this cavern, pagan man performed his unspeakable rites. In this cavern, the witches of the 17th century hid from the fires of Matthew Hopkins, witch-hunter extraordinary. In this cavern… but I could go on all day.

The Doctor and his companion, Jo, watch the broadcast live. The Doctor is intrigued by the name Devil’s End, almost as if he remembers it. The Time Lord has previously dismissed Jo’s idle talk of the dawning of the Age of Aquarius meaning “the occult […] the supernatural and all that magic bit” as unscientific nonsense. However, when the Prof announces on-air that he’ll be opening the Devil’s Hump tomb at midnight – at Beltane, the “greatest occult festival of the year, bar Halloween” – the Doctor doesn’t seem so sure. Something about the time, the place, the stars…

Miss Hawthorne interrupts the live TV interview to protest about the Prof’s plans to unseal the burial mound. She warns:

I’ve cast the runes. I’ve consulted the talisman of Mercury. It’s written in the stars. When Beltane is come, tread softly, for lo, the prince himself is nigh […]The Prince of Evil, the Dark One, the Horned Beast.

This is enough to get the Doctor moving in the direction of Devil’s End, hoping that he and Jo can make it there before the tomb is opened.

The Doctor’s new Moriarty-like nemesis, the Master (introduced at the start of the same 1971 season which The Dæmons closes), has beaten him to the village. Posing as the local Vicar, the Master has already created a coven out of villagers. For extra folk horror points, these include the local troop of Morris Dancers.

The Devil’s Hump, it turns out, is actually the resting place of Azal; an ancient alien who superstitious humans have misinterpreted as a demon or devil. Azal views humans as an experiment and the time has come for them to decide whether the people of Earth are worthy of survival. If they are, Azal will bestow their power upon them. The Master throws horns and incants what turns out to be a reversed recitation of Mary Had a Little Lamb in order to summon the alien from its ancient slumber (repeatedly, which seems to irritate it). In return, he is temporarily granted a fraction of this power, which he utilises to animate a gargoyle to do his bidding. When Azal is awakened a third and final time, it manifests fully as a thirty-foot tall, cloven-hoofed, horned and bearded Great God Pan/Goat of Mendes-looking Dæmon. The ancient alien is ultimately defeated by a selfless human act that falls so far outside its dæmonic expectations that it is forced to explode a church.

From the name Devil’s End to the live BBC TV broadcast within a BBC show, the influence of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass Experiment (1953) and Quatermass and the Pit (1958) are very much in evidence from the outset of The Dæmons. John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987) also feels like it could be a sort of fever-dream re-imagining of the story in a weird way. The Dæmons seems to have been the first and most significant Who Horror for many viewers. Waves of occult weirdness rippling out from its splashdown on more than nine million TV screens when its debut episode aired.

Image of the Fendahl (1977)

Image of the Fendahl was a four-part story, first broadcast on BBC1 between October and November 1977.

In Fetch Priory laboratory, near the village of Fetchborough, England, a group of scientists are investigating what looks like a human skull. The skull, referred to as Eustace, was found buried in volcanic sediment in Kenya. Tests appear to date it at twelve million years old, even though this would mean that it predated humans by eight million years. When one of the scientists, Dr. Fendelman, uses a “sonic time scan” in an attempt to obtain an image of the skull’s owner, things start to get weird. Eustace glows, there’s something strange between one of the scientists – Thea – and the skull, and someone in the priory grounds is attacked and disintegrated by an invisible creature.

The Doctor, companion Leela, and robotic dog K9, are travelling when the TARDIS is affected by a Relative Continuum Displacement Zone — a hole in time.

We have to stop it […] otherwise it’ll cause a direct continuum implosion and destroy the planet it’s operating from,

says the Time Lord. Of course, once the source is traced, it turns out that that planet is Earth.

The skull – which an x-ray reveals has a pentagram etched into its cranium – turns out to be of extraterrestrial origin. It is the remains of a Fendahl – an entity (confusingly) comprised of 13 distinct beings: the humanoid Fendahl core, and twelve Fendahleen. These latter are eyeless, limbless creatures with a fringe of pink tentacles around their mouths, and two large fins above. The time scan somehow reactivated the skull-like remains of the core, and scientist Thea finds herself being converted into a new host/body for the central entity.

There is a local White Witch, Martha Tyler, who reads tarot cards, mentions “the old religion”, points out that today is Lammas Eve, and recommends salt as a protection against the apparent supernatural forces at work. This latter point turns out to be a good call, as the Doctor later clarifies:

Sodium chloride. Obviously affects the conductivity, ruins the overall electrical balance and prevents control of localised disruption to the osmotic pressures.

In other words: salt kills the Fendahleen. There’s also a local black magic cult, who end up using the time scanner technology as part of a ritual to convert their members into Fendahleen (to make up the numbers for the ones that have been salted to death). Old Earth superstitions centred around pentagrams, and even throwing salt over your shoulder, turn out to have their roots in ancient memories of our alien visitors. Once again, things culminate in an exploding (former) place of worship.

After enjoying plumb cake with the White Witch and her grandson, the Doctor and Leela head off in the TARDIS. The Time Lord decides to drop Eustace the skull off in a supernova in the constellation of Canthares. Just to make sure.

Image of the Fendahl writer Chris Boucher drew inspiration from the 1967 film version of Quatermass and the Pit, and Kurt Vonnegut’s 1959 novel The Sirens of Titan for the story.1 Tom Baker told fans that it was his favourite Who story of the era. 2 Though its story may be clearer than that of The Dæmons (though possibly not the way I have explained it), and contains many of the same ingredients as its predecessor, Image of the Fendahl is not exactly superior. Of course, these things are subjective but, in terms of sticking in the collective unconscious, perhaps it is precisely the fact that Image of the Fendahl is the more coherent story which means it hasn’t haunted so many people’s dreams.

The Stones of Blood (1978)

Four-part story The Stones of Blood first aired on BBC1 between October and November 1978. Like Image of the Fendahl the previous year, the story was on UK TV screens throughout the Hallowe’en and Bonfire Night season.

The Doctor, his companion Romana, and K9 are on the trail of the Key of Time – a powerful artifact, shattered into many parts, each of which has now taken on a disguised appearance. An intermittent signal picked up onboard the TARDIS is cause enough for the Doctor to land on Earth, in 1978 Cornwall to continue the search.

The trio arrives at the Nine Travellers – a circle of nine standing stones – on Boscombe Moor. There they meet archaeologist, Professor Emilia Rumford, and her friend, local landowner, Vivien Fay, who are studying the stones.

A local Druidic sect that worships Cailleach – “goddess of war, death and magic” – is led by a man named De Vries. He and his group object to the archaeological investigations of their sacred site. Professor Rumford is very dismissive of them:

The British Institute of Druidic Studies. Nothing at all to do with real Druids, of course, past or present. No, there’s a group of them who come regularly. They all wear white robes and wave bits of mistletoe and curved knives in the air. It’s all very unhistoric.

The stones begin moving and killing people. They crave blood. De Vries almost manages to sacrifice the Doctor to them, but is thwarted when Professor Rumford turns up on her bicycle and scares the sect away. Sinister black crows haunt the skies, acting as the eyes of the goddess. But who is she? The Doctor traces her origins to an alien prison ship, hovering invisibly between dimensions over the stone circle. Would you believe that it isn’t an ancient Druidic goddess causing all this mischief at all?

The Nine Travellers are actually Ogri: a stone-like lifeform from planet Ogros. Vivien Fay is, in fact, Cessair of Diplos, an escaped criminal who has stolen the Great Seal of her home planet (which is really a camouflaged piece of the Key of Time). The ship which is hovering in hyperspace is home to a couple of intergalactic robo-police called the Megara, who are on the hunt for the escapee.

Cessair has been masquerading as the goddess – wearing a very folk horror bird costume and mask – and manipulating the Druids for a long, long time. When the Doctor finally manages to convince the Megara that Vivien is the alien they’ve been looking for, they pass judgment and transform her into a new stone in the circle.

Professor Emilia Rumford is (perhaps rather surprisingly) happy to have a new Tenth Traveller, and the Doctor is pleased to have nabbed the piece of the Time Key which drew the TARDIS to earth in the first place. Everyone’s a winner. Sort of.

The Stones of Blood is, again, possibly even more coherent as a Doctor Who story than its predecessor. It has all the ingredients of a folk horror tale, and some genuinely great performances (Beatrix Lehmann’s turn as Professor Rumford is wonderful). Though the glowing, moving standing stone aliens are enjoyable, they are not as attention-grabbing as the glowing skull of Image of the Fendahl, which itself has nothing on Azal or even Bok the gargoyle.

In other words, while the stories got subjectively better, the impact of them seems to have diminished. They seem to “settle down” into occult-tinged, yet palatable and recognisably Doctor Who-shaped stories by the end of the decade, whereas they began as something else.

Magic, particularly so-called black magic, as a human misinterpretation of alien life or advanced alien science, is a theme which continues to ripple out through Doctor Who. The Doctor has been taken for a witch, a magician (Merlin on more than one occasion), or a demon themselves many times.

The idea that our legends of witches, of demons, and even gargoyles, are just humans misunderstanding alien things crops up again and again throughout the many decades of Who stories. 2006’s The Satan Pit – in which a gigantic horned creature known only as The Beast has been imprisoned since “before the universe began” – and 2018’s The Witchfinders – in which accused witches are actually humans possessed by aliens, are a couple of fairly recent examples which spring immediately to mind. Bizarrely, the 1981 pilot for spin-off series K-9 and Company – the adventures of companion Sarah Jane Smith and the eponymous robo-dog – featured a Hecate-worshipping cult in an English village, plotting human sacrifice3. These, unlike the typical Who cultists, turned out to have nothing to do with aliens whatsoever.

The Dæmons was the first, the longest, the weirdest, and (arguably) the least coherent of the 70s occult Doctor Who stories. Yet, it is without a doubt the one which has had the most lasting impact, not just upon Who itself, but also on pop-culture folk-memory. There is a strange, misremembered, half-imagined, sort of dream version of The Dæmons which is somehow more potent and influential than the real, revisitable, rewatchable one. Occult in a very real sense.


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