The 1975 DOCTOR WHO adventure TERROR OF THE ZYGONS not only featured a most effective titular scary monster, but also illustrated themes of body snatching and manipulation of authority figures.
SINCE its return in 2005, DOCTOR WHO has continued to unsettle children with tales of gas-mask zombies and Weeping Angels. These injections of the uncanny into familiar, home-grown surroundings mirror the classic era of Autons on Ealing High Street and Daleks emerging from the Thames. But by possessing an "edited highlights" style and a computer-heavy sheen that distances and detracts, the reboot has lost the gravitas of horrors steeped in the Gothic tradition, which made the Philip Hinchcliffe/Robert Holmes era so memorable. Consequently, the new show struggles for emotional depth, as characters and companions drown under the weight of one thing after another, thus diminishing the "frighten factor" considerably.
Fear is the most effective way to grab our attention. Some of the most successful Public Information Films draw on arresting images to hammer home their points (1973's "I Am the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water," for example, aims to scare children away from ponds and rivers by masking a set of scenarios with a bank-hugging Grim Reaper). The limbic Amygdala - within the temporal lobe of the brain - hard-wires this fear-conditioning for self-preservation; the Amygdala has a close association to memory, so scare tactics from youth are subsequently used to mould behavioural trends in years to come. Cultivation Theory states that television could influence the mind to march in step with everyday perception, enlarging the assimilation of disturbing images by pure repetition.
A parasitic seaweed is sucked up by an offshore drilling rig in the 1968 DOCTOR WHO tale FURY FROM THE DEEP. Possessed by the entity, Mr Quill (Bill Burridge) launches his gas attack in the show's first genuinely unnerving sequence.
As a special feature on the BBC's DOCTOR WHO - THE DEADLY ASSASSIN DVD release of 2009, the sixteen-minute documentary THE FRIGHTEN FACTOR aimed to answer what exactly the show's fear element is, by interviewing a diverse panel of "experts" from educational psychologist to church minister. The bombastic theme tune can be a frighten factor itself, so apparently can The Doctor, as well as being a parent/uncle surrogate for the viewer. Although the programme's visual use of everyday objects (dolls, dummies et al) and detrimental authority figures play with a child's conforming worldview, the child attempts to play out these images within the comfort of their own homes, so it becomes an enjoyable experience. As the resident educational psychologist explains, it is this consumption of live action visuals that makes it resonate so effectively, as opposed to cartoons which are too abstract to have the same effect.