Doctor Who Discovers Ghosts

With The Unquiet Dead in our TV Club, we have a good example of Doctor Who Discovers Ghosts. Many moons ago, I wrote a little essay on this so what better time to share it with a wider audience :wink:

Warning - some spoilers, sweetie!

Ghosts and the Victorians go hand in hand in storytelling. The most obvious example is probably the apparitions who appear to Victorian icon, Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve, warning him of dire consequences if he continues his miserly ways. The 19th century was a period when the spiritual and the scientific became intertwined. Whilst science and engineering advanced, the public became increasingly convinced that the supernatural was real. Science was used to try to prove the existence of, and attempt to engage with, the spirit world. High profile figures such as Arthur Conan Doyle were convinced they could find evidence of the other worlds, while contemporaries such as Harry Houdini made it their mission to discount the mutterings of psychics and savants.

The 19th Century, and the literary Victorian world in particular, are a popular stop off point for many Doctor Who writers – across all the mediums his stories are told in. Within these stories, it isn’t unusual for the Doctor and his companions to encounter adversaries of a ghostly nature. Experiencing stories the way I am through my marathon brought this into sharp focus as story after story had the Doctor, or his known allies, facing alien after alien that was ghostly, gaseous or nebulous in some way. Sometimes this would be intertwined with scientific advances, sometimes with the purely supernatural.

The first instance of gaseous aliens in my marathon was in the DWM 8th Doctor comic strip: The Curious Tale of Spring-Heeled Jack. Here, the Doctor encountered monsters bursting from the newly installed gas lamps. Formed of gas and fire, the Pyrodines were created by an alien soldier called Morjanus in her fight against the Hunters (another alien race). Tied in with the scientific advancement of the gas lamps, these aliens tap into the wariness people have for new technology.

Gas lamps also featured in one of Doctor Who’s more well-known ghostly entities: the Gelth. Appearing in the 9th Doctor story, The Unquiet Dead, the Gelth were gaseous lifeforms who, when not possessing human corpses would retreat to gaslights for safety. The Gelth are presented on screen, initially, as ghostly wraiths. They float and wail and are realised in a way which brings to mind the ghosts of a Christmas Carol which is, of course, fitting as the story also features Charles Dickens. What’s interesting is that, when the Gelth are revealed to be more malignant than first presumed, they become fiery red and flame-like, echoing the form of the Pyrodines.

A key scene in The Unquiet Dead sees the Doctor, Rose, Dickens and local psychic Gwyneth, holding a séance. Seances were extremely popular in the 19th Century as people attempted to contact the spirit world. The way the Gelth possess the dead of Sneed’s funeral parlour echoes the way psychics would be ‘possessed’ by the voices of the dead as they communicated with desperate relatives.

Seances feature in many of these stories involving ghostly apparations. The Jago and Litefoot story, The Spirit Trap finds the investigators of the inexplicable delving into the world of spiritualists when people attending the seances of one Mrs Vanguard start mysteriously disappearing. It emerges that humans from the future, in a non-corporeal form, are possessing their ancestors in the 19th century. The IDW 11th Doctor comic, Hypothetical Gentleman also features a séance and a spiritualist, Emily Fairfax, who has contacted a non-corporeal lifeform from another reality (with links to Gallifrey and the Time Lords). Just as with the Gelth, the Gentleman wishes to cross over to our world. A slight difference in this story is that Emily believes the Gentleman to be not a ghost or spirit, but an angel.

Possession also features in the short 5th Doctor audio, The Interplanetarian – part of the 1001 Night anthology. In it, Nyssa is possessed by a virus. The 19th Century setting of this story lends a supernatural air to the story echoing another Victorian literary trope, the ‘mad woman in the attic’. Another 19th Century-set story to involve possession by non-corporeal lifeforms is Assassin in the Limelight. Here, the Indo are possessing various people and have allowed Dr Robert Knox to extend his life beyond death. The Mahogany Murderers, the Companion Chronicle that launched the Jago and Litefoot range, also involves possession with criminals inhabiting wooden puppet-like bodies.

Proper ghostly entities, similar to the Gelth, are found in the 5th Doctor audio story, The Haunting of Thomas Brewster, and in the novel/audiobook Devil in the Smoke, featuring the Paternoster Gang. The eponymous devil in the smoke is yet another nebulous alien intent on possessing human bodies. In The Haunting of Thomas Brewster, Brewster is haunted by the ghost of his dead mother. Other apparitions appear and their malevolent intent is revealed (again involving crossing over into our world). These ghosts are synonymous with the fog of London and echo the nebulous smoke-like aliens of Devil in the Smoke.

It is interesting how many 19th Century/Victorian-set stories involve spirits and possession. It reflects the obsession contemporaries of that era had with the supernatural and trying to make contact with it. In Doctor Who it is this desire which allows so many non-corporeal entities to attempt crossing over into our world, with only the Doctor – or his allies – to prevent it. The repeated trope of these spirits possessing the ‘inanimate’ whether it be wooden dummies or corpses suggests a desire to cheat death or to believe that there is an afterlife humans can look towards. Aliens have used this to manipulate humans for their own ends. Even The Snowmen employs the concept of possession with the Great Intelligence inhabiting the body of Richard E Grant’s character, Dr Simeon.

And let’s not forget that, even though they are not the main adversary, both The Talons of Weng-Chiang and Ghost Light feature this ghostly obsession of the 19th Century. Talons sees Greel use a holographic projection of a ghost to prevent anyone from discovering his lair. Ghost Light draws on the atmosphere of a haunted house and something sinister in the basement, which isn’t all that dissimilar to the atmosphere conjured in The Unquiet Dead. And if it isn’t ghosts, it’s other supernatural beings such as Spring Heeled Jack, Jack the Ripper or the Pugilist.

Of course, not all 19th Century-set stories focus on these non-corporeal entities attempting to invade our reality. The other tack some of them make is to focus on the flipside of the supernatural obsession of Victorian society and look at the advancement of industry. The Crimson Horror, Industrial Evolution and even the clockwork robots of Deep Breath, all tap into the way Victorian society was rapidly changing in terms of technology and how this was tied into the strict religious beliefs of this era. Even a story which dispenses with much of the Victorian melodrama present in these other stories, The Evil of the Daleks, involves science fused with – for want of a better word – magic to allow time travel through mirrors and the transmutation of base metal into gold.

The Victorian era is fascinating for the way the supernatural and the scientific rubbed shoulders and entangled themselves with each other. At a time when strict Christian values defined much of how society would develop (many of our Christmas traditions are rooted in the Victorian era) it is intriguing how popular spiritualism was and how fearful of technological advancement society could be, whilst at the same time embracing the idea of advancing themselves across the world. The Imperialism of Victorian society is also reflected in how these various aliens attempt to impose themselves on our world; just as the Victorians were stumbling around the world imposing themselves on other continents.

Ghostly goings-on are always going to be popular in fiction. I’m sure Doctor Who will return to this era in the future and that nebulous, gaseous invaders won’t be very far behind.


Ooh nice post - I have been collecting stories that contain ghosts using the trope. As I haven’t read / listened to everything, this mostly relies on me reading the synopsis and deciding if it sounds ghostly, so there may be some mistakes and definitely are some missing - I’d appreciate those being pointed out!

To me ghosts are more supernatural than sci-fi and so I appreciate that most of the time Doctor Who explains them as some kind of scientific force, usually something to do with time travel and buildings having memories, as the Eleventh Doctor says in The Pandorica opens:

DOCTOR: If they’ve been to her house, they could have used her psychic residue. Structures can hold memories, that’s why houses have ghosts.

There may well be more ghosts coming up in Season One (2024) as in the trailer we hear Kate Stewart say things have become more supernatural, and a glass breaks on its own.

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