Doctor Who’s most controversial episodes

We look back at some of the show's most contentious and complained about moments, from unconventional casting to some downright cruelty.

DOCTOR WHO: SERIES 12: EPISODE 07

The Doctor has lived for more than 2,000 years, and not all of them were good – in fact some of them were downright controversial. From violence to unwanted phone calls, complaints have dogged Doctor Who since the earliest TARDIS trips, some more justified than others.

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But which are the most-complained about and controversial episodes? Which bits are likely to be left out of the Five Hundred-Year Diary?

Here are some of the moments that caused headlines and complaints.

The Time of Angels (2010)

Doctor Who – The Time of Angels (Graham Norton graphic)
BBC

The tense cliffhanger to Matt Smith’s fourth episode saw the Doctor facing down an entire army of Weeping Angels… and Graham Norton. At the critical moment, a cartoon version of the talk show host marched out onto the screen in a banner advert for talent show Over the Rainbow. Doctor Who fans were not happy, to say the least, with more than 5,000 writing to the BBC to complain.

The Corporation apologised and claimed the advert had accidentally run too early. Norton is actually a long-time enemy of the Doctor, though. Due to a similar mix-up, his voice was heard bleeding into the opening seconds of Rose, the first episode in the new-Who era.

Can You Hear Me? (2020)

DOCTOR WHO: SERIES 12: EPISODE 07

While the recent series’ episode was applauded for tackling mental health themes, a scene towards the end – where Bradley Walsh’s Graham confessed his fears over his cancer returning, only to be rebuffed by an apparently indifferent Doctor – caused complaints, with some thinking Jodie Whittaker’s Time Lord seemed indifferent to his fears.

However, the BBC said that was not the intention, instead hoping that “by showing the Doctor struggling to find the right words” they’d bring sympathy for those who might find themselves in a similar situation.

“We never set out to upset our viewers with what we show and this episode tackled some sensitive themes,” the BBC said in a statement.

“The episode used dreams and nightmares to explore the inner lives of the companions.

“Thanks to Zellin’s nightmare powers, Ryan, Yaz, and Graham were forced to confront their worst fears, many of which relate to the way traveling with the Doctor has changed their lives.

“When Graham opened up to the Doctor about his fear of his cancer returning her response was never meant to be dismissive. The Doctor’s friend was scared, and we see her struggling to deal with the severity of the situation.”

The statement continued: “The intention of the scene was to acknowledge how hard it can be to deal with conversations on this subject matter. When faced with these situations, people don’t always have the right words to say at the right time, and this can often lead to feelings of guilt.”

The Deadly Assassin (1976)

Doctor Who - The Deadly Assassin
BBC

The Doctor has never had a more implacable foe than Mary Whitehouse, the British moral crusader who spent decades fighting against smut and violence on TV. Doctor Who was a frequent target of the Clean-Up TV pressure group, especially during Tom Baker’s era, when it must be said the show was particularly bloodthirsty.

Whitehouse was most upset by the cliffhanger ending to episode three of The Deadly Assassin, which ended with Tom Baker’s head underwater, moments from drowning. Whitehouse claimed “the programme contains some of the sickest and most horrific material ever seen on children’s television” and said it represented “a new barrier broken.”

Deep Breath (2014)

Neve McIntosh

Peter Capaldi’s very first episode triggered much attention on Twitter, and six complaints to Ofcom, for a kiss shared between Madame Vastra and her wife Jenny Flint. Viewers complained about the “blatant gay agenda” – but were slightly less bothered that one half of the couple was a space-lizard from the dawn of time.

Dalek (2005)

Billie Piper Dalek

Daleks are a rum lot, but the British Board of Film Classifications (BBFC) felt sorry for one when releasing their first new-Who appearance on DVD. Awarding the episode a 12 rating – meaning only children 12 and older should watch it – the BBFC objected to a scene where Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor tortures the captive Dalek with electricity.

In their statement, the organisation said: “We are concerned about role models for children using the sort of tactics that Doctor Who used against the Dalek. If that was transferred into the playground it would be something we would want to tackle.”

The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977)

Talons of Weng-Chiang

Casting white actors as other ethnicities was surprisingly common just a few decades ago, though today The Talons of Weng-Chiang – which saw white actors use makeup to portray Chinese characters and contains the use of racial slurs- is one of Who’s most controversial episodes.

And in fact, in 2020 BritBox added a trigger warning to the serial, noting that it “contains stereotypes that some may find offensive.”

A BritBox source told RadioTimes.com“BritBox provides a wide variety of programming from different decades for our subscribers to choose from.

“Some of this content reflects the times and attitudes of the time in which these programmes were made.

“Appropriate warnings are on the site to flag sensitive material and enable our subscribers to make their own choices as to what they watch.

The Stolen Earth (2008)

The cast of Doctor Who (BBC)
The cast of Doctor Who (BBC)

You don’t get more ex-directory than the TARDIS, so fans were thrilled when its phone number flashed on screen in this David Tennant episode.

More than 2,500 people supposedly tried to call the number – 07700 900 461– expecting to be put through to the Time Lord. Unfortunately for them, it was chosen from a list of ‘safe’ disconnected numbers, meaning all they got was a dial tone or automated message. Boo!

Vengeance on Varos (1985)

The Doctor has a dark side, of course – but should he or she ever mete our death?

Plenty of fans didn’t think so after this serial saw a couple of guards tumble into a vat of acid, with Colin Baker’s Doctor partially to blame as he quipped “Forgive me if I don’t join you.”

This scene – as well as scenes of genetic experiments and attempted hangings – led to plenty of complaints to the Radio Times letters page and Points of View, with Mark Campbell’s Doctor Who – the Complete Guide later describing it as “notorious” and “deeply problematic.”

Dark Water (2014)

Peter Capaldi and Michelle Gomez in Doctor Who (BBC, HF)

One of the darkest controversies came when Michelle Gomez’s Missy revealed death was…well, a fate worse than death. The implication that every corpse remained conscious and capable of experiencing pain –including its own cremation– was off-putting to say the least, and triggered hundreds of complaints to Ofcom. “Doctor Who is a family drama with a long tradition of tackling some of the more fundamental questions about life and death,” the BBC said in a statement.

“We were mindful of the themes explored in ‘Dark Water’ and are confident that they are appropriate in the context of the heightened sci-fi world of the show.”

And here we thought it was about bow ties and technobabble.

This article was originally published in 2014

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