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Doctor Who: Night Terrors (Review)

I’ve really liked Mark Gatiss’ contributions to Doctor Who. While not amongst the very best the series has to offer, The Unquiet Dead and The Idiot’s Lantern were both very solid monster-of-the-week episodes with clever concepts, a huge amount of energy and a sharp wit. Night Terrors shares all these attributes with those two earlier of Gatiss’ stories, but benefits from a wonderfully endearing sense of nostalgia and a very effective urban setting we really haven’t seen since the end of the Davies era.

George needs professional help…

However, while the council estate might bring back memories of the apartment block where Rose used to live, I couldn’t help but feel that Gatiss was channelling something older. In particular, it feels a lot like a Sylvester McCoy serial, the kind of story that inspired Davies’ writing (and indeed was the setting of his first contribution to the franchise, the novel Damaged Goods). The idea of a sinister tenement block being controlled by an alien intelligence calls to mind Paradise Towers, and I couldn’t help but get a Ghost Light feeling from the old gothic mansion.

In fact, before the nature of the ghostly mansion that Rory and Amy find themselves wandering is revealed, there’s a decidedly old-school feel to it all. “It’s wood, just painted to look like copper,” Amy remarks of a frying pan, calling to mind the way that the old series used to attempt to disguise cardboard and wood as metal in order to save on production costs. Rory responds with the cynicism of somebody without imagination, “That is stupid.” Of course, there’s a logical reason for all this in the context of the story itself, but it seems like Gatiss might be attempting to evoke the feeling of the show he grew up with. Even the dolls themselves, rendered with great technical care (and transformed with impressive skill) are the type of monsters that the original show might have produced on a shoe-string budget.

Playing with dolls…

The script is charming and clever enough to be aware of these tropes and audience expectations. On arriving in their rather modest destination, Rory remarks, “We could get a bus to a place like this.” There’s something brilliant about the sequence where the TARDIS crew attempt to flush out the one kid in the estate having bad dreams, and they find themselves met with awkward looks and stern faces rather than especially helpful dialogue, like on might expect. And when Gatiss has another character talk to herself, outlining exposition, he’s shrewd enough to make it just a bit self-aware. “Talking to yourself now?” the old lady asks herself, “They say it’s the first sign.”

Of course, all of this fits very well with the story Gatiss has written. It’s a story about a kid who is afraid of everything in his bed room, despite the fact that there’s not really anything that scary. It’s all shadows and mundane objects transformed by the power of a child’s imagination. Pretty much like a lot of the more disappointing monsters on the classic television show, often rendered effective by the boundless imaginations of those watching, rather than anything outright grotesque. In fact, one gets that the sense that Mary Whitehouse would have been all over this child’s case, calling for all manner of boycotts and censorship. Even George’s father is quick to suggest, “Might be those things on telly.”

Story time…

Of course, George’s fears are amplified by the fact he’s a child (and an alien child at that), but they are so potent because they are twisted reflections of his own irrational fears and concerns, translated into a more palpable form for a little boy as a coping mechanism. George creates these monsters to allow him to process things he can’t fully understand – like his parents’ struggling economic circumstances or inability to pay the rent. The whole fantasy is created by George because he fears rejection by his parents – when George’s father makes it perfectly clear that they weren’t talking about sending their son away, the Doctor retorts, “George didn’t know that!”

The setting and script allow for a rather wonderful exploration of what Doctor Who and most monster movies allow us to do – especially when we’re younger. We project our fears into some tangible form, so they can be vanquished and defeated by our heroes. For fans of the classic show, it was the Doctor himself, here – rather sweetly and emotionally – it’s George’s father himself. I do think there’s something fascinating to be explored about the way that Gatiss has written fathers, between this and The Idiot’s Lantern, but that’s a discussion for another day.

His bark’s worse than his bite…

Truth be told, it’s not a perfect episode – and it does fall just shy of greatness. The dolls simply don’t seem quite as creepy as they should be. They seem rather primitive special effects, but they also seem to have been inserted just because the story needed a monster. I know they aren’t really that important, and the simplicity of their design serves a purpose, but I can’t help but wonder if there might have been a more efficient way to get those ideas across, without having what feels like a rather pointless plot thread supporting a main plotline with some smart ideas about what makes the series so good. It seemed like the visits to the doll house were distracting from the interesting stuff that was happening in George’s bedroom.

Between this and A Christmas Carol, Matt Smith is demonstrating a wonderful chemistry for working with children, and it’s something I like about his version of the Doctor. For all his impossibly old eyes, Matt Smith’s version of the character is – at heart – a hyper-active ten-year-old, discarding a rubiks cube as broken because he can’t solve it in thirty seconds, unsure of what to do around girls, and basically just very good at talking to children, rather than down to them. It doesn’t seem that Smith’s Doctor is reassuring kids so much as exchanging ideas from them, getting as much joy from them as they do from him – the Doctor has always worked well with children, but never really as a peer. It’s an endearing trait, and Smith does an excellent job with it.

Be a doll, Amy…

By the way, did anyone find the Doctor’s “in the flesh” remark towards the end a bit suggestive? Damn these season-long mysteries and the mind-screws resulting from them. I think I’m just going to give up on the guessing games about this, and just prepare to be taken wherever Moffat wants to go – there are far worse guides, after all. And if we get episodes like this between now and the end of the season (and next week’s looks suitably “out there”), I think I can live with it. While Victory of the Daleks was a bit of a letdown (while giving us the immortal line, “would! you! care! for! some! teeeea!”), Night Terrors shows the writer back on flying form.

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4 Responses

  1. Another excellent review. It totally sums up my view of the episode. How on earth do you manage to get them up in so short a time?

    I too felt that the episode fell just a little short. It had all the right elements, yet somehow failed to get me completely absorbed. I did enjoy it, but I felt somehow unfulfilled at the end. The dolls didn’t make sense to me, either: they were scarier in the preview last week than they were in the episode.

    By the way, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t point out that the Dalek’s line in “Victory of the Daleks” — which I will be making my text message alert as soon as I have a phone capable of such things — is actually “Would! You! Care! For! Some! Tea!?” My brother and I still greet each other like that.

    • Thanks James!

      I take notes during the episode and just sort tie them all together for speed. And good catch on the Dalek quote! It! Has! Been! Updated!

  2. As I had trouble putting this episode into perspective, one of the reasons may be that it was supposed to be in the first half of the series. This allows a few things to make sense like the “in the flesh” line and the difference in how Amy and Rory are acting compared to how they may act right after Let’s Kill Hitler.

    While I still enjoyed this episode due to it being Doctor Who, I didn’t feel completely satisfied with the ending either. I think I felt it rushed after such a long build up in the beginning.

    Anyway, I highly enjoyed your recap and will be bookmarking your blog for further readings.

    • Thanks Amanda. I didn’t know it was meant to be earlier. When was it shifted? Before or after filming? Either way, you would have thought they’d edit out the “in the flesh” reference… And my “the Doctor had a coat in that scene with Amy” conspiracy sense is tingling again!

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