Series 6, episode 9: “Night Terrors”
When the Doctor’s Psychic Paper picks up a powerful message from Earth, the TARDIS crew traces it back to a block of flats in England and a small boy who is deathly afraid of the monsters in his cupboard… monsters that seem to be far more than a child’s imaginary fears.
Well, for those of you who are feeling a little burnt out on the Death Of The Doctor/Saga of River Song arc this season we have a nice little stand alone episode for you. It’s something of a rarity in these days of Moffat, who clearly likes to tell longer form stories, but if you’re like me and cut your DOCTOR WHO teeth on the original run of the series you’ll remember that while a story might run 2-6 episodes, there wasn’t a lot of connection between stories. Rare were the season length arcs, and continuity, well, WHO’s continuity is notorious for being tangled as hell. UNIT anyone? Honestly I really like the season arcs, especially with the modern 43/45 minute episodes, as it means we have more time to develop characters and storylines. But episodes like “The Doctor’s Wife” are great examples of episodes that don’t really do anything to advance the arc and yet still are fantastic storytelling.
There is, however, a problem when you’ve just finished an episode where fairly large things happen, like “Let’s Kill Hitler”. We’ve just had the “birth” of River Song, and the pretty clear indications that Amy and Rory won’t actually get to raise their daughter in anything resembling a traditional way, which any way you look at it, is a pretty emotionally traumatizing thing to deal with. That nothing in this episode references that at all is pretty jarring, and sure, we know that it was originally going to be the 3rd or 4th episode of the season instead of the 9th, but shuffles in episode orders aside, within the context of the season, it just feels weird.
But how is it as an episode? Well, like “The Curse Of The Black Spot”, the episode that replaced it, it’s a mix of good and bad, but overall it’s a nice little way to spend an hour. There are a few story problems that jump out, but overall…
The best parts are the performances by Daniel Mays as Alex and Jamie Oram as George as our guest stars, and the responding performance of Matt Smith’s Doctor. Alex is an underworked dad who is struggling with the escalating fears of his young son, and his own fears and frustrations. His wife works the night shift and helps as she can, but it’s Alex who has to deal with George waking in terror every night. The sudden arrival of a certain mysterious Doctor brings him a certain amount of hope, well, until the Doctor tells Alex the monsters are real. May brings a solid performance as a working man and father, and his eventual explosion and realization of who and what George really is works extremely well, as does his lovely freak-out when it happens.
Jamie Oram does well bringing both a child terrified of everything and something other to life, and adds another talented young actor to DOCTOR WHO’s track record. The moment when George faces his fears and reveals his greatest one is particularly nice, and when he emerges from his fears his happiness is contagious. That he’s playing an alien that has convinced itself that it’s a little boy, afraid most of all of being sent away gives an interesting twist to things: he’s never actually the villain of the story even though he causes everything to happen.
Amy and Rory get a short shift here, even looking at this as an isolated episode, trapped in a dollhouse with really creepy dolls. Essentially getting to do the “running up the corridor” bit that WHO used to be known for for most of the time, they are pretty much sidelined, although they do get to be quite funny while running away. Again, in the context of the larger season arc, they both seem off here, as we don’t get any mention of River/Melody at all, but that’s hardly the fault of the actors.
Smith’s Doctor gets to be wise and funny and a little wrong this time around, and if there’s anything to complain about here, it’s that with all the weight of the bigger episodes this season this one gives Smith a lot less to work with here. That said, the bit with the refrigerator is almost slapstick in a good way, and we get a confident Doctor who is committed to solving the problem before him, without the weight of the arc, and slimmer though it is, it’s still fun. Smith’s Doctor is the funniest and most alien of the current run of the series, and he gets to bring both to the fore here. It’s nice here he’s dealing with events driven by basic human emotions of love and fear, even without a universe-level threat.
The production design is quite good, with lots of shadows and eerie lighting, and if you have a fear of dolls you may have issues with the wooden inhabitants of the dollhouse. Personally I don’t, but I do have to say that I wonder why George’s parents gave him a dollhouse with such creepy looking dolls in it in the first place. Their oversized heads… yeck. I’m not sure that their creepy little girl voices were particularly scary for adults, although younger audiences might disagree. The cinematography gives the block of flats a nicely creepy monolithic feel, and the dollhouse itself is suitably dark and off, and the angles and movement of the camera lends itself well to the dark feel of the place.
On the bad side, well, you can’t really think to hard about the story here without running into some problems. From the apparent lack of surprise from friends and family about the birth of a child without an actual pregnancy, the sudden escalation of events timed perfectly to the arrival of the Doctor, and the resolution that doesn’t actually change the potential threat that George represents, really looking at the story leaves a lot of plot holes. The aliens George comes from is some kind of cuckoo species called the Tenza, who swarm throughout the galaxy until they find someone who needs a child, and then they become that child. How this makes any real sense from a biological or evolutionary standpoint is questionable, and since this species seems to have some particularly powerful psionic powers, it does raise the question as to why the Doctor thinks everything is going to be fine, puberty line notwithstanding.
Then there’s the fact that we’ve seen this all before. Oh, George isn’t the monster of the TWILIGHT ZONE’s “It’s a Good Life”, but in effect we have a child who transports the people who upset him to some netherworld. The fact that George is really just a scared child afraid of being sent away by his “parents” spins it nicely, but still, it’s an old story. And that the resolution is a father accepting his “son” and telling him he loves him is a little too cute, and a little cliché, but like “The Empty Child”, it works… again, as long as you don’t think about it too hard.
So, while it’s a nice break from the series arc, and brings some good performances, “Night Terrors” falls into that “OK, well, that was alright” territory the “The Curse of The Black Spot” has inhabited this season. And while I enjoyed it for its positives, the disconnect from the arc, especially with Amy and Rory, make it feel less interesting than it might have if it was grouped with more stand-alone episodes. The pretty tacked on bit at the end aside, it doesn’t feel like it follows at all from “Let’s Kill Hitler”, and while I was entertained, it makes me want to get back into our larger story all the more. Enjoyable, but not one of the standout episodes this season.