Cast: Matt Smith, Karen Gillen, Arthur Darvill, Daniel Mays, Jamie Oram, Emma Cunliffe ~ Writer: Mark Gatiss ~ Director: Richard Clark ~ Year: 2011
The Low-Down: After the time-warping loopiness of ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’, something calmer and more traditional – ‘Night Terrors’ has plenty of flaws, but sharp dialogue, strong atmosphere and another great performance from Matt Smith all steer this episode through to a fine conclusion.
What’s it About?: Summoned by an unexpected call via the Psychic Paper, the TARDIS crew find themselves visiting a dreary tower block, where a young boy is living in a state of permanent fear. Eight-year-old George is convinced that there are monsters lurking in his cupboard, waiting to claim him – and the Doctor is soon discovering that he’s frighteningly correct…
The Story: (WARNING: As with most of my Doctor Who reviews, the following contains a hefty load of spoilers…)
It’s not exactly a surprise that an episode like ‘Night Terrors’ has happened on Steven Moffat’s watch – no other New Who writer has been quite so dedicated to exploring childhood fears in such a specific way, and the only real surprise is that it doesn’t come from Moffat, instead being the fourth New Who episode to be written by prolific actor/writer Mark Gatiss. Considering Gatiss’ run on the show has been a bit on the inconsistent side (going from the quality of ‘The Unquiet Dead’ in S1 to the rushed pacing and garbled storytelling of ‘Victory of the Daleks’ in S5), it would have been easy to be concerned about this episode – but while Night Terrors is far better than his Season 5 outing (or the rather weak S2 episode ‘The Idiot’s Lantern’), it’s a curiously quiet and simple episode that settles for being solid rather than memorable.
Weirdly enough, ‘Night Terrors’ is also a semi-flashback to New Who’s history, with a council estate setting that’s like the grungier, less welcoming flipside to the Powell Estate where this latest incarnation of the show spent so much time. Considering how integral this kind of location used to be to the make-up of the show (especially in S2, where I occasionally felt like Who had transformed into a tour of Council Estates through the ages), it’s a refreshing jolt to find that for Amy and Rory, this is an unusual sight to find on the other side of the TARDIS doors, and shows exactly how much the show has spread its storytelling wings in the last few years.
Of course, much of this grunginess plays into the story of George’s fears (especially Andrew Tiernan as the bullying landlord), and the direction tries as hard as possible to amp up the menace, especially once the action arrives in the shadowy corridors of the dollhouse. It’s been a while since Who has tried this hard to be deliberately spooky, delivering the kind of safe-yet-unsettling child-friendly scares that the programme specialises in (especially in the Jan Svankmajer-inspired scene where the landlord is transformed into a doll), but if there’s an ultimate flaw in ‘Night Terrors’, it’s that it’s a little too deliberate and literal. The story itself is enjoyably presented but surprisingly simple – in a way, the simplicity is a relief after the convoluted histrionics of ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’, but it ends up feeling like such a purposeful exercise in fear that there’s very little to it.
We’re on very literal ground here – plenty of Moffat’s scares in the past have been based on the idea that the monsters children are scared of are real (whether it’s shadows, the creatures under the bed, or something you glimpse out of the corner of your eye), so it’s not exactly a surprise when it turns out that George’s ‘monsters’ are very real. Who works best with layered storytelling, especially when it’s undercutting expectation, and while the “She can’t have kids!” is a tremendously effective revelation, most of the episode runs along very traditional, well-telegraphed lines. It’s a ghost train (a phrase Moffat’s used to describe this whole season), but one that never really feels in danger of being more than an entertainingly spooky spectacle. The mishappen dolls are creepy – but without a specific reason for them to be stalking the corridors of the dollhouse (other than “Well, dolls are creepy”) they’re a surface threat to drive the story, and not much else. (There’s also the simple fact that this is basically a standalone episode with no mention of the overall arc (aside from the slightly clumsy end shot) – it’s because ‘Night Terrors’ was moved from the episode 3 slot, replaced by ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’, but it does end up feeling weird that the seismic revelations of ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ don’t get any reference at all.)
At the least, the emotional pay-off of the story genuinely works. Once again, we have an episode climax revolving around a father and son bonding where one of them isn’t what they seem, but thankfully this is much more effective than the similar sequence in ‘The Almost People’. It’s a very New Who case of ‘love conquers all’, but one which doesn’t feel like a cheat, partly because the simplicity of the story keeps the focus on the characters. There’s also, of course, the subtext (which I didn’t spot, admittedly, instead first reading it in Adam Roberts’ great review of the episode here and then thinking “Oh, of course…”) that’s possibly the most subtle and effective use of what sometimes gets stupidly referred to as ‘the Gay Agenda’. In short, George is a kid who’s different (but doesn’t quite understand why), and that difference terrifies him to the extent of convincing himself his parents are going to reject him, and it’s only when his father finds out the truth and tells him that he loves him anyway that the crisis in George’s head is resolved. Add to that the fact that he’s hiding everything that scares him in the cupboard/closet (and the presence of a dollhouse, hidden away), and it’s amazing how blatant yet effective the subtext manages to be, hiding in plain sight and not battering the audience over the head with its own significance.
Ultimately, the episode works better as a spooky, dream-like psychodrama that the lead characters just happen to have wandered into, than as the scary thrill-ride it occasionally seems to want to be. There are some nice visual nods to Terry Gilliam’s cult classic kids adventure Time Bandits, while the support performances ride that New Who line between earnest, effective and a little too cartoony. Daniel Mays is mostly excellent with only a couple of weak moments, Jamie Oram does a pretty good job of maintaining a near-constant level of wide-eyed fear throughout the entire episode, and Andrew Tiernan yet again proves he’s the go-to guy for heavy-set and menacing villains.
It’s the leads who really make this episode, however. The kookiness of the Doctor/Amy/Rory team can feel overwhelming in an episode like ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’, and yet here it livens the episode up (with even Amy and Rory feeling slightly alien and out-of-place in this setting), adding colour to the downbeat and grungy world of the council estate. More than anything else, though, Night Terrors once again proves that Matt Smith makes a downright fascinating Doctor, and is arguably at his best when he’s got a relatively mundane setting to play against. There’s something tremendously endearing about the way the Doctor wanders into the lives of George and his father, and Smith controls the leaps from comedy to drama with commendable skill (especially in the “You see these eyes? They’re old eyes” speech). Combined with some great one-liners and enjoyable physical comedy, Smith raises ‘Night Terrors’ up by several degrees, and leaves it as a fun and entertaining episode that’s certainly ahead of this season’s weaker moments, but isn’t likely to linger in the memory.
The Verdict: A solid, modestly enjoyable episode that acts as a good counterpoint to ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’, this isn’t Doctor Who at it’s strongest (and does feature a couple of clunky moments, like the unconvincing ‘dragged into the cupboard’ sequence), but a combination of strong dialogue, charm and an effective emotional through-line leaves ‘Night Terrors’ as a quiet but satisfying example of Who storytelling.
Previous Doctor Who Season 6 Reviews:
S6 Eo7 – ‘A Good Man Goes to War’
S6 E05/E06 – ‘The Rebel Flesh’ / ‘The Almost People’
S6 E03 – ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’