I guess you can’t win them all.
So far this season, we’ve had nine episodes, of which four have been in service to the season arc and have generally succeeded (no coincidence, they’ve all been written by Steven Moffat. The remaining five (Curse of the Black Spot, The Doctor’s Wife, the Ganger two-parter and, now, Night Terrors) have had a fairly uneasy relationship with the season arc, and have been a lot more variable in quality. Of the five, The Doctor’s Wife, by Neil Gaiman, is clearly the best, delving deep into the Doctor’s psyche and taking us to places we haven’t been in his relationship with his TARDIS. The Ganger two-parter was pretty decent, in my opinion, asked some deep questions about the nature of humanity, and contributed the ganger element to A Good Man Goes to War.
Then there’s The Curse of the Black Spot and Night Terrors. It’s interesting to note that “Curse” was originally filmed ninth and shown third, whereas “Terrors” was filmed fourth and shown ninth. They’re that stand-alone as to be interchangeable. And in this season which is taking us to some interesting places dramatically, that may not be a good thing.
Night Terrors was also written by Mark Gatiss. After Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat, he has been the most prolific writer (and sometimes actor) on the revival, but I’ve found that his episodes have been pretty hit or miss. He did well with The Unquiet Dead and Victory of the Daleks was good fun, but Idiot’s Lantern was rather standard, uninspiring fare. And I fear that Night Terrors is about that level. There are good moments, both funny and scary, but there is very little depth to the storyline. And worse, it feels predictable. So predictable, in fact, that I can’t help but wonder if we’ve been here before.
A full spoiler review takes place after the break.
Night Terrors opens in a somewhat rundown 1950s-style apartment block, and right there you know you’ve got troubles.
Twenty years ago, if you wanted to convey the sensibility of a haunted house, you looked for a Victorian mansion. No more. Nowadays, the Brutalist architecture inflicted upon British and American inner cities by Le Corbusier and his disciples is as deep a well to draw on for creepy settings. How many horror stories have now been set in council flats? Maybe it’s the sense of alienation these concrete monstrosities provoke, or the fact that these buildings had so many blind alleys for criminals and monsters to hide in. I’m sure there’s a thesis to be written here about the new creepy architecture aesthetic. Indeed, I strongly suspect one has already been written, but I digress.
Anyway, in a small apartment in this slightly run-down complex, a mother kisses her son George goodnight before she heads off to the night shift at the hospital, leaving the father to deal with the poor kid’s night terrors, and boy does the kid have night terrors. The kid is convinced that there are monsters in his cupboard and, of course, this being Doctor Who, the kid is dead right. However, where this scene departs from normal (even in Doctor Who), is the fact that the kid gets so terrified, he’s able to issue a psychic call for help which crosses galaxies and lands in the Doctor’s psychic paper. The Doctor, suitably intrigued, decides to play a house call.
Let’s rhyme off the things I like about this episode to start with. I think it’s unbelievably sweet (but in character) for the Doctor to break off his season arc with Melody and the eyepatch lady to make a house call on a distressed little kid. I also have to give credit to the actors here: they really manage to sell their predicament in a way that is just a couple of steps over-the-top. This is effective both in conveying the real fear the characters have, and also in overplaying it for laughs. You get the sense, especially when Amy picks up the hefty wooden pan to defend herself, that they all know the trope inside and out and are both playing along and arming themselves against it. I also have to give credit to the director (Richard Clark) and the set designer, who both knew the merits of keeping things dark and making things look decently creepy. The dolls in particular are a triumph. When they showed up in the season preview trailers, I was sure that they were to appear in Neil Gaiman’s story, they have that aesthetic.
But that’s where the good stuff (and the similarities with Gaiman’s work) ends and the problems begin. The rest of the story is, at best, serviceable. At worst, it’s predictable and without power. You have: creepy kid who is more powerful than people think (see The Twilight Zone), creepy dolls that move around and change you into them if they catch you (see any number of horror stories out there, although I must admit the landlord’s transformation into one was effectively scary), parents at the end of their wits (which, to be fair, any parent in such a situation would be), a tip of the hat to The Midwich Cuckoos, and the whole thing solved through the power of love (blech!).
This predictability is Night Terrors biggest weakness, in my opinion, as it drains much of the real power out of the story. When Amy is caught and transformed into a doll herself, there’s no real emotion to the scene. First of all, her plan (albeit somewhat realistically) isn’t much of a plan at all, so she gets caught too easily. Secondly, this is a Doctor Who stand-alone story: you know it’s going to turn out all right in the end. Similarly, the scene where the father leaps to his son’s rescue in slow motion is where the competent direction of Richard Clark slips a bit. So far, Clark has managed to deliver a lot from this rather flimsy story, but while the effect of father rescuing son was meant to be powerful, I’m sure, the lack of any build-up to it detracts from the power and the tension of the moment, such that it comes off as lame.
And then there was the cut to the Doctor’s obituary, telling all of his coming death in Utah, just to remind us that the season arc is still on. Pointless and intrusive.
So, we’ve been here before, and we’ve handled these things better. Indeed, the whole story bore a striking resemblance to the second season episode Fear Her (and intriguingly, it too had its season’s arc clumsily shoehorned into its final moments). You’re forced to ask, what was the point?
Worse, though, were elements of the story where the Doctor and company came off out of character. There’s the entire scene where the Doctor, after finishing his tea, rambles on about whether or not to open the creepy closet in kid George’s room, needlessly manic and ultimately pointless. Amy and Rory generally do better in this story, even though they’re trapped in a dollhouse and have little else to do but be menaced, but there was that scene where Rory jokes that maybe they should let the kid get eaten by the monsters — coincidentally while the kid is looking out the window at him. That did not feel like Rory to me. The other characters were somewhat stock and without real depth, such that I suspect the power they had was drawn almost entirely by the actors that played them and the director that directed them.
Night Terrors is not actively bad. It does suffer from its position in the season. Erin and I watched this episode immediately after a rematch of Let’s Kill Hitler, and just about anything is going to look poorer by comparison.
Unfortunately, as a stand-alone episode, Night Terrors clearly falls more in the superficial and somewhat unambitious quality of Curse of the Black Spot. It doesn’t try very hard, and it fluffs some of the elements it hoped to wow us with. I’m disappointed. We got much better with The Doctor’s Wife and the Ganger two-parter. I also know that Mark Gatiss himself can do better (see The Great Game in Sherlock). Maybe he will do better next time.
- Next week’s episode, entitled The Girl Who Waited, looks intriguing, if only by set design alone.