After the dizzyingly complex plotting and major revelations of the past few episodes, “Night Terrors” is a real change of pace—a deliberately small-scale story centered around one child and his relationship with his parents. It fits somewhat awkwardly into the arc of this season, but taken on its own it’s quite a neat little story, which lives up to one of the major characteristics of Doctor Who in taking children’s fears and constructing from them some nicely creepy moments. There’s something strangely appropriate about a series which is famous for scaring children having an episode centered around what is effectively an exaggerated version of one of its own viewers.
Writer Mark Gatiss is someone whose work on Doctor Who (this is his fourth script for the show, as well as starring in 2007’s “The Lazarus Experiment”) has often seemed to me to fail to match the heights he has achieved elsewhere in his career (which includes triumphs like The League of Gentlemen and Sherlock, among many others). Back when the series was first revived in 2005, “The Unquiet Dead”—a tale of gaseous aliens animating corpses in 1860s Cardiff—made a strong first impression as a 21st-century version of a very traditional Who story (it was the first episode to draw criticism for being “too scary” for kids—just like old times), but was ultimately overshadowed by the innovations being brought to the show in the scripts from Russell T Davies and the other writers in that season. On the other hand, the less said about last year’s “Victory of the Daleks”, the better—one of the biggest misfires of the whole series. Gatiss’s remaining episode was “The Idiot’s Lantern” from David Tennant’s first season in 2006, where a mundane 1950s dysfunctional-family story collided with an alien invasion plot to not very impressive effect.
“Night Terrors” has a central element in common with “The Idiot’s Lantern,” revolving as it does around a father/son relationship, but this time loving rather than hostile. The setting is a present-day high-rise housing estate—the sort of familiar urban backdrop characteristic of the Davies era, which has become a rarity since Steven Moffat took over as showrunner last year. Living here are Alex (Daniel Mays) and Claire (Emma Cunniffe), a couple whose lives are full of familiar stresses—Alex is having trouble finding work, and they’re falling behind with the rent—but who are also having to cope with the all-encompassing fears and nightmares of their eight-year-old son, George (Jamie Oram).
George is frightened of everything around him—the neighbors, the sounds made by the building’s lift, having a bath, his old toys…anything and everything can reduce him to terror. His parents have tried to encourage him to take control of his fear by imagining putting anything that scares him into the cupboard in his room and keeping it closed, but it’s not enough. His fervent prayer, repeated over and over instead of getting to sleep—“Please save me from the monsters”—provides the (frankly, thin) rationale for the Doctor’s involvement. Somehow George’s prayer appears as a message on the Doctor’s psychic paper, and the Doctor (Matt Smith), Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) arrive and try to track down the origin of the message.
This episode was originally scheduled to appear in the first half of this season, with “The Curse of the Black Spot” intended to be the one in this slot. The two were switched around at a late stage in order to avoid having a string of episodes where the regulars found themselves exploring various types of darkened buildings or labyrinths (as occurred in most of the episodes of the first half). But however much sense the change makes from that point of view, it remains quite jarring to see Amy and Rory encountering a message from “a scared kid” and making no comment about what they’ve just experienced with their own child.
In any case, it comes as no surprise when it’s revealed that George is actually far from an innocent bystander. Things take a sinister turn as a neighboring old woman (who the boy thinks is a witch) is seemingly engulfed by a pile of rubbish. The unpleasant landlord (Andrew Tiernan) who threatens Alex for not paying his rent suddenly finds his carpet acting like quicksand—he disappears into it in an unfortunately risible effects shot. Then George overhears Rory playfully saying to Amy, after they have failed to find their quarry, “Maybe we should let the monsters gobble him up”—and when they get into the lift, it immediately plummets a dozen floors to the ground and crashes. They wake to find themselves having been deposited into a mysterious dark room, and Rory’s hilariously deadpan opinion about what happened (“We’re dead, aren’t we? The lift fell and we’re dead. We’re dead…again”) was a nicely unexpected comic moment.
Meanwhile, the Doctor has found Alex’s flat and invited himself in, passing himself off as a social worker. With Claire away at work (she appears only at the beginning and the end of the episode), the stage is set for a number of excellent two-handed scenes between Matt Smith and the episode’s principal guest star. I particularly admired Daniel Mays’ work in the third and final season of Ashes to Ashes, where he made a powerfully sinister villain, so I was looking forward to seeing him here. He gives a wonderfully grounded, sympathetic performance as a man who is desperate to understand and fix his son’s problem, but fears he won’t be able to. Opposite him, Matt Smith gets to play with the Doctor’s trademark wackiness—for example, when he name-drops the technical term for George’s condition, pantophobia (“Not a fear of pants, though, if that’s what you’re thinking. It’s a fear of everything—including pants, I suppose…”)—but also shows the Doctor making a real connection with the worried parent.
He’s also one of the most child-friendly of the Doctors (just as well, given the large number of children with central roles in his episodes), so it’s no surprise that Smith’s Doctor strikes up a rapport with George, deftly using his sonic screwdriver to distract the boy from the grown-up argument in the next room when the landlord is confronting Alex over the rent. It’s while he’s telling George about his own favorite bedtime stories from his childhood (“about a thousand years ago”) that Gatiss slips in a nice easter egg for long-time fans—the title “Snow White and the Seven Keys to Doomsday” contains a reference to a short-lived Doctor Who stage play from 1974. But when he realizes that he is getting “off the scale” readings on the sonic screwdriver from George’s cupboard, the Doctor starts to wonder if maybe the cupboard should stay closed after all. Baffled and angry at this change in attitude, Alex tells him to get out, but the Doctor takes charge with a beautifully written speech that Smith absolutely nails:
The Doctor: “Whatever’s inside that cupboard is so terrible, so powerful, that it amplified the fears of an ordinary little boy across all the barriers of time and space. Through crimson stars and silent stars and tumbling nebulas like oceans set on fire. Through empires of glass, and civilizations of pure thought, and a whole terrible, wonderful universe of impossibilities. You see these eyes? They’re old eyes. And one thing I can tell you, Alex…Monsters are real.”
Alex can only fall in behind the Doctor as he goes back and forth on whether he should open the cupboard or not, finally deciding that yes, he will do it. The tension rises as the cupboard opens to reveal—nothing special at all, just some clothes and old toys. But now the Doctor realizes what he has been overlooking: a photo album which shows Claire at a party just a month or so before she supposedly gave birth to George—and she is not pregnant. Alex blurts out that of course Claire wasn’t pregnant, because she can’t have children… The Doctor and Alex slowly turning to look at George, who stares calmly back at them, is an excellent moment of tension.
While all this is going on, Amy and Rory are slowly investigating the dark, empty house they have found themselves in. One of the things I’ve most enjoyed this season has been the way Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill have made Amy and Rory into a completely believable married couple—they treat the Doctor as a good friend and mentor, but their first concern is now always each other. The scripts have given them a lot of time together, and this exploration sequence is a good example. As for the actual answer to the question of where they are, that wasn’t such a great mystery. Possibly I’m just too familiar with this sort of tale, but by the time Amy had found a “copper” saucepan that was actually wooden, and an oversized lantern, I was already confident they were walking around in a dollhouse. However, it’s not until the Doctor opens George’s cupboard quite some time later to reveal that there’s a dollhouse inside, and then he and Alex are drawn into it, that the script confirms what has by then become obvious.
Nevertheless, the dollhouse sequences don’t drag at all, thanks to the excellent design work and lighting—with it being a dollhouse, there are no interior lights in any of the rooms, which must have been a challenge for the director, Richard Clark. In fact, throughout the episode, Clark deploys many standard but effective horror techniques—’jump’ moments at sudden sounds, strange off-screen laughter, holding shots longer than expected after foreground characters move off to reveal something lurking in the background, and so on. The house also contains this story’s monsters—the strange, life-size wooden dolls with their blank, unfinished faces and dead black eyes, who come to life and end up trapping Amy and Rory in one of the rooms. (For classic series fans, this evokes memories of a story from way back in the black-and-white days, “The Celestial Toymaker”, which also involved dolls coming to life, among many other images drawn from a child’s nursery, when the Doctor and his friends were trapped in a bizarre fantasy dimension.) They’re nicely macabre creatures, and the episode’s most unsettling moment comes when they seize the landlord Purcell and transform him into one of them—an excellently done effect, too.
Paradoxically, when Amy in turn was captured and turned into one of the dolls, I found all the tension that had been built up immediately began to drain away. Since there’s no way Amy could be lost in a stand-alone episode like this—not when we’re in the middle of a huge story arc centered on her and her daughter—it was obvious that the end of the story would have to involve a “reset button” of some kind. And indeed, once George is convinced to let them go, the victims of the dolls all simply find themselves back in the real world, safe and sound—the old woman on the rubbish heap, Purcell waking up on his carpet, Amy and Rory unharmed as the lift they were in opens normally at the ground floor.
The least satisfactory part of the episode is the way the Doctor suddenly, out of nowhere, leaps to the realization that George is actually an alien called a “Tenza” and then wraps up the plot with a huge gob of exposition about how these creatures are like “cuckoos in the nest”—they are born in space, float around until they home in on suitable foster parents, assimilate those parents’ desires to fit in perfectly, and so on. It’s very unfortunate that the enjoyably slow and deliberate build-up of tension and mystery through the episode reaches such a rushed climax, where the Doctor simply tells the audience in a few seconds not only what is going on, but what he is going to do about it.
The Doctor: “Something scared him, started this cycle of fear. It’s all completely instinctive, subconscious—George isn’t even aware that he’s controlling it. So we have to make him aware…”
The central relationship of this episode, between Alex and George, brings to mind the similar parent/child relationship in 2006’s “Fear Her”—a particularly poor episode, thanks to a nauseatingly sentimental “power of love” ending involving the entire world fixating on the Olympic torch as a beacon of hope, or some such nonsense. “Night Terrors,” although it has a similar type of resolution, has the sense to keep it personal. The Doctor tells Alex that George’s terrors arose from a fear of rejection—the idea that he might be sent away because his parents couldn’t cope, which ironically spiralled out of control. Daniel Mays gives a strong performance as Alex swears to George he will never send him away, making the climax work as well as possible.
Despite its problems, “Night Terrors” works well on its own terms, and brings some nice variety to the season. It’s basically a Twilight Zone-style horror fable for children, and is probably best appreciated on that basis, ignoring the thin veneer of science fiction wrapped around it to fit it into the Doctor Who format. The resumption of the arc story in the final scene is fairly clumsy, with just a vaguely sinister nursery rhyme overlaid on the familiar scene of the Doctor checking the scanner showing the information about his foreshadowed death. “Tick tock goes the clock / Even for the Doctor…”
Next Week: Amy takes center stage as she gets trapped in a most unusual hospital, in “The Girl Who Waited.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: As mentioned above, the William Hartnell story “The Celestial Toymaker” shares some elements with this story, but unfortunately only one of its four episodes is still known to exist. Although the narrated audio soundtrack is available, the story really doesn’t work in that form. Instead, for a story about mysterious illusions and other weird psychic phenomena, I’d recommend “The Awakening,” starring Peter Davison, Janet Fielding, and Mark Strickson.
Steven Cooper is a software developer and long-time Doctor Who fan, living in Melbourne, Australia.