Through the eyes of a child, anything can be terrifying. To some children, including me at ages 4-9, everything can be terrifying. Simple sounds and shadows taken for granted in the daytime become objects of fear once the sun goes down. Children’s fears are very powerful, but if the child in question is not from this planet, the fears can become a danger to everyone around them. This is the central idea behind episode 9 of Doctor Who’s sixth series, “Night Terrors,” written by Mark Gatiss.
This episode is a return to the standalone episodes of Who for which everybody seems to be clamoring recently, and features the Doctor and company answering a little boy’s distress call to save him from “The Monsters.” The rumors going around warned that this was one of the scariest Doctor Who episodes ever. Well, I didn’t think it was scary, really, and certainly can’t hold a candle to something like “The Time of Angels,” but it did have creepy living doll people which are fairly nightmare-inducing in and of themselves.
The general storyline for the episode is strong, with the Doctor receiving a distress signal on the psychic paper and finding a little boy who’s afraid of everything and the boy’s father, who is also afraid of everything, but in a different way. The boy, George, has been told to put everything that scares him into the large cupboard in his room and that cupboard now holds the manifestations of everything he fears come to life. So, basically, things that scare him get sent in the cupboard, and specifically into the creepy dollhouse inside the cupboard, probably because there were no nearby corn fields into which he could wish them. So while the Doctor and George’s father, Alex, try to get to the bottom the boy’s fear, Amy, Rory, and a number of neighbors have to try not to get turned into creepy, giggling doll things. Seriously, if I was a kid and got dolls like that, I’d be terrified too.
The story is simple, but I feel like the episode missed some great opportunities to amp up the scariness. While the dolls were creepy to look at, and the sight of someone turning into one is equally disturbing, they never seemed like much of a threat. The scene with Rory and Amy running from them and then barricading themselves behind the door could have been much more intense, but I never really felt like they were having trouble keeping them at bay and the only reason Amy got turned is because she thought they should open the door and run past them (and because Rory was a bad husband and didn’t stop to make sure she was okay). This, to me, is just bad scene blocking. It may well have been a budget or time issue, which is not really anyone’s fault, but such a great creature design was sort of ruined because they weren’t particularly threatening. Director Richard Clark also directed “The Doctor’s Wife” this season, so we know he can do a lot with a little, making the scenes with Rory and Amy running through the corridors of the TARDIS quite frightening with literally nothing but camera angles. It just felt like a waste to me.
The other real problem I had with the story, and it wasn’t much of one, granted, was the reveal that young George is an alien. I know Doctor Who is a sci-fi show predicated on alien stuff, but does every single thing in the show have to be alien-related? I kept hoping that they’d discover that the cupboard itself was somehow causing the manifestation of fears, or that some other thing was controlling it, or what have you. But it just seemed to me, the realization that Alex and Claire couldn’t have kids so an alien who wants to be accepted found them and made them think he was their own child was a bit too complicated, convenient, and unnecessary. It could have been the same story; the father’s fears had transferred to the adopted child, who then became afraid of everything and even more afraid of being sent away, etc., and then they manifest because of X alien thing. Like I said, it’s not a huge gripe, it just didn’t need to be there. I also feel like finding out your son’s an alien who has trapped you and others in a world of his own subconscious fears is not something anybody would accept that quickly, but some “bad thing” creating it as part of your adopted son’s fears totally is. Any number of other explanations would have been fine, but an entire race of foster children? Come on now.
For my money, Matt Smith is at his best as the Doctor when he’s on Earth dealing with humans. He delivers a mix of rambling nonsense and alien technobabble the way Samuel L. Jackson delivers yelling and swear words. It’s like poetry. The scene in this episode where the Doctor describes “pantophobia” to Alex is particularly enjoyable. Daniel Mays as Alex was also fantastic. Mays is an actor I’d seen in a few things here and there but really got to know and like during his stint on Ashes to Ashes, where he played the British equivalent of an Internal Affairs man. He was really great on that show and played such a dark character that I kept expecting him to be somehow evil in “Night Terrors,” but I was pleased and impressed to see Mays just play a terrified father, a very sympathetic character. The interplay between him and Smith made the episode work for me, hands down.
While they had less to do, besides the usual running around, I really liked Amy and Rory in this also. This series they’ve really become a team, and a good comedy double-act. The fact that there are two companions give a dynamic I really like. At any given time, two of them can be doing something, while the third is off with a guest actor (or just by themselves) doing something else. It works with these characters, and it’s something I didn’t know I was missing during the latter RTD era. Rory and Amy doing something, the Doctor doing something else: this is what works best. Oh, and how funny was Rory’s line, “We’re dead aren’t we? Again!”? Man, that was great. Those two just keep dying.
At the end of the episode, the Doctor says “It’s good to have everybody back, in the flesh.” Now, this stood out to me for a few reasons. A) because we know what “The Flesh” is regarding earlier this series, 2) he had his back to the camera when he said it, meaning it may have been an added line not in the original script, and d) because if it wasn’t an “important” line, it’s just a dumb line. In the original scheme of things, this episode was supposed to be transmitted third or fourth, in place of “Curse of the Black Spot,” meaning that line could have referred to the Doctor knowing that Amy was Flesh at the time. So either the line is completely meaningless, it’s a holdover from the original placement of the episode, or it means yet another person is a Flesh Ganger, which I really hope is not the case. If the Doctor dying ends up just being some kind of clone, I’m gonna be really angry at Moffat. He’s cleverer than that, and surely can come up with something we haven’t thought of to get the Doctor out of that situation. At any rate, it’s just something to think about.
So, overall, “Night Terrors” was a pretty good, diversionary episode with good performances and some decent creepiness. The kid was weird, but I guess if he was an alien, that would more or less explain it. Not a bad episode at all, and it does the concept of a kid projecting fears a whole lot smarter and more effectively than series 2’s “Fear Her.” The big key for me with Doctor Who episodes is how likely am I to watch them multiple times once I have the DVDs. For instance, aside from an initial view or if I’m watching the whole season with someone, I skip “The Beast Below” and “Victory of the Daleks” when watching series 5. I’ve seen them both quite enough, thank you very much. “Night Terrors,” on the other hand, is one I probably will watch multiple times. So far, there aren’t any series 6 episodes I actively dislike, which is pretty good. “Black Spot” is bad but harmless and the Ganger two-parter is poorly plotted but interesting. “Night Terrors” is just a fun, watchable episode. And that’s not a bad place to be at all.
Next week’s episode looks super interesting — Tom MacRae’s return to Doctor Who for the first time since series 2’s “Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel,” in the form of “The Girl Who Waited”:
I am very excited. Yay, Doctor Who!
-Kanderson IS afraid of pants… Follow him on TWITTER