Series Six, Episode Nine
Mark Gatiss has said the scariest place in the universe is a child’s bedroom. We’re not sure about that. Surely children’s bedrooms are safe, and it’s the stuff outside that frightens them.* But if Mark Gatiss wants to prove it, go ahead. All he has to do is show us a scary bedroom.
We didn’t notice one in Night Terrors.
Oh, there are some creepy archetypes, like the dead-faced dolls, the threat of being painfully transformed, and that old cheap-shot of children laughing and singing, which is meant to be scary just because. But it’s window-dressing. Night Terrors hasn’t got a scary bone in its body. It’s all about love and being a kid. It’s cute. The doll’s house is the scariest thing here, and it’s completely irrelevant to the plot, seemingly only here because we are promised monsters. On and on they go about monsters. But in the end, there aren’t any.
George is terrified of everything, right? He’s scared of lifts because they make a sound like breathing, and he’s scared of the old lady across the way because he thinks she’s a witch. But it’s just his imagination, which we’re not privy to. All we get to see is the ordinary boring stuff that we know, from the first minute, isn’t really out to get him. Ooh, terrifying.
It’s a shame George makes his ‘Save me from the monsters!’ plea before anything remotely monster-like happens. And his prayer is answered licketty-split by the Doctor, meaning he hasn’t even got long to wait before whatever-it-is gets sorted out. Phew! Meanwhile George sits in his bedroom dispelling any scary imagery with a high-powered torch. The whole setup is as terrifying as a haunted house full of night-lights.
Then the Doctor and co. arrive** and engage in some very funny door-to-door investigation. We like funny, and we love the Doctor and Rory being funny, but is five minutes into a scary episode really the best place for a comedy setpiece? And we love watching Matt Smith’s Doctor try to fit in with humans and fail noticeably, but this is meant to be the scariest place in the universe, not The Lodger, so what’s with all the comedy male bonding?
Anyway, the Doctor callously packs Amy and Rory off on a subplot holiday, and concentrates on solving George’s problems. Not bothering to ask how a child’s random wish managed to cross the universe, the Doctor… um… er…
This is where we get sleepy. Night Terrors sets up its soggy premise and then lurches very slowly towards the ending. There’s no middle. The characters just talk and ponder what’s going on, most egregiously in the Doctor’s ‘big terrible universe’ speech, which despite the wonderful efforts of Matt Smith is still a leaden, overwritten piece about nothing.
(And about that: why is he telling Alex any of this? The Doctor doesn’t normally need to share his life story to get people on his side, and there’s no reason for someone like Alex to believe it. To us it just looks like a failed Big Doctor moment that detracts from his appeal rather than enhancing it, not to mention another big steal from The Lodger.)
So what are Amy and Rory up to? After a creepy moment in a lift, which made us wish Mark Gatiss had written an episode about a scary tower block instead, they find themselves in a mysterious dark building. Rory’s reaction – ‘We’re dead. Again.’ – is absolute gold, and we love it. It’s great to see companions build on their experience with the Doctor, and Rory’s second guess – they’re stuck in a different time-stream to the Doctor – is another hit. But fundamentally there’s nothing for them to do, so it’s boring. No amount of torch lens-flare and childish sing-song can enliven it, and the revelation that they’re in a doll’s house is one big duh. There isn’t even an element of danger, as the moment Amy gets turned into a doll the savvy viewer knows everything’s going to be fine. We’re not idiots.
Meanwhile back in George’s unscary bedroom, Matt Smith is doing some funny back-and-forth about opening the cupboard, and oh just get on with it. It transpires that George isn’t like all the other boys, which frankly we’d guessed what with spending no time with him at all, and the Doctor and Alex are then trapped uselessly in the cupboard.
Here the Doctor and Rory just bump into each other and the Doctor doesn’t react, even though he has no idea what has happened to his friends or that they were in dire peril, and then he impotently shouts ‘listen to me’ in the vain attempt that George can somehow hear him, which he somehow can***
Apparently George is a Tenza****. That means he’s an alien that floats around looking for willing parents, then adapts to become part of the family. The Doctor likens him to a cuckoo, but we’re not sure about that. Cuckoos replace and kill your young. Alex and Claire didn’t have any young, so how is this similar? Considering we’re supposed to want Alex to embrace his son (although he obviously loves him from the start, so no big change there), isn’t it a bit dodgy comparing him to a psychotic bird?
It’s probably supposed to be a heartening case for adoption, but all this information is spewed so quickly and so late (and complete with dodgy cuckoo metaphors) that we’re left feeling like Alex, stood there gawping and confused. It’s a nice moment when father and son embrace, but it barely scratches the surface of what’s going on here. What about Claire? Is Alex going to tell her the truth about George? Does George know he’s not a real boy? It’s a very Doctor Who concept, that you can love someone even if they’re an alien, and we like it, but it’s not given the weight it deserves.
The plot’s just muddled. Why does there need to be a doll's house, if it’s doing the same job as the cupboard? Why are there living dolls, and why do they transform people into other dolls? Why did George’s parents think it was a good idea to metaphorically put all his fears in the same room as him?
But all that’s just the tip of the iceberg. What really bugs us about Night Terrors is what it does with Amy and Rory.
The last episode saw them halt the search for their daughter. That’s improbable enough to begin with – Steven Moffat’s mishandling of that storyline has reached stupefying levels, leaving us wondering if we’re even the same species as Amy and Rory, let alone understanding their actions. And this week, one episode later, they rush to the aid of a child. You know, like that thing they lost.
You’d think this might spark some parallels with their own situation. It might even rescue some of the doldrumy scenes in the doll’s house, the same way Neil Gaiman used Amy and Rory’s personal demons to turn running down corridors into sheer character development. But no. Amy and Rory don’t notice any parallels, they don’t ponder any significance. Rory even sits through Alex’s impassioned speech about never sending his beloved son away without blinking. Mr Having A Family Is His Dream? It’s particularly hard to believe that Rory could watch a father’s love for his child and not respond, because Arthur Darvill is on fire this week, every mannerism lights up the screen and he really makes the most of his dialogue, so why doesn’t Rory react here? How, in an episode that seems entirely relevant coming after the loss of Melody, did no one think to make the connection? It should have been the entire point of the episode!*****
After that there’s a nothing scene of the gang sitting on a wall, which could and should have made room for some epiloguey cool-down, and then Amy has the nerve to say she can’t think where or when to go next. If that doesn’t sound totally insane coming from someone whose baby is a hostage somewhere, then you’re one of the lucky people who gets where Steven Moffat is coming from, and should probably seek counselling.
Despite it all, Night Terrors isn’t that bad. At this point we’re quite partial to anything that doesn’t have River Song in it, and it’s not Mark Gatiss’s fault that the wretched arc makes this episode look thoughtless and dim. The plot’s a reheated Fear Her via The Lodger, but we’ve seen worse. It’s at least funny in places, and although it may not have been a good idea to make it funny, what with it being intended as scary, funny’s good. We like funny.
Stay tuned for the final moments when, in a masterstroke of trick photography, we are sneakily reminded of the Doctor’s impending fate, via the brilliantly sly technique of shoving it in screen-hogging close up for no reason whatsoever.
* Although as it turns out, the entire point of George’s ‘monsters’ is that they are from outside. So how is his bedroom the scariest etc. etc.?
** Apparently the Doctor hasn’t made a house call in a while. Hmm. Doesn’t he visit people and solve their problems every single week?
*** The ‘listen to me’ line is glorious at the end of The Pandorica Opens, as we get to see a completely new side of the Doctor, but in this trite scene it doesn’t work at all and even detracts from that wonderful Series 5 moment.
**** This is surely a deus ex machina: there’s no way the audience can figure it out, it’s not based on anything set up earlier, and there’s no reason for the Doctor to take thirty-five minutes to come up with it. It’s a familiar Doctor Who cheat, but a cheat nonetheless.
***** Apparently Night Terrors was swapped with another episode, meaning this was not meant to follow Let’s Kill Hitler. To this we say: we don’t care. It follows Let’s Kill Hitler now, so what difference does that make to the 99.9% of viewers who don’t know they moved it? Besides, they could have edited it, reshot it or just not moved it. Putting a thematically similar episode all about rescuing a kid (but not their kid) right after Let’s Kill Hitler without any mention of these events is contemptuous to those tuning in every week. In a series that demands you pay careful attention to everything, this is even more awkwardly obvious.
Bedroom picture from tidystuff.com.
Cuckoo picture from The Guardian.