Please save Dr. Moo from the monsters!
Doctor Who is generally a show that likes to talk about all of time and space but so often fails to live up to that and takes the action to Earth. I’m not one of those fans who sits around complaining about this, but I have to admit that sometimes it can get monotonous. So when Night Terrors begins in and around an ordinary block of flats in London it’s hard not to get a feeling of “Is that it?”, and this is a concern that Amy and Rory voice as well. But it’s then that the Doctor tells us that he’s only there because he’s doing a house call. That’s fine by me – what isn’t fine is the revelation that the call came from a child so scared of the monsters in his bedroom that his distress could somehow resonate across space/time to the TARDIS. But you have to ignore little things like that and a handwavey explanation does come by the end, so I’ll let that go.
The child, George, has some questionable parenting to deal with. Something scares him? In the cupboard it goes! Why would the parents do that? While we all know that monsters live under the bed as permanent residents the cupboard is their holiday home, so making it the perfect haven for monsters to go is a baffling decision. I don’t get it, I really don’t! If this is what all parents are like nowadays then it’s no wonder that George’s bedroom is the scariest place in the universe!
While we’re on the topic of problems with Night Terrors let’s address Amy and Rory. Now I can’t blame writer Mark Gatiss for this problem but after these two characters encounter a distressed child and don’t comment on it – this being immediately after the whole “Melody Pond gets kidnapped by the Silence” thing – it jars. It’s wrong that this isn’t weighing on them given that for the audience it still is. Of course we can ignore this aspect of things if we recall that this episode was moved in the running order from being in the first half of series six to the second half, so this complaint doesn’t hold up, but still, it’s jarring all the same. Similarly is the Doctor’s “in the flesh” remark now that the flesh storyline has been and gone. And wouldn’t putting Hitler in the cupboard take on a whole new dimension if, as intended, this episode had come first? I understand that it was moved in the running order because of tonal reasons (being deemed “too dark” for the first half of the season, whatever that means) but maybe it would’ve been better if they’d left it in place?
But that’s not an issue in any way shape or form if this is viewed as a standalone story, which we are here, so we can leave it.
Let’s talk plot.
While the Doctor discovers about George’s scary cupboard of doom he sends Amy and Rory off investigating and we get an oh-so-unfunny montage of pure filler as they all go from door-to-door like a group of lost Jehovah’s Witnesses. Then, just as you begin to wonder if there’s ever going to be anything resembling a story, they go into a lift and get spat out into a big dark mansion house. It’s a brilliantly done and genuinely surprising tonal shift, but not as jarring as it might have been. It leaves the pair in a very intriguing situation, you don’t know what’s going on and the mysteries begin to creep in.
Meanwhile Matt Smith is off stealing the show in George’s apartment. The Doctor tries to explain everything to George’s dad Alex, and while actor Daniel Mays is competent enough to play the straight man as Smith goes off on one if you removed him from the scene entirely you wouldn’t notice because Smith is so mesmerisingly good here. Show me another actor who can pull off the “monsters are real” bit or the toing-and-froing about whether or not to open the cupboard as convincingly and as thoroughly entertainingly as Smith does here. How he can talk about old eyes or creatures of pure thought without making it feel like the clunky dialogue it is… it has to be seen to be believed. He’s just THAT good here! We’ve also got one of those lovely moments when the Eleventh Doctor’s ability to interact so beautifully well with children comes into play, and Matt Smith once again proves that he’s more than worthy of being the Doctor. Credit is also due to Jamie Orman as George, he’s surprisingly good by child actor standards and it annoys me that not every child actor (Nightmare in Silver, In the Forest of the Night, etc) is this convincing.
Of course it’s not long before the Doctor and Alex find themselves separated from George inside the mysterious house where Amy and Rory have ended up. It doesn’t take long for the Doctor to figure out they’ve been sent to the dolls house inside the cupboard, but Gatiss doesn’t let you consider how ridiculous this is because he makes it creepy with the dolls inside being used to scare the crap out of you, with their laughter and sing-song voices and being kept just out of shot long enough for the best possible effect. This is one of those Scare The Kids stories and it achieves that goal tremendously well. The set design too, with the wooden rooms and those dolls, is also very impressive and makes the whole thing a treat to watch.
In fact this is probably the only time that everything Gatiss throws into this story works well, something unusual from such an unreliable writer as he is. I’d go so far as to say that it’s the best thing he’s ever written for official televised Doctor Who… that admittedly isn’t saying much but still, this is good. Sadly “good” is all it is, it’s not great and does have a few issues with the plot. As well as the fact that it takes over a third of the running time to really get going, Night Terrors also suffers from a rushed ending and one that relies upon The Power Of Love too. This is an overused plot cliché that should only be used on rare exceptional occasions. Gatiss, to his credit, just about makes it work and foreshadows it enough to avoid making it feel lazy, but I’d have preferred a different and cleverer approach than this.
And then there’s George himself. The explanation for why his monsters are real is that he has ALIEN PSYCHIC POWERS due to being of the species Tenza. With his badly explained psychic powers he is able to make people forget certain things (such as his parents not being his parents, technically), but this raises a few logical issues such as why nobody else has ever mentioned Claire’s inability to have children. Goodness knows what these abilities will mean when George hits puberty! But I can overlook these things because Gatiss builds a good story around it with important messages for parents about loving their children no matter what and for children about overcoming fears.
Finally there’s the subplot with the landlord, which I’m convinced is just tacked-on to increase the running time by ten minutes. Thankfully Gatiss integrates this subplot well into the story without forcing it and so it adds to the realism of the whole thing, but I’m certain that if you removed the landlord from the story nobody would notice and we wouldn’t lose anything.
Overall though, you’ll find no real complaints from me. Night Terrors is a creepy episode of Doctor Who that shows off the Doctor’s kid-friendly side while serving as “breathing space” after the action-packed arc-heavy trio of stories that preceded it. It’s nothing special but it is an enjoyable enough traditional storyline, and that is just what the Doctor ordered. Night Terrors has picked up a negative reputation over time but I don’t think it’s deserved, and if you put on that series six DVD and watch it again today I think you’ll find it’s much better than you remember.
When he's not obsessing about Doctor Who whilst having I Am The
Doctor play in his head, Dr. Moo can usually be found reading up on the
latest in Quantum Physics. As you do when you're a physicist.