This week sees a return to a stand-alone Doctor Who story with Mark Gatiss’s “Night Terrors”, which takes us to “the most frightening place in the universe: a child’s bedroom”. The story tells of a young boy who is terrified of virtually everything, and he pleads for someone to “save [him] from the monsters”. His plea reverberates psychically across time and space, and the Doctor answers to save the day because, of course, the monsters are real.
I’m not the biggest fan of Mark Gatiss’s previous work for the series. His first offering, “The Unquiet Dead”, was excellent, but “The Idiot’s Lantern” was lacklustre at best and the less said about last year’s dismal “Victory of the Daleks”, the better. Alas, “Night Terrors” falls more or less in line with “The Idiot’s Lantern”. It starts out well enough, and does a good job of setting the scene and introducing the characters, but just doesn’t deliver in the end, with a resolution that’s clearly intended to tug at the heartstrings but only ends up feeling forced and unnatural. SPOILERS FOLLOW.
The tale introduces us to several residents of a housing estate presumably somewhere in London (although this is never directly stated). There is young George, an eight-year-old who is scared of the monsters in his cupboard. Then we have George’s parents, who are at their wits’ ends trying to deal with their son’s fears. Across the hall is the little old lady whom George thinks is a witch. Of course, there’s also the greedy landlord who frightens not only George, but also George’s father. Into this, the Doctor, Amy, and Rory arrive to set things right. Amy and Rory are quickly swallowed up by the evil elevator and the Doctor is left to sort things out with George.
As I said, the scene is set well (if a bit slowly). The characters are a bit cliché, but are well-introduced and well-performed. Unfortunately, about midway through the episode, those characters become just plot pieces who react not because that’s what those characters would do, but simply because the story needs them to do it. George’s father, Alex, goes from one moment thinking the Doctor is a madman and trying to kick him out of his apartment to, in the very next scene, accepting everything the Doctor is saying and trembling as much as his son at the prospect of opening the cupboard (even though he still has not seen any evidence of real monsters). I can’t help but feel there was a scene missing in there. Perhaps the Doctor did something like in last year’s “The Lodger” where he telepathically imparts his life story to Craig. I can believe that. I still wish I had seen it on screen, though.
Then there’s the nasty landlord. He gets sucked up into the floor and deposited in the doll house in the cupboard like everything else George is afraid of. He then gets caught by the dolls and turned into one of them. Then, at the end, he is restored and released like everyone else. And... Well, that’s it. What was the point of his storyline? He has no effect on the episode whatsoever other than to be another fear for George and to give Amy and Rory a reason to run away from the dolls. We don’t even get to see the effect his experiences have on him. He seems set up for a scared-into-redemption storyline, but this is never fulfilled.
But at least with the landlord, we see his effect on George and can understand why he’s swallowed into the cupboard. With the little old lady, we get one line from Alex that George thinks she’s a witch. We never see George react to her. We never see why he’s afraid of her. Then she gets sucked into the cupboard while outside throwing away the garbage (incidentally much farther away from the cupboard than anyone else; everyone else is at least in the vicinity of the cupboard when they go in). After this, we see one scene of her wandering the halls of the doll house. After that, we don’t see her again until the very end. She never interacts with the other characters (other than her very brief interaction with the Doctor at the beginning of the episode when he is trying to find George’s apartment). She never encounters the dolls. She never does anything. She just wakes up in the garbage at the end of the episode and returns to her apartment thinking she passed out. What exactly is her point in the episode?
Then we get to the regulars, specifically Amy and Rory, who spend the episode running down corridors and effectively doing nothing. As I mentioned in my review of “Let’s Kill Hitler”, Amy is my least favourite companion of the revived show, but I do like Rory. However, in this episode, I couldn’t care less about Rory either. In fact, he seems to regress back to what he was last year. As the only character in the last two years to have had any real character development, this is extremely disappointing. We’ve seen him gain confidence. We’ve seen him go from uncertain and cowardly to bravely standing up to the greatest foes. Yet this week, he spends most of the episode whining and cringing at every noise. When the dolls catch Amy, what does he do? He stands there in fear and does nothing as she turns into a doll. This is the man who watched over her in the Pandorica for over two thousand years, ensuring she never came to harm. This is the man who strode onto the bridge of a Cyberman command ship and demanded they tell him where his wife was. This is the man, who in full centurion armour, leapt into battle with the unkillable Headless Monks to protect his wife and baby. And now he stands motionless in fear when his wife is under attack. Rory is no longer the man he was in “The Eleventh Hour”, yet what we get in this episode is the Rory of “The Eleventh Hour”.
There’s also the matter of Rory and Amy’s baby, who isn’t even mentioned in the episode. The idea of an over-reaching arc is still somewhat new to Doctor Who, and perhaps this is part of the problem. The old series only occasionally attempted it, and then very rarely did it go more than three or four stories in a row. The new series went with loose arcs in the first four years, and I feel that’s the best way to handle arcs in a show like Doctor Who. We now have the first arc to ever go more than one year, and it has now gotten so involved it has made a stand-alone story like this one not work—or at least, not work as well. Throughout this episode, Amy and Rory seem completely unaffected by the loss of their baby. Indeed, they seem to have forgotten they even had a baby. Yes, they know the baby ends up being fine, that she grows up to become River Song and that as Mels, she even grew up alongside Amy and Rory. But just because they know she turns out fine doesn’t mean that they are going to have no reaction to not being able to raise her now—and worse, no reaction at all to the fact that before she turns out fine, she becomes a psychopathic killer. Combined with Rory’s reversion in character, “Night Terrors” feels like it is a missing episode from last year and not part of the current series at all.
The dolls could have been so much creepier than they actually were, but we rarely get to see what makes them so menacing. They move around in that clichéd horror-movie way where anyone can easily outrun them, yet they manage to catch up anyway. The scene where they turn the landlord into one of them is suitably scary, but that scariness is then totally undermined when they catch Amy and also turn her into one, as that pretty much reveals that the process is reversible. Doctor Who has always had a high body count (although the last couple years have had a somewhat lower one), but it’s extremely rare that a companion dies, and when it does happen, the set-up is much bigger (well, except when Rory dies for the umpteenth time). Until Amy turns into a doll, we can believe that the landlord and any other victims of the dolls (although we never actually see any other victims) are effectively dead. Once she is a doll, we know that they’ll all be turned back to normal at the end. Amy needed much more of a presence and a role in this story in order to make it believable that she might have died.
Finally, there’s the resolution: George created everything himself through his own fears and all he has to do is accept that his father loves him. Oh, and George is an alien. Yuck. I actually rather like the idea that George caused it all himself. What I don’t like is that George is an alien who came to Earth in response to Alex and his wife’s intense desire to have a child even though she’s infertile, a fact George has blocked from his parents’ minds. Admittedly, not liking this is, in large part, just a matter of personal taste, but it seems completely unnecessary. It would have been far creepier if he were just a normal boy (or perhaps an autistic boy) who managed to create evil living dolls in his cupboard. It would suggest that this could happen to anyone. Instead, however, this can’t happen to just anyone. You have to be an alien for it to happen. I also feel it’s poorly set up. Prior to the Doctor figuring this amazing fact out, there is only one brief moment to suggest anything like this. We very briefly see the Doctor looking at the family photos and commenting, “What is it with these pictures?” Then later, he works it all out because George’s mother is never pictured pregnant. Those pictures are on the screen for literally a split second. There is not enough time for the viewers to come to any conclusions at all about them.
Overall, even though this episode had a good, albeit unoriginal, set-up, it simply doesn’t deliver in a satisfying way. It’s not a horrible episode, but it leaves so much to be desired.