Doctor Who Series 6 Episode 9 review: Night Terrors

Posted: 14 September 2011 in television
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“Today we’re answering a cry for help from the scariest place in the universe – a child’s bedroom.”

Doctor Who - Night Terrors

In issue 279 of Doctor Who Magazine way way way back in June 1999, there was an article entitled “We’re going to be bigger than Star Wars”. A selection of Doctor Who fans, who were at that time “doing rather well for themselves” as the piece put it, were asked “…how they would pitch a new series of Doctor Who…” Amongst those who answered was Russell T Davies, who commented that “you should set all that high flown end-of-the-world stuff in a very real world of pubs and mortgages and people”.

When RTD bought the series back in 2005 he heeded his own words and provided the 9th and 10th Doctors with numerous tales tied to contemporary London settings, and often linked to the dingier side of the capital’s council estates via Rose and Jackie Tyler’s residency on the Powell Estate. Since Steven Moffat took over as the show runner the Time Lord hadn’t visited one of these contemporary urban landscapes, but this changed for the 11th Doctor with his 24th televised adventure.

After the time-bending, mind-boggling, and thoroughly enjoyable romp that was “Let’s Kill Hitler”, it was onto a slice of old-school, linear-narrative “Doctor Who” with “Night Terrors”. This was the fourth script for the revived series by Mark Gatiss and possibly the first in which he was able to indulge his well-known affection for macabre horror to the full. In the process Gatiss also produced a story that with a little tweaking here and there (mainly to remove the companions) could pretty much serve as an alternate pilot script for 21st Century “Doctor Who” itself. A dark fairytale in which the mysterious, magical and mythical Doctor arrives in the lives of real people with real-life problems as they find themselves in the path of shadows and ghosts as horrific forces enter into their reality from the very edge of time and space.

In common with “The Curse of the Black Spot” earlier in this season, this is an adventure that would sit comfortably in previous eras of “Doctor Who”, albeit it on lower production values. Given another couple of seasons at the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s this is precisely where the series could have ended up. You can even spot where the cliffhangers for a 4 part version would slot in: Amy and Rory plummeting to their deaths (again) in the lift; the revelation that Claire can’t have children; and Amy being turned into a wooden doll.

You see these eyes? They’re old eyes. And one thing I can tell you… monsters are real!’

Doctor Who: Night Terrors - George and dolls

At the heart of “Night Terrors” is the confrontation of childhood fears: the shadow cast by a torch that suddenly becomes the most fearsome beast imaginable. The strange noise that sounds like the maws of hell itself being opened and spewing forth a creature of pure darkness and horror. In addition to these familiar childhood terrors Gatiss served up one of the greatest horrors any child (or indeed adult) can face: the rejection by the person or people that he or she holds most dear. Emotional rejection is difficult at any age let alone at the formative age of a child. In the instance of young George there was the added complication that he was not in fact human and his own subconscious fear of rejection was the very thing causing the situations that were leading his parents to reject him. As a Tenza life form and a cuckoo in the nest of Alex and Claire, George was able to sense exactly what his parents wanted or didn’t want and he was terrified that they didn’t want him.

The concept of the “cuckoo in the nest” created a parallel with the 2006 story “Fear Her”. But whereas that was a rather saccharine affair with badly developed characters and a mawkish and vomit-inducing end sequence with the Doctor carrying the 2012 Olympic torch, “Night Terrors” contained well-rounded characters and situations. Purcell was clearly a hard man with his tenants but soft as shit with his dog Bernard. Claire was doubtless putting in extra hours at the hospital to make ends meet. Alex was frustrated at his inability to find work and support his family. This made the episode far more “real” than many of the previous “Doctor Who” tales set in and around such environments.

There were many aspects of a true concrete urban landscape that the episode had to skirt around given that it was “Doctor Who” and not “Harry Brown”. The Doctor is portrayed by Matt Smith and not Michael Caine, and the Time Lord wields a sonic screwdriver and not a pistol. “Night Terrors” could be “comic book” scary but nowhere as gritty as adult shows. In those the landlord Purcell would doubtless have had fags and booze along with his takeaway.

Another trait that set “Night Terrors” head and shoulders above the likes of “Fear Her” was Gatiss’ deft mixture of horror and comedy. The horrific nature of the wooden dolls’ ability to metamorphosis humans into their kind was offset by the Doctor’s comment that it was high time he programmed the sonic screwdriver to deal with wood. How many children (and adults) jumped behind the sofa when Amy and Rory opened kitchen drawer in the dolls house and confronted with a giant eyeball? “Doctor Who” is at its best when it scares and amuses almost simultaneously, and brings the fantastical into the everyday.

Like “The Doctor’s Wife” in the first half of the season, “Night Terrors” was a standalone episode not tied into Steven Moffat’s “Silence Will Fall” arc that has dominated much of this season but like Neil Gaiman’s story it ended with an ominous hint of the dark time that is yet to come for for the Doctor…

“Tick tock goes the clock
And what now shall we play?
Tick tock goes the clock
Now summer’s gone away?”

“Tick tock goes the clock
And what then shall we see?
Tick tock until the day
That thou shalt marry me”

“Tick tock goes the clock
And all the years they fly
Tick tock and all too soon
You and I must die”

“Tick tock goes the clock
He cradled her and he rocked her
Tick tock goes the clock
Even for the Doctor…”

  1. jadedheart says:

    OMG! I love Doctor Who! My dad got me into it back in the 80’s watching it on PBS! He has collected almost every episode on DVD or VHS from the original pilot episode on and preorders every new season!

    • Ian Sadler says:

      my first memory of the series was Jon Pertwee pulling the face off a policemen. Subsequently learnt that the story was “Terror of the Autons” from January 1971. So I’ve been a follower for over 4 decades. Got all the DVDs; many many of the Big Finish audios. Oh, and have a mate that draws for the official Doctor Who Magazine.

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