The thing about horror is that it’s frightening just when the protagonist thinks he or she is safe. Horror is successful when the viewer is a step ahead, seeing the approaching danger before the characters do. What creates suspense isn’t wondering what the result of that danger is going to be, but waiting for the moment when the characters will catch up to the viewers. Waiting for the moment when the unwitting protagonist will see the monsters and scream.
Unfortunately, “Night Terrors” is less than terrifying.
In “Night Terrors,” The Doctor gets a call via psychic paper from a frightened little boy whose fear is so intense it is capable of reaching out across the universe to find him. Team TARDIS arrives at an apartment complex to try to track the child down. As The Doctor finds the little boy (named George), Amy and Rory get dragged into a mysterious house along with several other people in the building; full of people and things that just happen to frighten George. As it turns out, the house is actually a dollhouse in a cupboard where George has been metaphorically keeping all the things that frighten him. Also, George isn’t human at all, but an adaptable, empathic alien, a Tenza, who landed on Earth and became the son that his Earth parents always wanted, his biggest fear actually having nothing to do with anything in the cupboard, because his biggest fear is that his Earth family doesn’t want him anymore. But of course, they do, alien or not. And a hug from his father saves the day.
“Night Terrors” is an decent premise thwarted by a less than successful script by Mark Gatiss and less than competent direction from Richard Clark. The episode isn’t terrible, but it feels as if it’s trying to scare you, rather than just doing it. Starting with a boy who is already scared of everything leaves us with nowhere to go. Our fright level can’t go up, because there’s no build. It just starts at panic, and then stays there until it’s suddenly over. While there were a couple of cute one-liners, particularly between Amy and Rory, and a bit of fright once there were creepy dolls (because creepy dolls are always, well, creepy), for the most part the script was predictable and a bit hokey. Having the story be about the importance of parental love is great, but having that be George’s biggest fear seemed tacked on. George, the power to stop the monsters is within you! You can do it! You have the power to control your fears! Oh, and by the way, your daddy actually DOES love you. The lesson should be either “you can control your fears” or “you don’t have to be afraid, because your parents love you.” Having it be both muddles the end a bit, because the viewer doesn’t know if they should be happy that George saved himself, or happy that his father saved him.
It seemed strange that The Doctor was suddenly uncomfortable around a child — “I haven’t done this in a while” — when one of the hallmarks of this Doctor is his ease with children. From Amelia Pond to the little girl crying in “The Beast Below” to his insights into the little girl in “The Impossible Astronaut,” this Doctor has never been ill-at-ease around children. Is it because this child was a Tenza? Perhaps, but that would be strange, too. So, The Doctor — an alien — is only comfortable around human children?
Also, perception filters control your memories now, and not just what you can see? That doesn’t really work. Up until now, perception filters made you see what you need to see in order to believe something to be true, and that made sense. Prisoner Zero used a perception filter to have a hideout in Amelia Pond’s home, and did so from the very beginning so that Amy grew up thinking that there were only a certain number of rooms in the house all along. The queen of the Saturnyne used one to hide her fishy form. There was a perception filter used on the house in “The Lodger” so that no one could see the top floor, but it wasn’t as if no one remembered there was no top floor, because there were blueprints that showed otherwise. Only people who were new to the house were affected by the perception filter. In all of these instances, people assumed things to be true because of a visual cue. So, in “Night Terrors,” the father can look at photos that show his wife not pregnant around the time she should’ve been pregnant with their son... but then forgets that she couldn’t have been pregnant? This might have worked better if the perception filter made him see his wife as pregnant in those photos, but even then perception filters have never altered someone’s memory so that they could forget their whole life before it had been used on them. The fact of his wife not being able to have children isn’t visual. Why would that be erased from his brain? My worry now is that “perception filter” will be the catch-all explanation for future plot holes.
Clark’s direction emphasized the hokey script. Every conversation was sort of overplayed and a bit to cutesey for its own good. Every “frightening” moment was broadcast loudly, just in case we weren’t aware that we were supposed to be afraid. It felt like watching a pantomime. All the actors seemed like they’d been forced a bit out of their element, and for no good reason.
While “Night Terrors” wasn’t “Curse of the Black Spot” bad, it still wasn’t as successful as it could have been. Gatiss’s “Victory of the Daleks” did a better job of tying sentiment to adventure. “Night Terrors” felt like an after school special, and it didn’t even have the payoff of a good scare.
Doctor Who airs on BBC America Saturdays at 9PM ET.
Teresa Jusino has always been afraid of the dark. She can be heard on the popular Doctor Who podcast, 2 Minute Time Lord, participating in a roundtable on Series 6.1. Her “feminist brown person” take on pop culture has been featured on websites like ChinaShopMag.com, PinkRaygun.com, Newsarama, and PopMatters.com. Her fiction has appeared in the sci-fi literary magazine, Crossed Genres; she is the editor of Beginning of Line, the Caprica fan fiction site; and her essay “Why Joss is More Important Than His ‘Verse” is included in Whedonistas: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon By the Women Who Love Them, which is on sale now wherever books are sold! 2012 will see Teresa’s work in two upcoming sci-fi anthologies. Get Twitterpated with Teresa,“like” her on Facebook, or visit her at The Teresa Jusino Experience.