Mon
Sep 5 2011 7:39pm

Doctor Who S6, Ep 9: “Night Terrors”

Doctor Who episode review of

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.

Doctor Who episode review of 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.

Awwww.

“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.

Doctor Who episode review of

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.

Doctor Who episode review of

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.

 

28 comments
Bryan Rasmussen
1. Bryan Rasmussen
actually it seemed obvious from the lodger that perception filters put up a powerful psychic block about the memories of the altered perception since, in the lodger, craig and, in amy's house, amy believed there was a difference to the house that there simply wasn't.
I don't think just visual cues explains that.
That said, it seems, in those episodes as well as this one, that being reminded of the truth could break the psychic block.
Bryan Rasmussen
2. AlBrown
Well, perhaps not the most brilliant episode ever, but I enjoyed it. There has been a bit too much story arc this season, and not enough stand on itself storytelling. Episodes work best when they are a whole story in themselves, with a hint of story arc here and there. I hear that next season should be more episodic than the current one, and to be honest, I look forward to that. As to this story, I am enough of a romantic that the message of 'love makes everything better' works for me...
Bryan Rasmussen
3. Crimson11Delight
Actually, I found this episode fairly tight and was genuinely scared. It's important to remember that Doctor Who is still a show for kids, and I think most kids would be terrified by this.

The Doctor wasn't really uneasy with Geroge except for a moment, either.

To me, the horror was effective in that I , as a viewer, wasn't sure what was going on-- what is the creepy laughing? what's with the weird house? I got to experience it with Amy and Rory.

The ending was a little tacked-on but still touching, and came off as less contrived than "Let's Kill Hitler." Just my thoughts.

I agree with AlBrown and Bryan Rasmussen here.
Chuck Varesko
4. cgv123
I liked it. Some loose ends here and there but all in all better than a Oh My God The Universe Is Going To End, Again episode.
Bryan Rasmussen
5. Sleeping Hedgehog
I liked it fine. It's nice to see a one-off with a horror theme to it as the show does them all too infrequently.

A new viewer coould watch this episode without knowing anything about the rather complex metastory that's been going on the entire time since the Doctor Who came back on the air. The only reference to the metastory was to the Silence near the end of the episode.
Bryan Rasmussen
6. WonderGirl
For me, this episode wasn't particularly scary until the very end, when the creepy singsong children's voices started to come back again and overwhelmed the action in the TARDIS. "Tick-tock goes the clock, even for the Doctor" . . . augh. I also blinked when the Doctor used the phrase "in the flesh" (or is it Flesh?). What can I say, Moffat's tenure has made me a very suspicious person.
Alex Brown
7. AlexBrown
I could tke or leave this episode except for one thing: no one apparently cares about River. They've spent all this time fretting over her, and spent months searching desperately for her and what, they're over it now? No one cares? Not even a mention of, "Oh, how I wish we could find my daughter." I get the plot contrivances that mean they can't raise her, but I don't buy that everyone's just hunky dory about that. No mother who fought that hard for her child would be so nonchalant about having to abandon her. It totally ruined for me what was otherwise a mediocre episode.

I am also really sick of Moffatt's heavy-handed subtlty. Yes, we get it, Eleven is going to die. OK, fine, can we move on please? It was the same blunt force trauma that we got last season with the exploding TARDIS and the Pandorica. What I wouldn't give for an RTD easter egg right about now.
Katie Pi
8. Darth_Katie
They've been using "perception filter" as an excuse for everything for ever now.

Also, I didn't get the sense that the Doctor was uncomfortable around the boy. The line you quoted seemed more than anything to be a set up for "making a house call," a hilarious play on the fact that his name is "The Doctor."

I thought the episode was decent, but not excellent. It was better than Victory of the Daleks, imo.
Bryan Rasmussen
9. Raskolnikov
That's more like it. A very old-school episode, in the sense of a lot of
familiar ones across the past five seasons and being a classic Who
episode. To that end there's a sentimental but earnest message, a
determined effort to create visions of traumatizing fear, and an
exploration of the quirkiness that comes from dropping the Doctor into
contact with relatively normal people. After last week that was a lot of
what I was longing for, and the story benefited a lot from jettisoning
River Song, the heavily myth-arc, and the overly self-contained setting.
It's more than that that makes this the only good episode since "The
Doctor's Wife", the writing seems sharper, with points of drama, fear
and humor in equal measure. Smith gets to do his offhand empathizing
weirdness humor, plus some credible instances of him talking himself in
and out of thing--it struck a much more satisfying balance between
arrogance, capacity and alienness than I've seen from him of late. The
story benefits a lot from not having to constantly make an assumption of
the Doctor as the smartest being ever, and it can let him just be the
smartest one in the world.

The episode wasn't without it's
flaws. Centrally it's not about much beyond the rather arbitrarily and
hastily exposited alien situation, and there's more than the usual
amount of disconnect between a strange situation and the eventual
explanation. More seriously I was a bit troubled by the way the wife
just vanished from the story, and Amy then became dollified--while
effectively creepy it played into a marginalization of women from the
story that made me a bit uncomfortable. Plus, the Companions don't
realize they're in a doll-house nearly quickly enough (it was obvious to
me as soon as they found the frying pan made of wood) and I'm not sure
what the Landlord was doing in the story--he was given a second
appearance and speech to bring him up as a real menace, but then he
became another irrelevant victim, and the expansion comes across as
padding. Still, overall a fun and satisfying episode, and in pushing the
Doctor in close proximity to Alex it serves as a nice counter to the
bad taste left from "Let's Kill Hitler".
Jenny Thrash
10. Sihaya
My youngest ran frightened from the room a few more times than she normally does during Who, so I'd say that the terror level was high enough for the "children's programming" end of the spectrum. That works for me.

Is it just me, or was this actually a bottle episode? Did they repaper Rose's apartment set?

All told, this was a good enough one-off for me. It was nicely placed in the season, too. The Doctor's thinking alot about frightened children lately, but so are Amy and Rory, I suspect. They just left River alone with the Doctor's assurance that she'd be okay - alright, she'd be a wanted murderess, so it's a pretty messed up definition of 'okay.' And they find another not-quite human kid who's scared to death of losing his parents. They can't quite connect to him, really - they just miss him. So it's the sort of story that *could* happen anywhere in this season, but just happens to be pretty well placed right here.

I'm getting terribly used to deus ex machina endings to Doctor Who. I know that quite a few people think that the last few season's endings have emotional logic, but they rarely follow on from knowledge that was available in the plot of the episode, or even the arc. I accept this, and just enjoy the ride. Unfortunately the end of this episode did hark back to one of the most perfectly plotted, acted and directed endings in new Who history - the ending of "The Doctor Dances" - and it suffers for the inevitable comparison. If it weren't for that, I'd think it's a very fine episode. As it is, I think "Night Terrors" is good enough.
Bryan Rasmussen
11. Drekk
The episode was...well, all right. Luckily even the mediocre episodes of Doctor Who are still better than good episodes of most other shows.
Eli Bishop
12. EliBishop
Milo1313, Sihaya: If this writer is right, the episode was written and shot with the intention of showing it before the latest River/Melody events, and then rescheduled for unknown reasons, so that's why they're not fretting about River.
Ian Gazzotti
13. Atrus
I thought this was the worst episode of the season so far. Yes, even worse than Curse of the black spot.

I don't know why but Gatiss' attempts at horror or spooky never really work for me, even when the premise looks very promising on paper. It seems he spends more time saying "look, this is frightening!" rather than actually making it so.

The directing was not so bad though. Actually, those long shots of the apartment complex at the beginning were way more creepy than the moving dolls.
Iain Cupples
14. NumberNone
Count me as another whose child (eleven years old) was absolutely scared stiff by this episode. And when it comes to Who, that strikes me as the best yardstick. It's what the writers should be, and probably are, going for.

Other than that, it did strike me as a disposable, self-contained episode probably scripted to go anywhere in the current season, so I wasn't surprised to see few references to the story arc. In fact I suspect it was deliberately put here as a break of sorts...
Nick Eden
15. NickPheas
I liked it.
OK, the mcguffin was a bit generic, but on the whole the atmosphere was great.
One thing I particularly liked was the way the mundane modernist towerblock was shot to look alien. Reminiscent of Alphaville at times.

Also, a colleague tells me that his daughter now refuses to sleep in her room any more because afterwards his hid in her cupboard and made strange knocking noises.
Bryan Rasmussen
16. piapiapiano
My understanding is that after shooting they decided to switch this episode with the pirate one. So Melody didn't exist and Amy would've been a ganger -- hence the Doctor's "in the flesh" line.
James Whitehead
17. KatoCrossesTheCourtyard
Well, my family and I liked the episode and my 10 year old was suitably frightened by the dolls & their singing. As has been pointed out, it is still a child's programme in the end.

I was happy for a 'simpler' episode without out all the world/planet/universe ending drama. Need to spread those out somewhat and intermingle these kind of episodes with them.

Kato
Jenny Thrash
18. Sihaya
EliBishop & piapiano: Interesting. The episode would have been great foreshadowing - turning Amy into a doll, the "In the flesh!" line, and the elusive nature of everyone's identity would have seemed even smarter in retrospect. But as it is, I still think the current placement is pretty cool.

NickPheas: Yeah, I noticed that. In the first few shots of the apartment projects, you don't see the ground. I wondered if we were in a council somewhere in New London until the Doctor actually walked down the alley towards the courtyard.
Bryan Rasmussen
19. ClintACK
Interesting. I thought the theme of this episode was *all* about River Song. Here's an alien kid with human parents who is *not* going to be okay unless he's reassured that his parents love him. And wait, over there in the season's background, an alien kid with human parents who is *not* going to be okay growing up without her parents -- unless she's redeemed at the last minute by the Doctor's love, perhaps.

Few off bits in the episode: after Amy turned into a creepy doll, not enough freaking out from Rory. He waited 2000 years for her, patiently guarding her prison to keep her safe. She's just been turned into a creepy doll. No emotional reaction from the time-traveling nurse?! And when the Doctor was screaming out of the dollhouse to the kid, he basically kept repeating "listen to me" without repeating his important message, or in fact giving the kid any reason not to be afraid. What kind of idiot thinks you can calm down a panicking kid by screaming "listen to me" and "don't be afraid"? The wife's disappearance -- with no one commenting on it, I was confused about whether this was an odd divorce situation where she'd dropped the kid off, shut off the light, and gone back home, or whether the perception filter had caused everyone to forget she existed. And lastly, it was weird not to get *any* notice at all from Rory and Amy that their alien kid needed to know they loved her. Even just a significant look, or offered reassurance, at the end when the Doctor says something slightly too on point would have been nice. Ah, well.

It was really nice to pull back from the universe-on-the-line scope for an episode, though.

Ah. The out-of-sequence play makes more sense of a few of those -- that's why the characters don't react to the River Song parallel and it does make Amy's a plastic doll a remarkable piece of foreshadowing. Interesting. Wonder why they swapped them.
Bryan Rasmussen
20. Smaug's Li'l Brother Puff
I'm in 100% agreement with you, Teresa. This one just beats out Black Spot and The Beast Below at the bottom of the Smith episodes for me. Bad direction (poor George didn't strike me as panicked as much as, you know, "get this boy an inhaler"), the music cues were ham-handed, the creepy doll stuff is tired and obvious -- did no one else hear Jonathan Coulton singing when those things showed up? (Which reminds me: echoey child voices in the dark will never be scary again for me after hearing the turret guns in Portal.)

All-in-all, I think the main lesson I take away from this and the last one (a fun, Top 10 Smith ep) is that Raskolnikov and I can never, ever watch TV together.
Bryan Rasmussen
21. Pendard
I liked it. I thought the dolls were pretty creepy and I thought the story hung together well. I liked the kid and I especially loved the character of the dad. The tone kind of reminded me of an X-Files episode at times, and the quirkly inhabitants of the apartment block reminded me of a Jean-Pierre Jeunet movie -- both good associations. I thought the Doctor was great with the kid, as usual. He exhibits a little discomfort but he walks into an insanely difficult situation that has the parents at their wit's end and has the kid feeling safe almost immediately. I found the solution to the problem to be very organic and I liked the message that a parent's love can chase away any monsters. The only thing I thought was a little iffy is how quickly the dad accepts that his son is an alien who has been tricking him, and the fact that apparently no one needs to tell his mom about it. I feel like the dad could accept that reality eventually, but there would have to be a moment where he questions the alien's intentions.

I definitely didn't have any problem with River not being an issue in this episode -- I feel like Amy and Rory reached a point of resolution when they decided to leave her in the hospital and let her find her own path. (However, I expect she'll be back soon with a few unresolved issues.)
Bryan Rasmussen
22. Raskolnikov
#20: Well, not complete inversion. I also hated Curse of the Black Spot and the Beast Below. That's something, at least.
Bryan Rasmussen
23. Lesley A
clintACK - the reason the mother wasn't there in the flat was quite straightforward - she worked nights! That's why she was in the uniform - some sort of nurse or care assistant, I assume.
Bryan Rasmussen
24. piapiapiano
ClintACK #19

They swapped them because they felt there were too many dark and depressing episodes in the first half of the season. And this one, being a standalone, could zip over into the second half without too much bother. Thus giving us the "laugh riot" that was Curse of the Black Spot...

It does make me wonder if the continuity error in the pirate episode (one of the characters simply vanishes 3/4 of the way through) was because they had to cut scenes that referenced Melody Pond.
Ursula L
25. Ursula
The obvious reading of this episode is from the little boy's point of view, as the story of a child overcoming a nightmare.

But this story works even better as the father's story, the story of a parent learning that they have the child they have, not the child of their imaginations.

And the story of the parent with a changeling child works with the story arc of the season thematically, even though it doesn't directly deal with the relationship between Amy, Rory and their daughter. Because, like the father here, they have an alien changeling child, whom they must love and care for the way she is, rather than raising her in a conventional, time-bound parent-child relationship.
Bryan Rasmussen
26. Galadriel
It's not that the Doctor is suddenly uncomfortable with children... it's just that he's so much more comfortable around girls. And yes, human girls in particular. Now, just turn off your dirty minds for a sec and think logically about his track record. Teresa's observation even spelled it out, as all the children she mentioned were girls. So what is it about boys that makes him less comfortable? Maybe it's something to do with his old buddy the Master. Your guess is as good as mine.
Jenny Thrash
27. Sihaya
Galadriel, I'd guess he probably just raised girls back in his parenting days. We don't know about his children, but we know he travelled with his grandaughter.
Bryan Rasmussen
28. SeeingI
No bueno. Like all of Gatiss' scripts, everything is indicated and nothing feels genuine or natural. I'm sorry but he just really has no idea how to write a Doctor Who script - only how to write something that feels like the kind of thing Doctor Who does.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment