When people, specifically British people, talk about watching Doctor Who as a kid they almost inevitably mention episodes so scary they were compelled to watch them while hiding behind the couch. It’s a cliché, but one I’ve run into so often I’ve come to think that whole generations of kids grew up cowering behind furniture on a weekly basis. I’ve never thought of the revamped Doctor Who as primarily a scary show, but it’s certainly had its scary moments. (“Blink,” of course, comes immediately to mind.) It’s also created more than its share of creepy moments, often by taking something everyday—a library, the village setting of “Amy’s Choice,” those stone angels again—and twisting it just… so. It’s just so with this episode, too, the appropriately titled “Night Terrors.” Written by Mark Gatiss—a writer/actor who’s a veteran of the revived Doctor Who and whose interest in the show predates the revival via some Doctor Who novels—“Night Terrors” is an excursion into the uncanny. But, in keeping with the series, it’s not just scary for its own sake. There’s a lot of heart in this hour.
A child’s call for help sends the Doctor to a row of council flats, a setting the episode uses well, uncovering potential horror in a dull, uniform setting. Though halfway across the galaxy—one assumes—the Doctor decides to make a housecall. It’s a sweet notion, really: In all the universe one child calls out for help and the Doctor only hears him but springs into action. He’s what kids wish God could be: a helpful spirit that’s on your side when you need Him.
Unlike God, it takes a while for the Doctor to figure out what’s going on, however, and at times “Night Terrors” fills a bit too padded for its own good. The Doctor creeps around. Rory and Amy creeps around. Then, slowwwly, they stumble figure out what we’ve known all along: That little George’s cupboard full of fears has reached its breaking point. “Well, what do we do with the things we don’t like?,” he’s told. “Put them in the cupboard.” Though kindly delivered, that’s a pretty terrible piece of parenting advice. The repressed always returns.
Here it takes the form of a dollhouse filled with creepy, life-sized dolls. (Peg dolls, to be specific, a toy with origins in Germany and the Netherlands.) And, boy, are they unsettling. At times it seems like Amy and Rory (and the landlord and eventually everyone else) have been dropped into the middle of a Jan Svankmajer film, an unpleasant place to find yourself, to be sure, and one richly realized here. When we talk about the creators behind Doctor Who we usually talk about the writing staff. But, while Gatiss’ script is quite solid—mixing humor, horror, and family drama—much of the credit for the success of “Night Terrors” should go to director Richard Clark. Clark keeps the images dark and forbidding and has a keen eye for framing a shot. I was struck both by the composition of the council flat at nights, with those lights glowing ominously above each identical door and the way he used shadows in the dollhouse scenes to suggest even worse horrors just out of frame. There’s also shot of the Doctor standing in front of the cupboard door that’s almost unbearably thick with tension.
Doctor Who never slacks on visual flair, but some episodes have a bit more flair than others. This was one of those, which helped with a story that wouldn’t quite stretch to the length of a full episode without it. Amy and Rory get separated for no real reason beyond giving them more to do and the climax goes on a bit too long. But it still works, in part because it’s so scary and in part because the actors sell it emotionally. Young George, played by Jamie Oram, makes for such a pitiable figure that it’s impossible not to root for him to be saved even after we learn of his peculiar origin as a sort-of extraterrestrial cuckoo. (And I honestly didn’t see that twist coming. Did you?) Of course his unwitting adoptive parents should continue raise and love him. How could they not?
That this element worked so well also bugged me a bit. “Night Terrors” is an episode filled with parallels to Amy and Rory’s recent parenting travails… and yet they go unreferenced. They help a father save his son with no reference to having lost their own child. They also see a child being raised by parents not his own and seem to make no connection to the lost Melody. This might be an issue of scheduling. “Night Terrors” was originally slated to run in the first half of the season then moved to the second. In its original slot it would have foreshadowed what was to come. Here it just seems weirdly indifferent to recent events, apart from the now-obligatory shot of the Doctor reminding himself of the his imminent death.
But I might just be quibbling over the big picture stuff again. (Though, to be fair, the show invites that.) On its own, this was an entertaining outing, and a scary one too, the sort that could easily send younger viewers hiding behind the couch like the generations of Doctor Who fans before them.
• “He hates clowns.”
• Am I just forgetting why Amy would refer to 1700-and-something as her favorite year?
• One reason I love Doctor Who: You can throw in a term like “perception filter” to explain something and in context it seems perfectly logical. Oh yeah: A perception filter.