21 Sep 2011Night Terrors, by Matt Hills
21 Sep 2011Night Terrors, by Emma Hyam

In an episode all about multiple fears, and where the Doctor ponders whether young George suffers from pantophobia, it’s tempting to frame this review by referring to different phobias, both real and invented. With that in mind, perhaps this story will offer a cure for Gatissophobes still traumatised after Victory of the Daleks, though given its array of alarming lifts, nasty dolls, and recurrent darkness, it certainly won’t make comfortable viewing for phobophobes.

Gatiss has said that his brief was to make the contemporary scary, as per his excellent Crooked House. That, however, used portmanteau horror to give its present-day setting an overlaid creepiness, whereas this tale doesn’t have the luxury of different time periods and historically lingering spookiness to realise its threat. Instead, we jump straight into a repertoire of childhood anxieties, superbly realised via director Richard Clark’s use of shadows and complemented by a themed colour palette combining inky blues with sickly yellow-greens.

Since he is ostensibly a child of our time, I kept expecting George to have a remote-controlled Dalek or a collection of Character Options toys in his room: Bergerac exists in this universe, but not a television series called Doctor Who. Incorporating such visuals would have made this both more realistic and yet less real-seeming at the same time; a fiction pointing out its own fictional status. We are shown an Amy action figure, of sorts, in the form of her dolled-up version, but the episode resolutely avoids branded toys so that George’s collection of non-copyright-infringing, non-product-placement robots, dinosaurs, and themed wallpaper still end up looking like a strange, out-of-time BBC unreality. Despite refusing to permit any ‘meta’ appearances of Doctor Who toys, an episode centred on a scared child cannot resist referencing debates which have whirled through the series’ history: “may be… things on telly… scary stuff” should be blamed for George’s nervous state. It’s a knowing wink to the audience, but played lightly and without disrupting the story’s world.

This was one of the series six episodes produced by Sanne Wohlenberg, and though I’d not have a critical word to say about Marcus Wilson’s excellent work, this bears all the hallmarks of a very tightly, skilfully produced ep where key elements knit together well. Given the focus on paternity, and on Alex’s love for his son, Emma Cunniffe as Claire is rather underused, though Daniel Mays doesn’t put a foot wrong throughout and Andy Tiernan plays the sort of character his physiognomy seems doomed to enact – Purcell, a caricatured landlord, complete with Bernard the bulldog (surely a sly Quatermass reference from Gatiss).

Rituals are vital here, whether it’s switching lights on and off, putting fears away in the cupboard, or repeating phrases such as “please save me from the monsters”. Ritual holds and contains anxiety, and this theme is artfully reflected in Clark’s use of shots split up into angular sections; the housing estate which seems to box in its inhabitants; the serving hatch through which we observe Alex and the Doctor; doors and windows which frame various residents, and even the pile of bin bags which encloses Mrs Rossiter in a menacing reverse shot. Everything is constantly framed, bounded, and visually hemmed in, implying that characters may themselves have become shut in with what’s feared. And the episode’s editing also becomes almost ritualistic or incantatory at times, such as in the intercutting of slammed doors – wham, wham, wham! – on the Doctor, Amy and Rory.

Night Terrors poses a simple enough question: what can overcome a child’s fear? And the answer is an emotional one rather than a wodge of technobabble. Stories are one place of safety, such as ‘The Emperor Dalek’s New Clothes’ or the ‘Three Little Sontarans’. But even more powerful than storytelling is unconditional parental love: Alex is willing to embrace ‘his’ child, no matter what. This gives the tale an emphasis on human feeling that has always been at the heart of Who since its 2005 return, but it also feels a little off-kilter here. For one thing, why is the maternal so strongly written out of proceedings, as if Doctor Who’s natural constituency should involve focusing on a father-son relationship? And then there’s the matter of George’s alien identity as a cuckoo in the nest. Conveniently glossed over by the notion that he will adapt perfectly to life among humanity – i.e. he’s alien, but from now on, imperceptibly so – this seems all too rapidly and easily dealt with. Is Alex supposed to sit Claire down for a “by the way, dear, our sense of reality has been modified and we actually have an unearthly child” sort of chat on the sofa? Ironically for an episode about ritual, the ending feels rather ritualistic and by-the-numbers itself, observing the convention of contemporary Doctor Who that love and monsters are needed. 

Always visually compelling, this is generally atmospheric rather than downright scary, treading a fine line for the family audience. And as for those watching from behind the proverbial sofa, well, perhaps it’s just that Doctor Who’s viewers exhibit an unusually high level of cathisophobia.

Matt Hills is the author of Triumph of a Time Lord, and is currently reviewing Torchwood: Miracle Day for the Antenna blog

Filters: Series 7/33 Eleventh Doctor Television

Since its return Doctor Who has gone to great pains to show us the money. Huge, sweeping alien vistas, strange new races and intergalactic space stations, but every so often we're reminded about the ordinary scariness of the everyday.

With Night Terrors Mark Gatiss takes the story of a seemingly ordinary little boy who is afraid of the monsters in his wardrobe and brings his characteristic flair for the macabre to the proceedings. The episode is wonderfully atmospheric, with lingering shots of cracks in doors and long, empty hallways ramping up the tension to almost unbearable levels. The decision to set the episode in what Amy wonderfully calls "Planet Eastenders" was a brilliant one, an air of urban menace pervades the show, the people on the estate live in their own little boxes, deep down as terrified of their own surroundings and the "monsters" as little George is.

As well as the atmospherics of the show, the other stand out must be the guest performance from Daniel Mays, most recently the best thing in the otherwise forgettable "Outcasts" he turns in another excellent showing as a Dad at the end of his tether with his son. He provides an excellent counterpoint to a typically mile-a-minute Doctor who was also on great form. In another nod to Who tradition Amy and Rory are largely separated from the main action, with an nice little acknowledgement to the audience as Rory wonders if hes dead yet again! 

This is a very simple tale, I feel a more than a few will find it too simple for them, the story itself is very reminiscent of Who episodes like Blink and Fear Her with the dolls immediately bringing to my mind the Clockwork Droids of The Girl In The Fireplace. The old standard explanation of "the perception filter" is wheeled out for another airing, the formally clever idea is now getting slightly worn out with over use. While it was nice to get away from the River Song story line for an episode, I found it a little irritating that they felt the need to shoe horn in a shot of the Doctor's death date, as if it would have slipped the viewers mind in the intervening week. That being said I feel that conversely some fans will find the lack of River Song action just as irritating.

Overall I personally found the change of pace refreshing, the direction of the episode really allowed the ideas to breathe and allowed the viewer to reflect on what was happening on screen. After the frenetic pace of Lets Kill Hitler a return to a good old slow burn horror story shows off the versatility and range of Doctor Who. At the end of the day The Doctor came to town, saved a family and was magnificent in doing so and rather brilliantly I think theres going to be more than a few kids refusing to go to bed on Saturday night.

As it should be.

Filters: Series 7/33 Eleventh Doctor Television