I had been so looking forward to “Night Terrors”. It looked terrific, scary and funny. And it was funny. And bits were sort of scary. But terrific?
Sadly, as happens on much of this new series of Doctor Who, the ideas are excellent but they fall short at the last hurdle, something which I personally blame on the running time. In the good old days, a story would unfold over weeks, rather than minutes. Whilst the episodes ran for a shorter time (excluding much of the Colin Baker era), each story was set over 3-6 weeks, with some monumental serials taking between 10 and 12 weeks. Now, however, a story takes 45 minutes. Whilst there is the over-thought story arcs which transpire over the course of a series, most serials are not connected by plot – each episode works as a stand-alone, with connecting threads of plot. Whilst the occasional two-parter does sometimes occur, they are a rarity. And that is the biggest flaw with New-Who.
Don’t get me wrong – it was a good episode. It just wasn’t great. A reimagining of “Fear Her” from series 2, but much better written and directed, it held great promise. Mark Gatiss is a great writer, and the ideas behind this latest episode held great promise – finding terror in the ordinary, everyday things we have lying around the house. It just all felt a little too rushed in the 45-minute running time, with ideas being thrown out too quickly for the audience to fully digest them. There was none of the story arc in this episode, possibly due to its movement from episode 3 to episode 8 in the running order, but that certainly helped with the pacing – As the Ponds wandered around the doll’s house of nightmares, there was no mention of Melody or River – or of their ‘best friend’ Mels either.
The pacing lent itself nicely to the plot – exposition wasn’t high on the list here, rather preferring the old fashioned horror moments typical of much of the horror movies of the 60s and 70s. There was very little CGI, instead using excellent set, costume and lighting to create a claustrophobic feeling of genuine terror. As the shadows danced across the walls, and lights flickered ominously, it genuinely was edge-of-the-seat stuff, reminiscent of “The Mind Robber” and like a good version of “The Celestial Toymaker”, with dolls creeping around in a fictional world come real, childish giggles and nursery rhymes audible during truly tense moments. Director Richard Clark has been gifted, this series, with the two strongest scripts, both stand-alone episodes with no arcs to hinder them. Unlike his earlier stories, “Gridlock” and “The Lazarus Experiment”, the focus is entirely on the ordinary. This one wasn’t sci-fi, in any way, really – it was simply a horror story in the gothic mould.
(As a side-note, it seems like the entire crew have gone Stanley Kubrick crazy – last week was the jump cut of the TARDIS reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and this week was the twin girls who looked straight out of The Shining.)
As I have now said a couple of times, the issue with this episode was time – the excellent ideas on show from the crew and writer couldn’t be done justice in the time allocated to it. The progression of characters, and the characterisation that it could have afforded, was sadly drawn too quickly, in too-broad strokes. And that isn’t a fault of the writer or director. I’d argue that it’s the schedulers fault – them, and Moff, forcing excellent premises like this into single episodes so that the arcs with which people have quickly lost patience can be given more episodes upon which to encroach.
George, the young boy suffering from nightmares, was excellent – young Jamie Oram was adorable, with his slight speech impediment and weak physical appearance highlighting the inherent fears in this poor defenceless child. Daniel Mays, as his father Alex, was pretty strong too, although again much of his character was lacking – I personally find it difficult to believe that simply because a child is scared of things, the family would call social services. Leila Hoffman, as Mrs Rossiter, was sadly under-used – she is amazing when given the chance to give comic turns, as seen in How Not to Live Your Life. Unfortunately, she spent the majority of her screen time mumbling to herself, before being eaten by bin bags and wandering aimlessly down corridors. The stand-out performance of the episode, however, was Matt Smith.
Last week, I mentioned how much I like Matt Smith. Hell, how much I love Matt Smith. When he’s given material that allows him to take his time, and ponder, he’s simply outstanding. The comedy here, for the most part, comes from the very alienness of Smith’s Doctor, stuck in a world of high-rise flats and disgruntled pensioners. He got most of the good lines too, after being cheated out of them by Arthur Darvill as Rory last week. The scene in which he was making a cup of tea was brilliant, faced with the disgruntled father, but carrying on as though nothing were wrong, adding “monsters are real” before requesting more jammie dodgers. Similarly, the comment “I can’t just plump for Brian like I normally do” raised a good chuckle from me. What was refreshing about this week’s episode was the lack of focus upon Amy and Rory – while they were both integral to the plot, they didn’t distract from the story, or Smith’s performance. Unlike the past series has been Doctor-lite, this was definitely Companion-lite. And thank goodness for that.
A major flaw with this episode for me was that the episode was so predictable. It was essentially The Twilight Zone for 2011. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing – if it isn’t transparent from the very beginning. Within minutes of starting, it was obvious that George wasn’t a normal boy. It was also clear that the outcome of the episode would be resolved through paternal love. Yawn. Whilst Gatiss had penned a creepy idea, the resolution was decidedly average. A child with ESP, manifesting his fears somehow, would have been interesting and exciting and possibly creepy. Instead, moments before the climax, we discovered that George is actually an abandoned orphan alien creature, a Tensa apparently?, who assimilates into the lifestyle of those who find it, fulfilling their needs – in this case, a sterile wife and her husband desperate for a kid of their own.
The concept of locking all of your fears in a cupboard was an interesting one, although again not particularly realistic given that the child must then sleep in the same room as all of the things which he was most terrified of – indeed, in the sequences in which he shone the torch around his room, watching huge looming shadows appear, I couldn’t help wondering why on earth he had so many creepy toys lying around in the first place?
Of course, the last scene had to remind us of the arc, with the Doctor once more looking at the date of his death with a pensive stare, followed by the comment about all being back together “in the flesh...” – A clue, no doubt, to the theory that the flesh Doctor and the real Doctor have at some point gotten mixed up again...