“Look at these eyes. They’re old eyes. Let me tell you something – monsters are real.”
Poor old Mark Gatiss. He’s the consummate Doctor Who fan, and should be the consummate Doctor Who writer – he’s literate, he’s got a great grasp of how to make a script work, and he’s written some excellent Doctor Who novels for both Virgin Publishing and the BBC. He wrote the superb black horror comedy The League of Gentlemen, not to mention co-creating and writing the excellent Sherlock with Steven Moffat. As one who’s been involved with the new series since its 2005 debut, he should by rights have notched up a notable list of ‘classic’ episodes by now. And yet, somehow, he’s always perceived as missing the mark. He wrote the first non-Russell T Davies script – The Unquiet Dead, which I genuinely loved and thought made a better Christmas episode than most of the actual Christmas specials. However, even now that’s not really thought of as a classic. Next year he gave us The Idiot’s Lantern, a period piece which I thought was clever, witty and had some genuinely frightening moments. But that too was written off as being inconsequential, if not actually bad, by most. Then after a long break, he returned last year to give us Victory of the Daleks, and that time even I didn’t think much of what he’d written.
This time, however, numerous fan publications and websites were assuring us that Night Terrors would finally be the one that would propel Mark into the same reputational leagues as Paul Cornell, Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat. In addition, Moffat himself was touting it as one of the scariest episodes ever, quoting the line from the script that quickly became the best known description of the story: “the scariest place in the universe – a child’s bedroom”.
All that hype actually seemed a little unfair. It would be hard for any story to live up to that kind of expectation, and sadly, Night Terrors didn’t. It’s by no means a bad episode, and certainly better than Victory of the Daleks. But given the possibilities of the concepts, and the undoubted talent of Mark Gatiss, it could, and perhaps should, have been a lot better than it was.
It’s telling that a lot of the reviews and comments I’ve seen so far relating to the episode spend less time talking about what it was like than talking about what other stories it was like. It’s been compared variously to The Mind Robber, The Celestial Toymaker, Sapphire and Steel, Gilliam’s Time Bandits, and, in our house, Paradise Towers. However, probably the most valid comparison is to 2006 episode Fear Her – that has essentially the same plot, with a stranded alien being in this case possessing a child and causing people to disappear when they annoyed or frightened her. There’s nothing wrong with having very obvious inspirations for your story, but Fear Her has a (deserved) bad reputation; and in any case I don’t think Gatiss intended his story to be derivative of any of these. But these are big archetypes we’re dealing with here: childhood fears, and the nightmares they cause. The question is, is it the commonality of the archetypes that make this script seem over-familiar, or is it a problem with the script having a rather formulaic approach?
There was some genuinely creepy stuff here. The business with Amy and Rory in the doll’s house was well-written and well-directed, and a nicely surreal concept to boot. Like, I suspect, a lot of people, I twigged what was going on way earlier than the script told us – It was obvious that, like everything that frightened little George, they’d been banished to the inside of his cupboard, and from the moment Amy found the wooden ‘copper’ saucepan, it was easy to guess that there’d be a doll’s house in there. And so, when the Doctor finally opened the cupboard, there was. Mind you, while I’m the first to dismiss any gender-based expectations, it still did seem unusual that a little boy would have a doll’s house.
Nevertheless, our heroes creeping around the darkened corridors, with the lurking shadows moving in the background, was a little unnerving, and very reminiscent of Sapphire and Steel. The gradual revelations that clued them in were nicely done – though surely if that glass eye was meant to be normal size, the doll’s house would have to be gigantic for it to fit in a toy chest of drawers – and the reveal of the well-designed blank-face dolls was creepy, particularly when it became clear that, like the unfortunate Mr Purcell, you’d turn into one if they caught you.
That’s all classic child’s nightmare stuff, and the story also captured well that childhood feeling of terror when the bedroom light goes out and every shadow becomes a threatening monster lurking in the dark. George’s little rituals – banishing the scary things to the cupboard, turning the lights on and off five times – also seemed familiar from my own dimly recalled childhood. The direction by Richard Clark caught the mood well in these scenes, but the script seemed to be rather less successful at dealing with the mundane, everyday part of the story the Doctor was caught in – “EastEndersland” as Rory scathingly put it.
Despite Rory’s sarcasm, the script at no point spells out that this is London we’re seeing, which is just as well as it seemed very much to be the same housing estate used in Russell T Davies’ tenure to represent Rose Tyler’s home. No, this was any estate, anywhere, with that oddly unnatural neon glow that streetlights provide nicely captured by the camerawork. There was a convincing community, economically evoked by the montage in which the Doctor and co knocked on doors trying to find out which flat the scared child lived in. We’d already seen Leila Hoffman as old Mrs Rossiter, so she was plainly going to be involved in the story proper, and Andrew Tiernan as Purcell is a familiar enough character actor to make it obvious that we’d see more of him too. But we also saw at least one more family, initially represented by one of Gatiss’ familiar tropes – an amusing recreation of the ultra-creepy twin girls from The Shining. Still, the lack of specificity about where exactly this was almost seemed to make it less convincing as an ‘everyday’ setting; the precise opposite from the defined suburbanity of Colchester in last year’s The Lodger.
Matt Smith was on great form as the Doctor, and Gatiss does seem to have a knack for giving him suitably ‘Doctor-like’ dialogue that matches his frenetic performance. He can’t resist the old in-jokes too; it was amusing to hear references to children’s classic stories such as ‘The Emperor Dalek’s New Clothes’ and ‘Snow White and the Seven Keys to Doomsday’. He formed a good double act with Daniel Mays as George’s dad Alex, and it was a nice bit of subversion to see Mays, oft-cast as criminal hardmen, playing a perfectly normal average dad who’s scared for his child and worried about paying the rent (though if that £350 Purcell was demanding is the rent for the whole month, he’s getting a pretty good deal).
Rather less successful, though, was the rapport between the Doctor and George. It’s no particular fault of Matt Smith, or the dialogue the Doctor was given. But the script didn’t really give George any kind of personality of his own, beyond that he was a scared kid. I couldn’t really fault little Jamie Oram’s playing in the role, the problem was that he wasn’t really given anything to work with. At least little Chloe Webber in Fear Her was given a distinct personality. The trouble, I think, was that the episode started with a brief to tackle childhood nightmares and everything formed around that, rather than coming up with a convincing child character who might have good reason for the nightmares.
The twist that George was actually an alien cuckoo-like being called a ‘Tenza’ was probably the episode’s best reveal, but even here Gatiss could have striven to make the boy less of a cypher. And the rushed, rather pat explanation that the nightmares, and the disappearances, were a result of George’s fear that his adopted family wanted to abandon him seemed a little too convenient as a psychological explanation for George’s fear of absolutely everything – pantophobia, as the Doctor correctly called it, “which presumably does include a fear of pants”. At the heart of it, I think, was another of Mark Gatiss’ tropes, a dysfunctional father/son relationship that the story showed us at least the beginnings of healing. Tellingly, Claire, George’s ‘mother’, was barely in the story, only appearing at the very beginning and the very end. I wonder if Alex was planning on telling her the truth about their son?
The resolution that everything could be put right by Alex hugging George, and telling him that he would always be his son no matter what else he was, was sweet but again, a little too easy. After all, this was plainly a hugely powerful alien being, capable of (however unconsciously) brainwashing his ‘parents’ for eight years, creating a pocket dimension and imprisoning innocent people in it to be turned into creepy peg dolls. OK, it might mean no harm, but look at the trouble caused by one overheard conversation between his parents! It seemed a little odd that, however well-meaning, the Doctor would just allow the Tenza to stay where it was. He really should check back during puberty; although if the Tenza really is going to become whatever his parents want him to be, he’s going to be a pretty unusual teenager!
Those aspects of the plot were, perhaps, not handled too well. But there were other parts of the script that seemed to be more first draft and unfinished. What did happen to Mrs Rossiter inside the doll’s house? We saw her wandering the corridors looking scared, but didn’t see her again till she reappeared in the rubbish heap. Did she get turned into a doll, or did she hide successfully from them? Will she, and Purcell, remember their experiences? Amy seems to, and she did get turned into a doll. After all, if they do, and if they report it to somebody, Alex and Claire could find themselves surrounded by a UNIT SWAT team pretty quick, with George carted off to a secret base somewhere for ‘examination’.
However, all of those problems are as nothing compared to the really rather odd depiction of the series’ other two regular characters. It’s nice that Rory gets the self-aware line, “we’re dead, aren’t we. Again.”, but given what’s been happening over the last few episodes Amy and Rory seem very off-kilter. I commented last week that Amy and Rory seemed oddly unaffected by the revelation that they had, effectively, already lost their chance to be a normal family and bring up their daughter; Arnold Blumberg, over on Assignment X, found this to be the aspect that, for him, really torpedoed last week’s episode’s credibility.
The fact that, this week, the whole ongoing saga relating to their daughter didn’t even merit a mention served to make Amy and Rory less convincing than ever as real (potential) parents. It’s not that they’re in any way acting out of character generally (although Rory commenting “perhaps we should just let the monsters gobble him up” seemed unusually cruel for him). It’s just that, with the episode placed where it is in the series, it comes across as really odd that they’ve apparently forgotten the most important thing that’s been going on in their lives for months.
This can probably be put down to the standalone nature of the episode, and also that it was apparently swapped in the broadcast order with Curse of the Black Spot (though I don’t recall that mentioning their daughter either). If watched in isolation from the rest of the series, the viewer would probably find nothing at all unusual in the couple’s behaviour. But standalone episodes are rarely viewed in such total isolation. To be fair to Mark Gatiss, this is less his fault as writer than it could be Steven Moffat’s as showrunner.
I’ve argued before that a better balance between arc stories and standalone stories would be nice, but the showrunner still needs to bear in mind that the standalone stories feature the same characters as the arc ones, who would logically be feeling the consequences of previous events if they’re to be at all convincing. Joss Whedon understood this in his season plotting approach to Buffy, and so, despite my occasional criticisms of him, did Russell T Davies. It seems odd that a writer like Steven Moffat, who honed his teeth on emotional, character-driven dramas like Press Gang, would forget this. Perhaps, like the issue of the Doctor’s recent rather excessive violence, Amy and Rory’s rather inconsistent feelings about their complex family problems will be addressed in a future episode. All well and good, and I’m not disparaging the arc plot, but if that’s the case then it doesn’t stop them coming across very oddly here. And if it’s not addressed at all, then it looks like, I’m sad to say, slightly lazy season plotting, not something I’d expect from Steven Moffat.
The swap in running order with Curse of the Black Spot may also explain the one – possible – reference to the arc plot we do see this week. As our three heroes get together finally at the end of the episode, the Doctor comments, “Nice to be back together again. In the flesh.” Is this a reference to the upcoming (when this was still episode three) revelation about Amy in The Rebel Flesh? Or is it a hint about something coming up involving the Flesh? Perhaps the Ganger Doctor isn’t as dead as he appears. Since the line is delivered with none of the actors’ lips visible, if it was a significant hint from the show’s earlier place in the running order, it would have been a simple matter to remove it. Or perhaps it was never there before, and was added for the new place in the running order to hint at something we’re about to see. Or – and this is also possible – it’s just that “in the flesh” is a pretty common figure of speech, and the line has no relevance to the arc and isn’t meant to refer to the Flesh at all. It’s just that, where Mr Moffat’s plotting is concerned, you start overanalysing everything!
A lot of this review – like many of mine – is overanalysis. And some of it, I’ll be honest, is carping. But if this episode in particular is aimed at kids, I do seem to recall that they’re among the best at picking holes in a lack of logic. Come to think of it, one of the most irritating child’s questions – precisely because it’s usually very difficult to answer – is the repeated query, “but why…?” Night Terrors probably has succeeded in scaring a lot of its child audience with some genuinely memorable nightmare images. But those same kids may be even more adept than I am at picking apart the holes in the plot. Those holes, together with a sense that this standalone story is too isolated from this year’s series as a whole, mean that Night Terrors stands out not as Gatiss’ first true classic, but sadly as another entertaining, but routine episode that’s fairly forgettable.