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Doctor Who XXXII.9: Night Terrors

September 5th, 2011 (12:05 am)

I'd thought about holding this post over as I only finished my review of 'Let's Kill Hitler' for This Way Up this evening - I'll link to it when it's posted - and I am, as the saying goes, somewhat Whoed out. However, no time like the present...

'Night Terrors' feels early on like a homage to the Russell T Davies era of the programme, a conscious acknowledgement that the programme has moved on but can still draw some nutrients from the layers of Daviesian compost. Even so, Rory acknowledges that viewers these days don't expect the TARDIS to take them somewhere they could have gone on a bus; but for the village-dwelling Leadworth two, the flats are more foreign than an alien planet.

Internal evidence is contradictory, but despite George's birth year and stated age, it's possible that this episode was intended to be set in 2004, just before Doctor Who returned to television in the real world. It reminds me a little of 'The Eleventh Hour', potentially readable as an authorial statement about the essence of Doctor Who as they feel it. 'The Eleventh Hour' and indeed the whole 2010 series was something of a hymn to the fan experience of waiting for the Doctor's return between 1989 and 2005, and the growth of the legend between then and now; even those who thought they had grown up were won over when he returned and were happy to go travelling with him again. (The 1996 movie fits into this scheme as well...) The Doctor listens and makes safe childhood fears, by showing children and adults how they are faced, and doing so with them. There are also nods to the post-2005 child-consumer experience, including George's identification of the sonic screwdriver as 'a torch', which is what a toy sonic screwdriver is at a basic level, and its 'much more' displayed its affinity with George's collection of space robots.

That being said, the execution is more important than we've been here before, and I am joining the crowd in saying that much of this episode felt like a page one rewrite of 'Fear Her', with the mother-daughter dynamic being replaced by Gatiss's preferred father-son. I was far more convinced by the fear of the adults, especially Daniel Mays's Alex, than I was by Jamie Oram's George. The acting award would go to the performer playing thuggish landlord Jim Purcell's dog, whose indifference to its master's fate at the fronds of a plush carpet suggests to me that he doesn't respond well to choke chains.

I'm not that convinced by parents putting frightening things in a bedroom cupboard, either. Putting something just out of sight is to make it a permanent resident of the imagination, just the other side of the dark. I can imagine parents putting things their child finds frightening in their room, but in George's own cupboard seems dangerous. Often, too, it's the items which aren't frightening during waking hours which are disturbing at night - the much loved battery-operated toy, the beloved teddy bear.

Perhaps it was this flaw which led to my not feeling as much urgency and commitment to the story as I felt; I'd have liked some insight into the minds of the wooden dolls beyond the childlike chortling, particularly as many of them were transformed people; and the thread of Mrs Rossiter's fate was lost somewhere, though leaked cast lists indicate that she became a doll. Rory's horror at losing his wife was fumbled somewhere too.

'Night Terrors' was, when recorded last September, intended to be fourth in the 2011 series, rather than ninth, and it showed. Rory is less assured than he had become in 'A Good Man Goes to War' and 'Let's Kill Hitler'; neither Amy or Rory show any sign of the traumas (delete as applicable) of having been kidnapped, running around as a duplicate, giving birth, travelling the universe looking for your wife and daughter, being kept prisoner, finding your wife and daughter, having your daughter disintegrate in your arms, finding a secretive older woman with an enigmatic relationship with your time-machine-driving best friend is your kidnapped daughter grown up, being consigned without explanations back home for several months, then finding your childhood friend is also your daughter and seeing her transform into a younger version of the secretive older woman who is proud to call herself a psychopath and is free and easy with a gun, particularly when it comes to the aforesaid time-machine-driving best friend; and then having to abandon her in the fifty-second century to 'make her own way'. My head would be more than banging after that. Then there's the line in the last scene on the estate, about Amy being present 'in the flesh', which would have been an appropriate lead into 'The Almost People'. Indeed, one feels it belonged in the season we had to imagine, of the Doctor taking Amy and Rory to honeymoon destinations. Indeed, perhaps the real reason I was impressed by the dog was that his nose was fake, and he was a bailiff from the planet Barcelona, chasing the Time Lord and the Ponds for unpaid hotel bills.

Still, good things are being said about 'The Girl Who Waited' next week; and the scheduling of a strong episode alongside the return of Strictly Come Dancing might be a vote of confidence from BBC1, whereas this one, opposite the launch of Red or Black, was placed to take the fall. While there was much to like in this episode - and unlike Mark Gatiss's previous two Doctor Who episodes, while the last ten minutes seemed rushed I didn't feel that there was an entire second half of the story missing - it was less than I'd hoped for.

Also posted at http://sir-guinglain.dreamwidth.org/447943.html.


Posted by: Matthew (emperor)
Posted at: September 5th, 2011 06:53 am (UTC)

I too was rather...uninvested in this one (though the Fear Her comparison didn't occur to me, it should have), and it does feel slightly oddly ordered in the series. I couldn't work out if George was really afraid or actually enjoying trapping his dad and the Doctor, which I think was a failure of acting on the child's part. The doll's house was obvious straightaway, so the time it took Rory and Amy to get it was a bit frustrating.

The little sing-song at the end about the Doctor's impending death was strange, too; are we to suppose we'll see the dolls again?

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: September 5th, 2011 09:40 am (UTC)

I'm not sure whether the script was sure of George's motivation or intention, really. We could see the dolls again, as the entire toy cupboard is raided every so often...

Posted by: sensiblecat (sensiblecat)
Posted at: September 5th, 2011 07:35 am (UTC)
awkward moment

It resembled Fear Her so closely you could almost call it a homage - there was a creepy, scared child, something nasty in the cupboard, the Doctor taking the kitchen over and even a cheesy conclusion (though mercifully less so than FH's Olympic scene). I had problems with the pacing. Seemed to be far too much set-up and then a rushed resolution.

What I did like was the design, direction and lighting - all built up a suitably creepy atmosphere with everyday objects, the kind of thing DW has always done so well.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: September 5th, 2011 09:56 am (UTC)

That's true regarding design, direction and lighting; the contrast between the electrically-lit darkness of the flat, and the almost dream-twilight of the dolls' house, was well-judged, as were the wooden props.

Posted by: philmophlegm (philmophlegm)
Posted at: September 5th, 2011 07:55 am (UTC)
Victoria Waterfield

I seem to be the only person who really liked this one. Oh well.

Posted by: Alice Dryden (huskyteer)
Posted at: September 5th, 2011 09:31 am (UTC)
Pertwee bike

No, I liked it! Why? Because it was like a Sapphire & Steel story.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: September 5th, 2011 09:36 am (UTC)

The pre-credits montage of images of star clusters vaguely echoed the Sapphire and Steel titles too.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: September 5th, 2011 09:34 am (UTC)

I liked it, but I was unsettled by the problems I had with it as much as I was by the setting itself.

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: September 5th, 2011 12:35 pm (UTC)

I liked it and so did my uncle! But I really like Fear Her, so what do I know?

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: September 5th, 2011 12:43 pm (UTC)

I didn't think 'Fear Her' was appalling, just not as great as I'd expected...

Posted by: segh (segh)
Posted at: September 5th, 2011 10:44 am (UTC)

Rory and Amy had clearly failed to read "The Tale of Two Bad Mice" when they were small.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: September 5th, 2011 12:00 pm (UTC)

Or, like me, they'd forgotten - but looking up the plot, this is very much a tale of the dolls' revenge...

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: September 5th, 2011 12:33 pm (UTC)

the performer playing thuggish landlord Jim Purcell's dog

This makes me think of the Hancock's Half Hour episode The Bowmans (a spoof of The Archers): "I'm not just the dog, I'm the whole farmyard!" or words to that effect.

'Night Terrors' was, when recorded last September, intended to be fourth in the 2011 series, rather than ninth

I didn't know that, but, as I said in my own review, I thought that this would have fitted better earlier. Why was it pushed back?

I found this episode enjoyable; perhaps I had lower expectations than you did, not having enjoyed Victory of the Daleks at all.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: September 5th, 2011 12:40 pm (UTC)

Apparently it was too 'dark' and confined and so 'The Curse of the Black Spot' was written to replace it. I feel at the moment that 'Night Terrors' still belongs in the first half of the season, though.

Posted by: gwydion_writes (gwydion_writes)
Posted at: September 6th, 2011 02:51 am (UTC)

Much head nodding here in agreement. Did really like the cinematic shot moments- thought it was visually rather graceful. Need to go into those dolls more- completely onboard with that. Amy and Rory do seem too carefree- I remarked to R- "didn't the whole previous season have any impact on them??" so now that's all explained- thanks!

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: September 6th, 2011 09:07 am (UTC)

It was visually graceful, as was the other episode directed by Richard Clark this year, 'The Doctor's Wife' - made back to back a year ago. Credit to director of photography Owen McPolin too - working on moody urban crime dramas must have helped.

Posted by: Cyril A. Jaquel (cyriljackal)
Posted at: September 6th, 2011 03:56 am (UTC)

"Indeed, perhaps the real reason I was impressed by the dog was that his nose was fake, and he was a bailiff from the planet Barcelona, chasing the Time Lord and the Ponds for unpaid hotel bills."

Is this something from the episode I totally missed or is this a joke? The reason I ask is this episode was so 'easy' to watch, I didn't have to look for any clues to other episodes because of how separate it was from all the other episodes, I think I missed something.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: September 6th, 2011 08:59 am (UTC)

This is indeed a joke - I was imagining where 'Night Terrors' might have fitted if it had been in my fantasy 'honeymoon season' of Doctor Who.

I agree with you that it was easy to watch, and I didn't miss the arc elements in terms of plot, only in terms of emotional follow-through.