And so, for every Doctor Who that chooses to show us the deep reaches of the universe, intergalactic space stations, Hitler in the stationery cupboard or whisk us away to exotic (for the BBC, at least) locations, it stands to reason that, if the budgetary elastic is not to snap, the show must occasionally return ‘home’.
Mark Gatiss’ Night Terrors physically and metaphorically brings Doctor Who back to Earth, back to Britain, and back to the stark urban environments we were used to seeing back in Rose’s time.
When, before the titles credits have even rolled, the Doctor virtually winks at the audience and quips that he hasn’t made a “house call” in a while, he’s not wrong. It’s a little over a year since the last budget-saving episode (The Lodger) was broadcast – restricted, as that was, to a few rooms of a flat and some not-so-hilarious kickabouts down the park.
This, let me say, is much, much better; it’s steered away from such misguided folly by its lack of a novelty comedy knockabout guest star (Daniel Mays, of Outcasts and Ashes To Ashes, is a suitably incredulous foil to the Matt Smith’s histrionics here, but keeps his performance rooted and suitably understated), and its writer’s keen eye for the horror in the dark corners of everyday life.
It really is Gatiss that shines here, to be honest. It’s an episode of ideas; the dialogue is of the deliberate, portentous variety rather than the pithy wit and off-hand comedy that punctuates the work of Steven Moffat. There’s also less of it, too, replaced by slow, creeping cinematography, cracks in doors, stark framing, slivers of light, shadows and wooden cooking pots.
The thematic content, in these times where talk of societal breakdown is seldom out of the news, is strong too – tapping into the isolation and desperation of the environments in which it is filmed, the menace which tower blocks can imply and the idea of people being lost with nobody to look for them. None of these is the big theme, but they are cleverly stirred into the pot in a way that adds an interesting flavour to this episode’s modern-gothic take on series two’s Fear Her.
More Poltergeist than E.T. (if the Spielberg analogy helps at all), at Night Terrors’ fast-beating heart is Mark Gatiss’ skill and understanding of how to place fantasy/horror in a typically British domestic setting. It implies that much of the horror in the world happens behind such front doors, in normal estates – and is inflicted by people with a warped understanding of the world – without every battering you over the head with a thematic hammer. It says much about how children need to be listened to, and how a strong familial bond can overcome environment and turns of fate, but – again – never beats you with it.
What we get is a decent forty minutes of kids-behind-the-sofa Whovian horror. It never reaches the dizzying heights of Blink in its attempts to fuse monsters into mundane urban settings, but it possesses a creepiness in word and deed that certainly elevates it above the two other episodes I’ve mentioned here.
The directorial pace is markedly slower than we’ve seen for many episodes of Who, but those intense, concentrated TV experiences are replaced by this story’s slow burning drive – typified by a narrative and direction that allows its ideas to breathe. Rather than trying to make sense of what’s flashing before our eyes at breakneck pace, we are allowed to ruminate on what’s unsaid, hinted at, implied, and created by our own imagination.
It’s nice to be able to do that for a change.
Like bubble and squeak, this episode makes a fantastic meal out of what’s left over. And we all know that bubble and squeak can often be even better than the feast you enjoyed the day before.
When all the CGI has faded away, the far-flung corners of the universe visited and all manner of monsters vanquished, we’re left with a kind old Doctor, a boy, his dad and the “the scariest place in the Universe.”
And we had a whale of a time.
Our spoiler-filled review of Night Terrors will air on Saturday, after episode’s closing credits.