Doctor Who series 6 episode 9 review: Night Terrors

There are creepy dolls in the cupboard, and a tonne of great ideas in this Who episode written by Mark Gatiss. Here’s John’s spoiler-filled review of Night Terrors…

Warning: this review contains spoilers.

6.9 Night Terrors

I’ve received a little bit of stick in the comments for my spoiler-free take on Night Terrors, for focusing on my perception that this episode was shaped by budgets, and noting that “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’.”

I hope that, now the episode is out there for all to see, you see what I mean. Mark Gatiss does – both physically and metaphorically – bring Doctor Who back to Earth, back to Britain, and back to the urban environments we were more used to seeing back in Rose’s time. It’s not a bad thing; we’ve been around the Universe with Mr Moffat a few times already, and it’s just worthy of note how much the story telling of Who is shaped by the money and effects that producers see fit to lavish on any given episode.

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Richard Clark, the director of Night Terrors, recently helmed the excellent Neil Gaiman episode The Doctor’s Wife, a story which the writer himself – in an interview with this site – noted had to be pushed back a series and then rewritten because of issues with budget. One would suspect that we were denied a good look at House in that episode in favour of the all the CGI used during its finale; anyway, I digress.

The point is that Who, more than many other show on the TV, is currently shaped by the money thrown at it. The problem is two-fold: it has no set location or ‘procedure’ (cop shows are easy compared to this – office, a lab, car interiors and some location work, and boom, you’re done), and it has set a high bar for itself. Consequently, any drop in spending is hard to disguise on screen.

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 (what I would characterise as) 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.

That, for me, was indicative of what can go wrong when you try to bring Who down to a smaller scale, which is why I mention it; the slapstick tendencies of Smith’s Doctor are far better showcased here, juxtaposed against the dark tale (“it’s off the scale” was great, wasn’t it? As was the tea scene) than they are in lighter-hearted fare, such as that episode offered. More importantly, this episode sees no need to compensate for its smaller scale with novelty.

I have issues with James Corden that go well beyond his role in Doctor Who, but I will go to my grave insisting he should never have been allowed within a million miles of it (or back to it, either; episode twelve, I’m looking at you). Again, I digress.

This episode, 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.

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What impressed me about Night Terrors – and I really did enjoy this episode – is that what it achieves is largely done with its strong ideas. The concept of an alien ‘cuckoo’ child (the Tensa, Tensor, Tenser? You tell me) with psychic powers strong enough to communicate with the Doctor across galaxies, doesn’t feel completely original, but it didn’t need to be because it’s used well, not least as a way of allowing the viewer an insight into the unusual and warped way that children can perceive the world.

The parent’s solution of ‘putting everything in the cupboard’ is a psychological crutch that quickly becomes as much of a problem as the things it was solving, and reminds us of the way that George, like other children, can easily pick up on the attitudes and words of the adults around them like sponges.

In these times, where talk of societal breakdown is seldom out of the news, these are all strong themes; not only do they offer a view on how we turn innocent children into anti-social and dangerous young adults, the way that the episode is filmed and conceived also taps into the isolation and desperation of the environments in which children are often placed and their effects on them. Clark, along with his director of photography, Owen McPolin, make good use of these backdrops, moving through these dark, stark spaces of a high-rise block into even more claustrophobic interiors.

It’s interesting, though – when one considers the larger story arc that is being played out across the second half of this series – that the real thematic drive here, the one that underpins all of the actions in Night Terrors’ finale, is to do with the often-dysfunctional relationship between parents and their children – contrasted to the strong bonds that exist between them simultaneously.

An alien creature abandoned by its parents to fend for itself attaches itself to a human family, which it then terrorises under the false impression that it is going to be abandoned… And at the point where the parent is most scared, and most inclined to reject this ‘offspring’ is the moment when they most need to respond as a parent should, with love and loyalty.

Daniel Mays gets the really important line here, I feel: “whatever you are, whatever you do, you are my son…” I get the distinct impression that sentiment may have resonance later in the series, when whatever comes to pass between Amy’s offspring and the Doctor to cause his ‘demise’ plays out.

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I’d say that the necessity of the show’s budget, is the mother of much of the invention here. What Who achieves with grand views of the universe and all the whistles and bells that go with it is laudable, but what it achieves here with a few well placed lights, nice production design and the imagination of its crew is equally impressive – if not more so. The costume design for the dolls-inside-the-house-inside-the-cupboard chimes perfectly with the show, and the gothic twist of the tale.

Save for a decent transformation scene when the odious Purcell (Andrew Tiernen) is caught by the dolls, and another not-particularly-great effect where he is absorbed into the carpet under the snuffling nose of his dog Bernard, there’s very little in the way of CGI here. This is good, old fashioned drama. A couple of rooms, and a ripping yarn… I hope other fans of Sapphire And Steel would appreciate this as much as I did; it really is a nod to all of those classic horror/sci-fi blends from a man who really knows his genre TV.

Like those older shows, the directorial pace is markedly slower here than we’ve seen for many episodes of Who. The usual intense, concentrated TV experiences which the show serves up are replaced by this story’s slow burning drive – typified by a narrative and direction that allows its ideas to breathe.

A synopsis of this episode would, I suspect, be much shorter than some, so rather than trying to make sense of what’s flashing before our eyes at breakneck pace, here 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.

What Night Terrors delivers 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, or in the sheer tension it creates, but it possesses creepiness in word and deed that certainly elevates it above many episodes – certainly Fear Her (in many ways its spiritual cousin) and The Lodger.

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. It’s far from ‘cheap and cheerful’, though, this is good stuff. Maybe ‘cheaper and creepy’ is a better description – and that’s something Doctor Who has consistently done well throughout its history.

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A couple of strong wind machines and some backlighting can work wonders, it seems – and when all the CGI in the Whoniverse  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.”

We had a whale of a time. Or should that be ‘wail’?

P.S.I’m choosing to frame this as a P.S., because that’s exactly what the show does…

“Tick tock goes the clockHe cradled and he rocked her,Tick tock goes the clockEven for the Doctor…”

(Note: children’s songs are creepy. Fact.)

The last two minutes of the show, as has become the way of standalone episodes, once again reminded us of a larger scale of events within which this story sits, by showing us the Doctor looking at the date of his own death (obtained from the Tesselecta during the last episode), displayed on the screen in the Tardis.

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If, after last season’s brilliant reveal of Amy’s bedroom wall at the end of the series, you still think events and ideas introduced in this episode are totally unrelated to what’s going on in the bigger picture, I’d be surprised if you’re right.

With that in mind, has anyone else noticed that – after spending the entirety of last season watching Rory die over and over again – this season’s been pretty unlucky for Amy? This week she was transformed into a doll, we’ve seen ‘her’ reduced to goo, as well as the small matter of being trapped in a white tube and having her baby stolen.

Also, she appears to be the subject of next week’s episode – which, based on my interpretation of the trailer, appears to involve a parallel version of herself from another timeline (alluded to by the mention of multiple universes during the end of episode banter too, perhaps).

Considering that the key part of dialogue in that clip was “You didn’t save me”, it doesn’t look good. Just saying. 

Read our review of episode 8, Let’s Kill Hitler, here.

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