Doctor Who, Ep. 6.09: “Night Terrors”

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Doctor Who Review, Series 6, Episode 9: “Night Terrors”
Written by Mark Gatiss
Directed by Richard Clark
Airs Saturdays at 9pm (ET) on BBC America

This week, on Doctor Who: The TARDIS crew answer a little boy’s terrified plea to save him from the monsters.

After last week’s continuity-filled “Let’s Kill Hitler”, this entirely stand-alone episode is a breath of fresh air. It’s not the best such outing in the show’s run, but it’s spooky and fun and sometimes that’s enough. “Night Terrors” followed the common Doctor Who structure of step 1: The TARDIS team checks out a mystery. Step 2: The Doctor knows the answer but can’t remember it. Step 3: Hijinks ensue until the end of the episode, when the Doctor remembers and everything is put right. (If memory serves, step 5 is profit.) This formula has become rather predictable, but while “Night Terrors” doesn’t approach the greatness of Who’s best standalones, it doesn’t fall into the same pitfalls as the lesser entries either. The actors give fine performances, the guest cast are believable, and the message is an important one for the younger Whovians out there to hear- in the end, even the Doctor can’t save you; you must summon the courage to face your monsters yourself.

Though Who seems to be having its cake and eating it too by attempting to juggle heavy serialization and monsters-of-the-week (Amy and Rory seem far too okay, considering their daughter is still missing), the Companions are a lot of fun here. Rory’s almost blasé assumption that they’ve died (again) demonstrates once more how far he’s come from “The Eleventh Hour” and Amy, who has always shown admirable cool in the face of mind-bending paradigm shifts to her reality, will clearly need a few minutes to adjust to having been a crazy wooden doll. They’re disappointingly slow on the uptake when it comes to their location, but other than this, they handle themselves rather well. They’re also shown as equal partners and it’s nice to see Rory not get the short end of the doll’s arm for once- he processes Amy’s situation far better and much less melodramatically than she has when their roles have been reversed. This is probably due to the desired tone of the episode more than anything else, but it’s a refreshing change to the Companion-in-peril dynamic we’ve gotten with this TARDIS team.

Atmosphere is dripping out of every pore of this episode. There is a strong sense of dread to the lighting, the camera angles, even the wallpaper. The score has been uneven this season, but here it adds a storybook quality, nicely supporting the action and mood. Also appreciated is the choice to not hammer in George’s reasons for putting each of the characters into the cupboard. Overhearing Rory’s throw-away line is enough to get Amy and him a spot, but this isn’t mentioned again- writer Mark Gatiss trusts the viewers to remember, or to not care. The episode takes its time. The camera lingers on doorknobs and shadows, upping the spookiness factor dramatically. Thankfully, very little time is spent with the dolls; enough to establish them as a threat, and to creep out anyone afraid of dolls, but not enough to render them tedious.

Unfortunately, certain elements of this episode feel very familiar and similar stories have been done to better effect. One that springs to mind is Supernatural’s take on the not-human kid unknowingly wreaking havoc and changing the world around him (“I Believe The Children Are Our Future”). The singsong melody heard here prompts unfavorable comparisons to the incredibly creepy song from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Hush”, and the spooky doll/dollhouse has been done many times. Even the emotional resolution is a pale, though still effective, retread of Who’s own “The Doctor Dances”.

“Night Terrors” is not the weakest of the season (that dubious honor still goes to “The Black Spot”, originally slotted as episode 9 before the two were swapped), but the production team currently running Doctor Who have proved themselves much better with arc-based storytelling than these one-and-dones. Many of the more timey-wimey arc-based entries (“The Time of Angels”/”Flesh and Stone”, “The Impossible Astronaut”/”Day of the Moon”) have bested those of the Russell T Davies era, particularly the second halfs of the two-parters, but in the past two years, only “The Doctor’s Wife” has approached the quality of the best standalones of the RTD era (“Midnight”, “Blink”, “The Girl in the Fireplace”). Hopefully Steven Moffat and crew will realize this and adjust- Moffat has written several of the best standalones since Who returned, it’s obvious that he is capable. It would be nice to see less of a reliance on River and season-long callbacks and more balance in the series week-to-week. “Night Terrors” is a fun and spooky episode, but it is ultimately a bit forgettable.

Where did you come down on “Night Terrors”? What do you think of arc-based storytelling vs. standalones? Post your thoughts below!

Kate Kulzick

Follow me on Twitter @theteleverse to see what else I’m watching and to let me know how completely wrong I am.

Looking for more “Night Terrors” talk? Check out episode 16 of the SoS Doctor Who podcast.

4 Comments
  1. James says

    Not a bad episode, not one of the better ones though. The start was pretty gripping and I loved how the Doctor found the kid and talked his way in.

    The elevator made no sense, nor did sending Rory and Amy away. The cabinet was cool but it still was not making me feel all that, but if the doll house had been the focus……a doll house in the cabinet was not the way to go. One or the other but not both.

    This episode felt like filler material, we are left with River on the loose and a lot of WTF is going on. Amy and Rory seemed to have forgotten what was going on from the last episode.

    Still they show had plenty of good moments and I did enjoy it. I just think they need to raise the bar a bit on the writing.

  2. TVDIVA says

    I thought this was a standalone filler episode. The previews were creepier than the actual show. I am a little peeved by the fact that Amy and Rory are not more depressed and upset about not having their baby even though they know she is a grown up River Song. Let’s see what happens in the remaining episodes and the finale which is titled The Wedding of River Song.

  3. Steveland says

    I liked the dad – seemed great in acting all confused and having concern for his son..It’s no blink but it’s a step in the right direction. Rory seems to be more ‘Take charge’.

    I also like at the start of the episode when he’s having tea in the TARDIS. That’s so english and just shows the normalcy of travelling around in the TARDIS.

  4. Alex Thompson says

    As you said, the direction and technical aspects here were superb. I loved the opening, where we saw only slivers of scenes through doors and windows. The directing was strong throughout, even though the story wasn’t so much.

    I also didn’t think the kid was a good actor. He never seemed to be doing the right thing to me…

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