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