“Night Terrors” – Doctor Who

There’s been a lot of talk about quality in Doctor Who over the past two years. Of intricacy of plots, of acting, of character, of not running down corridors, of not shouting your emotions (Torchwood, take note) and of not hand-waving your way out of deadly situations.

And in all this talk there are a few people who have been shoved aside. Perhaps it’s because their work is a little more crafty, or perhaps it’s because when they do their job you don’t think about them doing their job – you just tuck your feet in under the covers and pray for the monsters to go away. I speak, of course, of the magnificent people behind the design of the Doctor’s most recent nemeses.

The Angels started it. Terrifying psychologically but also physically just wildly unsettling. And then the Silence, the Flesh, and now… the Dolls? When pictures started surfacing, as they inevitably do, from the set of this coming series there was one resounding question buried among the plot conspiracies and River extrapolations: “What the fuck are they and holy fuck what the fuck are they?”

Pale? Check. Ginge? Check. Pond? Check.

Like some kind of creepy Leonardo DiCaprio, the big-of-face-small-of-features Dolls raised anticipation for ‘Night Terrors’ to startling levels by virtue of one grainy on-set image. So kudos to the designers on Who for yet again burrowing yourselves into the nightmares of children everywhere.

It’s a pity, then, that the episode that housed said Dolls was really a bit of a let-down. Writer Mark Gatiss was responsible for ‘Victory Of The Daleks’ last season, not something he should be epically proud of (featuring the new Apple-sponsored suite of colour-coded Daleks, and a strange reliance on that vaguest of story principles – “the power of love”), but more recently he penned the fantastic Sherlock episode ‘The Great Game’. It was an episode packed to the brim with inventive ideas, and the series’ best, but it seems that while focusing on that he seriously dropped the ball on his latest Who creation.

Though I enjoy old women being attacked as much as the next person.

The episode opened on a small child in a small flat in London, terrified of everything – a situation many Who kids can probably sympathize with. And it wasn’t a bad kick-off at all – the Doctor arrived to help, Amy and Rory found themselves trapped in a giant doll’s house, and after realizing this little boy was more than just a little boy his father finally accepted and showed love for him. The problem is… that was it.

If you read my previous review for ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ you’ll have seen how awkwardly I was tripping over myself to describe all the different machinations at play. In contrast this episode was hopelessly over-stretched, and in being so it brought out the worst in so many of its players: the Doctor talked a lot in metaphors while not doing anything, Amy and Rory ran and screamed and screamed and ran without being effective, and the problem resolved itself with a kiss and a hug and wink at the camera.

From the moment Amy picked up the wooden frying pan in the kitchen it was painfully clear they were in a doll’s house, and while it may not have occurred to her straight away in real life it was audience torture to make us spend thirty minutes watching her put the pieces together. And toys? While those Dolls were undoubtedly terrifying, there were so many more ideas to play with in an episode about a child’s toys coming to life. And there is no more unforgivable crime in the Who universe than not letting your imagination run wild – and Mark Gatiss was conservative and uninventive in spades.

Kubrick did it.

I wrote above about Sherlock, the modern day retelling of the Victorian detective that aired this year on BBC. It’s a fantastic series, and a fantastic opportunity for Stephen Moffatt to stretch his imagination in further directions, but it’s undoubtedly undermined his ability on Who. There’s already talk of Who taking a break next year before a big bang season in 2013, and while Moffatt continues to be responsible for the highest calibre episodes on Doctor Who he is failing in one regard – he is neither training up nor performing sufficient quality control on his team of writers.

Being a show-runner isn’t all about plot arcs and creating the keystone episodes of each season, it’s also about raising the overall quality of the team who work on the show.

That and the debunking the "sexy nurse" stereotype.

And while he can often rely on the talents of heavyweights like Richard Curtis and Neil Gaiman to carry the day, it’s not always the case – and when Moffatt is no longer with the show we need someone who can step up. At the moment, it doesn’t seem the case, and many notable mid-season dips like ‘Victory’, ‘The Curse Of The Black Spot’ and now ‘Night Terrors’ lie at the feet of these more regular Who staffers.

I’m not saying that the episode in and of itself was horrific, and in many ways it’s head and shoulders above some of the stuff from the Russell T Davies era – but Who is better now, and it needs to be on its A game week after week if it’s to truly be the great series that Stephen Moffatt wants it to be.

Note: love is an impetus, not an act. And not a plot point in its own right.

‘Night Terrors’ simply wasn’t there. All that said, though, that grainy on-set photo is still pinned to the inside of my brain, and if nothing else the episode was worth being made for that solitary image.

Free Radicals

– Wow. Those Dolls. *shudder*

– I enjoyed the child actor; he seemed suitably odd for the part and had a fantastic face about him.

– Director Richard Clark deserves a round of applause for much of the framing and texture of this episode, especially the block of flats and the slow teasing of the Dolls.

– I cannot watch Rory run away any more. It’s not him.

– Not much in the way of overall plot development. Odd in that the story dealt with helping a child so closely and baby Melody remains missing. So thematically a lost opportunity, but maybe due to the episode being reshuffled from the opening half of the season.

– Those were peg dolls, by the way. For anyone who is interested.

– A very entertaining sequence as our team quizzed various residents of the block, complete with sufficiently terrifying twin girls.

– Eagerly anticipating the next episode “The Girl Who Waited”, remaining blissfully spoiler-free as well.

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About alfla

Playwright, screenwriter, sometime improv enthusiast and full-time television lover. You know, in THAT way.
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4 Responses to “Night Terrors” – Doctor Who

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