5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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Duck! It’s the Mark Gatiss episode!
In our not particularly humble opinion, Mark Gatiss’s writing history with Doctor Who has been, to put it charitably, chequered. The Unquiet Dead. The Idiot’s Lantern. The Lazarus Experiment. Victory Of The Daleks. All have nice moments. All also have good ideas struggling to get out; however, they never come remotely close to making the most of them. With the exception of Victory, which really is a mess, none of them are egregiously terrible. They’re just not good enough.
Night Terrors is a Gatiss episode, all right. Oh, yes.
Normally, we don’t watch trailers, as we prefer to remain pristinely, virginally unspoiled to let all the surprises have their full impact. We did see the trailers for this, however, as we were too slumped in disbelief at the end of Let’s Kill Hitler to turn them off. And wow, it looked great. Spine-chilly as all get-out. And those dolls? Inspired. Creepy as.
Sadly, it’s not like that at all. It’s just a Gatiss.
It’s quite a nice start. Director Richard Clark makes a simple block of flats look like a Mondrian. And then - oh, Daniel Mays. Granted, he’s perfectly OK in this, but we’re still trying over to get the pretty dire Outcasts, in which he was the worst, most wooden character, so it’s a bit of a hill to climb.
His kid, George, is scared of stuff, and no wonder, because they put everything that freaks him out “in the cupboard”. Um, what? Everybody knows that while monsters make their permanent home under your bed, their weekend cottage is in the wardrobe. Why would you therefore make a kid’s wardrobe Fear Central? No wonder a child’s bedroom is the scariest place in the universe.
Then the Doctor gets smacked in the psychic paper by George’s SOS. Swiftly hurrying past the question of how that’s even possible (the word “somehow” belongs in a script’s first outline, not in actual filmed dialogue), off they go to find the mysterious frightened child.
OK, let’s put the handbrake on for a moment. This is one of the worst aspects of the episode, and it’s not Mark Gatiss’s fault even a teeny bit. Amy and Rory. Melody. Remember? It’s certainly weighing heavily on us, so you’d think it would be on their minds a bit as well. But it’s like none of that ever happened. Not only do Amy and Rory not register any particular identification with the idea of a child in distress here, they don’t at any point later, either. Not even when it turns out the kid is afraid of abandonment. In fact, Rory makes fun of Amy’s “We’ve gotta find that kid” with “Maybe we should let the monsters gobble him up”.
Wow. Hello? We believe we used the words “spectacularly mismanaged” to describe the way Steven Moffat handled this arc in the previous two episodes. Having seen the absolute lack of followup in this episode, we were being too kind. You do not fire the big guns unless you're prepared to handle the recoil. Yes, we know this episode was shifted here from its initial place earlier in the run. So what? It doesn’t mean you can’t change it to fit. Neil Gaiman had to in The Doctor’s Wife, and look how that turned out.
Anyway. There now follow some comedy-gold stylee scenes, although Mrs Rossiter and Purcell couldn’t be more obvious filler if they were tottering about encased in rolls of batting. (Poor Andrew Tiernan, cast as yet another bad guy in his lengthy villain-studded career. He just has that sort of face.) And just when you think the story’s never actually going to get started, Amy and Rory get a wonderfully scary lift plunge and then disappear. Brilliant.
The scenes that follow really don’t make a lot of sense. Why would the Doctor break the habit of lifetimes and try and ‘splain everything to George’s Dad? His normal modus operandi is to wade in and let people pick themselves up in his wake. But something saves these scenes, so much so that they’re actually fantastic to watch. You’ll never guess what it is. Not in a million billion years. Oh all right then, yes, it’s Matt Smith. Can we shackle him to the set until he signs a contract in perpetuity?
His delivery here is, as usual, amazing. A. Maze. Ing. Like we said, Daniel Mays is doing a perfectly competent job as a straight man here, but you could replace him with a Dalek and we wouldn’t even notice, because you simply can’t take your eyes off Matt. Gold medal, especially, for the making tea exchange and the dialogue about how the Doctor is, isn’t and is going to open the cupboard. And at the other end of the scale, we’re in awe at the way he sells the impossible-on-the-surface “monsters are real” speech. We can’t think of another actor who could do all that stuff about old eyes and civilisations of pure thought without making us cringe all the way into the next room.
Amy and Rory, meanwhile, are wandering around in the dark. Which is more than the audience is. That wooden pan painted to look like copper doesn’t leave a lot of room for doubt. We’re puzzled by the tone of these scenes. They’re not meant to be genuinely scary, are they? It seems to us that they’re going for funny-scary and fetching up instead at funny (we particularly guffawed at the eye in the drawer, especially when Amy reaches out to tap it). Maybe you need to be six to get the full effect (which is not even remotely a slam).
At this point, things are starting to seem very, very familiar. Fear Her and The Lodger are the obvious parallels, but as one of us pointed out, it’s quite like The Doctor’s Wife in structure too, as the Doctor talks to someone while Rory and Amy wander round corridors. (“Except that,” she added cuttingly, “was good”.)
And then, the dolls. We can see where Gatiss is going with this. Scary dolls are scary, especially those peg doll things, which can creep you out lying around blamelessly in real life, let alone human-sized and homicidal. But we were expecting this to be terrifying and it just isn’t. Why? We’re not sure. Maybe it’s the sinister childish laughter and nursery rhymes, which could give cackling villains a run for their money in the cliché department. Maybe it’s Amy waving a saucepan. Maybe it’s Rory and Amy dramatically trying to keep the dolls out of the room, only to turn around and let them in. It’s like it’s trying for Sapphire And Steel but for very small children.
The Doctor and Alex get swept into the dolls’ house as well, and the official confirmation comes: they’re doing miniaturisation for the second episode in a row. Oops. The Doctor’s redundant explanation is, however, redeemed not only by Matt Smith’s performance (natch) but by the line “Giant termites, trying to get on the property ladder”. Superb.
Ta-da! The action-packed denouement: stripped, however, of any scariness or tension by the Doctor’s accompanying infodump and a pair of comedy giant scissors. And the Doctor yelling, while miniature, at George and George hearing him. Dear oh dear: they even got the physics of this right in Planet Of The Giants, and that was more than forty years ago. Maybe Tenzas have particularly sensitive hearing. Yes, that must be what it is. And cut to heartwarming resolution.
It’s like we said: like most of Gatiss’s episodes, it’s not horrible. It’s packed with faults, yes; it’s too like other Doctor Who episodes; and it consistently fails to make the most of its own concepts. But it’s still mostly entertaining, thanks to well-written comedy and Matt Smith keeping the ship afloat. (We should also mention Arthur Darvill, who is an ace at comedic timing and whose performance in this is exemplary.) We just wish it had lived up to its potential.
MORAL: We have nothing to fear but pants themselves.
It doesn’t help, if you’re trying for terrifying, to take the piss out of your own episode by throwing in scary twins.
FROM HERE TO MATERNITY
We noticed less that Clare wasn’t pregnant in the photo than that she had a glass of booze in her hand. That was a dead giveaway.
JUST AS LONG AS YOU’RE NOT GAY, SON
Alex doesn’t seem too fazed by his son being an alien who can fling people and things around at will and mess with minds to boot, does he? Ah, the power of love.
After the “psychopath” debacle, there’s some more dodgy psychologising going on here. George is afraid of everything because he’s actually afraid of one specific thing? Our diagnosis: bollocks.