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“Doctor Who”: “Night Terrors” Review (SPOILERS)

Through the eyes of a child, anything can be terrifying. To some children, including me at ages 4-9, everything can be terrifying.  Simple sounds and shadows taken for granted in the daytime become objects of fear once the sun goes down.  Children’s fears are very powerful, but if the child in question is not from this planet, the fears can become a danger to everyone around them.  This is the central idea behind episode 9 of Doctor Who’s sixth series, “Night Terrors,” written by Mark Gatiss.

This episode is a return to the standalone episodes of Who for which everybody seems to be clamoring recently, and features the Doctor and company answering a little boy’s distress call to save him from “The Monsters.” The rumors going around warned that this was one of the scariest Doctor Who episodes ever. Well, I didn’t think it was scary, really, and certainly can’t hold a candle to something like “The Time of Angels,” but it did have creepy living doll people which are fairly nightmare-inducing in and of themselves.

The general storyline for the episode is strong, with the Doctor receiving a distress signal on the psychic paper and finding a little boy who’s afraid of everything and the boy’s father, who is also afraid of everything, but in a different way.  The boy, George, has been told to put everything that scares him into the large cupboard in his room and that cupboard now holds the manifestations of everything he fears come to life. So, basically, things that scare him get sent in the cupboard, and specifically into the creepy dollhouse inside the cupboard, probably because there were no nearby corn fields into which he could wish them.  So while the Doctor and George’s father, Alex, try to get to the bottom the boy’s fear, Amy, Rory, and a number of neighbors have to try not to get turned into creepy, giggling doll things. Seriously, if I was a kid and got dolls like that, I’d be terrified too.

The story is simple, but I feel like the episode missed some great opportunities to amp up the scariness.  While the dolls were creepy to look at, and the sight of someone turning into one is equally disturbing, they never seemed like much of a threat.  The scene with Rory and Amy running from them and then barricading themselves behind the door could have been much more intense, but I never really felt like they were having trouble keeping them at bay and the only reason Amy got turned is because she thought they should open the door and run past them (and because Rory was a bad husband and didn’t stop to make sure she was okay).  This, to me, is just bad scene blocking.  It may well have been a budget or time issue, which is not really anyone’s fault, but such a great creature design was sort of ruined because they weren’t particularly threatening. Director Richard Clark also directed “The Doctor’s Wife” this season, so we know he can do a lot with a little, making the scenes with Rory and Amy running through the corridors of the TARDIS quite frightening with literally nothing but camera angles.  It just felt like a waste to me.

The other real problem I had with the story, and it wasn’t much of one, granted, was the reveal that young George is an alien.  I know Doctor Who is a sci-fi show predicated on alien stuff, but does every single thing in the show have to be alien-related? I kept hoping that they’d discover that the cupboard itself was somehow causing the manifestation of fears, or that some other thing was controlling it, or what have you. But it just seemed to me, the realization that Alex and Claire couldn’t have kids so an alien who wants to be accepted found them and made them think he was their own child was a bit too complicated, convenient, and unnecessary.  It could have been the same story; the father’s fears had transferred to the adopted child, who then became afraid of everything and even more afraid of being sent away, etc., and then they manifest because of X alien thing.  Like I said, it’s not a huge gripe, it just didn’t need to be there. I also feel like finding out your son’s an alien who has trapped you and others in a world of his own subconscious fears is not something anybody would accept that quickly, but some “bad thing” creating it as part of your adopted son’s fears totally is. Any number of other explanations would have been fine, but an entire race of foster children? Come on now.

For my money, Matt Smith is at his best as the Doctor when he’s on Earth dealing with humans. He delivers a mix of rambling nonsense and alien technobabble the way Samuel L. Jackson delivers yelling and swear words. It’s like poetry.  The scene in this episode where the Doctor describes “pantophobia” to Alex is particularly enjoyable. Daniel Mays as Alex was also fantastic.  Mays is an actor I’d seen in a few things here and there but really got to know and like during his stint on Ashes to Ashes, where he played the British equivalent of an Internal Affairs man. He was really great on that show and played such a dark character that I kept expecting him to be somehow evil in “Night Terrors,” but I was pleased and impressed to see Mays just play a terrified father, a very sympathetic character.  The interplay between him and Smith made the episode work for me, hands down.

While they had less to do, besides the usual running around, I really liked Amy and Rory in this also.  This series they’ve really become a team, and a good comedy double-act.  The fact that there are two companions give a dynamic I really like. At any given time, two of them can be doing something, while the third is off with a guest actor (or just by themselves) doing something else.  It works with these characters, and it’s something I didn’t know I was missing during the latter RTD era.  Rory and Amy doing something, the Doctor doing something else: this is what works best.  Oh, and how funny was Rory’s line, “We’re dead aren’t we? Again!”? Man, that was great. Those two just keep dying.

At the end of the episode, the Doctor says “It’s good to have everybody back, in the flesh.” Now, this stood out to me for a few reasons. A) because we know what “The Flesh” is regarding earlier this series, 2) he had his back to the camera when he said it, meaning it may have been an added line not in the original script, and d) because if it wasn’t an “important” line, it’s just a dumb line.  In the original scheme of things, this episode was supposed to be transmitted third or fourth, in place of “Curse of the Black Spot,” meaning that line could have referred to the Doctor knowing that Amy was Flesh at the time. So either the line is completely meaningless, it’s a holdover from the original placement of the episode, or it means yet another person is a Flesh Ganger, which I really hope is not the case. If the Doctor dying ends up just being some kind of clone, I’m gonna be really angry at Moffat. He’s cleverer than that, and surely can come up with something we haven’t thought of to get the Doctor out of that situation.  At any rate, it’s just something to think about.

So, overall, “Night Terrors” was a pretty good, diversionary episode with good performances and some decent creepiness. The kid was weird, but I guess if he was an alien, that would more or less explain it.  Not a bad episode at all, and it does the concept of a kid projecting fears a whole lot smarter and more effectively than series 2’s “Fear Her.”  The big key for me with Doctor Who episodes is how likely am I to watch them multiple times once I have the DVDs. For instance, aside from an initial view or if I’m watching the whole season with someone, I skip “The Beast Below” and “Victory of the Daleks” when watching series 5. I’ve seen them both quite enough, thank you very much.  “Night Terrors,” on the other hand, is one I probably will watch multiple times. So far, there aren’t any series 6 episodes I actively dislike, which is pretty good. “Black Spot” is bad but harmless and the Ganger two-parter is poorly plotted but interesting.  “Night Terrors” is just a fun, watchable episode. And that’s not a bad place to be at all.

Next week’s episode looks super interesting — Tom MacRae’s return to Doctor Who for the first time since series 2’s “Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel,” in the form of “The Girl Who Waited”:

I am very excited. Yay, Doctor Who!

-Kanderson IS afraid of pants… Follow him on TWITTER

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  1. Patrick says:

    Hitler getting locked in the cupboard has a lot more meaning if this episode aired before “Let’s Kill Hitler.”

  2. Elbueno says:

    I haven’t been this bored during an episode since that episode with the giant wasp.

    Poorly done. Felt like a ripoff of a Moffat classic.

  3. Thomas says:

    Am I the only person in the world who enjoyed the reveal that the kid was really an alien? It was a but trite, yeah, but it probably had the episode’s best camerawork and scripting, and the moment where the dad remembers his wife can’t have kids seemed very genuine to me.

  4. Rogue says:

    I agree with a few others above. To me it seemed like a complete rip off of Fear Her (and not the first time for a Series 6 episode…). Granted, I wasn’t a fan of that episode either, but at least it was able to scoot you a little to the edge of your seat. This one I just kept waiting thinking “wait, this is it?” and it also just made me irritated.

    Through having two travelers aboard the TARDIS with the Doctor, I feel SO many plots end up in “okay, you two go run around and get into trouble that I’ll fix anyways” and the Doctor goes prancing about. Seriously, not once does he think for even a second Rory and Amy may be in any sort of danger.

    *shrugs* Here’s to hoping that next week will be more satisfying.

  5. AmandaM says:

    Agree with Kyle re: “Fear Her” – this has been done before, right down to the scary stuff in the closet and you must face it down in order to save everyone. I was bored, and keep waiting for “Pandorica” and “Time of Angels”-quality writing and Matt Smith acting. Other than “The Doctor’s Wife”, and “A Good Man Goes to War”, I am underwhelmed with the writing this series. series 5 was so high-quality that this insane story arc is really getting to me. There’s just too damn much to remember each episode, and then you get an episode like this one where nothing really happens to reward you.

    Also, if I hear Matt Smith saying, “THIS week’s episode is brilliant, my favourite ever!” one more time, I’m going to lose it.

  6. Kevin says:

    It was ok. The stuff between the Doctor and the dad was good.

  7. Scott S says:

    I was hoping for more from a Mark Gatiss episode. It did have a sort of Classic Who feel, and maybe if it were an hour and a half like the old ones it would have developed differently, but psychic children just needing to be wanted wasn’t really the way I’d hoped it would go.

  8. Toby says:

    I thought it opened well… It was very well shot, possibly one of the best looking episodes in all of new who. But I can’t help but be somewhat disappointed… What opened as a potentially brilliant, creepy episode descended into cheesiness, predictability and cliché.
    There was also a slight lack of explanation about the kid/aliens race – it was briefly mentioned, but not deeply explained… just a little bit more background and explanation would have been welcome.

    The constantly repeated “please save me from the monsters” bit could have been done way better aswell IMO… it got somewhat annoying and tiresome.

  9. Jodie says:

    I didn’t love this episode. It was very watchable and I liked it up until the point where they revealed that the boy was an alien–the whole fact that he changed their memories and just arrived was bland and unnecessary. I felt like the alien poltergeist idea could have been more creative.

    Daniel Mays was fantastic, as he is in the many other things I’ve seen him in. What I did love was his scenes with Matt Smith–the two of them brought a depth to the episode that wasn’t really in the script.

    Regarding the death of the Doctor: Moffat was quoted in an interview that yes, it really was the Doctor who was killed by the lake. I know it’s possible it was an avatar or some other incarnation of the Doctor, so I’m excited to see where that story goes.

  10. Rekabmot says:

    I thought this was a fun episode. I don’t think it will be a favorite but I didn’t have any problems with it. Really liked the “We’re dead, again.” Line and the entire sequence of Rory trying to figure out what was going on and how it was the Doctor’s fault. I really liked the ending where the father expressed his love for his son. I thought that came off really nicely. And then the follow up scene of asking the Doctor if the child would sprout and extra head.

  11. Suzanne says:

    I thought it was a good episode. I liked Daniel Mays as the dad. He did a good job, and the chemistry between his character and the Doctor was good. And I agree with Kyle that Rory had the best line about dying AGAIN. I was laughing so hard!

  12. Robin Burks says:

    I agree with Kyle. This was a good strong episode. I felt it was nice to get away from the huge plot that keeps getting thrown at us (and I could have even done without that bit at the end to remind us of the plot).

    Also, we get another Amy-centric episode next week. Oh, yaye! Because you know, the show isn’t about the Doctor at all. I hear they’re changing the name of it to Amy Who. Yes, I’m a bit ticked off about all the attention she gets. I want more Doctor. I think Matt Smith could be a great Doctor, but that character is seriously holding us back from seeing what he’s capable of.

  13. Tyler P. says:

    I agree with Joe. This was probably the worst episode since Smith took over. Wasn’t this basically The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances all over again?

    Also, creepy children has become excruciatingly old.

  14. Chad H says:

    I really enjoyed this episode so good call on the review. I watched it a few times.

  15. Horacio says:

    I liked this episode, even thought it was the scary at all. I do completely agree that this episode seemed out of order.

  16. Jeremy says:

    Have to agree with Joe – I’m still upset that I wasted time on this episode. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, and they telegraphed every plot twist. I was never afraid, just bored. I can’t believe anyone would watch this twice.

  17. Miguel says:

    I loved this episode, and I felt a great “Old Who” vibe about it. It’s in an urban environment,on earth, and deals with simple things like “Monsters in the Closet”, which in my view manages to be quite simple and at the same time effective, reinforcing the Fairytale theme Moffat mentioned before season 5. Mark Gatiss knows his Horror really well and was able to write a really “scary” episode for the core demographic of the show and adding some creepiness for the rest of us.

    I have to give my regards to The Mill, their work on the show is getting better and better. I’m still awestruck with the transforming robot on “Let’s Kill Hitler”.

  18. Jet says:

    So if that’s a Future Doctor, an older Doctor was killed, mystery solved? They could throw out any logic like that and I’d buy it.

    I definitely like the episodes where the Doctor is confusing humans. But it isnt a memorable episode at all.

  19. NicoleMarie says:

    I think we all sometimes forget Moffat’s penchant for fishing, and his favorite catch is red herring.

  20. joe says:

    I hate to sound like a troll, but that review was VERY generous. IMO, easily the weakest ep since Matt Smith took over. It’s 3 days later and I’m still pissy about it. Should have been squashed at the script stage.

  21. jmkilb says:

    good question because this could go either one of two ways. he’s either just rounding up because at some point we’ve all said “well it seems like a thousand years ago” or how our parents joke that they lived in time of dinosaurs OR he just dropped a REALLY big hint that he’s not the same Doctor we’ve been travelling with this season

  22. Shogun says:

    Technically Future Doctor died at the beginning of the season, right? This current doctor is from a different time.

  23. Christy says:

    So, I have a question about something in the episode and whether it’s important or just one of those things. At one point when the Doctor is talking to George about when he was a kid he says something like “Back when I was a kid, ohh a thousand years ago…” I’m wondering if he was just rounding up or if somehow he’s the future doctor.

  24. jmkilb says:

    To be quite honest when Amy was turned into a doll it was nice to see that it wasn’t Rory. All too often especially since he jumped aboard the TARDIS he’s the red shirt of the three so it was nice to see Amy get in trouble. Now I know she went through that harrowing ordeal with being a flesh and trappped at Demon’s Run but that’s hardly anything compared to what Rory has gone through. My girlfriend did point out that when the little boy kept saying “please save me from the monsters” that it reminded her of “Are you my mommy?” Even the transformations were very reminiscent of when they were turned into the gas mask beings right down to sound effects. Overall decent episode of Who I know this is just a filler episode that gets us one step closer to final battle or whatever w/the Doctor dying in Utah. Which by the way very creepy w/the kids singing over the dialogue, which I thought they were going to acknowledge but just fading over the screen with the info the Doctor acquired about his death, very nice. Also, you may have pointed this out and if so please forgive me. But did anyone notice that the lake they are at in the beginning is actually called “Lake Silencio?” missed that the first time but that could be a huge clue as to the Silence coming back. Only time will tell.