Written by Mark Gatiss
Directed by Richard Clark
The Doctor attempts to sort out the nightmares of a young child.
Supposedly the selling pitch for this story was the premise “What is the scariest place in the universe? A child’s bedroom.” But in reality, I wonder if the premise could be re-worked in to “What is the scariest place in the universe? Sitting on the couch and watching a rehash of Fear Her.”
After watching this episode, my wife and I immediately began talking about Curse of the Black Spot because, as we agreed, both Curse and Night Terrors are perfectly decent stories. Not amazing, decent. And while I think Curse had a few plot holes and some real inattention continuity details, it seemed to be a more compelling story. Night Terrors may have been a tighter plot, but it never really grabbed me. It never really compelled me to be interested in the mystery or to care about the characters. I tried, but as I started guessing the plot (and more on that in a minute) I found that the only truly compelling aspect of the episode was Richard Clark’s direction. He had quite a few great shots and really sold the suspense and made the dollhouse look good. Whether he directed the actors well, that is another question. In truth, I felt that none of the performances in this episode rose above that of caricature, and that applies to both secondary and primary characters. Sure, Matt, Karen, and Arthur do their best with their lines, but they seem to lack any sort of depth in this episode. Amy and Rory are relegated to nothing more than victims, and while they have played this part in the past, we would still get character moments despite their situation. I’m thinking most-strongly of The Doctor’s Wife, in which Amy and Rory are victimized by House, but the tortures reigned upon them are specifically designed to play on their insecurities. Here, they are chased by dolls for half an hour until The Doctor shows up and convinces the child to save the day.
My wife says this episode is a revisiting of ideas in Fear Her and Girl in the Fireplace. The Fear Her comparison is quite apt because we once more have a child who is haunted by something frightening, who actually controls and makes manifest the fears. The danger can only be overcome by the empowerment of the child and the re-uniting of the child and emotionally detached parent. The primary difference between the two stories would be that Gatiss switched the genders. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this was intentional. But the similarities exist. It makes me wonder if New Who is spinning its wheels a bit. In addition to revisiting Fear Hear, Night Terrors also seems to tick the boxes of Moffat-era stories. A child plays a prominent role. The child seems to know more about the situation than anyone else. The child must save the day to some degree. Creepy looking monsters. Sneaking through dark corridors rather than running through them. At least we didn’t revisit the “timey-wimey” concept this time around. It makes me a little sad that the show doesn’t really seem to be reaching much at the moment. Almost self-consciously, this episode references that the TARDIS can go anywhere in time and space, but instead they visit a child on what is presumably present-day Earth. And in a few episodes we revisit Craig from The Lodger. We seem to be regressing here. Although, present day Earth is probably cheaper to realize.
More on guessing the plot. Part of this is due to the parallels to Fear Her. Part of this is also due to Gatiss as a mystery writer. Some of my favorite scripts by Mark Gatiss have been for Marple or his script for Sherlock last year. However, I have found his Doctor Who scripts (with the exception of The Unquiet Dead) to be varying degrees of “meh”. More accurately, they seem to be descending degrees of “meh”. I would go so far as to say that I think Gatiss is a better mystery writer (or at the very least, dramatizer) than Doctor Who writer. Perhaps it would be fun to see him write something more “whodunnit” than “a mystery with an alien” as Night Terrors seems to be. At times, this episode was mystery, at times horror, but almost never adventure and Doctor Who needs the latter in great abundance.