Doctor Who: Night Terrors

"Writer Mark Gatiss boldly sets out to give younger viewers the scares they crave..." (spoiler alert)

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OK, I’m going to stick my head above the playpen, release my inner eight-year-old and scream, “Enough kids already!”

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When I was a child, about the last thing I wanted to see in Doctor Who was my own kind. Child actors were diabolically wooden in 1970s TV drama and, yes, they do seem preternaturally competent these days, but must they feature in almost every Doctor Who story?

And I’ve had a bellyful of these mawkish dad ’n’ lad finales. Last year, there was drill engineer and son in the Silurian two-parter. At Christmas, Michael Gambon and self-as-boy felt pretty similar. This year, we’ve had Hugh Bonneville and boy, acid refinery Flesh-man and his lad, and this week’s tower block twosome, Alex and George.

You can’t fault Daniel Mays and newcomer Jamie Oram, whose performances are outstanding, but the episode’s resolution – “I love you, son, even though you’re weird” (I’m paraphrasing) – makes me want to heave. Is Steven Moffat, father of two boys, insisting on such dynamics week in, week out?

That said, the idea of the scared little George (“Please save me from the monsters”) is quite touching. I get it completely. I remember being six or seven and having night terrors, dreading a looming wardrobe, seeing disturbing patterns in a curtain, having to go to bed with the light on… Maybe if I were a child watching this now I’d be freaked by the imagery; if I were a parent I might be writing to the BBC to tick them off for traumatising my offspring.

Writer Mark Gatiss boldly sets out to give younger viewers the scares they crave. His peg dolls with piggy eyes, straggly hair and spindly limbs are undeniably eerie. And Richard Clark’s direction is exemplary. He chooses unusual angles, he frames many shots through doorways, and finds shadows and patterns, notably in the tower block façade.

I’m always impressed by Gatiss’s work. He’s an out-and-proud horrormeister steeped in Victoriana, but did no one stop to question why a boy in a 21st-century tower block would possess a doll’s house or know anything about peg dolls? It’s so last century – centuries old, even. Being sucked into a doll’s house and urged to play games that will transform you into a doll, too, is a nightmarish concept, but it was used before in the William Hartnell classic, The Celestial Toymaker (1966).

And surely I’m not alone in sensing the whiff of a more recent episode. A housing estate. A nosy old lady. A child with special powers isolated in their own bedroom, terrified by something nasty in a wardrobe. A seemingly innocuous entity that creates a domain to ensnare intruders… It’s Fear Her, that execrable episode from David Tennant’s first series.

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Night Terrors is far superior to that, but it does feel as though Gatiss has braved digging up the skeleton of Fear Her and tried to graft some flesh onto it.