Night Terrors ★★
A housing-estate lad suffers nightmarish visions of peg-dolls, but Mark Gatiss’s tale doesn’t add up
Series 6 – Episode 9
“Please save me from the monsters” – George
First UK transmission
Saturday 3 September 2011
The Doctor responds to a message from eight-year-old George who is terrified at night by monsters. Investigating his housing estate, Amy and Rory are trapped in a doll’s-house-like domain menaced by life-sized peg dolls. The Doctor befriends George and his father, Alex, and deduces that the little boy is not all that he seems… He’s a Tenza, an alien using a perception filter to create the child that his parents longed for – and a nightmarish world now that the boy fears rejection.
September to October 2010 at St Winefride’s Hospital; Canton, Cardiff; Dyrham Park, Gloucestershire; Waring House, Bristol; Dragon Studios, Pencoed; Upper Boat Studios. April 2011 at Upper Boat Studios.
The Doctor – Matt Smith
Amy Pond – Karen Gillan
Rory Williams – Arthur Darvill
Alex – Daniel Mays
George – Jamie Oram
Claire – Emma Cunniffe
Purcell – Andy Tiernan
Mrs Rossiter – Leila Hoffman
Julie – Sophie Cosson
Writer – Mark Gatiss
Director – Richard Clark
Producer – Sanne Wohlenberg
Designer – Michael Pickwoad
Music – Murray Gold
Executive producers – Steven Moffat, Piers Wenger, Beth Willis
RT review by Patrick Mulkern
I’m going to stick my head above the playpen, release my inner eight-year-old and scream, “Enough kids already!” 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 pay-offs. In series five, there was drill engineer and son in the Silurian two-parter. At Christmas, Michael Gambon and self-as-boy felt pretty similar. Already in series six we’ve had Hugh Bonneville and boy; acid refinery Flesh-man and his lad; and now this 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 four or five 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.
Gatiss is an out-and-proud horror-meister 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.
Night Terrors is superior to that, but it feels as though Gatiss has braved digging up the skeleton of Fear Her and tried to graft some flesh onto it.