The second episode of the post-summer-break Doctor Who is a marked improvement on its predecessor, presenting a smart, character-oriented slice of mystery horror, based around some interesting ideas and well acted by its cast.
It also marks something of a break from the universe-spanning, exotic locations of the latest season of Who, instead setting its action in the claustrophobic, urban environment of a block of flats that feels more like the setting for a 1970s kitchen sink drama than for a family science-fiction show.
All of these elements are used to the benefit of Mark Gatiss’s story, which revolves around a child–George–with apparent pantophobia (not a fear of pants, as the Doctor amusingly informs us–although logically, he adds, it would include pants), who deals with his fears in a decidedly inhuman manner.
Whilst most of the central ideas of the episode will be familiar to sci-fi or comics fans (for me, it felt like a cross between Joe The Barbarian and that Twilight Zone episode about the child and the cornfield), the deft execution of the story makes this matter little.
The mystery is well-paced, never giving too much away but never leaving its audience confused for too long either, and providing enough clues that canny viewers will work out where the story is going ahead of time. The horror elements are powerful but never overly scary, relying instead on gradually-building tension and disturbing giant doll designs (for which all credit to the show’s costume department) to create an atmosphere of unease, and cannily tying the scariest parts of the episode to everyday items with which every child will be familiar. And there are one or two moments of drama that will resonate particularly strongly with adults, especially when it comes to George’s parentage.
All of this is punctuated by some lighter moments, such as the Doctor demonstrating his essential Britishness by stopping in the middle of the action for a pot of tea and some Jammie Dodgers, or the absurdity of Amy and Rory finding themselves trapped in a cupboard (but then, perhaps that’s just poetic justice for what Rory did to Hitler last week).
By the time the episode reaches its final act, the unnerving dolls are complemented by a series of outlandish props (such as a giant pair of scissors)–which the episode sadly has to temper in order to maintain the bareness and blandness of the characters’ surroundings (for good, logical story purposes, mind you). If I have any complaint with the story, it’s that I think it would have been fun to see the episode veer into more surreal and outlandish territory with regard to some of the other things that George fears (like that giant glass eye). But then again, maybe the production team was trying to keep the costs down for this episode.
If the episode was made on a tight budget, it doesn’t show. Director Richard Clark manages to find real urban beauty in some unexpected places, such as the strict grid pattern of the block of flats, recurring shots of which serve to underscore the claustrophobic qualities of the story. And the episode is beautifully lit, with the sick fluorescent orange tinge that accompanies exterior scenes–such as an old lady being eaten by a pile of binbags (well, I laughed)–playing off nicely against the cooler blues of the interior scenes.
Admittedly, the story isn’t perfect. In the context of the rest of the season, it feels a little out of place, with Amy and Rory apparently forgetting about the lingering question of recovering their baby daughter (although this is perhaps a result of this episode being swapped in the running order with the pirate-themed third episode of the season). However, since I’m losing interest a little in the series’ overall story arc–especially after last episode–this didn’t bother me too much. There’s also an “in the flesh” pun/hint that doesn’t really work anymore, given this episode’s new place in the season, but it’s not so heavily emphasised as to be distracting.
But where the episode really succeeds is in providing a powerful emotional climax that doesn’t rely on compromised story logic or schmaltzy sentimentality to provide its punch (although admittedly, it possibly tugged more heavily on my heartstrings because I have a young child of my own).
Curing fear with love might sound like a trite and mawkish way to conclude a dark psychological horror story like this one, but Gatiss makes it work as a satisfying denouement on both an emotional and intellectual level, ensuring that the emotional content is closely tied to the resolution of the plot. It also helps that the young actor who plays George–Jamie Oram–is capable of pulling off the combination of detachedness, fear and innocent humanity that his character requires. He’s obviously already quite a capable actor, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more of him in TV and film in future.
“Night Terrors” stands as a great example of what a single standalone episode of Doctor Who can accomplish, creating characters we care about and treating thought-provoking ideas elegantly and logically, whilst also giving us a few scary moments to perturb us long after the credits have rolled. It’s the polar opposite of the flashy but ultimately hollow approach we saw in the previous episode–which made me worry that showrunner Steven Moffat may be putting too much stock in ambitious multi-season story arcs and recurring guest stars to carry the series–and it’s no surprise that people are already talking about Gatiss as a potential successor to Moffat if he can come up with stories as good as this one.