Night Terrors features the only monster I have actually seen scare somebody in real life. When we were at the 50th anniversary convention in London there were some people wearing the peg doll costumes. One of them started moving towards my wife and she was genuinely freaked out! It wasn’t just the sight of them, but the way they move as well: that slightly jerky movement with the arms hanging down. Those dolls are seriously creepy. And ultimately the episode doesn’t really try to do much more than that: be scary. Coming after a run of episodes that were impressive but not particularly frightening, that’s actually a refreshing change.
Every so often I look at a few other reviews in preparation for writing mine, to see the prevailing opinions about an episode. I really shouldn’t because people love to criticise and I often find a heap of negative comments based on misunderstandings, and Night Terrors is a prime example of that. As Phil Sandifer points out on his magnificent Eruditorum blog, it does have a genuine problem of a mis-handled and inappropriate setting, which I will get to, but first lets look at where this fits within Steven Moffat’s very individual and specific approach to Doctor Who, which was obviously being passed onto his writers (in this case Mark Gatiss).
Broadly speaking, the Moffat era plays with the idea of Doctor Who as children’s fantasy fiction, which allows for episodes to come pre-loaded with magical and mythical undertones because they tap into tropes from our childhoods. It makes Doctor Who seem big, while often being contained within the small-scale. Here the wardrobe into Narnia (and we are building towards an overt homage to that very soon with regular covert ones) is subverted. It is still the doorway to another world, but this time there is a horror movie on the other side of the door.
But the horror movie on the other side of the wardrobe door is not just any horror movie. It is the exact type of horror movie that borrows from childhood fears, with a creepy dolls house, and creepy dolls. If you are going to show us a childhood fictionalised version of Doctor Who with a doorway into a horror film, then what a natural choice that is.
As is often the case with the Moffat era, this kind of approach provides a story telling shortcut. We have an ingrained understanding of the kind of story this is, so we don’t have to worry too much about the mechanics of it all. So when the psychic paper picks up the frightened plea of a child and the Doctor arrives “as if by magic” to save the day, we understand this as a perfectly natural narrative technique within the story. If your brain is getting in a knot trying to work out the science that is working at this moment and you use that to condemn the episode, then I can guarantee you that the other 99.9% of the viewers are not on the same page as you. Because their page is from a book that says The Doctor, the Peg Dolls and the Wardrobe, not a science text-book. So I have to disagree with many of the criticisms, because Night Terrors is a scary, magical, brilliant episode of Doctor Who, but…
We do need to come back to that problem of the setting. When the Doctor was a northern bloke and his companion was a working class young woman from an inner-city estate, this kind of setting worked perfectly. It was ok for them to stroll in, fix a specific problem, and stroll off again, and actually it opened Doctor Who up to be something that a whole new audience could identify with. It no longer felt like it was being written just for people who lived in the kind of villages we see in The Daemons, or The Android Invasion. The Moffat era moved away from that and struck out into the realms of childhood imagination rather than childhood real life, which is fair enough but I think possibly started the series on the path to the more marginalised demographic that it has been attracting recently.
This is one of the rare occasions where some balance is attempted, by setting a story in a block of flats, complete with a menacing landlord and a family in poverty. But we have a very different TARDIS team now, and into this world waltzes Doctor Eccentric Professor, and his companions Mr and Mrs Middle Class Villager. The first thing Mr and Mrs Villager do is to have a laugh at the location. Then Doctor Eccentric solves the problem by sorting out a child’s relationship with his dad, and then off they go, having solved everything. I expect you can see where I am going with this. The story is brave enough to raise some big issues: a family in poverty, aggressive debt collecting tactics, psychological child abuse (and make no mistake, tactics like pretending imaginary fears are shut away in a wardrobe, which make a parent’s life a little bit easier while mentally scarring the child, are unintentional psychological abuse whether you like it or not). So it would have been useful to show at the conclusion that there are some things the Doctor cannot fix. Sometimes it’s hard to squeeze the wardrobe to Narnia into a council flat. RP
The view from across the pond:
Night terrors – in the event you don’t know, they are a real sleep disorder where ones dreams are full of terror. They are typically marked by screaming or flailing in ones sleep. I’ve experienced them from time to time, although thankfully, they are infrequent. They have to do with… well, I’ll get to that when we wrap up Jon Pertwee’s era as the Doctor. For now, let’s just say that the idea of night terrors are, themselves, quite terrifying. For a little boy like George, they are magnified which makes the monsters real. Once again, we are going onto the dark corners of the universe to explore fear in Doctor Who…
I have to start off by complimenting one of the greatest things about Doctor Who: the Doctor is always there to protect children. We’ve seen it before in The Beast Below (among others), but nowhere does it come across more powerfully than here. In Night Terrors he’s coming to help one child; in Beast, he’s there to save many. Here, he travels literally across time and space specifically to make sure one little boy is free from the scary things that trouble him. And that makes the Doctor magnificent!
Ok, with that out of the way, I’ll focus on the creepy elements. First off, giggling should never be scary. Silly, sure. Funny, absolutely. Scary? No… But when one finds oneself in a dark and empty house, disembodied giggling is actually nightmarish. So too is singing. Then, when wooden dolls of human size start coming to life, that amplifies the horror quite a bit. When that wooden doll touches someone and converts them into one of their own, stop-motion style, having night terrors should be expected. In fact, to not have night terrors at that might make one a sociopath. Never has a dolls house been given such an ominous, terrifying twist before! (My sister had one and I’m glad she never saw this episode when she was a kid! Come to think of it, if she saw this episode, I might find myself changed into a wooden doll by now…)
The problem with this episode being too scary is that George’s dad, Alex, is actually quite funny. He’s at his wits end and we do feel for him but too often I found myself laughing because of him. It took the edge off. Maybe it was nervous laughter… I can’t say for sure. His interaction with Matt Smith is great. Smith is outstanding throughout the episode, befriending and protecting little George. The episode is mostly carried by George. He’s outstanding and the heart of the episode. Jamie Oran plays little George adorably – this is a kid you want to protect. Seeing how scared he is, you can’t help but want to help him. George is a wonderful kid afraid of not being accepted. That fear manifests into something more powerful and brings his fears to life. Daniel Mays, as Alex, has to reassure his son that he will always be accepted in order to stop the night terrors.
Let me pause. I’m not prone to weeping, but I can get a bit misty over certain things. Alex’s acceptance of George is amazing. But brace yourself; if you’re one to get teary over things, be ready for this. (Sibling… just sayin’…) The question of why Alex would need to accept his son in the first place is an odd plot device that I won’t spoil here. I don’t know if it works or not but it did not spoil the story for me, however I would say it’s cliche Doctor Who! I’m not sure if they were trying to dull the impact of a child’s fear of not being accepted, or trying to give justification for a boy being able to use psychic powers so adeptly. In any event, the story holds its own regardless of that twist.
Night Terrors may not make the list for “best Doctor Who story of all time”, but it’s a good look into what motivates the Doctor and it gives us a creepy, haunted house story at the same time. And maybe a healthy aversion to wooden toys too. (Splinters should have done that on their own, but now we have even more reason to distrust them.) ML
One item of interest to genre fans: one of the working titles for this story was “What are little boys made of?” The two giants of Science Fiction TV had always been Star Trek and Doctor Who. Classic Star Trek had an episode titled “What are little girls made of?” Very different stories with very similar names…
Read next in the Junkyard… The Girl Who Waited