Stars: Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill, Daniel Mays, Jamie Oram, Emma Cunniffe, Andrew Tiernan, Leila Hoffman, Sophie Cosson
Writer: Mark Gatiss
Director: Richard Clark
Network: BBC America, airs Saturday nights
Original Telecast: September 3, 2011
In the ninth episode of DOCTOR WHO Series 6, “Night Terrors,” we travel to a child’s bedroom – the most frightening place in the universe. And in one bedroom, one child on Earth named George (Jamie Oram) is so scared, his cries for help have reached through time and space to the Doctor’s psychic paper. It’s the TARDIS team to the rescue, but Rory (Arthur Darvill) and Amy (Karen Gillan) are soon under threat from lethal dolls while the Doctor discovers that George’s problems may be far more profound than just a collection of things that go bump in the night.
Mark Gatiss knows what makes DOCTOR WHO work, and although his track record with past episodes has been somewhat uneven – to be fair, the most egregious aspects of “Victory of the Daleks” were beyond his control – “Night Terrors” has just the right balance of chills and heart that has sent more than one kid diving behind the sofa and emerging again to cheer the Time Lord’s victory.
You could argue there’s a bit of a thematic disconnect in the sense that in past stories, the Doctor was a hero to children viewing at home because he battled monsters throughout the universe, not because he actually visited children and helped them with their own fears. It’s this “meta” externalizing of the metaphor underlying DOCTOR WHO that could only come from lifelong fans now in the position of writing the Doctor’s adventures, but why quibble about this one? It works.
One of the episode’s gimmicks, transporting characters into a dollhouse, is tipped almost immediately by painted pans and clocks as well as a child’s giggle. Anyone that particularly remembers the old TWILIGHT ZONE episode “Stopover in a Quiet Town” knows what’s going on already, but that’s OK too.
Even if the audience is ahead of the game, the atmosphere – enhanced by a sickly yellow color suffusing most of the story – more than makes up for the loss of suspense on that one point. There’s plenty of tension to be had in awaiting the arrival of the episode’s central creatures – the creepiest dolls you will ever see. In fact, the horrific, bone-crunching transformation of human beings into dolls may trump the gas mask zombies as one of the most unsettling body horror moments in modern DOCTOR WHO. Amy’s scene is probably the most affecting, although it’s slightly undercut by the knowledge that she’s going to be all right.
As for our guest cast, Daniel Mays – one of the stand-outs from the late, lamented OUTCASTS - is excellent and a good foil for the Doctor, while Jamie Oram is as endearing as he needs to be even if he doesn’t necessarily show off exceptional thespian skills. This is really an episode for the Doctor to shine, and Matt Smith never fails to take any opportunity and run with it. His speech about monsters being real could wind up taking its place alongside Tom Baker’s “indomitable” portrait of humanity, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing at all.
The ending is a bit pat, but telling children that there comes a time to face their fears and that love can overcome just about anything – well, those are nice messages for family viewing time in any era, aren’t they? On top of it, the episode ends with a triumphant moment between father and son, and I’m a sucker for that every time. And isn’t it ironic that this episode has as a central theme the idea that a parent would move heaven and earth to safeguard their child, keep the family together and protect them as they grow?
Over all, “Night Terrors” may not be too memorable and not likely to make anyone’s favorites list, but it’s filled with enough inventive imagery and decent chills to pass the hour in an entertaining fashion. Its resemblance to the 2006 story “Fear Her,” while certainly justifiable, doesn’t hurt it much either; frankly, I always kind of liked “Fear Her.” There’s just one tiny problem, but it’s technically something we can ignore. Let me explain…
When we first see Amy and Rory, who at this point in the series narrative should still be reeling about everything they’ve learned about their child, they’re just casually sipping drinks. Now there’s a reason for it this time. As those in the know are aware, this episode was shifted in airing order from an earlier slot, so seen in that context Amy and Rory’s complete lack of concern is fine. Melody hasn’t been born yet.
For millions of viewers that don’t bother with behind-the-scenes details, they’re watching it after “Let’s Kill Hitler,” so they’re watching an Amy and Rory that should be reacting in a manner that fits this part of the narrative arc. And since the production team moved the episode, they should have fixed it to properly suit the position in which it’s running. At least for this week, we have a bit of a “get out of jail free” card. Between the knowledge of where this episode was meant to go, and the very telling reference to “flesh” at the end that would have teased the Ganger story that was to follow it, perhaps it’s better if we simply pretend this week is a flashback to earlier this year. No more Amy and Rory problem. And with that out of the way, we can also focus on the fact that in this episode, they make a very nice team, even joking about their habit of dying frequently.
Next time, Rory has to choose between the lesser of two evils.
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Article: TV Review: DOCTOR WHO – Series 6 – “Night Terrors”