Night Terrors

Story No. 241 Peg doll Amy
Production Code Series 6, Episode 9
Dates September 3, 2011

With Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill
Written by Mark Gatiss Directed by Richard Clark
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Piers Wenger, Beth Willis.

Synopsis: A little boy has pantophobia: fear of everything.


Underwhelming Night Terrors by Gavin Smith 6/12/11

I got a real lampooning from my friends when I said I didn't like this one. To them, the dolls were among the most terrifying of the show's monsters; to me, they were a wasted opportunity. The Doctor is off-form in this episode too. He could have gotten down to business far sooner than he did, but instead he pandered around until his quirkiness became a stale and unconvincing novelty. Don't get me wrong, I think Matt Smith is excellent, but in this episode he comes dangerously close to Tennant in series 4.

Every problem I have stems from the writing of Mark Gatiss. His storylines are simple and easy to predict; I saw which way this one was going well before it was halfway through. In this story, Gatiss spends the first three quarters of the episode building suspense and tension. Moffat does this, Gaiman also. The difference? Moffat and Gaiman had well-developed ideas for the suspense to lead into. In the last ten minutes of the episode, the Doctor rattles off a series of explanations to the effect of "Oh, the boy is an alien which makes his nightmares real (seriously?), we're in the doll house (you don't say), father give your son a hug and everything will resolve (are you kidding me?)." Don't get me wrong, the suspense is wonderful, the design of the monsters is good, but the plot and script are not sophisticated enough to make use of these resources.

The Doctor kept his eccentricity up ten minutes too long while the father character was unconvincingly patient with him (actually, the father was fairly unconvincing all round).

With The Doctor's Wife and The Girl in the Fireplace, it felt like the writers had brainstormed their ideas; written the scripts; subjected the scripts to extensive scrutiny and constructive criticism; and then re-written them. It does not feel like Gatiss scrutinised this story, like The Idiot's Lantern and Victory of the Daleks, it is painfully linear. If he had written The Girl in the Fireplace, this is how it would have turned out.

To summarise, the Gatiss story, as always, is style over substance. Far too much time building the suspense, precious little time developing the plot. Watching this story, I was reminded of a band I saw live; they came on stage half an hour late, gave a brief and unconvincing performance and left the audience feeling underwhelmed. Would I go to see them again? No. Would I re-watch Night Terrors? I don't think so.

We're dead, aren't we? We're dead. Again! by Evan Weston 2/3/19

Night Terrors is sort of the definitive Mark Gatiss episode, in that it sort of exists, spinning about as harmless filler, neither good nor bad. It's a bit better than the other episode that holds this distinction, The Idiot's Lantern, but it's not nearly as good as something like The Crimson Horror or even The Unquiet Dead. It also has all the hallmarks of a Gatiss episode: ambiguously evil monsters, an extremely narrow focus and claustrophobic feel, and a tendency to prioritize mood over plot. This last point is the largest flaw with Night Terrors in particular, but it does a lot of things correctly as well.

Chief among those is the pace of the story, which veers towards too slow but accelerates enough towards the end that I was engaged throughout. Amy and Rory get captured relatively early, which gets us inside the creepy dollhouse with plenty of time to build mood and gives us something to worry about. The Doctor also gets plenty of time with George, which helps us buy the Doctor's realization of George's alien nature. The climax is fairly intense and builds in the emotional resolution Gatiss is aiming for: bringing the father closer to his son. It's simultaneously thrilling and cute, and it makes for a satisfied feeling at the end of the episode.

Satisfactory, however, does not imply good, and it would be a stretch to call Night Terrors that. The story spends most of its time actively trying to scare the audience, and, while the dolls and their little song are pretty creepy and everything is very foreboding, I was not once actually frightened. Doctor Who is a show with the capacity to scare - see Blink or Midnight for evidence - but Night Terrors is a story that, despite its title, just isn't all that scary. This wouldn't be a huge deal were it not the chief priority of the script. The plot, while stretched out as best as it can be, is really quite thin, and there are only three or four major story beats before the whole thing is over. There's never any real sense of danger, even with the creepy dolls.

That's not to say it's poorly produced, though it's clearly one of the low-budget episodes of Series 6. The apartment complex is suitably blue collar and low-key, and the dollhouse especially is well rendered, with its meandering, arbitrary hallways and dark rooms. On the flip side, Murray Gold really goes along with Gatiss and tries to amplify the mood with sound cues, but he occasionally goes a bit too hard with the screeching synths. Gold has come a long way since Rose, but he's not flawless, and Night Terrors is an episode that showcases his weaknesses more than his strengths.

Night Terrors does benefit from a few lovely guest performances, particularly in Daniel Mays' concerned father, Alex. Mays wonderfully communicates the distraught nature of the situation, and he displays a perfectly believable reaction to the Doctor's revelation about his child. Young child actor Jaime Oram is adorable as George, and you genuinely fear for him near the beginning. The other notable appearance comes from Andrew Tiernan as the nasty landlord, Purcell. Tiernan strikes just the right balance between menacing and bumbling, providing both a solid comic relief character and a genuine threat. This gives Purcell's conversion to peg doll a bit more poignancy than it normally would have.

The principals do just fine in Night Terrors. Matt Smith proves once again how adept he is at working with children, and this sort of story seems perfectly in character with his Doctor specifically - something we're keeping a close eye on since the debacle that was A Good Man Goes to War. He and Mays are excellent together, and he provides a calming presence throughout. At times this tends to dissipate the fear factor, but that's not Smith's fault. Arthur Darvill is tremendously funny for the most part and then tragically heartbroken when Amy is converted, though we know she's not gonna look like that for long.

Night Terrors works with that word as well: it's fine. It's a Mark Gatiss story, which means it wants to make you feel something more than tell you a good story, and in this case that proves to be a failure. However, unlike The Idiot's Lantern, the performances and the production are enough to push Night Terrors ever so slightly into the category of success, even if it's not an episode I'd enthusiastically watch again.