Published on September 6th, 2011 | by Christian Cawley
You might have thought that you had seen the end of council estates in Doctor Who with the multiple departures of Rose Tyler, but as Night Terrors showed us, monsters can appear anywhere in the universe, regardless of their shape, form or actual existence…
Doctor Who has a long histroy of scaring children, supposedly sending them scampering around the sofa in the classic era to escape the sight of the Daleks, Autons, Cybermen, Silurians… but hang on! While there is no denying these scares, let’s just digress for a moment and consider the etymology of the term “behind the sofa”.
Exactly who in 1970s Great Britain was calling their settee a “sofa”? Even couch was considered a bit toffee-nosed in my neck of the woods, which isn’t all that far from where Mark Gatiss, writer of this episode, grew up. So next time you see a review that refers to children hiding “behind the sofa” check who wrote the episode in question it – if it’s one by Gatiss, then we’re talking settees, I’ll wager.
Now Gatiss is no stranger to scaring his audience, and revelling in doing so. Not only has he penned four Doctor Who episodes since 2005 (beginning with The Unquiet Dead, in which Rose Tyler and the Ninth Doctor meet Charles Dickens and The Gelth), Mark Gatiss was also a key player in The League of Gentlemen, and a driving force of their macabre TV series which had a strong undercurrent of cannibalism running through it. He’s also well known for his love and knowledge of the horror genre, so much so that he has presented a BBC Four series on horror cinema.
So it should come as no surprise that Night Terrors brought us a few good scares in its tale of a small boy, George, whose fear of the contents of his wardrobe reach the Doctor’s pyschic paper (a great excuse for a lovely piece of visual FX) and send the time travellers to track him down and stop the monsters. Rumours abound online that children across the UK were afraid to go to bed on Saturday night, so Mr Gatiss will surely be rubbing his hands with glee at a job well done! After all, you certainly can’t go wrong with a story about a child with strange powers in a suburban district with a monster in the wardrobe.
Wasn’t Night Terrors just Fear Her with a doll’s house?
It’s difficult to judge whether or not this is an unfair description. Matthew Graham’s 2006 adventure Fear Her was a tragic misfire of an episode, something that could have been so much better. Night Terrors is, if you like, Fear Her “done right” although there is far more to both episodes than such a basic summary can offer.
What Doctor Who fans and the general viewing public got with Night Terrors was an adventure devoid of any mention of River Song or the Doctor’s impending death (at least, not until the chilling nursery rhyme at the end) instead focussing on an unusual set of events in which the people that George didn’t like were “disappeared” (the old lady he thought was “a witch” the flat landlord; Amy and Rory were in the lift when it went past George’s room, and he was scared of the noise it made) into a doll’s house in his wardrobe. Who else could possibly hope to sort out this state of affairs but the Doctor, and what a great performance we got from Matt Smith this week, clearly relishing the interesting dynamic of his two guest co-stars, Jamie Oram as George and Daniel Mays (best known as Ashes to Ashes villain Jim Keats) as George’s dad Alex.
Something that has shone through with this current run of Doctor Who is the high production values and there is more praise on offer for this episode; Night Terrors was very fortunate to have Richard Clark directing (he had previously presented amazing vistas of London in The Lazarus Experiment in 2007) delivering a cinematic visual experience that added to the urban horror of the setting. For the external shots you could quite easily have been watching 28 Days Later, for example.
While you might argue that there are a few questions over why certain things happened the way they did in Night Terrors the lack of any baggage dragging us back to 2008 was refreshing, and the fact that we were able to enjoy it this week rather than back in April was a result of some episode rescheduling by Steven Moffat. It isn’t clear if the rejigging of the series lineup is anything to do with delays or if it was purely tonal, but I for one welcomed this River Song-free zone.
As enjoyable as it is, what we will remember about Night Terrors is that while a more accomplished production it essentially retreads the same ground as 2006′s Fear Her. While stories having similar or identical plots was excusable before the days of home video technology and endless reruns on digital channels, it’s a risky business in a world where Doctor Who is almost ubiquitous. The very existence of iPlayer and cheap DVDs should force scriptwriters to develop original ideas; in the case of Doctor Who, if any plots are to be retreaded then they should be ones from the original series. The similarities between the Isolus and the Tenza are very obvious, and anyone with a long memory could easily have been reminded of the earlier episode.
That said, the performances and direction, combined with the usually high production standards make Night Terrors an enjoyable episode and a refreshing diversion from the River Song/Astronaut storyline of Series 6.