Night Terrors Review
Clint Hassell reviews Night Terrors, the ninth episode of Doctor Who Series 6.
Steven Moffat loves to make everyday objects seem sinister. Gas masks, gargoyle statues, shadows, cracks in a wall – all have been turned into iconic Doctor Who monsters by Moffat’s imagination. In “Night Terrors,” scriptwriter Mark Gatiss does Moffat one better by finding that wooden dolls, the dark, strange noises, a flashlight’s shadows, and weird old ladies can be just as terrifying as seeing your parents bullied and helpless, or being disowned by your dad. As such, “Night Terrors,” is one of my favorite episodes of Doctor Who because, instead of focusing on plot and on shape-shifting goo, or a time machine’s soul, or figuring out how every historical encounter can inevitably involve aliens, we focus on the one thing that makes the Doctor truly special – his humanity.
My favorite scene occurs when the landlord, Purcell, is pressuring George’s dad, Alex, for the month’s rent, and Alex is humiliated, admitting how tight things are financially as he cannot find a job. In a moment of grace, the Doctor distracts George with his sonic screwdriver, which not only pulls the boy’s attention from adult concerns, but shows him that toys moving by themselves can be magical, not impending.
I think it is to this episode’s benefit that the action all takes place in one claustrophobic night, which places emphasis on the character’s internal emotions, and not on the external setting. I did, however, appreciate the one, quick journey “through crimson stars, and silent stars, and tumbling nebulas like oceans set on fire,” as George’s plea for help traveled to the Doctor’s psychic paper.
What a horrible way for George to learn that his parents aren’t his biological mother and father! There was a time when my mom and dad didn’t think that they’d be able to have children – I’m the “Luke” to my mom’s “Sarah Jane” – so my heart broke knowing what George was experiencing. Also, as a kid was creative and thoughtful, who questioned everything, who didn’t play sports, who was gay, I know what is it like to lose the love of your dad because he can’t figure you out. The show dealt with these emotions in a very realistic way. I do appreciate that Alex was wary of raising a little Tenza alien as a son, and I love that, in the end, Alex realizes that he still loves George as his own. I totally want a dad like that!
Ironically, the episode’s one inhumane moment comes from Rory, the nurse who’s become the heart of the TARDIS crew. His line, “Maybe we should let the monsters gobble him up,” was necessary for the plot, but seemed out-of-character. Rory, after all, was the one who comforted the young, monster-tormented Elliot in “The Hungry Earth.”
Who would have thought that such a fantastic episode could be penned by the same author of “The Unquiet Dead” (which was serviceable, but failed to capitalize on its historical setting and famous character as “Tooth and Claw,” “The Shakespeare Code,” or “The Unicorn and the Wasp”). Mark Gatiss also wrote “The Idiot’s Lantern” (which was fine, I guess, until they laughably started sucking the faces off of people) and “Victory of the Daleks” (which only served to re-color the Daleks so the BBC could sell more toys).
As universally relatable as “Night Terrors” is, the episode is unmistakably Doctor Who. Unlike many generic sitcoms or investigative crime dramas, it wouldn’t be possible for this story to be told on any other television program. I credit Gatiss – a life-long fan – for all of the notable Who-specific moments in the episode. Of course, as mentioned before, the sonic screwdriver plays a significant role in one beautiful scene. Several meta-references are made, including the Doctor encouraging Alex to allow George to watch scary television programs, and Amy describing adventures with the Doctor as “planets and history and stuff.” We get references to familiar Who concepts including a cupboard that is bigger on the inside (“More common than you think,” notes the Doctor) and perception filters. Reference is made to Rory’s many deaths – “We’re dead, aren’t we? The lift fell and we’re dead. We’re dead. Again,” he explains to Amy – and we even get a clever riff on “Trust me, I’m the Doctor,” as the Doctor merely says “Trust me,” to George’s mom, and we fill in the rest. I particularly enjoyed the “house call” pun. Amazingly, there hasn’t been a lot of “doctor”-related humor since the Series 3 ad campaign. I also love the image of the TARDIS’ materialization reflected in a puddle of water. The arrival of the TARDIS is an event repeated in almost each episode, so it’s cool to see them put a different spin on it. Bonus points that the light on top was lit!
“Night Terrors” was originally planned as episode 4 of Series 6, directly following “The Doctor’s Wife,” hence Rory’s comment, “The TARDIS has gone funny again” – a reference to that episode’s plot and ostensibly why “Night Terrors” was moved to the second half of Series 6, as the companions running lost and scared through darkened corridors for two episodes in a row would have been too repetitive. (Pay no attention to the fact that, as a result, we shoved monsters into closets in two successive episodes.) I did watch to see if there was any tell-tale sign of Ganger Amy, who originally would have been revealed in the following, two-part story. Obviously, Madame Kovarian’s appearance was removed, but one reference still remains: the Doctor mentions to Amy and Rory that it was good to be together again, as a group, “in the flesh.” Why leave this one line, when it no longer serves to foreshadow upcoming episodes? Perhaps because it still does. Is it somehow possible that, since “The Almost People,” we’ve been following the Ganger Doctor? Could Moffat, like Kovarian, fool us not once, but twice, using the same trick?