This review took me just a couple of hours, the quickest I’ve ever written for the magazine. As such, I don’t have a huge amount to add, other than recalling that I originally had that first line as: “Dolls. Shudder! Dolls are scary!” But then realised I was aping the rather staccato and repetitive delivery that Doctor Who – and a lot of BBC shows at the moment – use to connote they’re saying something light-hearted. So I changed it.
Sorry, not much of an anecdote. Anyway, this is from DWM #439.
Dolls. Shudder! They’re scary.
And they always have been, at least on TV. Whether that’s the imperious Hamble on Play School, the disconsolate clown (clowns, by the way, are evil) caught in aspic with the Test Card Girl and an unresolved game of noughts and crosses, or the tragedy of Bagpuss’ remnant ragdoll Madeleine, who leads the singing but can never get up from her wicker chair to join the dance.
It’s almost like a race memory, isn’t it? That we find these little imposter-people unsettling. A race memory that began in a child’s bedroom.
There are few Doctor Who stories that are as blatant as Night Terrors in setting out to dish up – in the memorable words of Mary Whitehouse – “tea-time brutality for tots”. This is all about the scares. It’s a love letter to growing up caught in the terrifying but gleeful glower of Doctor Who on the telly. It’s hiding under the sheets from giant maggots, or catching the silhouette of Sutekh the Destroyer flitting between the wardrobe and the door. All the while you’re praying, “Please save me from the monsters”. Things writer Mark Gatiss very probably did.
The concept of the Doctor stepping into a child’s bedroom and battling their fears is pure wish fulfilment. That he does exactly this in the story, and then confirms monsters are real, is petrifying. Shouldn’t he be the one to tell us everything is going to be okay? Gatiss must have been rubbing his hands. How come no one’s done this in the show before? It was the Doctor who opened the door to those night time terrors in the first place. Finally, he’s being made to deal with them.
In the character of George, played brilliantly and unprecociously by Jamie Oram, we have an everychild. (Fitting, actually, once the revelation about his true identity comes out.) With his saucer eyes and stripy pyjamas, he’s an archetype, reacting in horror on behalf of all us as Koquillion shadows creep across the cupboard. His interplay with the Doctor is written in a nicely restrained manner, the Time Lord never quite comfortable with the encounter – even though there’s more understanding between the two than there is when our hero talks to mum and dad (he’s still doing that clumsy air-kissing thing upon meeting Clare). My favourite exchange is when the Doctor boasts of the sonic screwdriver’s many attributes. “Please may I see the other stuff?” asks George in a whisper. “You may,” comes the reply.
True, the final reveal that the eight-year-old is actually an intergalactic cuckoo does undermine the magic of the Time Lord visiting an ordinary boy, but that’s only in retrospect. Let us not think too long on that.
Night Terrors is also notable for marking the first time the Eleventh Doctor and pals have materialised in hi-rise Britain. The days of Rose Tyler and the Powell Estate feel, quite significantly, distant. Almost like something from a different franchise. Rory knows they don’t belong, and refers to the locale as “EastEnders land,” while Amy reasons: “It can’t all be planets and history and stuff”.
And yet this milieu feels alien. It’s interesting the way director Richard Clark has his cameras gently hedging around the urban landscape as the story begins, bringing us small vignettes of life, as if we need a primer into the block’s eco-system.
By contrast, the inside of George’s banished dolls’ house feels more familiar to this iteration of Doctor Who. It’s all faked reality and moving shadows – automata striding the corridors. The Peg Dolls are a wonderfully creepy visual with their lank hair and chipped paintwork. The moments when landlord Purcell and Amy both join their number are supreme instances of body horror, calling to mind Doctor Constantine’s transformation back in The Empty Child. But, in my opinion, supplanting it with the further twist that both end up as caricatured approximations of themselves. Blank eyes, blank mouths.
God, dolls are scary.
Running through all of this (literally) is Daniel Mays as George’s father, Alex. In many ways it’s not much of a role for this talented actor. His lot is to be a buffer upon which the Doctor can bounce exposition. Worse for him, he only becomes a true protagonist at the point the whole story opts to pivot on his one, quite arbitrary action. Thematically, Alex’s acceptance of his Pinocchio son makes sense, and has been programmed into the tale from the start. But dramatically, it’s a bit of a dampener. He’s the man who presses the great big ‘off’ switch and shuts down the adventure. Shame. Up until that point it was all tick-tocking along terrifically well.
“Was I…?” Wonders Amy, blearily emerging from the lift. “Yeah”, cuts in Rory, with the implication that we’ll never speak of this again. And off go the TARDIS crew.
Small victories like this are important to Doctor Who. I like the fact that, essentially, in Night Terrors the Time Lord was battling to save – not the whole of time and space – but Mum, Dad and George. The fact that the time ship will, on occasion, still make a house call is something that should help all of us sleep a little more soundly tonight.