Written by Mark Gatiss, directed by Richard Clark, 2011
As this is the sort of second-tier episode we’ve seen so many times before, why isn’t it at least proficient? (And given that no-one has a good thing to say about Fear Her, why sanction something that comes across as little more than a rehash?) In the face of these seasons’ increasingly baroque approach to arcs, the idea of stories based round relatively basic scenarios is an appealing one (not because Moffat’s approach is ‘too’ complex, simply because the show is increasingly appearing rather too desperate to impress)… But despite how easy that sounds, Night Terrors doesn’t entirely deliver.
I’m sure Mark Gatiss is lovely fellow – but I don’t rate him as a writer. Not least since his brand of unreconstructed ‘trad Who’ grates so much, as it’s almost entirely founded on a spurious good-old-days behind-the-sofa nostalgia, which seems to necessitate the regulars being split up, and liberal amounts of textbook corridor-wandering. Let’s Kill Hitler may have been almost absurdly batshit crazy, but at least its melange of varied locations and flashbacks is inestimably more ambitious than a script like this. It reeks of wannabe ‘classic storytelling’ – yet despite the familiarity of its component parts, Gatiss manages to make his story both wildly ‘untidy’ (despite its generally simplistic premise in practise it seems weirdly overcomplicated), yet also rather too slight. The SJA-style ‘he’s an alien’ justification for the whole situation, and its saccharine happy ending are pretty bit weak, too (well, happy ending until the greasy landlord comes to collect, I imagine).
Overwhelmingly though, this is a bit of a too-transparent attempt to ‘do a scary one’ – though at least this belies and contrasts the opener’s rollicking broadness. The dolls are pretty freaky (though who’d give a child a house with figures like that in the first place?!), though an old dark house and disembodied child laughter are ridiculously old hat. Visually, it’s a shame they didn’t make more of the (obvious-from-the-wooden-pan) dollshouse, plumping for location filming rather than a set which could’ve more realistically replicated the scaled-down simplicity of a dollshouse, and made more of the oversized Planet of Giants props.
Ultimately its failings are in its lack of cohesion – even the various ways in which the incidental characters are taken suggests the story could’ve done with some judicious tightening up: people being sucked into a dollshouse: okay (though the lack of reference to the previous story’s miniaturisation makes its reshuffling pretty obvious) – the lift and the bin bag bit prob weren’t necessary.
Where it succeeds is in returning the show to a “could get a bus here” location – it’s been a while, and given my initial feelings about series one’s urban locales, it’s unexpectedly agreeable to be back somewhere akin to the Powell Estate, especially in the company of this most whimsical of Doctors. Less positively, I wondered at the time of A Christmas Carol whether the new series’ engagement with child characters (something unknown in the old series) would start to get old. It is something of a no-brainer, but I admit I’m starting to become a bit apathetic to it, maybe cos the Doctor-as-oversized-kid is maybe a bit of an over literal representation of his anti-establishment outsider status.
I’m sure Gatiss has got a good story in him; this just isn’t quite it. As I say, I think the notion of a ‘traditional’ Doctor Who story is kind of a nonsense – but though none of his TV stories have been entirely successful to my mind, it feels like there must be a Doctor Who and the Silurians-style unreconstructed number somewhere in his mind; something that’d work without being pulled between old-school straight-forward adventure and new series emotionalism. Or maybe just a full blooded monster story with graveyards and things. Yeah, there you go: someone pass that brief on: “graveyard and things” – go!