Doctor Who complete reviews: Night Terrors
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
Steven Moffat's reign finally delivers the creep-out we've all been waiting for...
I'll tell you what scares the living daylights out of me at the mo – the prospect of portly bank bloke Mervyn King sauntering onto my TV screen. One – because he looks like a hybrid of Peter Ustinov and a slightly demented mole. Two – every time he opens his mouth, a great big tsunami of doom and gloom spews forth, threatening to destroy the will of every living being in its path. Christ, at the moment it seems that all this economic government-inflicted doom and gloom is being fuelled by this wandering Armageddon pedlar prattling on in his pompous fashion about how we'll all be forced to walk around in sacks and live in homes made out of string and paper clips.
See when I was a kid, fears were different. Jimmy Savile used to freak the bejesus out of me for some odd reason – RIP Jim. The original Doctor Who theme naturally. And then there were blank-faced dummies. That way in which they give no signals – they'd be great in a game of poker, but they're even better as terror machines. I'd imagine it's the same deal with dolls too, whether it's Hamble from Play School, Professor Yaffle from Bagpuss or Fenella The Witch from Chorlton And The Wheelies. Maybe Mark Gatiss picked up on this when he came to pen the latest Doctor Who tale called Night Terrors, the latest hair-raising tale for the good Time Lord and his companions.
Night Terrors, by and large, gets things back on track this season, which is a sigh of relief after the self-indulgent gibberish of A A Good Man Goes To War/Let's Kill Hitler. There's no season-arc shenanigans, just a successful attempt at sending kids behind the sofa. It's not 100% perfect by any means, but it nevertheless gets Doctor Who on cue again, and in fact, the latter run of this 32nd season contains some truly stunning examples of the show at its best.
"As dark and scary as Doctor Who has ever gone in its 48 years"
It's somewhat jarring though to see this adventure take place on a grotty old council estate. This setting went hand in hand with David Tennant's Doctor, but in the fairy tale vistas of the Matt Smith years, it sticks out like a sore thumb. “Well, I suppose it can't all be planets and history and stuff, Rory,” points out Amy in the opening scenes after The Doctor's making a house call in response to a plea on his Psychic Paper saying “Please save me from the monsters”. So in true social worker mode, The Doctor visits a hapless scamp called George and his desperate 'father' Alex (you'll get why the inverted commas apply by the end of the story) – now poor old George is “scared to death of everything” as Alex explains, which The Doctor diagnoses as “Pantaphobia” - and that probably includes a profound fear of Mervyn King, too.
It's a neat, simple good old-fashioned mystery to solve here, and it's again perfectly in keeping with the Eleventh Doctor's Sherlock-like ability to solve the puzzle from the little clues around him – in particular, a mysterious photo in Alex and his wife Claire's photo album, which contains a puzzling omission. Oh, and it's also another chance to highlight how Fish-Out-Of-Water The Doctor is with his unusual quirks and turns of phrase. He's still doing the ridiculously OTT Gallic kissing thing on both cheeks with Claire at the end. He's still liking the Jammie Dodgers. And as for his amusing suggestion of reading material (“Snow White and The Seven Keys To Doomsday” indeed...).
But despite all this superficial blundering, The Doctor's still one force to be reckoned with – despite Alex's angry protests, The Doctor manages to persuade his credentials with a heartfelt “You see these eyes? They're old eyes. And one thing I can tell you, Alex... monsters are real.” His wise old alien knowledge leads him to deduce that George is not Alex and Claire's real child, because Claire is unable to have children. In fact, George is a Tenza Child, an emphatic alien who took on the form of Alex and Claire's ideal kid through a perception filter. He also deduces that George's fear is based around his terror that he wasn't wanted by Alex and Claire and that someone would take him away. “That's what the trigger was,” realises The Doctor. “He thought you were rejecting him. He thought he wasn't wanted!” And for a Tenza child, that's the worst thing in the world. Luckily a big old hug and a promise of reassurance from Alex saves the day.
Hmmm. Maybe that's the only downer in all this, in that we've seen all this before. Is the climax of The Doctor Dances ringing any bells here? Remember when Nancy saved the day be telling her son that she loved him and always would? No more monsters. Everybody Lives. Well, sadly the same is true again here, and given that The Curse Of The Black Spot contained similar elements to that classic 2005 story, it's a bit suspect. What did Moffat do to his team of writers exactly? Subtly brainwash them with regular doses of The Doctor Dances? Maybe a quick trigger of Glenn Miller forced Mark Gatiss to suddenly freeze zombie-like at his computer and write something that echoed the earlier meisterwork. And the other problem of the fact that Everybody Lives Yet Again is older hat than what's on Patrick Trueman's bonce from EastEnders. Wouldn't it have been funnier if Mrs Rossiter was forced to spend her days as a blank-faced doll?
"This is Doctor Who at its finest – taking an everyday motif and turning it into the stuff of nightmares...to be honest, I'm surprised that this sort of story was so long in coming"
Because what's gone before is as dark and scary as Doctor Who has ever gone in its 48 years. The sight of the blank-faced dolls, whispering and sighing eerily in the dark old haunted corridors is just the stuff of nightmares that Doctor Who does so well. In particular, the revelation that the dolls used to be human beings is just as macabre, and the same goes for the spooky scenes when the dolls claim another victim. The sight of Purcell violently shaking and morphing into a doll is one of the more unsettling scenes of the season, and rivals (again) the grotesque body morphing of Constantine in The Empty Child. Again, it's the whole concept of the body being badly violated in such a freaky, alien manner. The dolls are grotesque parodies of the human form, and to be honest, I'm surprised that this sort of story was so long in coming. Even poor old Amy comes to grief and turns into a straw-haired parody herself – blimey, Rory evidently got lucky this week, given that he's killed off and brought back to life every week. But relax kids, they don't kill companions off any more, so Amy's perfectly safe and well.
Despite that, the moody scenes in the dollhouse are atmospheric, tense and claustrophobic. This is Doctor Who at its finest – taking an everyday motif and turning it into the stuff of nightmares. Just as in The Doctor's Wife, running around corridors transcends the old cliché – in this story, it's turned into a terrifying trap. Surely it can't be a coincidence that Richard Clark's back behind the lens, and wringing every scrap of terror from Mark Gatiss' script. He's an expert with the lighting, creating moody shadows and suggestive tricks that make you genuinely jump out of your seat when a doll lurches forward. The freaky dolls are just as well realised, and they're a masterpiece of design – the way in which they look a little ragged around the edges and unfinished captures the peculiarity of the doll concept to a tee.
"Daniel Mays' performance is probably one of the strongest guest showings this season"
Clark's cast list is again small but well chosen. Andrew Tiernan does get to play these sort of greasy spoon-type characters such as Purcell, a bloke whose idea of heaven is being stuck to the sofa, arm-deep in pizza boxes and beer cans with Homer Simpson on the telly. Young Jamie Oram may be yet another example of kids taking over the asylum in Doctor Who, but he gives a decent performance as the terrified George. The best of the guests, however, is probably Daniel Mays (better known lately for his guest stint in the last season of Ashes To Ashes). Mays adds a lot of realistic grit to his performance, failing to comprehend the problem before his eyes and quick to pass The Doctor off as an eccentric crank. There's quite a lot of subtle pathos in Mays' performance though – you can almost smell Alex's fear that George will be taken away from him, having been placed in a situation that neither he nor Claire can really deal with – especially when they can't have kids of their own. Mays gives a highly skilled performance which is totally believable – it's probably one of the strongest guest showings this season.
And so to Regular Performance Prediction. You know, I could say that Matt, Karen and Arthur give lousy performances and that they're only marginally better than the halcyon days of Matthew Waterhouse and Janet Fielding. I might, one day for a laugh – but seriously though, they still continue the high standards they've set this season. Amy and Rory don't really get a lot to do – Amy's out of the equation for most of the last act, but both Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill are proving that their amusing but loveable double act is hard to resist. It all seems such a long way from the uncertain characterisation of the previous season, and this time around Rory's fear seems very much in context. Amy's still prone to poking fun at Rory, but it's done with much less spite and more gentle teasing – that's the sort of character we should have had right from the offset – and as we'll see in the next episode, there's more great things to come from Karen Gillan.
And Matt Smith still impresses – his unassuming, vaguely goofy persona masks the fact that there's far more to Doctor Eleven than meets the eye. The goofing around hides not only a brilliant mind, but also more than a hint of darkness – the aforementioned “Eyes” speech is a good reminder that The Doctor's now an ageing old Gallifreyan who's seen more than his fair share of tragedy and darkness. Smith conveys that gravitas very well, and it's part of his multi-faceted Doctor who's one minute requesting Jammie Dodgers and the next forcing an ordinary human to face up to his demons.
Despite some of the samey aspects of Night Terrors, this is an excellent, creepy story – superbly told, directed and acted. The visuals are excellent and really bring over that creepy, unearthly ambience that really only Doctor Who can provide. Even Murray Gold's music is rather good here – I think he gets the subtly eerie stories much better than the gung-ho action stories where he has to revert to OTT orchestral bombast and the wheeling out of his infernal Pompous Choir. But in Night Terrors, he contributes a good score and adds to the queasy dread present. Overall, a good comeback from the previous story, and the start of a run of superb tales. Even after nearly 48 years, Night Terrors proved that Doctor Who could still mean that a sofa was for diving behind rather than sitting down on.
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