“Night Terrors” is penned by Mark Gatiss, who returns to write another episode for Doctor Who after last season’s “Victory Of The Daleks“, and this particular tale is inspired by his old childhood fear of creepy-looking dolls. “Night Terrors” is a well-timed breather episode in Series 6, with a much simpler premise compared to the last couple of hard-hitting adventures that have all had massive ramifications for the Eleventh Doctor’s TARDIS team. The central mystery of this episode takes its time unfolding, traveling along at a fairly slow and relaxed pace, but it also manages to avoid dragging. Throughout Series 6, every episode so far has either primarily been set in the past or the future, so “Night Terrors” is notable for being the first episode of the season that takes place entirely during the present day, in an assuming council estate in the UK.
“Night Terrors” was originally intended to be the third episode before it was swapped out with Stephen Thompson’s “The Curse Of The Black Spot“, and you definitely can tell this was one of the first episodes to be written and filmed, because the Ponds seem a lot more laidback and a lot less stressed out than you’d expect, considering what just happened to them in the last story. Much like “The Unquiet Dead” in Series 1, Mark Gatiss sets out to write a horror themed episode with “Night Terrors”, allowing him to sink his teeth in a lot of classic horror tropes in this episode, and he handles them all pretty well. Ever since this episode first aired in 2011, fans and critics have both noted that it bares a lot of similarities to “Fear Her” from Series 2: except, while “Fear Her” dealt with an alien child nesting inside the body of a human child, “Night Terrors” is centered around an alien child pretending to be a human child until the day his cover is blown.
In “Night Terrors”, a cry for help from a terrified child is broadcast across all of time and space, until it’s eventually picked up by the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith). From there, he naturally decides to investigate it and see if he can lend the boy and his father a helping hand with their troubles, since he has a pretty good understanding of child psychology. As the Doctor tries to get George to warm up to him and give him his trust, he lets his old paternal instincts come to the forefront once again (there’s one cute scene in particular where the Doctor decides to distract George from Alex being harassed by their sleazy local landlord with a bit of sonic fun and whimsy). The Doctor starts to take George’s fears a lot more seriously when he realizes there’s a large amount of psychic energy in the area, and that George is not an ordinary child.
There are a handful of fun sequences in this episode where Matt Smith is given free rein to jabber away with no end in sight as the Doctor loses his train of thought time and time again, brainstorming away. And on a few occasions, the Doctor gets repeatedly annoyed with Alex’s inability to keep up with him, when as far as Alex is concerned, he might as well be babbling total nonsense. During his mission to help George, the Doctor also decides to help Alex become a better father as well, when it becomes apparent that the problem they have is one that needs to be mended on both ends. And rather fittingly, the Doctor is not the one who decides the ultimate outcome of this story: he gives Alex and George the push that they both need to face their fears, before he stands to the side and lets them make their own decisions. And afterwards, he saunters off back to the TARDIS, taking pride in a job well done. This is what the Doctor does, after all: travel from place to place, making people better.
Compared to the prominent starring roles they’ve had in the last couple of stories, Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill) are not given a lot to do in “Night Terrors”, and are mainly relegated to the classic companion roles of wandering up and down corridors, reacting to the various creepy things they come across. But I’m quite alright with the two of them being sidelined this week, considering the next episode, “The Girl Who Waited“, is a character showcase all about the Ponds. Amy and Rory are separated from the Doctor and taken out of the action very early on, when they’re dropped down an elevator shaft and teleported inside George’s dollhouse. From there, they spend most of the episode poking around the darkened setting, trying to figure out where they are – until some creepy, living peg dolls jump out at them and try to convert them into their ranks in the last act.
Since they have very little to play off of while they’re isolated from everyone else in the eerily empty dollhouse setting, Amy and Rory’s subplot is primarily carried by the chemistry Karen and Arthur have with each other, and the light-hearted fun of their camaraderie until things start to get heavy during the climax. When in doubt, Rory tends to follow Amy’s lead on things, so when the Ponds are cornered by the dolls, he agrees to Amy’s crazy plan to storm past them and try to make a run for it – which turns out to be the wrong call, when Amy gets transformed into a peg doll for her troubles. You can add that to the growing list of messed up things that have happened to the Ponds this season. Thankfully, it’s quickly reversed, allowing them to resume their tour of the universe unencumbered: having a bit of fun, taking their mind off their troubles for the time being while the Doctor’s daunting future at Lake Silencio looms over them.
In “Night Terrors”, the main conflict of the episode centers around George, a timid, emotionally fragile little boy who’s very prone to having panic attacks. His parents created a little ritual with him, to help him cope with his phobias – anything that scares him, he banishes away to his cupboard in his bedroom. But unbeknownst to them, George’s coping mechanism starts to become very, very literal, because he has reality-warping powers and he starts to subconsciously abduct people on his block. We get a nice good look at George’s neighborhood early on, and it doesn’t seem like a very friendly place to live: with grumpy, hostile neighbors, and a slimy landlord who enjoys intimidating his tenants with his pet bulldog.
Since George is pretty much afraid of everything, it’s only a matter of time before he winds up nabbing everyone on the block: trapping them inside a dollhouse of horrors populated by giant, predatory peg dolls – the living embodiment of his nightmares. As it turns out, the reason why George can create all this without even intending to is because he’s a member of a race of alien children who appear to humans who can’t have children and pretend to be one of them, so they can integrate into human society and grow up on Earth. George sensed his adoptive parents’ doubts and fears about whether or not they could handle all of his needs, if they could provide for him, and he was afraid they would reject him. So once that doubt and fear started to creep in, his psychic powers quickly got out of control, with consequences for everyone in the area. The whole climax hinges on George facing his fears and accepting that he is loved, even if he’s not the child Alex and Claire thought he was.
You might have noticed by now that there are a lot of stories about parents and their children in Series 6, particularly stories about fathers and sons: Captain Avery and Toby in “The Curse Of The Black Spot”, Jimmy and Adam in “The Almost People“, Alex and George in “Night Terrors”, and Craig and Alfie in “Closing Time“. A major recurring theme throughout Series 6 is the difficulties and responsibilities that come with being a parent, and it’s a very appropriate one, since this season is the year where Amy and Rory become parents themselves, even if their relationship with their daughter, Melody, will always be far from normal.
In “Night Terrors”, our dad of the week is Alex (Daniel Mays), who’s dealing with the fact that his son, George, seems to be constantly petrified with fright, afraid of nearly everything around him, to the point where he can barely even function in society. Alex and his wife Claire don’t understand what’s wrong with him, and they don’t know how to help him either, so it’s a real conundrum to deal with. A parent’s job is to guide their children through life, set a good example for them and try to assuage their fears so they can grow up to be well adjusted. I think every good parent dreads the day when their child has a huge, debilitating problem on their plates that they can’t do anything about. So by the start of this episode, Alex is pretty depressed: he’s frustrated with their circumstances, but he also feels very guilty that he can’t do more for George, so he eagerly welcomes the Doctor into their home when he shows up at their door, claiming to be an expert on child psychology. Pretty soon however, Alex loses his faith in the Doctor, once he realizes he’s a total space case.
Once the Doctor starts to jabber on about monsters and aliens, entertaining George’s wild notions, he quickly starts to worry about the Doctor making George’s condition worse. Alex is not a very confrontational man, but he’s also not a doormat. Once he starts to suspect the Doctor might be a terrible influence on his boy, and he realizes he’s not even a real social worker but some random dude from off the street, he quickly tells him to get lost and he’s only reluctantly won over again by the Doctor’s claim that he knows all about alien cultures. When the truth comes to light about George and where he really came from, Alex is understandably freaked out by the revelation that his son isn’t human. George’s alien nature is frightening, what he can do without even really meaning to is frightening.
But despite all the chaos that ensued in this episode, George’s species is still a benevolent one, he only wants what every child needs to grow up healthily – a loving, accepting home – and he’s still the same kid Alex raised for eight years. Despite his doubts, Alex still accepts him as part of his family, which is heartwarming in its own right, and a nice parallel to the character growth Amy and Rory just received in “Let’s Kill Hitler“. Alex chooses to overcome his fears about George, about the future, and about his own inadequacies, so he can be the very best dad that he can be. Claire missed out on this whole adventure, due to her having a late shift at work, and she would never believe any of it if they told her, so George’s alien nature will presumably be he and his dad’s little secret from now on. “Night Terrors” is a cute little father / son story that fits with many of the main themes of Series 6: reflection, personal growth, and the bonds of family transcending impossible odds and unconventional circumstances.
“Night Terrors” is directed by Richard Clark, the same guy who handled “The Doctor’s Wife” earlier this season, and he’s once again given the chance to wander into some spooky and surreal territory when it comes to how he handles the tone of this story. I really enjoy the mysterious, darkly lit scenes set inside George’s dollhouse, where we see the dolls skulking around in the background of several shots, keeping their eyes on their prey until they’re ready to strike. “Night Terrors” was the first episode of the season to be filmed, and it was primarily shot on a council estate in Redcliffe, Bristol – giving us a lot of cozy, domestic visuals that feel very reminiscent of the early seasons of the RTD era – as well as Dryham Park in Gloucestershire, for the scenes set inside George’s dollhouse.
The special effects from the Mill are top notch as usual this week, except for one scene where the landlord character is swallowed up by his rug in his living room like it’s made out of quicksand – the greenscreen in that sequence is not very convincing, and it looks pretty awkward. Murray Gold writes a very playful, childlike and slightly psychotic score for this episode with tracks like “Bedtime For George“, “Tick Tock, Round The Clock“, “A Malevolent Estate” and “Night Terrors“. The main recurring theme of the episode is “Tick Tock, Goes The Clock“, a humble little hymn where a bunch of cute little children repeatedly sing about how death comes for everyone eventually. There’s a pretty jarring and intentional bit of mood whiplash, when the blank-faced peg dolls keep merrily singing the hymn to themselves, as they hunt people down in the dark. The lyrics also allude to the Doctor’s own grim fate that’s waiting for him at Lake Silencio, reminding the audience of what’s at stake in the series finale, “The Wedding Of River Song“.
“Night Terrors” is a cute little slice of life story from Mark Gatiss that nicely sums up the experience of being a parent – how it can be worrying and emotionally taxing at times, but ultimately very rewarding and emotionally fulfilling – and this episode also touches upon the fact that sometimes kids and parents might have a bit more in common than they believe.
* “Now what do we do with the things we don’t like?” “Put them in the cupboard” That line in and of itself isn’t funny, but then you remember where Rory shoved Hitler in the last episode…
* “I haven’t done this in a while” “Haven’t done what? What are you doing?” “Making a house call”.
* “No offense, Doctor-” “Meaning the opposite?” “But we could get a bus somewhere like this” “The exact opposite, then”.
* “Pantaphobia. That’s what it’s called. Pantaphobia. Not a fear of pants though, if that’s what you’re thinking. It’s a fear of everything. Including pants, I suppose” I’ll just leave this here, then.
* “He hates clowns” “Understandable”.
* “Ugh, we’re dead, aren’t we? The lift fell and we’re dead. We’re dead. Again“.
* “A doctor? Have you come to take me away?” “No, George. I just want to talk to you” “What about?” “About the monsters”.
* Man, the face George makes when the Doctor suggests opening the cupboard. He looks like the Doctor just spoke some absolute blasphemy.
* “No! You don’t want to do that!” “Why?” “Because George’s monsters are real”.
* “You see these eyes? They’re old eyes. And one thing I can tell you, Alex. Monsters are real” “….You’re not from social services, are you?”
* “This is weird” “Yeah, says the time travelling nurse”.
* “Or maybe we shouldn’t open the cupboard. We have no idea what might be in there! How powerful, how evil that thing might be! Come on, Alex! Alex, come on! Are you crazy?! We can’t open the cupboard!” “God, no! No, we mustn’t!” “Right, that settles it then. We’re gonna open the cupboard!”
* “I thought you were the expert, fighting monsters all day long. You tell me!” “Oi! Listen, mush. Old eyes, remember? I’ve been around the block a few times. More than a few. They’ve knocked down the blocks I’ve been round and re-built them as bigger blocks. Super blocks. And I’ve been round them as well”.
* “Tick tock goes the clock, and all the years they fly. Tick tock and all too soon, you and I must die“.
* I’m not gonna lie though, the landlord hugging his dog when he’s put back in his apartment is pretty cute.
* “He’s one of the Tenza, remember. He’ll adapt perfectly now, and be whatever you want him to be. I might pop back around puberty, mind you. Always a funny time”.
* “Come on, you two. Things to do, people to see, whole civilizations to save. You feeling okay?” “Yeah, I think so” “Well, it’s good to be all back together again, in the flesh” Heh, if “Night Terrors” had remained in its original slot, that line would have made for some nice foreshadowing for the big ganger reveal in “The Rebel Flesh”.
* “Tick tock, goes the clock, he cradled and he rocked her. Tick tock, goes the clock, even for the Doctor“.