Review by Mark Bousquet
“NIGHT TERRORS” – Series 6, Episode 9, Story 219 – Written by Mark Gatiss; Directed by Richard Clark – Hey, lookee here, it’s a stand-alone episode that doesn’t try to plug itself into any larger story. That means no Eye Patch Lady. Instead, the Eleventh Doctor, Rory, and Amy answer an interstellar distress call from a scared little boy who’s afraid of monsters in his closet. And … well, yeah, that’s about it. Because Night Terrors Is As Straight Forward An Episode As An Episode Can Get.
NIGHT TERRORS is not a bad episode, but it’s not a good one, either. Instead, it’s right smack dab in the middle of the road, a workmanlike, formulaic episode that offers few chills and fewer thrills. It’s on the low end of an acceptable average episode, but it’s got a decent twist and some cool visuals that keep it from being a total clunker.
In the context of the season, however, I think NIGHT TERRORS is a mistake. Series 6 has been a dark season and it could use an upbeat episode to help balance things out and cleanse our palettes. Series 5 did an excellent job of offering up different kinds of stories, but Series 6 has largely been one dark episode after another. Even the brighter visual stories have had a dark tone and after everything the TARDIS crew had been through this season, I think we could all use a bit of a change of pace; the BBC likes to say that DOCTOR WHO is a show can go anywhere and do anything, but Series 6 hasn’t taken advantage of that potential diversity.
Being just another dark episode in a dark season puts a strike against TERRORS before it’s even started, but what really sinks the episode is that it’s all sort of flat. The Peg Dolls are fantastic looking villains – some of the best original villains we’ve seen. They’re huge and creepy and they look cool as hell.
So why don’t we see more of them?
Director Richard Clark has decided to go the horror movie route with the Dolls, showing them as darkened silhouettes moving in the background, and then giving us a glimpse, and then turning them loose for the final act. It’s just too predictable and doesn’t take advantage of how cool looking they are. They should be on screen as much as possible to reinforce the creepiness, because that’s what they are – creepy. They’re not scary, at all, but they are creepy. Clark (who’s directing his fourth WHO episode with TERRORS and has directed good episodes previous to this: GRIDLOCK, LAZARUS EXPERIMENT, and this season’s classic episode, THE DOCTOR’S WIFE) also doesn’t properly sell Amy’s transformation into a Peg Doll, choosing to film the scene from behind and robbing us of the emotional impact of seeing a frightened Amy losing her humanity.
Mark Gatiss’ script doesn’t really help things. It’s certainly a step up from last season’s VICTORY OF THE DALEKS, which isn’t as bad as a lot of people make it out to be, but isn’t really that much better, either. Structurally, Gatiss has learned his lesson from VICTORY, which saw too much hurrying up to stand around and talk. TERRORS is always doing something; unfortunately, it’s not doing it with any kind of force or skill.
You can see what Gatiss is trying to do; when the Doctor, Amy, and Rory arrive to track down the little boy who sent the distress call that the Doctor intercepted, we get the typical split plot: the Doctor focuses on the mystery while Amy and Rory gets transported down into the doll house and spend the episode walking around in the dark. It makes sense to do this. In fact, it’s a very nice nod to the classic formula of the Doctor solving the mystery while the companion faces the monster. Unfortunately, it’s a bit too formulaic. The Doctor figures everything out while Rory and Amy just move through the doll house, being afraid and attempting to avert the Dolls.
That’s probably Gatiss’ biggest crime – there’s no Rory-and-Amy-ness in the episode. They’re just along for the ride, offering nothing of value, and having their personalities kept largely in check.
I couldn’t shake the feeling, either, that this was really a David Tennant episode and not a Matt Smith episode. Tennant was fantastic at being able to generate all the energy a static scene needed by himself. He had a real ability to pick you up take you along just by talking through a problem, and that’s what TERRORS needs because the plot doesn’t really do it on its own.
There is a nice twist with the little boy, as it turns out he’s not the victim but the unintended, alien engine that’s driving the horror is a nice one, but that means that at the end all everyone needs to do to defeat the Dolls is have the boy think it to stop.
There’s a nice emotional moment when the boy’s “father” steps in to tell the frightened alien that he loves him and that he accepts his parenting role, but it’s not enough to elevate this episode into anything remotely special. It just sort of inoffensively happens. In the end, that’s not really enough, is it?
Originally Published September 4, 2011