Tuesday, September 6, 2011

"Night Terrors"

Mark Gatiss once again proves how underused he is in this solid if unmemorable episode. The arc is thankfully on hold again so we get a stand-alone adventure to a Council Estate in London when the Doctor receives a psychic paper message from a frightened child. Frankly I think they could have just turned up; it certainly would have made Rory's comment about how they could have got a bus there more effective but then again it would have denied them the "house call" gag. The fact that George, our Moffat-style annoying child of the day, can somehow send a psychic message to the Doctor is nice enough for the sake of some poetic musings about the universe from the Doctor but is hardly essential to the plot, only to suggest there is something psychically powerful present, which turns out to be George himself. This was at least an interesting twist; I've seen people describe this episode as "Fear Her" done well which is not entirely justified in that it's a good deal different in numerous respects but I can see the point and it certainly is better. One thing which is excellent in this episode is Richard Clark's direction, which maintains a strong sense of otherworldliness and alienation despite the fact that we're not getting the "planets and history" which are always the most interesting settings. Indeed it's a rather striking contrast to RTD's fondness for depicting Council Estate territory as the kind of bread and butter, heart and soul, grass roots type British setting to appeal condescendingly to the everyman. The Doctor calls a child's bedroom "the scariest place in the universe", which is a nice enough line, but in terms of scary places I'd say a London Council Estate has got to be up there on the list and I think this episode handles that very nicely. We have a lot of shadows contrasted with pale whites and greens which transform this incredibly mundane setting into something uniquely weird and disturbing and it is this direction which takes a decent but perhaps slightly too hand-wavey story and turns it into something unique.
This is also a properly Doctor-focused episode after last week's River Song-fest and it's nice to see our protagonist back in action. Nonetheless I think the companion situation is still mishandled. Sure, Amy and Rory are together and they work well that way but it seems that writers are struggling to get them to engage with the Doctor, with the end result being that they end up wandering around the giant dollhouse together and George's father Alex ends up as the Doctor's standby question-asker for the episode. It fits and makes sense but it doesn't change the fact that the scenes of Rory and Amy just ambling around don't really do much. This is nicely lampshaded by Rory, however, suggesting that they're "dead again" or that something has gone wrong with the TARDIS.
Another thing I might mention are the creepy dolls. These wander around the dollhouse and transform people into more of them. However it's never really explained why they do this or how it happens. Presumably the original dolls were among the scary things George's parents put in the cupboard but what difference does that make? It perhaps should have been mentioned when Alex was telling the Doctor about George's fears, thinking the lift noise was breathing and that the old lady was a witch, that he thought some dolls were moving around unobserved or something. This conversation has an excellent moment when the Doctor mutters "understandable" in regards to George's fear of clowns. Maybe clowns could have been the creepy monster wandering around the house. Then again I believe there is some kind of sad clown present in a future episode judging by the trailers. The shot of Mrs Rossiter being sucked into the bins manages to be more unpleasant than humorous but I think Purcell sinking into the floor looked a little cheap and easy. It's not really clear how all these things happen; we get the impression that George, as a "Tenza", has immense psychic powers, but why are they coming to the fore in this particular moment?
Similarly while the ending is all very touching it seems to prioritise sentiment over credibility. It's all terribly convenient that Alex's acceptance of his son sets everything right and it makes the whole scenario feel like it was just an excuse to have a bunch of thrills followed by a snappy resolution at the end. The plot seems very insubstantial in this light. I notice that the New Series likes to use psychic power as a sort of catch-all magic omnipotence which can effectively substitute for believability or a strong sense of narrative and it's particularly notable here. It's one of the things which makes this episode come across as lacking and kind of transparent. It has a nice setting and the character action is good but the plot is too simplistic and too easily explained and resolved.
Nonetheless there are strong moments, direction aside. Alex's realisation that his wife can't have children yet his son is sitting right there is a powerful moment, as is the Doctor's immediate realisation that they're in a dollhouse after Amy and Rory have been wandering around for twenty minutes. What I would complain about is that despite being relatively understated musically, Murray Gold feels the need to provide little "Carry On" style musical trills after the jokes and during the light moments which come across as stupid and patronizing, and the humour is always more effective when they're not present. Our main cast are as strong as ever but as usual Amy and Rory aren't given enough to do.
Nonetheless I enjoyed "Night Terrors", and I think as a stand alone episode it was a refreshing offering even if it was a little simplistic in some respects. Gatiss is a good writer; he just needs to be given better opportunities than these one off filler episodes. I think he would excel with a two-parter because his dialogue is quite punchy and you never get bored even if what you're watching isn't too strong. This one also proves that stand alones are obviously the strength of the show because it was such a relief to see just the Doctor doing his thing. It's never going to be one of the highlights of this series but it's certainly worthwhile for the direction and probably does a decent job with a tricky idea.

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