3
Sep
2011
Dr. Who: Season 6, Episode 10
Night Terrors
Michael Richardson
Doctor Who, in its original incarnation, was designed as a show the whole family could gather around the couch and watch together. At some point the children would end up behind the couch, as an old saying goes. Old Doctor Who was scary. Scary enough that when those kids grew up, they elected Margaret Thatcher to chase away the monsters (the monster being Keynesian economics).

The modern Doctor Who has established a tone where it's possible to do a lot of different kind of stories. There are the scary ones, such as tonight's episodes, but there are more traditional adventure episodes, drama heavy episodes, and, every so often, something truly inventive. "Night Terrors" works as a solid scare story, but it works so well because of the underlying mechanics they are innovative enough to keep in interested.

As opposed to last week, the set-up here is pretty simple - The Doctor receives a simple psychic message from earth asking for help killing some monsters (can we call it a prayer? It's a prayer - The Doctor is God now). The source is a young child with OCD who is actually more than he seems to be, so the Doctor takes his father into the source of his night terrors to stop the bad dreams.

The twist is that the monsters the Doctor is brought in to fight aren't the aliens of the week. That's the kid himself. He's an alien that can shape himself to what his adoptive parents most want, and can project his own feelings into a physical space. That physical space is a dollhouse in which our main cast gets trapped, pursued by large, faceless dolls. It's way scarier than it sounds.

Children's shows often believe that they need a child character in order for younger audience members to connect. "Night Terrors" turns this on its head a bit and twists it in a very satisfying way. It is based on a classic childhood fear but the character arch belongs to the father once that fear becomes manifest. Rather than using the child for cheap sentimentality (though the end may dip into that pool, depending on your outlook), he becomes a plot point rather than a point of view character. It's a small twist, but it keeps the show from relying on a child actor for some serious emotions that eventually come into play, while still maintaining a child-appropriate storyline.

The Rory and Amy sections show how well some of those old horror signifiers still work in the right setting. Obscured monsters, flickering lights and things that are just wrong enough to make the audience feel like they're in a malicious place all become that much more important when the characters trapped in them mean something to the people watching. Any modern horror director could watch this episode just to get a handle on the basics - each shot composition does its best to evoke the old-style thrills of the best scary movies. Negative points however for trapping a little old lady and a mean landlord in the same situation - everybody who has ever watched television knew what was going to happen to them.

This episode was written by Mark Gatiss, who has penned a few less-than-stellar episodes in the past ("Victory of the Daleks", "The Idiot's Lantern"). But he has clearly picked up some tricks from the honed writing staff. The dialogue has touches of Moffat's hyper slapstick, and the plot line has enough of a twist to keep viewers guessing at what might happen next. There's nothing to hint at this year's plot line (except for a single last shot) and not much play with continuity. Apparently the episode was slated to appear in the first half of the season, so it has the casualness of those early episodes. There are no references to Amy and Rory's lost child, no attempt to make that resonate more with the audience by tying it into any of the season's threads. It's just a nice, stand-alone episode that, like "Blink" before it, can serve as a perfect entrance for people new to the Who. Tell them to watch it with the lights on.

Grade: B+
Tags: Dr. Who
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