Saturday, 3 September 2011

Monsters Are Real: Doctor Who review


DOCTOR WHO: 'Night Terrors'

The greatest episodes of Steven Moffat's tenure as Who showrunner have been those which sought to capture the essence of the series' appeal in its purest form. 'The Eleventh Hour', in which Matt Smith made his sensational debut as The Doctor's latest incarnation, played on the fairytale nature of a man arriving to whisk a little girl away from her difficult life to a world of wonder and excitement. 'A Christmas Carol' was about the relationship between storytelling and growing up, and the importance of traditions and myths in exciting the imaginations and curiosity of the young - something Who fans understand all too well. Neil Gaiman's 'The Doctor's Wife' focused on how the people and places inhabiting those stories can become lifelong friends, and what you would say if, just for a moment, you had the chance to communicate with those friends. ('I just wanted to say... hello.')

'Night Terrors' is the latest entry in that estimable canon, working around a concept which is pure Who at heart - what if your childhood monsters under the bed, or in your cupboard, were real? - and subtly using it to tell a story about the terrors of loneliness and the need for companionship on the long walk through life. It was also a story about a man with a magic pointy-glowy-screwdrivery thing turning up to defeat a gang of evil wooden dolls in a big scary house. At its best, Who is both terrifying and reassuring, an acknowledgment that while there are many scary things waiting beyond the safety of a warm bed on a dark night, having the bravery to face them - and someone to face them with, real or imaginary - is part of the excitement of growing up.
There were many similarities between this and the much-maligned Tenth Doctor episode, 'Fear Her', an episode I don't think is quite as bad as is often suggested, certainly not when following the irredeemable 'Love And Monsters'. Both stories centred around young children and an alien being sharing feelings of isolation from loved ones, and a child's fears manifesting itself as a real-life threat.

'Fear Her' stumbled in its lack of clarity - any episode whose threat is primarily derived from the relationship between a child and their family needs a clear understanding of what that relationship is to work, which it didn't have. Instead, it threw in drawings coming to life, a terribly animated squiggle monster, a demonic picture of an abandoned father randomly appearing at the end, a lost alien spore... all thrown together in a manner too haphazard to be either sufficiently affecting or substantial to make the concept work, let alone the inherent lack of peril in the 'captured in the crayon drawings' central conceit.

'Night Terrors', on the other hand, had a clear point to make and used its various pieces in aid of that single purpose. Like 'Fear Her', the key theme was loneliness, albeit in the shape of not having someone to face your fears with, rather than at the root of the threat itself. Admittedly, there were some gaps in how it all came together: the extent of George's powers were never made clear, so everything happening outside the flat (Amy and Rory's lift plummeting to the ground; the old lady (surely named after the star of Rising Damp) sucked into the bins; the landlord consumed by his floor) lacked impact. But where the pieces of 'Fear Her' only seemed connected in the loosest sense, the characters and ideas of 'Night Terrors' were easy to fit together into a coherent whole.

Matt Smith's Doctor is also much better suited to this kind of story than David Tennant's incarnation. Ten was always something of an intergalactic sightseer, wandering the universe in search of something new to gawp at. Where he liked to marvel at things, Smith's Eleven likes playing with them. He's more of a mischievous older brother, bouncing around and poking everything with a stick just to see what happens. Tennant investigated and did what needed to be done, always at a step removed. For an intimate story of the kind 'Fear Her' purported to be, that lack of engagement robbed the story of a key emotional connection between the lost child and the saviour arrived to help. 'I had a family once,' Ten said, before quickly changing the subject. 

Smith, on the other hand, is all about understanding and making connections. He doesn't save the day because a danger just so happened to materialise in the same place he did, he does it because he heard a scared child's cry and decided to make a house call. His short speech, delivered as pitch-perfectly as ever by Smith, about what George's fear had to go through to reach him was a lovely call-back to Seventh Doctor Sly McCoy's words to end the classic series in the episode 'Survival', while also demonstrating how, to this Doctor, a scared child's cry for help is of even greater importance than any star or civilisation that has ever existed.

It wasn't just George who needed help though. The episode subtly made a point about the isolating effects of poverty through the inhabitants of its generically designed council block - the old lady in need of new knees (!), the intimidating landlord whose only real friend was a scene-stealing bulldog named Bernard, and George's father, Alex (affectingly portrayed by Daniel Mays), struggling to help his suffering son and keep his family afloat. Each got a scene that gave identity to their individual challenges: the old lady struggling to take out her bins; the landlord, Purcell, spending another empty night watching the same old movie; Alex having to endure threats as he pleaded for more time to pay the rent - a scene that also revealed why Purcell didn't have any friends, as he took out his frustrations on those he could yield power over.

As for George, writer Mark Gatiss (whose previous work on the series has been rather hit-and-miss) drew the danger for his episode from how a child's imagination can be both the most comforting and most terrifying thing in their world. Without it, all those toys on the bedroom floor would be nothing but lifeless pieces of plastic. With it, they come to life in any shape or form desired, providing an avenue for exploration and new experiences. Unfortunately, a vivid imagination can also fill life's gaps with fear as well as wonder, and locking away that fear only leaves it festering in the corner of the mind.

The dollhouse at the back of George's cupboard - another perfect analogue for the episode's themes of disconnected lives, with its simulacra of a family environment filled with fake furnishings and dolls for inhabitants - was that corner of George's mind, an imitation world he could fill with everything he was afraid of in the hope it wouldn't intrude on the real world. Unfortunately, just knowing the fear was there, even stored away inside that little wooden house, was enough to give it power.

Amy and Rory's main purpose in the episode was to wander around the house, looking scared. It's a shame that more wasn't made of their respective fears perhaps being manifested in some form, especially given how Amy certainly has issues about being left behind, as it could have played nicely to the characters and given them more to do, perhaps also showing Rory's ongoing success in overcoming his timidity. Amy getting 'turned' was a neat twist, though, and provided a haunting image as Rory watched his beloved wife being taken away from him - making a change from the other way around, I suppose - and leaving him apparently alone to suffer the same fate.

That said, as a piece of suspense, the house and living peg dolls were as unsettling as anything Who has come up with since Moffat's 'Blink', with the lack of evident CGI working strongly in making the danger a more tangible and threatening. (The one time the episode did resort to blatant computer trickery, when Purcell was sucked into his floor, was the one time it looked ridiculous). Who episodes tend be in a hurry to get to the next flashy thing, so Gatiss taking the time to gradually dial up the tension as Rory and Amy explored the house, while The Doctor explored the depths behind George and his family, was a well-judged change of pace that made the conclusion all the more touching. Pity about the shoehorned-in story arc foreshadowing as a final shot, though, which didn't fit in even if it was technically, but only vaguely, relevant to the episode's theme.

'Night Terrors' was Who at its best. Scary, but in a way that was purposeful and honest rather than exploitative, and with wild visuals anchored by a simple idea that is at the heart of what makes the series such a long-lasting treasure. It was hugely enjoyable as both a suspenseful haunted house ride and a story about finding the courage and people with whom you can confront your fears, a theme that will resonate as powerfully among children and parents alike - depending on who comes out from behind the sofa first, of course.




    Anonymous said...

    I very much agree with your thoughts.

    theoncominghope said...

    The episode was beautifully directed, but the story itself fell quite flat (and gets worse the more I think about it).

    I've written a bit about what I see as the central problem with the Ponds this season, and would love your thoughts on the matter.