Mark Gatiss is not the most original writer ever to have penned an episode of Doctor Who. Victory of the Daleks was directly inspired by Patrick Troughton’s debut story, and beginning an episode with the Doctor visiting a Victorian theatre was bound to summon memories of The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Even The Idiot’s Lantern was born out of a desire to evoke the BBC Quatermass serials of the 1950s. And Gatiss’ work elsewhere has been just as derivative. Crooked House was an homage to the portmanteau movies of decades past; Sherlock – well, that speaks for itself, doesn’t it?; and The League of Gentlemen took inspiration from almost every horror, sci-fi or fantasy told in the century that preceded it.
Welcome, then, to Fear Him, Gatiss’ most direct and comprehensive “borrowing” yet.
But of course, there’s nothing wrong with wearing your influences on your sleeve, as long as you look good doing so. And this latest episode of Doctor Who wears its primary influence particularly well; in fact, it might even be a case of everyone involved wishing to remake Matthew Graham’s disappointingly-received 2006 debut for the series, only for this time, to “do it right.”
And just as Fear Her started with an irrelevant but lovely moment involving the TARDIS, so Night Terrors begins with an irrelevant but lovely shot of the ship’s materialisation. It sets the tone perfectly; it probably cost double the amount a materialisation effect usually does, but it insists from the off that care is being taken with the material. If Gatiss’ episode isn’t going to break any new ground, it is at the very least going to make the familiar seem fresh.
Make no mistake about it, though, Night Terrors – whether by intention or not – is a remake of Fear Her; the similarities are so striking, they almost list themselves: a single (for the duration of the plot, at least) parent struggling with an only child; the Doctor and companion(s) investigating in the heart of strictly suburbia; an alien presence that has drifted down from space and fetched up in a child’s bedroom; random people going missing; something nasty in the wardrobe; human beings metamorphosing into a child’s representation of ‘people’; and a resolution to the story that hinges upon a moment of “love.” If Matt Smith had had a scene being inappropriate with some condiment or other in the kitchen, the illusion would have been complete.
And while I’m not entirely sure that Night Terrors is actually any better than Fear Her, it is certainly “more Doctor Who,” and that counts for a lot.
Where Gatiss’ episode absolutely triumphs over its earlier counterpart is in its representation of the threat. Altogether, as a story, it’s pretty thin stuff, really (and we really could have done with a more thorough going examination of the inside of the doll’s house. This location – this dislocation, if you like – might have been the episode’s great strength, might have given Night Terrors the status of a worthy successor to Planet of Giants; as it is it feels like an idea that’s in deference to the main story). Even in these days of stories that last only 45 minutes, there are times this feels stretched out to fill its slot, and there are any number of odd moments when the episode seems to pause as if for breath, and yet for no apparent reason. But it’s in the creation of the Peg People, the doll-like inhabitants of the back of George’s cupboard, that the threat is thoroughly brought to life. Famously, Fear Her didn’t have the budget to reveal what it was that was on the other side of the wardrobe doors; in Night Terrors, we not only get to see what’s residing in the cupboard, but we get to see how they’re made, too (in a particularly creepy moment that’s reminiscent of Steven Moffat’s first Doctor Who, The Empty Child). And the dolls are a brilliantly creepy construction, with just enough of the innocence of a childhood toy about them to make them truly sinister.
Daniel Mays is exceptional as George’s dad, Alex, and Andrew Tiernan (as Purcell, the family’s landlord) is always good in everything he does (nice ponytail, too; I wonder if that’s a nod of the head to the Rory of Amy’s Choice?). But it is little Jamie Oram as George who steals the show; you never for an instant believe he’s anyone other than a frightened child for whom the monsters are real. Moffat’s Doctor Who has been terrifically lucky (or rather, terrifically good) at finding talented child actors, and while some might find recent episodes too scary, too complicated or just too “grown up” for the pre-adolescent audience that is the programme’s core, its continued success amongst this demographic – along with its continued success at portraying this demographic – is obviously no fluke.
This isn’t the story that’s going to win the end-of-series polls, and it’s not a story that’s going to be remembered for its challenging storytelling or the depth of its originality either. But if Doctor Who’s twin tenets are to send shivers down the spine and to challenge the mind, then Night Terrors has succeeded admirably well in that task. And even though this is the first time the author’s really been set free to write to his own tune, it’s not Mark Gatiss’ best Doctor Who either (that’s still The Unquiet Dead), nor is it his maddest (undoubtedly Victory of the Daleks).
But it does share more than a thing or two in common with The Idiot’s Lantern (Series Two’s other underperforming story, after Fear Her – and what is it with sons-and-fathers this year anyway?), and it is a vast improvement upon that.
It’s difficult to watch Night Terrors (nee What Are Little Boys Made Of?, a title that would perhaps have been too much of a giveaway regarding the story’s resolution), though, without a nagging feeling at the back of your mind telling you that the Amy you’re seeing is really a Ganger – or would have been, if this episode had been broadcast in its originally intended slot way back in the first half of Series Six (and turning her into a living doll – itself reminiscent of the removing of Rose’s face in The Idiot’s Lantern – is a strange sort of comment to be making about the companion). The Doctor’s observation at the end of the episode, regarding how nice it is to be reunited with Amy “in the Flesh,” must surely then be a deliberate in-joke on the authors’ behalf? Either that, or else a clue to the eventual twist in The Almost People that is now, post-switcheroo, completely redundant. Either way, it’s an odd moment in an odd episode.
Odd in a good way, of course.