Council estates are nothing to be scared of, unless you are frightened of inequality.
- Lynsey Hanley, Estates: An Intimate History
|Oh boy, creepy children/dolls! I've never seen those before!|
It’s September 3rd, 2011. Olly Murs is at number one with “Heart Skips a Beat,” with Calvin Harris, Maroon 5, and Emeli Slade also charting. Unsurprisingly, not a lot of news since “The Gathering.” Actually, literally the only thing I can find is that a plane belonging to the Chilean Air Force crashed, killing all twenty-one on board. And, of course, Night Terrors aired.
I have in the past come out on record as saying Night Terrors is my least favorite story of the new series. This sets up a somewhat awkward situation, in that the expectation becomes that I am now going to explain why it is my least favorite story of the new series, which I can do, but the answer is pretty underwhelming: because I enjoy watching it less than all the others. I know. Which is to say, if you’re looking for some definitive argument about why this is the absolute worst episode and Victory of the Daleks or The Sontaran Stratagem or 42 or Fear Her are superior, sorry. It’s just that if you told me I had to watch one of those six, I wouldn’t pick Night Terrors.
Nevertheless, I do think the episode has significant problems that are worth talking about. Although even there, I have to admit that some of the problems it has are not entirely it’s fault. First and foremost, it was painfully poorly served by the last minute decision to switch it with Curse of the Black Spot (a decision taken so late that Night Terrors is featured prominently in the post-Christmas Carol trailer). This proved problematic for two reasons, one of which should have been apparent at the time, the other one of which was wholly impossible to predict and, nevertheless, ultimately the larger problem with the story.
The foreseeable issue was largely structural. This is not what you would call a terribly complex story. It wears its intentions on its sleeve, or, at least, in its title. It’s supposed to be the scary one - the definitive take on the haunted house story. That’s its entire brief: be the extremely scary one. This was, ostensibly, why it was moved: because putting it in the first half of the season meant that essentially the entire first section of the season was scary, dark, and indoors, and by swapping it with Curse of the Black Spot they added a story that was scary, dark, and outdoors instead. But what this ended up doing was moving this story away from the position it would have originally had, where it would have, in effect, served as the definitive statement on how to do straightforward Doctor Who horror before a bunch of other stories started to change things around a bit. Even there it would have suffered coming after The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon, which already changed the “scary Doctor Who” paradigm dramatically, but it would have been improved. Instead it feels shabby, overly simplistic, and like the series has decided that as long as it makes some mundane object creepy it doesn’t actually have to try to do anything else. In September of 2011, at least, this just isn’t very good.
And so this ends up being, in effect, the last gasp of a particular style of Doctor Who. It’s in effect the last Davies-era story. Its central twist of resolving a fantastic plot with the application of human emotion - which, when people want to slam Davies’s work, is what they call a “power of love” ending - was the central structural innovation of the Davies era. Although Davies, to be fair, was usually less obvious about it - it was actually Gatiss himself who originated the direct “emotion vs aliens” resolution in The Unquiet Dead. Still, the basic formula is still very Davies - parallel a story about people and emotions with a story about aliens, and then resolve the emotional/character storyline, allowing the parallelism to then resolve the alien story with or without a whole lot of exposition as to the precise mechanics of how that works. It is, in many ways, one of the primary tricks of the Davies era, along with a savvy embrace of the language of television.
It’s not that either of these are bad ideas that the Moffat era is going to do away with - we’ve still got an unabashed “power of love” ending in The Snowmen, for instance, and many of the stylistic techniques that defined Davies ultra-televisual take on Doctor Who are going to survive as the Moffat era really starts to develop its filmic take. But this is, in many ways, the last story to run through this approach in the classic, unadulterated style. It’s fitting, in many ways, that it airs the same week as Davies’s last scripting credit on a Doctor Who-related story, in that it means that there’s really one week of history where we finally wrap the approach up. But equally, Night Terrors is done no favors by its proximity to the three stories following this, two of which serve as the debut for the most important director to hit Doctor Who since at least Euros Lyn, if not since Graham Harper.
Put earlier in the season, where it was originally intended, this could have served perfectly adequately as one last emphatic statement of a particular style the show could do - something akin to The Seeds of Doom or Image of the Fendahl that is, while by no means an absolute classic of its approach, at least a competent and enjoyable last hurrah. And in many ways, it still is like both of those, neither of which I was massively kind to, because there’s a very fine line between enjoyable last hurrah and slightly awkward throwback. All the same, I suspect that for this story, at least, that line is somewhere in the summer of 2011.
Another thing that was in the summer of 2011, and that is in many ways more problematic for the story, albeit considerably less predictable, were a bunch of riots. It is here necessary to engage in some frantic disclaiming, not least because, this only having happened about three years ago, there’s not even a nice veneer of history to cover me. So, up front, there are some significant barriers to any sort of sympathy for the rioters. Certainly the riots were tremendously self-defeating. There is no reasonable way to claim that they were not in part, indeed, in a substantial part motivated by little more than outright anger and destructiveness. Many, indeed the overwhelming majority of people directly harmed by the riots were by any sensible standard innocent victims. And no sensible theory of political activism can really conclude that indiscriminate smashing of stuff is going to get you much of anywhere.
All of which said, in practice there is something grimly inevitable about riots - a toxic mixture of poverty, degradation, and summer heat that periodically and predictably combusts. 58% of those arrested in connection with the riots came from the poorest 20% of areas of England. This fact speaks volumes about the causes of the riots. And perhaps more to the point, it is not necessarily reasonable to expect people’s howl of outrage at the apparent and hopeless dead end that is their life to be orderly and productive. It cannot be ignored that the people who set the standards for what reasonable and appropriate protest consists of are, inevitably, the exact fuckers who are being protested against. It would be folly to expect or assume that these standards are in any way constructed to favor the actual efficacy of the protests, or, indeed, to provide for the well-being of the protesters in any way, shape, or form. The evolution of a system in which the poorest and most deprived portion of the population has no useful outlet for their anger such that it is ultimately channeled into self-defeating riots that make it easier to sell the ancient lie that there is such a thing as the devil’s poor. All of which is to say that the viewpoint that the riots were an absolutely awful thing is in no way incompatible with complete and total sympathy for the people involved in them.
But let us instead imagine the riots as an aesthetic event, shall we? A government with deep ideological commitments to slashing social services to the poor. Outbreaks of violence, mainly among the young, in the areas most affected. A governmental response that amounts to accusing the young of being irredeemable hooligans with an entitlement problem. And, finally, arrests of the rioters and draconian sentences including, famously, a six month jail sentence for someone who stole £3.50 worth of bottled water. Treated as a set of iconography, this resembles nothing so much as a Robert Holmes story. Indeed, it's basically the plot of The Sunmakers, which is, all things considered, ironic.
But this is, I would submit, an important truth about the riots to recognize. However self-defeating and damaging they may have been, in the end, in a conflict between impoverished kids who riot and a law and order system that puts them in jail for stealing £3.50 of water, there is, historically, only one side that Doctor Who would ever come down on. There’s just no way around this. Whatever one’s views on the ethics of riots, whatever one’s views on the efficacy of violence as a political (and I use that word in its absolute broadest possible sense) tool, this is simply one of the things that Doctor Who exists for. Doctor Who is a text that valorizes the pressure exerted on the mainstream by the marginal and disenfranchised. It has always been the mainstream’s love letter to dissent, anger, radicalism, and strangeness - to what we might call the Other, if we want a catch-all term. This is not always straightforward, not least because of the previously mentioned problem whereby entrenched power is never going to define “acceptable protest” in any way other than in its own favor, but it’s on the whole a pretty decent arrangement. Indeed, I’d suggest, and largely have been for several years now, that there is a longstanding element of British culture that treats the Other as an essential part of the social order - one that frequently manifests in the peculiarly British image of the portal to faerie, an image that, in the end, defines what Doctor Who is. And a basic part of that, a fundamental, bedrock level "this is unambiguously what Doctor Who is for" sort of thing is that if there's a debate in society about whether to jail people for six months for stealing three pounds fifty of bottled water, Doctor Who is against it.
And look, this honest to God isn’t the fault of Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffat, Richard Clark, or anyone else involved in making this episode, which was written, shot, and intended to be transmitted before any of this happens. Really, if anything I feel nothing but sympathy for all of them. Because what this story said on transmission and what it said when it was being filmed were profoundly different things. But, if I may rework a sentence from earlier in the essay, the viewpoint that Night Terrors is an absolutely awful thing is in no way incompatible with complete and total sympathy for the people involved in it.
Because this is a disastrous own goal. It’s a story set on the exact sort of crumbling council estate that characterizes the areas out of which the riots sprung. It’s a story about scared children with no apparent hope in a world that is full of utterly terrifying things. Indeed, in the contrast between the grotty estate and the opulent Victorian mansion that represents all of fears there’s a fundamental sense of class conflict that, on most days, would be wonderful. Not least because the basic decision to set this in a council estate is a last flourish of a Russell T Davies trope that’s, on the whole, not nearly visible enough in Moffat’s Doctor Who, which is the active and conscious grounding of the story in the world of the working class. But look, Damaged Goods this ain't. (Though for what it's worth, I think the landlord and Gatiss's handling of him, and that scene of the Doctor distracting George while the landlord threatens his father for being behind on the bills, is absolutely perfect. I think there's an argument to be made that it's the single best sequence in Season Six.)
Except that this went out at the same time that David Cameron was saying things like this about the riots: "Perhaps they come from one of the neighbourhoods where it’s standard for children to have a mum and not a dad… where it’s normal for young men to grow up without a male role model, looking to the streets for their father figures, filled up with rage and anger. So if we want to have any hope of mending our broken society, family and parenting is where we’ve got to start." Which is, let's be clear, a dogwhistle for the Daily Mail crowd, and basically just UKIP with the mean bits taken out.
And this is a story in which all of George’s problems are shown to be solved by repairing his relationship with his father, and where the Doctor calmly strolls away after that’s done as though everything else in his life is solved. The story opens with Amy and Rory sneering at the location, saying they could have taken a bus here, and with the Doctor claiming that there’s something important here in the form of a child’s fear. But that is apparently all that’s important, and once it’s resolved any issues like systemic poverty are not only to be left alone, they’re to be ignored. Once George and his father get along, the council estate is just a place to be avoided again.
And yes, there’s a defense to be made here, which is the massive and blatant metaphor for coming out of the closet that is George and his cupboard, and yes, from that perspective it is a sweet and wonderful story, except that we’re talking about David Cameron here, who made being pro-gay marriage into exhibit A in his “we’re not the mean old Tories of old” media campaign. So being a sweet and touching coming out of the closet story is, in the end, a hollow defense, because it still leaves this story as something that, on transmission, felt like nothing so much as Tory propaganda designed to minimize the idea that poverty is actually a major concern for the population that had just erupted in riots. “We can get away with ignoring poverty because we’re as a party marginally less homophobic than we used to be” is more or less the Tory party platform.
And that’s, at the end of the day, why I hate this story. Because I remember sitting there on September 3rd, 2011, watching the Doctor walk away from that council estate without a care in the world. I remember how angry and frustrating the world was at the end of that summer. I remember how it felt to see no viable path forward, to feel like I had worked for years and gone in to deep debt to get a useless degree, and that I was going to be dependent on the charity of my family forever, and how ashamed and angry and scared and hopeless I felt, every day. I remember feeling, constantly, like there was just this anguished, frustrated rage stuck right at the top of my chest, and that the only thing that held it back was the awful realization that there was nothing specific to be angry at, that the world was just a big and broken thing that sometimes screwed people over, and that I had found myself among the screwed.
And I knew then, and know now, that my life, which was, even if only through the help of others, a comfortable and safe middle class existence, was on the whole not a bad lot. That as the screwed went, I was damned lucky. That I’d only occasionally had to gaze over the precipice of the vast existential nightmare that is contemporary poverty, and that the occasional tastes of it I’d had, terrifying as they were, were just that: tastes. I’ll not for a moment pretend that I can understand the situation of many of those involved in the riots except by thinking about the raw, frantic terror of honestly having no idea how you’re going to keep your electricity from getting shut off tomorrow and multiplying it by a factor of inconceivable.
But I knew, watching the Doctor walk off, that what I was watching was a complete and utterly bullshit response to the world that he was walking away from. And I remember the surge of disgust at the preceding forty-five minutes of my life that I felt when the credits came. On September 3rd, 2011, that was what this episode was. It turned my stomach, the same way that I think The Talons of Weng-Chiang would have in 1977, or The Monster of Peladon in 1974, or The Dominators in 1968, or The Celestial Toymaker in 1966 had I watched any of those on transmission. And now it turns my stomach the same way any of those do. Sometimes the confluence of history and narrative within Doctor Who is brilliant. This time, even if only by a stroke of bad luck, it was absolutely revolting.
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