UPDATE, 25/09/12: If you read this post, please read on through the comments too. Some astute readers used the comments section to set me straight on some issues both of fact and interpretation. As a result, my attitude towards ‘Night Terrors’ is now considerably more negative than my initial reaction (which you can read in the main review below). In fairness to myself, I do spend most of the piece saying what I don’t like about ‘Night Terrors’, including identifying some of what I call the “latent hostility” towards working-class people… but I failed to notice the wider context of the episode and so also the scale of the problem. I don’t mind admitting when I’m wrong (of course, I do really) but I hate that I blogged before giving myself sufficient time to think.
Okay, my foolhardy project of catching up with all the Doctor Who I’ve not seen in order to re-synch with the new stuff (and hopefully provide myself with blogging material) continues.
Last night I finally watched ‘Night Terrors’. Much to my astonishment, I didn’t absolutely hate it. I mean, it wasn’t particularly good… but it wasn’t actively offensive most of the time either. Which is fairly good going for Moffat-era Who written by Gatiss.
I was horrified by the idea that the Doctor now hears and answers prayers like God, with the pleas of a little boy travelling up to him through the heavens, but that was somewhat neutralised later by some technobabble explanation that made it sound very much like a special case. In the end, I liked that the Doctor actually seemed comparatively less full of himself, and more like a guy making it up and thinking it out as he went along. Matt Smith should be encouraged to slow down a bit more often. He had some nice, quiet moments (inbetween all the usual frenetic gibbering) that were very likeable. He does ‘kindly’ rather well.
There were cliches galore, of course. An old lady complains about her knees. A yobbo guy with a pitbull. Hoodies, etc.
Where would any mainstream BBC drama be nowadays if it had to try and depict a housing estate without the employment of hostile cliches? I think the latter stages of RTD’s depiction of Rose’s estate are the last example of such places being sketched without such latent hostility.
But… there was an interesting visual stress on the uniformity and blandness of the housing estate, bathed in that sickly yellow night-time street-light aura.
And this made the opulent but fake interior of the ‘mansion house’ into a fairly interesting visual counterpoint.
Of course, it was entirely predictable that the mansion would turn out to be a dolls house. But even that was kind of covered when the Doctor immediately realises it when he ends up there, treating the conclusion as though it’s self-evident. It looks like evidence of two tracks of thought at work in the story. We’re more on the Doctor’s wavelength than the other characters… which is not self-evidently the wrong way to do it. It does, however, hammer home the idea of the Doctor’s intellectual superiority… which is questionable. Is it really superiority to think in such a ludicrously illogical way? Within the confines of cult TV, I suppose… which only emphasizes the way in which Moffat-era Who consciously operates in a universe run along the lines of cult TV. To be clued-up about how reality works in this show is to think like a cult TV writer.
Parenthetically, I wonder what sex the Croatian traffic warden was. Why wasn’t the story about him or her? Unsympathetic, I guess. At least, that would be the assumption. The story can only engage us because Alex and Claire are ‘typical’ Brits, i.e. native born, white, heterosexual, etc. Still, the neutral mention of an Eastern European worker (albeit in a job that is typically stigmatised) is relatively good going these days.
On the subject of gender politics… this is the second time in the same season that a father/son reconciliation/understanding is treated as monumentally significant, leaving the mother absent or near-absent in the background. Also, Claire’s infertility is simply a plot point (this issue © Richard Pilbeam). We never get to hear how she feels about it. She’s not involved in the resolution of the problems. In fact, she seems never to be told that her son is actually an alien cuckoo and she’s got a barren womb (O, poor woman… robbed of her ability to be a true mother, a female’s only true role and goal in life!). This is typical Gatiss. Remember the abused Mum in ‘The Idiot’s Lantern’. Nobody bothers to wonder how she’ll feel about her son reconciling with the man who’s been terrorizing her for years. The Doctor and Rose simply remind the young man that he should be nice to his Dad, whatever he may have done. In ‘Night Terrors’, we get an insight into how Alex feels about Claire’s infertility, but Claire’s feelings seem irrelevant to the story, even non-existent. In the end, it’s implicitly better that she be kept in the dark about the workings of her own body.
I’m beginning, as I write this, to wonder if I was too hasty when I said that the episode wasn’t actively offensive. Maybe it just looks better because it’s sandwiched between loads of Moffat-written ‘strong women’. Claire, at least, seems able to think about things other than Her Man. She’s depicted as being something more than just a wife and quasi-mother. With Alex sacked, she’s the family breadwinner. Of course, she’s a nurse… which is a responsible job outside the domestic environment (good) but is still one of those female jobs that is ‘sympathetic’ in the terms of patriarchal fiction. A ‘caring’, ‘nurturing’ job. A kind of displaced motherhood. The classic example of this kind of thing is probably Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which there was only one regular female character who wasn’t a ‘carer’ of some kind… and she got killed almost immediately. Too scary.
(Well… there was Ro Laren, who was the hardbitten non-conformist who gradually melted to Riker’s charms, however she might refuse to admit it. Sigh.)
I mention TNG because they also had an episode called ‘Night Terrors’ which was scarier than this because it dared to be quiet. I think quietness is the key to real scariness. This episode of Doctor Who rather fumbles its own self-imposed mission to be horror-film-style-scary by doing the usual thing of never letting the jabbering dialogue stop, let alone the music. Look at the opening. We have a squeaky child’s swing. Why do we need Murray Gold’s bland gloop gurgling on underneath.
In the end, the dolls weren’t particularly scary because:
a) we’d already seen them in trailers (a persistent problem for nu-Who, even without the ‘help’ of the Radio Times),
b) it was entirely predictable that they’d twitch into life, and
c) they didn’t really seem to have any reason to be there or to do what they did. Saying “We just want to play” and converting people into more dolls… what did that have to do with anything? It was all very formulaic, standard and obvious. Cue the inevitable nursery ryhme music. (Yes, the exact same thing irritates me about ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’, before anyone cries hypocrisy.)
There was a rather good moment which looked like an implicit critique of the Doctor and the show, when the Doctor is in the bedroom with the kid playing with toys while the father/adult faces up to the frightening/painful/grubby reality of money worries in the next room. The story touched upon austerity and unemployment. However, it cast it in rather silly terms – villainous (working class) landlord/super vs virtuous, sacked family man. The landlord (well, supervisor, as I say) is a chav stereotype.
Big screen telly, tasteless carpet, etc. The depictions of working people were, at least, less insufferably cutesy than those in the similar episode ‘Fear Her’, even if they were more cynical and hostile.
Of course, the end let it down. Into a pit of syrup. The monsters were eradicated by the boy ‘believing in himself’ and ‘facing his fears’ (puke) and, natch, by the re-establishment of the nuclear family unit and heteronormative contentment. Earlier in the episode, I found myself responding to Alex’s fear and frustration, but his mechanical switcheroo between “But he’s an alien!” back to “But he’s my son!” just felt like the gyrations of a wind-up dummy. Ironically enough, it all looked (to me) a bit like the writer was moving his dolls around inside his little house. Daddy doll hugs Little Boy doll and then Mummy doll turns up and they all live happily ever after. It seems unfair to be too hard on Gatiss about this because it really is standard procedure nowadays. If they remade ‘Snakedance’ they rewrite it so the Mara was defeated by Lon realising how much he loved his Mum… well, his Dad probably (see above).
At least we didn’t get something I feared: the nasty supervisor guy turning over a new leaf. That would’ve been truly vomworthy.
On the whole, not all that bad. Probably the least irritating episode since ‘Vincent and the Doctor’. Surely, the best Gatiss TV script… though that’s not saying much.