“You’re supposed to be a professional! I’ll never get him to sleep now! You’re so — irresponsible!”
“No, Alex. Responsible, very. Cupboard bad. Cupboard not bare. Stay away from cupboard. And there’s something else, something I’ve missed, something … staring me in the face.”
This week, the Doctor gets a distress call from a young boy named George who’s terrified that monsters are going to get him. All his life, his parents have been putting the things that frighten him into his cupboard. Given that it seems that everything frightens George, that’s got to be one full cupboard. So the Doctor drops in and has two tricks to pull off: first, win the trust of George’s dad, Alex, and second, figure out what’s in the cupboard and how to deal with it. A relatively straightforward little DOCTOR WHO adventure, just the sort of thing to rinse out the bad taste “Let’s Kill Hitler” left in my mouth. I think it says something that I couldn’t even fathom sitting through “Let’s Kill Hitler” a second time but I’ve watched “Night Terrors” twice. I could probably sit through it a third time. It’s no great shakes, but it’s a satisfying forty-two minutes of Matt Smith being charmingly eccentric and director Richard Clark shooting the eerie hell out of one of Mark Gatiss’s better DOCTOR WHO scripts. Again, spoilers follow.
1) Across Twitter and in the reviews I’ve already seen there have been comparisons to the episode “Fear Her,” one of the absolute worst episodes of David Tennant’s first season as the Doctor. The plot’s a bit of a close match, troubled kid taking all his/her worries and literally shutting them away, though for some reason I want to say this one made a lot more sense. Also, much better child actor with more effective tics. But moreover, what’s striking about this episode is that it’s one of a very few domestic, present day stories Matt Smith has done as the Doctor. It feels like a complete throwback to the Russell T Davies era of DOCTOR WHO, and the Eleventh Doctor doesn’t seem really at home here, even when he’s literally making himself at home in someone’s apartment, rummaging through their kitchen drawers in order to make some tea. Given all they’ve been through, Amy and Rory don’t really seem at home here, either — they even balk when the TARDIS lands and they’re faced with a block of flats as opposed to another time and place. This just isn’t the sort of thing the TARDIS team does in 2011, which honestly makes it a bit novel and an interesting watch, especially coming right off of the time-looped circle-jerk overarcing plot nonsense we had to put up with last week, which IS the sort of thing the TARDIS team does in 2011, much to my building frustration.
2) When Amy and Rory get sidelined, I smiled at Rory’s theories about what’s happened to them: first, of course, they’re dead, which is something Rory’s learned to get used to. Sometimes death just happens. Sometimes it happens twice in one week. You learn to deal with it. Then he assumes that something’s gone wrong with the TARDIS and they’ve been blasted into the past while the Doctor’s still sorting out the problem with the kid. Which reminds me, I will say I was a little disappointed in how anxious he seemed to call the whole thing off; Rory’s never struck me as the sort who’d be so glibly unsympathetic. Then again, he had just had to talk to the creepy landlord with the nasty dog …
3) Amy’s not particularly well served by this one, is she? Mostly she just gets to play straight man to Rory and then get turned into one of those creepy dolls. I guess when you’ve got three leads and two of them have distinctive voices that are fun to write, the one who doesn’t is going to suffer. Come to think of it, Amy wasn’t particularly well served by Gatiss’s last story, “Victory of the Daleks,” either, and there he didn’t even have a third lead to contend with. Huh.
4) We get another big Doctor speech this episode, which — yeah, it’s another big Doctor speech about how he’s seen the stars and is all ancient and knows a bunch of stuff and … yes, yes, we know. And lord knows Matt Smith delivers the hell out of it, and he’s got to find some way to convince Alex that he knows what he’s talking about, but it’s turning into a bit of an overfamiliar trope. Just as many of Moffat’s tics are starting to grate on my nerves, so too are a lot of the tics that have built up over the modern run of the series. Despite that, I think Matt Smith continues to do a hell of a job in the role, and he gets a lot of great scenes. Far better than the big Doctor speech is the sequence where he waffles back and forth with Alex about opening the cupboard.
5) God, the tension in this thing. Second time around, even knowing what I did, the Doctor opening George’s cupboard still got my heart rate up. Between Matt Smith selling the danger, the well judged and well timed music, and the pitch-perfect editing, that moment really got me nervous. It’s a very well made episode, by and large, with a tremendous sense of atmosphere, both inside the dark dollhouse and outside the vast apartment block. The direction is just great, and really stands out on the rewatch. In fact …
6) … for that reason, the scene where the Doctor and Alex get sucked into the cupboard sticks out like a sore thumb; the actors are clearly trying to convey the impression that they’re being dragged in by a powerful force from behind as best they can, but it just looks ropey as all hell. The bit where the landlord gets pulled into the floor looks a little unconvincing as well, like an effect out of Christopher Eccleston’s season, but that’s alright, it’s a man getting sucked into a floor; how convincing does it need to be? It didn’t drag me out of the program the way Alex’s unconvincing struggle against the sucking force did.
7) It’s not just tense, it’s creepy. The dolls are creepy — well, yes, of course you’d toss those things into that cupboard, good lord, LOOK at them! The transformation effect is unnerving. And I’m going to be honest here, that kid, George, he’s a little creepy himself, the way he doesn’t really react to what’s going on around him and has those nervous tics that Alex describes. His dad gets sucked into the cupboard and all he does is give that slightly scared look and twitchily blink a bit. At that point you still don’t know what to make of him, so yeah, I think the creepiness is intentional.
8) One thing I didn’t catch the first time around was the reason why all the folks who get shunted off into the dollhouse do. As Alex says, George thinks the old lady across the way is a witch — and she clearly doesn’t much care for the boy, either — so she gets gobbled up by the trash. The landlord is a threatening dick to George’s dad so he’s gotta go, too. But why, I asked myself, do Amy & Rory go? Oh right, George catches that offhand remark Rory makes about letting the monsters get him when they’re having no luck finding him. And then, of course, when the Doctor figures out what he saw in the photo album — and you see him looking at the page before the baby pictures when he first flips through, though we don’t get to see that page — once he confronts Alex with the truth and the two ask George what exactly he is, well, that’s the biggest threat to poor little George of all, isn’t it?
9) The sort of thing I tend to notice, and have always tended to notice: George’s bedroom is full of those generic motorized electronic toys that they’ve been selling over and over again for, like, the past twenty-five years — I guess so that you can have the scene of the Doctor turning them all on with a wave of his wand. Do kids really still have those kinds of toys? They’re probably still sort of inexpensive, and parents without a lot of money — again, Alex & Claire are behind on the rent — probably buy ’em up instead of overpriced movie/TV/video game toys. But hey, in the middle of all that, he’s got one of those non-transforming, equally electronic movie-style Optimus Primes, lending an air of verisimilitude to the whole thing to my addled mind.
10) I’ve seen complaints about the ending being overly schmaltzy. I guess it is, but it works based on the logic the Doctor provides. It’s a story about fears reaching a critical mass, and what could defuse a situation like that in the mind of a child but the warm, comforting arms of his parents and an assurance that everything would, in fact, be alright, and that he is loved and wanted? Don’t we all want to be loved and wanted? Isn’t that something we can all relate to? Based on the admittedly small sampling of folks who rolled their eyes at this ending, maybe not.
11) The final moments are a shoehorned-in tease for the season-long arc. After the season-long arc wore out its welcome with me last episode, this felt like quite the intrusion. I don’t think that was the intended effect. It’s worth noting that this was intended for an earlier slot in the season, and was shot about a year ago now, so this tease is literally tacked on the end.