Is there anything more terrifying than British children? How about British children laughing? Or British children laughing and singing spooky nursery rhymes?
Whether they’re cooing, “Have you seen my mummy?” or “Have you come to take me away?”, Doctor Who has a history of using British children to spooky effect. They are a surefire way to freeze the blood. American children are less terrifying, but certainly more menacing, but what do you expect? The Yanks have always been barbaric.
For those hoping for a little more resolution to the whole River Song/Melody Pond saga, “Night Terrors” might be a bit of a disappointment. Not only are Amy and Rory seemingly unconcerned with finding their infant daughter, their appearance in this episode is strictly filler. They could have been sidelined all together, considering how little they add to the episode. No, the Doctor is definitely front and center here, along with a lovely guest turn by Daniel Mays, who plays that rarest of creatures in modern drama, the caring father.
It all starts when a frightened (and frightening) little boy inadvertently sends a distress call to the Doctor via psychic paper. We’ve seen this before, most notably used by River Song to summon the Doctor in season four’s “Silence in the Library.” The Doctor, being the Doctor, decides to make a house call, and I immediately thought of the parallels between this story and young Amelia Pond’s crack in the wall. What might have been a nice episode putting Amy’s own experience with the Doctor in perspective, instead discards this obvious parallel and sends Rory and Amy off on their pointless “B” story. Pity. Though, I suppose Amy’s involvement would have felt too maternal, considering her own loss of a child. And “Night Terrors” is strictly about the boys.
As the Doctor attempts to help Alex (Daniel Mays) and his terrified (and terrifying) son George (Jamie Oram) sort out what monsters might be lurking in the cupboard (Hitler, perhaps?), we definitely begin to feel shades of The Twilight Zone creeping in. A spooky little boy, seemingly in control of the universe, wishing away whatever displeases him? Feels familiar, and Mark Gatiss’s script makes it abundantly clear that the boy who’s afraid of everything is in charge of his own fear (and everyone’s else’s, too).
The Eleventh Doctor is a natural with children, and we’ve seen him interact with them many times. From Amelia Pond to the kids in “The Beast Below” to Kazran Sardick in “A Christmas Carol,” he’s quickly becoming not just the Doctor, but he Pediatrician. Luckily, Matt Smith’s own childlike zeal works well in this role.
He manages to untangle the mystery behind George’s fears and empower those who need it most to overcome what frightens them. Daniel Mays steals the show, however, with his heartfelt and often aching performance of a dad who just wants what’s best for his son. Still, I can’t help thinking the moral of the story here is that kids with OCD and pantophobia are probably from space. Though I suppose any kids with pantophobia probably aren’t watching scary episodes of Doctor Who, so never mind.
Fans of gay cinema get a special treat in “Night Terrors” in the form of Andrew Tiernan. As you may recall, Andrew played Ned’s beloved Gaveston in Derek Jarman’s Edward II, one of those movies that totally f**ked me up in all the best and most profound ways. It’s good to see him again!
When it comes to creating those “scary, but not too scary” moments, the kind that make the more vulnerable viewers hide their eyes or run to the kitchen for more vodka, no one does it better than Doctor Who, and “Night Terrors” works splendidly on that level. However, it does feel like it’s been pieced together by a lot of other parts, not just from The Twilight Zone, but from other pieces of leftover Doctor plot devices (psychic paper distress calls, perception filters, doll-like automatons). We’ve seen it all before. Where and how this might be significant to the mythology set forth in “The Impossible Astronaut” remains to be seen. Hopefully, next week’s “The Girl Who Waited” brings Amy and Rory back into the game.
Best line of the week:
The Doctor: Whatever’s inside that cupboard is so terrible—so powerful—that it amplified the fears of an ordinary little boy across all the barriers of time and space. Through crimson stars and silent stars and tumbling nebulas, like oceans set on fire. Through empires of glass and civilizations of pure thought. And a whole terrible wonderful universe of impossibilities. You see these eyes, they’re old eyes. And one thing I can tell you, Alex: monsters are real.
Alex: You’re not from social services, are you?
Please don’t yell at the Doctor.