Mark Watches ‘Doctor Who’: S06E09 – Night Terrors

In the ninth episode of the sixth series of Doctor Who, the Doctor receives a desperate message from a young boy who is terrified by monsters in his room. And then Mark Gatiss tries to scare the pants off of us for forty-five minutes. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Doctor Who.


Here’s a summary of what happened:

  • I went to Los Angeles for Labor Day weekend and found NO TIME to complete anything at all, so I did not update the site for Monday. SOMETIMES, I NEED A DAY OFF.
  • Then MARK WATCHES GOT HACKED. Okay, honestly, it was the most pointless hack of all time because the spammers who did it didn’t even do anything that benefitted them at all and just put a redirect code into my Adobe files and…the end? So nothing was compromised. I lost no posts, your info is fine, and it just provided a major irritation. I suppose that’s what spam does, right?

So, as consolation, the next Battlestar Galactica review will go up at 1:00pm PDT. On top of that, another BSG review will be posted Saturday morning. Thank you all for your patience! Sorry about the delay but WE ARE BACK. LET’S GO. 

At heart, “Night Terrors” is about the love a parent has for a child.

I’ve been anxious to see this specific episode since we saw the previews for this series early this year. I wanted to see the Doctor tell someone that monsters were real, and those creepy doll figures we’ve been seeing in adverts were sure to scare me because I don’t like dolls THEY ARE REALLY FRIGHTENING TO ME, OKAY? But there was another part of me that wanted to see “Night Terrors” purely to have a non-mythology episode, unattached to a larger story, and self-contained within one story. I’m actually a big fan of the more serial nature that Doctor Who is taking, even if it’s hard to like single episodes when they air because they’re pieces of a larger narrative. But I also like episodic weirdness and single-dose silliness and it’s about time that we got a lot of that. On top of that, “Night Terrors” might just be the best-paced episode of series six, alongside “The Doctor’s Wife,” because it develops so slowly, giving us a believable situation (as much as what happens here is believable, of course) and more richer characters.

I like that it’s such a familiar story, and writer Mark Gatiss slowly unravels that story trope over the course of forty-five minutes. I was George for the most part growing up, convinced there were demons in my closet, monsters under the bed, ghosts drifting through my bedroom door to watch me as I fell asleep. (I’m writing this after the episode aired, so remind me in the comments to tell the most awesome ghost story ever when this is posted.) And it’s not like we haven’t seen this idea play out in sci-fi and horror films, but I don’t know that I’ve then seen it dealt with in this way. George, terrified by the monsters in his room, manages to summon the Doctor through the psychic paper (I MISSED YOU, PSYCHIC PAPER), and the Doctor rushes to the boy’s aid with Rory and Amy at his side. I enjoyed the prolonged acknowledgment that the psychic paper doesn’t exactly act as a homing beacon, and we watch the three of them attempt to locate George. (Seriously, my new neighbor looks so much like Elsie it is FRIGHTENING.) What works so well about this “montage” of sorts is that it shows that the Doctor and his companions aren’t superheroes, and that they are sometimes limited by their own knowledge. Additionally, it serves to give us some basic archetypes of characters right from the beginning, from the feisty (and always-complaining) Elsie, to the predatory landlord, Purcell. And his dog. You can’t forget his dog.

I will say that it seemed a bit odd that the Doctor parted from Amy and Rory and then seemed not the slightest bit concerned about their location for the entirety of the episode, but splitting them up allowed Gatiss to explore both George’s mental creation and the more realistic side of a father lost by his inability to know what to do with his child. Daniel Mays is such a perfect father throughout “Night Terrors,” and might actually be one of my favorite supporting characters in the Doctor Who universe. He visibly cares for his son and wife, and is distraught and disturbed by the increasing anxiety and terror that this brings. And as frightening as this story ultimately becomes, Mays helps represent the real emotions and the humor of the situation. Understandably so, he’s upset as a father because he has no control over what’s happening to his son. At the same time, he has a pitch-perfect reaction to the appearance of the Doctor: relief into confusion into panic and then right back to the start.

One of the things I love so much about the character of the Doctor is his willingness to believe. He does ask questions, constantly so, but he believes that cynicism gets him nowhere. He’s inclined to have faith in what other beings tell him, and will give validity to the most inane of theories. He reminds me of Fox Mulder in a way: willing to believe anything, and generally right about those things as well. It’s fascinating to watch everyday humans fight this idea at first, and even more fascinating to watch his companions slowly change over time to become more like him in this regard.

In that sense, what happens to Amy and Rory is actually pretty intriguing to me. Rory’s exasperated joke about being dead again is not only a joke that he could make (and I’m glad he’s acknowledging his penchant for death), but when you step away from this, both of these characters have stopped fighting the believability of this all. I mean, after all they’ve seen? Plunging to their deaths in an elevator and ending up in a creepy house with sentient dolls is pretty low on their weirdness lift. And I love that the show is always inherently about the fact that weird shit happens and you’d better learn to accept it all and adapt to it.

But let’s just talk about that house. Even from the opening frames of the entire episode, Gatiss composes “Night Terrors” to be about what is intrinsically frightening to us: dark hallways, made of all corners, sharply jutting out and preventing us from seeing what’s around them, doors with no knobs, and lots and lots and lots of shadows. I came to realize that Gatiss was purposely filling that house with as many horror tropes as possible, not for the lack of ideas, but because those are the things that would frighten a young boy. They still creep me out and I’m twenty-seven. Dolls singing nursery rhymes? Creaking stairs? Floors made of quicksand, and garbage piles that eat elderly ladies, and shrieking lifts, and shadows that stretch into claws….the more I thought about it, the more I came to love “Night Terrors.”

And when those dolls showed up that first time, when Rory finally opens a door to find one just standing there, I wanted to curl up into a ball under my covers and NEVER COME OUT FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE. The art design on those creations is so brilliant. The tiny eyes, that pinhole mouth, the painted faces….MOFFAT, DID YOU TELL GATISS TO DO THIS. I mean, it has Moffat spelled out all over it and yet again, this show can take an inanimate object and make me fear it with all of my heart. But okay, so there are dolls that sing and they creepily shuffle about and that’s not so bad, right? Even I can admit that they are initially frightening, but they sort of lose their power after a few minutes. Right? Right????


I’ve tried to pinpoint exactly what it is about that transformation process that sends me into a bout of shivers, but I don’t even know that I can. I suppose they would have to have some sort of power, or else why would it matter that Rory and Amy are trapped down there? Because WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY THIS IS AWFUL PLEASE RUN AWAY.

Yet even while shit is getting real in that house, I love that the pace with the Doctor and Alex isn’t racing ahead like the other plot. A lot of what the Doctor, Alex, and George do is talk. That’s just what the Doctor does, isn’t it? He talks to George about the cupboard, he talks to Alex about his son’s fears, and he asks for Jammie Dodgers. Also, Alex got to have tea with the Doctor. WHY ISN’T ALL OF THIS REAL FOREVER.

When it eventually does come time for the Doctor to face his fear of whatever is behind that cupboard, he meets it with…reluctance. The Doctor is reticent. When does that happen? He’s the kind of character to throw himself into any sort of chaos based solely on a whim, so it took me awhile to figure out that he was running on no information, and that scared him. (Ugh, seriously, I love that this episode is about all of these characters’ fears.) The sonic could give him no reliable information (and apparently lacks an embarrassment setting), and he still hasn’t figured out what is making this all happen.

Aaaaaannnnndddddddd then the photos. Wow, what an unsettling revelation. How could you forget a person’s birth? The fact that your wife could not have children? Or WHERE THE CHILD IN YOUR HOUSE CAME FROM? In that moment, “Night Terrors” sort of becomes everyone’s fear, that a mysterious intruder has been LIVING WITH YOU THE WHOLE TIME. I was initially worried about the pursuit of this plot line because I didn’t know how they could deal with this without rejecting the child that Alex and his wife, Claire, loved so much. What a painful idea, honestly. But after Alex and the Doctor get pulled into the cupboard and the Doctor begins to put the pieces together, I started to see the other message this episode was creating: acceptance.

We haven’t had an entirely new alien species introduced on Doctor Who in quite some time, and I really loved the way that Gatiss dealt with the Tenza. The reveal was creepy enough to begin with, and helped alleviate my fears about Amy being turned into one of those dolls. (WHICH, BY THE WAY, SEEMED EVEN WORSE THAN PURCELL’S TRANSFORMATION.) A the paced rapidly sped up in the final fourth of the story, I began to think we were about to be given the “To Be Continued” screen, that this was a two-parter. How were they going to resolve the existence of the doll house, or Amy’s change, or even get out of that place? If it was all a refuge for the fears of a scared alien being, could being unafraid simply undo it all?

That’s not quite it, and instead, the Tenza operate under acceptance, and that’s how I came to know that Gatiss wasn’t going to give us a story where George and Claire’s son would disappear. Even further, it was proof that this story was about the accepting sensation of parental love: no matter what your child is or grows up to be, they should be loved regardless of this. Of course it’s cheesy, but it’s Doctor Who. You sort of can’t criticize the show for that. (Unless it’s Ten carrying the Olympic torch. That’ll always be too much for me.)

I would say that my only complaint about “Night Terrors” is how abruptly it ends. I suppose there’s not much else that could be shown, but it all seems to be over in thirty seconds. Rory and Amy are confused by the whole experience, but the Doctor isn’t phased at all. (Is he ever?) He’s ready to head out on the next journey to some distant planet or universe, but we’re given another reminder of what hangs over all of this: the Doctor is going to die. Again? Soon? Ah, to be able to figure out what the HELL is going on.

About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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