The Good: Moments of effective creepy mood, Performances
The Bad: No real character development, Simplistic horror plot
The Basics: "Night Terrors" is an incongruent one-off horror episode that allows Doctor Who to incorporate a simple scary doll/haunted house story.
After a massive and important Doctor Who event like the one that culminated in "Let's Kill Hitler" (reviewed here!), the natural direction for a series like Doctor Who is . . . creepy doll episode?! Unlike the Star Trek franchise where massive event episodes and arcs are usually followed by at least one episode of introspection and dealing with consequences, Doctor Who has a tendency to simply leap back to a different, familiar, formula in the form of a creepy bottle episode. After "Let's Kill Hitler," that incongruous episode is "Night Terrors."
Opening in a crowded apartment in the present, a boy is told to put his fears in the cupboard before bed. George's fear is so powerful that it reached out across time and space to The Doctor, who gets a message on his psychic paper. The Doctor arrives with Amy and Rory and as they begin to interview residents of the building, the child, George, continues to get more and more afraid. While The Doctor meets with Alex, George's father, Mrs. Rossiter (a neighbor George is afraid of) is sucked into a pile of garbage. At the same time, Amy and Rory crash in an elevator and wake up in an abandoned house.
Amy and Rory discover that objects in the abandoned dwelling are not all they appear to be (like a copper pan that is actually just painted wood) and they are hunted by a mysterious shadowy creature. The Doctor interviews and hangs out with George, trying to figure out what is going on. When the landlord, Purcell, comes around for the rent, he and Alex square off. Shortly thereafter, The Doctor determines that George is an impossible child when he gets Alex to admit that his wife was unable to have children. Amy and Rory witness a creepy doll absorb Purcell into their ranks right before Alex and The Doctor end up in the dollhouse in the cupboard with them! The Doctor works to figure out exactly what George is and stop him while Amy and Rory fight to survive the creepy dolls hunting them through the dollhouse.
There is something oddly preposterous about the set-up of "Night Terrors" in that writer Mark Gatiss make's a single boy's nebulous fear so powerful that he is able to summon The Doctor. Implicit in that call is the idea that no other fear - like from a child being sexually abused by a parent or impoverished children in Africa suffering as slavers come to their village - has that intensity. That is utter b.s.
Similarly odd is the lack of references to River Song or Melody Pond. Come to think of it, why wouldn't Melody Pond's fear - being alone as a child on the streets of New York in Earth's past - have called the TARDIS?! But, immediately after Amy Pond has been pregnant and tracked down her child, The Doctor's current call has to do with children and there is no mention of the Ponds's child. That seems like a severe character problem in "Night Terrors."
Mood trumps character for the bulk of "Night Terrors" as The Doctor buys into George's fear and the haunted cupboard. Amy and Rory's plotline is all mood as they wander the abandoned house, followed by creepy childish laughter as they discover essential aspects of the house are not real - like the door knobs and clocks. But when the first living doll appears, the mood is broken by The Doctor being strangely ridiculous about whether or not to open the cupboard. The mood snaps right back, though, with Purcell getting sucked into his floor and The Doctor and Alex opening the cupboard while a horrified George looks on in terror.
The direction in "Night Terrors" is adequate for the presentation of a script that has an unfortunately erratic balance between horror and humor. Similarly, the performances are good, but they do not add up to anything more than servicing the creepy mood. In other words, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill do an adequate job of running and looking freaked out by the life-sized dolls that are assimilating people, but that does not lead to any deeper character revelations or any stretching of their performance abilities.
The net result is a horror episode of Doctor Who that does not truly add anything to the series.
[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Doctor Who - The Complete Sixth Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the sophomore season of Matt Smith as The Doctor here!
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