Doctor Who And The Night Terrors

Karen Gillan in Doctor Who - Night Terrors (BBC1, 2011).

By this point I was already intending to quietly withdraw and take an indefinite break from reviewing new episodes of Doctor Who, not least on account of the fact that I had more or less said as much in the two previous reviews (Amy’s Choice here and The Doctor’s Wife here, if you’ve not been keeping track). I initially politely declined when I was asked if I would review anything from this series, but I was asked again and by then there were actually a couple of things that I did want to say, even if they weren’t necessarily strictly about Doctor Who itself. I agreed on the condition that I could review the one written by Mark Gatiss; however, the fact that the filename I gave to the original draft of what was originally published under the title Dolly Part One (Of One) was ‘whogatissyawn’ should give you some idea of how enthusiastic I was really feeling. I was probably a bit harsher on this perfectly decent episode than I really should have been, but leaping up and down with excitement over it being, well, perfectly decent would have been like holding a street party to celebrate one of the later Suede albums having a halfway hummable song on it. That said, there are much more important battles to fight. Like the one against Jimmy McGovern’s views about television drama that ‘matters’ ever being taken seriously by anyone. So the reason I agreed to review this episode? Well, it fell in the second batch of episodes of series six, and quite a few things had happened in the interim. Incidentally you can find much more of my thoughts on Doctor Who ancient and modern in Well At Least It’s Free, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

What a difference a short mid-season break makes. Only a couple of weeks ago, this writer was happily enthusing about how Doctor Who is at its best when it’s like Sizzlin’ Bacon Monster Munch or something. Now it’s time to review another episode, and in between, the world seems to have gone completely mad. ‘Hackgate’, rioting, some pillock throwing a sausage on a fork at Alan Sugar – the bewildering summer of 2011 was like an entire decade’s worth of jaw-dropping news stories crammed into a handful of days, and it’s something of a relief to find the apparent return to normality accompanied by the return of your favourite Saturday evening sci-fi silliness. Except that Primeval isn’t actually back on yet.

Following unenviably on the heels of Let’s Kill Hitler – forty interminable minutes of ‘answers’ to questions nobody asked – Night Terrors is, mercifully, a return to standalone storytelling. Written by the reliable Mark Gatiss, it takes place in a run-down block of flats where an unnaturally perturbed eight-year-old boy lives in fear of some indefinable thingymajig that’s supposedly hiding in his cupboard. Well, given that today’s youngsters are no longer troubled by Armchair Thriller, Test Card F or that Public Information Film about retrieving frisbees from substations, they presumably have to make their own ‘entertainment’. So powerful is this overwhelming fear that his cries for help show up on the Psychic Paper, causing The Doctor, Amy and Basil From The Magic Roundabout to intervene and inevitably run into more than they’d bargained for, including some creepy walking doll’s house residents that look unnervingly like they’ve escaped from late eighties video rental shop favourite Dolls (“…they want to play with you!”).

Arthur Darvill, Matt Smith and Karen Gillan in Doctor Who - Night Terrors (BBC1, 2011).

This, you have to admit, is a pretty exciting premise. Unfortunately, something seems to have got very badly lost in translation and what ended up on screen was a strange combination of a script that worked, and a directorial approach that worked, but which for some reason didn’t seem to work very well together. It looked fantastic, but in a way that didn’t really do justice to the subtleties and nuances of the script, which in turn seemed to have been written with a more traditional style in mind and found it hard to rise to the challenge of what should have been enjoyably bombastic direction. Appropriately enough, it called to mind a modern big-budget horror director working from a thirties Universal Films script, and as a result just didn’t deliver the edge-of-the-seat thrills that both in their own way should have brought to the table. Meanwhile, Matt Smith aside, the cast didn’t really seem like they were that enthusiastic about having to make the episode, which hardly helped. Amy and Rory’s sudden apparent lack of interest in their previously all-important abducted offspring – yes, alright, so the episode was filmed earlier and held back, but the general viewing public don’t know this, and anyway it’s the sort of thing that the production team are supposed to notice and address in, say, that ‘post-production’ whatnot they spend eight years banging on about in Doctor Who Confidential every Saturday night – would also be worth frowning over, if it wasn’t for the mitigating fact we’re going to get an episode almost entirely free of the increasingly ditchwater-aping ‘story arc’. Or at least until that cringeworthy “he went to bed with a bucket on his head/sit ubu sit” bit tacked onto the end, which serves mainly to prove that they’ve still learned nothing about how to do this sort of thing with a bit of wit and subtlety. Like That Bloody Crack in the previous run, it’s shoehorned in more annoyingly – and less purposefully – than any animated Graham Norton.

Apparently, so ‘fan wisdom’ has it, we’re supposed to regard these pesky standalone episodes as something akin to when The Smiths used to throw in a bit of (Marie’s The Name) His Latest Flame at the start of live versions of Rusholme Ruffians; a nice novelty but now can we get on with the more serious business of the ongoing something or other etc etc. This is an incredibly misguided approach, and not just because the arc-heavy episodes are more Golden Lights than Rushholme Ruffians; and if you don’t get that analogy, go and buy a couple of Smiths albums and listen to them instead of rewatching Let’s Forget We Even Mentioned Hitler for the eighty seventh time. The ‘fans’ might well be happy with their unfolding narrative about something where nobody’s quite sure what it actually is, but all it means to the casual viewer is a load of episodes weighed down with backgroundy plot points that it is neither reasonable nor fair to expect them to be able to follow or even care about on a casual basis. And they’re not alone – it seems that, increasingly, a good proportion of those selfsame ‘fans’ who are supposed to regard River Song as the best thing since sliced Dwarf Mordant are expressing boredom with the arc and a desire that Doctor Who would just go back to what it does best. Ignore this if you must, but don’t come crying to me when it’s got so bad that everyone’s pining for the golden days of a standalone story about a talking cactus.

Matt Smith and Daniel Mays in Doctor Who - Night Terrors (BBC1, 2011).

Jimmy McGovern, in one of his trademark cheerful and constructive observations, recently commented that viewers need more drama that ‘matters’, singling out Doctor Who as a prominent example of drama that doesn’t ‘matter’. This is – in the words of an ancient Doctor Who story that certainly doesn’t ‘matter’ but still urinates all over The Lakes from a massive height – arrant nonsense. As turbulent recent real life events have underlined, viewers want – and indeed need – to be entertained rather than lectured to. By all means throw in a bit of a message if you want, just remember that you can still make it entertaining. Whether you’re looking to make the next Threads or looking to make the next B.A.D. Boyes, you’re still making it for an audience who have enough ‘serious’ business to deal with in their real day-to-day lives and simply want to lose themselves in even the most hard-hitting and realistic of small-screen entertainment. Also, while it’s got absolutely nothing to do with Doctor Who itself, you’d be hard pushed to find a drama that ‘matters’ less than The Singing Detective. Chew on that for a while, ‘Jimmy’.

Doctor Who is, erm, to do with Doctor Who itself, and if it wants to ‘matter’ as drama that doesn’t ‘matter’, then it has to make sure that it’s providing something for everyone and not just a hardcore – no matter how big it is – of followers who’d watch it even if it was just forty minutes of Steven Moffat chasing a wheel down a street. In previous series, Night Terrors would have been the one that was quite good but didn’t quite work – here, albeit for very different reasons, it’s the most exciting one by far, and a pointer to what the series should really be doing whether it doesn’t quite work or not. Anyway, you’d think that after the fudged ending of Lost and the freefall disappearance of Heroes into ratings oblivion, the message about overburdening hit shows with story arcs might have got through. So, this marks the end of the Sizzlin’ Bacon review ‘arc’, and now in return let’s have less ‘clever’ business with River Song et al please. Deal?

Some things that might need explaining…

‘Some pillock throwing a sausage on a fork at Alan Sugar’ was a deliberately dismissive reference to that halfwit interrupting the Leveson Inquiry to throw a custard pie in the face of a cornered and visibly rattled Rupert Murdoch. This still makes me angry now, as it effectively gave the moral upper hand and even a degree of public sympathy back to the feckless paper-skinned old reptile, contributing towards absolutely nothing changing as a result of the phone hacking scandal, and doing more than its fair share in getting us into the mess we’re in right now. All for the sake of a comedy career that didn’t exactly go stratospheric afterwards. Sometimes, you don’t feel quite so useless for spending your time babbling on about Captain Zep – Space Detective. Which there’s a lot of babbling on about here if you’re interested.

‘Basil from The Magic Roundabout‘ was deliberately included to see if it would get changed to ‘Rory’, as a private joke with myself. It was.

Dolls was a 1987 film by Stuart Gordon, previously responsible for Re-Animator and From Beyond, and once so revered in cult circles that he was profiled in Jonathan Ross’ The Incredibly Strange Film Show. Later he would create the Honey I Shrunk The Kids franchise.

The reference to the live version of Rusholme Ruffians by The Smiths – also mentioned in my review of The Doctor’s Wife (which you can find here) – was a deliberate callback but I’m not sure now why I put it in or if anyone even noticed. Anyway you can find a feature about the reasons behind my enduring obsession with the live version of Rusholme Ruffians here.

The Dwarf Mordant was the villain in The Ultimate Evil, an unmade script from the abandoned 1986 series of Doctor Who, written by prolific BBC Radio 3 dramatist Wally K. Daly. There’s a lot more about his radio work in The Larks Ascending here.

The ‘arrant nonsense’ quote was derived from and in specific reference to 1982 Doctor Who story The Visitation; and yes, I really would rather see some aliens accidentally starting The Great Fire Of London than a load of hokey morally dubious waffle about having affairs to bolster the ‘Class War’. Jimmy McGovern later gave a follow-on interview where he got all hurt and touchy about Doctor Who fans ‘lambasting’ him. Well, poke your nose in where it’s not wanted and has nothing to do with you, and tell people off for harmlessly liking something to the extent of tacitly blaming them for society’s ills, and what do you expect? Maybe you should write a drama that ‘matters’ about it or something. Threads was a speculative drama about nuclear conflict that people won’t bloody shut up about. B.A.D. Boyes was a children’s comedy drama about a ‘situation’-prone schoolboy’s running battle with local bully The Slug, which personally I think more people shouldn’t bloody shut up about.

I think the reference to Steven Moffat chasing a wheel down a street had something to do with the opening titles of Aubrey, an early eighties Children’s ITV animation, which featured the orange big-nosed central character thing gradually losing components of his car until he was left chasing a lone wheel down the street to the tune of what appear to be some tin cans played by Mike Oldfield. No, really. You can hear me chatting to Melanie Williams about Aubrey on Looks Unfamiliar here.

Once again, I find myself with very little to add after watching Night Terrors again. It’s a good episode that never quite takes off, but isn’t necessarily any worse for that, although the interplay between Amy and Rory – who are allowed to actually have a laugh for once – is both more enjoyable and more realistic than usual. It is interesting to note, however, just how strongly external influences from your ‘real’ life can inform your reaction to entertainment, and that goes way beyond a bit of indignance about phone hacking and Jimmy McGovern telling us all off for not frowning for a couple of minutes. Incidentally, despite several ‘retro’ relaunches in the past couple of years, Monster Munch still have yet to reintroduce the Sizzlin’ Bacon flavour (as promoted, of course, by ‘Blue Monster’). You can hear more discussion of this much-missed snack – and bringing this neatly back round to the opening of the review, plenty of insults aimed at Piers Morgan – in Looks Unfamiliar with Garreth Hirons here. Of course, I did eventually start reviewing Doctor Who again… but you can find out more about that here.

Matt Smith in Doctor Who - Night Terrors (BBC1, 2011).

Buy A Book!

Not On Your Telly is a collection of columns and features with a slant towards ‘forgotten’ television, including plenty of features related to Doctor WhoNot On Your Telly is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

Alternately, if you’re just feeling generous, you can buy me a coffee here. Do NOT under any circumstances tip it over some Sizzlin’ Bacon Monster Munch, mount them on a fork and throw them at Alan Sugar.

Further Reading

You can find my review of Mark Gatiss’ earlier Doctor Who story The Idiot’s Lantern here.

Further Listening

You can hear me talking to Emma Burnell and Steve Fielding about Doctor Who in The Zeitgeist Tapes – the show where politics and pop culture collide – here.

© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.