Fear Her, Him and the Other Thing

Being 10 and 1 Things about Doctor Who's "Night Terrors". Spoilers ahead. Be afraid. Be very afraid.What if Fear Her was any good? The similarities between Night Terrors and the 2nd season's Fear Her are pretty obvious. A child with access to the alien power to shunt people into some kind of virtual reality terrorizes a community and is saved by the power of love. I wrote a post about Fear Her in the post-Moffat era not so long ago which made the claim that Fear Her didn't work because it had a fairy tale plot, but did not follow fairy tale rules. Night Terrors succeeds on that front, though the overall creepiness might make Poltergeist clearer source material. Fairy tale rules are in fact very much part of the story, and not as meta-text either. To help control their son's fears, George's parents have created rules he then integrated into the universe he psychically created. They put his fears in the cupboard (as one might Adolf Hitler), so he makes that metaphor real, sending people who scare him to a virtual reality that looks like the doll's house in that cupboard (no doubt an old family heirloom, perhaps of his mother's). The lights his parents turn on and off five times become part of the rules of that "house", flickering to announce new arrivals "trapped" by the light trick. George doesn't need either the lights or the cupboard, but they give his young mind the justification for what he's doing psychically, in the same way that a legend might explain why a local boulder is a certain shape. Only by facing his fears can George realize that there was nothing to be afraid of, destroying his VR catch-all (which wasn't in the cupboard at all, but rather a "perception filter" that made all participants think they were in the house, turning into dolls, etc.).
Fear in everyday things. Doctor Who's "Yeti in the loo" principle is very important to show-runner Steven Moffat who has given us such everyday terrors as monsters under the bed, creepy kids and spooky statues and cracks in the wall. The stories he's green lit have also given us old people and mold patches as objects of horror. In Night Terrors, his frequent collaborator Mark Gatiss' best Who since The Unquiet Dead, the concept is pushed even further. George is a boy afraid of everything, and so everything becomes terrifying. Creepy old dolls, shadows created by plants, toys lurking on the edge of vision, mean-looking strangers passing by your window, the strange noises of an apartment building, and the idea that your parents might find you wanting. While the episode does have its share of effective effects (the flying zoom through the universe, people morphing into dolls or sinking through the floor), it also relies on old school horror with great atmospheric lighting and the simple idea of a child, eyes impossibly wide, hyperventilating. Did your kids make it through the night ok?

Fight choreography trouble. It wasn't perfect, as my three next items will show. For one thing, I thought the episode lost some of its mood towards the end when the characters were being attacked by living dolls. The way the otherwise well-directed episode showed those moments made the lines of escape very clear, and the characters look silly as they didn't take them. It often looked like characters and dolls just clumped together in an effort to create a sense claustrophobia, while the open spaces of the house remained in sight. Awkward.

Can you fix a child? Well, here's the thing: The episode has a happy ending, and for sure, the Doctor should win the day more often than not. But will parents who have children with certain problems (this high a level of anxiety, learning disabilities, even autism) see the ending as a beautiful dream, or as a glib trivialization of their situations? That has been a problem with Mark Gatiss' work before. The Unquiet Dead, for example, drew criticism for having an anti-immigration message. I never for a minute believed that this message was intended, but it's there nonetheless. Perhaps Gatiss has a tin ear when it comes to how his literal stories might be metaphorically interpreted. Some has asked if the episode would have worked better with a human child, but I believe that would only have made its message more overtly uncomfortable.

Those bits at the end. I must admit I don't get a whole lot out of the final TARDIS scenes Series 6's episodes have fallen into a pattern of showing. Series 5 at least used them as a bridge to the next episode. Series 6's equivalent have merely repeated information and kept us thinking about the season arc, even if the episode had nothing to do with it. I find these more objectionable than "flashbacks for people who don't pay attention".

References. There are a number of references to Doctor Who's past peppered throughout this episode. Arriving in EastEnders Land might be a reference to the awful 1993 Children in Need mini-episode Dimensions in Time which crossed Who with the popular British soap. Speaking of hardly-canon material, among the Doctor's childhood fairy tales (which also include Three Little Sontarans and The Dalek Emperor's New Clothes) is Snow White and the Seven Keys to Doomsday, a hilarious reference to the 1974 stage play of the same name (replacing Snow White with Doctor Who and the Daleks), since recorded as an audio play by the fine folks at Big Finish. The description of "silent universes" might even include a reference to Andy Lane's novel Empires of Glass, but that might require a lot of squinting.
"Good to be together again in the flesh." Oh boy. Is that a hint, or has the word "flesh" been tainted with arc stuff forever? Will we find the Doctor, Amy and Rory in suspended animation in the bowels of the TARDIS as series' end, all part of the Doctor's scheme to survive his fixed point death? Or is this an artifact left over from when this story was in the first block of episodes, a reference to Amy being flesh, and a bridge to "The Rebel Flesh which would have followed it? One could easily imagine the pan to the monitor accompanied by the nursery rhyme originally scripted to show Amy's pregnancy instead of the Lake Silencio file.

Dead again. Speaking of the series' memes, there's once again the intimation that the characters are dead. Rory is so used to it that it's become a kind of joke. So... inside joke, or terrible portent?

The theme of identity. Doctor Who has always had existential concerns. You only need to look at the amount of stories that deal with dehumanization, thought control or replacement by aliens for evidence. This season has certainly been keen on the topic, but has subverted the theme, asking whether being "other" is really that bad. We've had the Flesh, aliens who are ourselves, and not "other" at all (and in Amy's case, really wasn't). We've had Melody and Mels and River. We've had the TARDIS incarnated as a humanoid. We have the lingering mystery of the "future Doctor". And here we have an alien child, cuckoo-like, disguised and integrated into a human home. A subversion of the idea of alien invasion, like the Flesh, George is "other" and yet, he is us. I suppose this subversion is perfectly natural for a show about a man who has a tendency to become someone else who is still himself.

Space, the final frontier... I was disappointed by the title, considering the other choices were "House Call" and "What Are Little Boys Made Of?" Mostly, it's because Doctor Who now shares a title with a Star Trek episode. I like to keep the two shows apart in my head (where each takes up entirely too much room), and "Night Terrors" falls in the same category as "Journey's End". But is it the first time? Actually no, not when you factor in the 1960s episode titles, back before everything was "Something of the Daleks Part 1- 4". The first Dalek story as "The Survivors" for example, which is also a TNG story. Over the tears, we've also had "Conspiracy" (part of The Romans), and "The Search" (The Space Museum). Did I miss any? I'm not counting novels or "The Enemy Within" as the TV Movie's title.

Will we return? There's a joke about George's puberty at the end of the episode, which may just be that. Members of the human race do tend to become harder to handle in their teens. But if George still has psychic powers, he could be VERY hard to handle indeed. The way Moffat likes to interweave the various stories (might George have shown up in the Doctor's army in A Good Man Comes to War instead of the pirates?), I wouldn't be surprised if he showed up to help the Doctor when he's all grown up.

And speaking of growing up, The Girl Who Waited is up next week and looks completely insane. Can't wait!


Madeley said...

Interested to hear you mention the immigration thing from Gatiss's earlier episode. Did anyone write a credible argument along this line? Not to dig up ancient history, I just always dismissed it as Lawrence Miles being crackers.

I was relieved to enjoy this episode. Gatiss's Crooked House was fantastic, as is his Sherlock work. It's always been a shame that his Who episodes haven't been as good.

Random fact: from the trailer, it looks like next week's was filmed in the gardens I got married in!

Siskoid said...

I remember it being discussed on Outpost Gallifrey at the time, and while you COULD just about read that allegory in there, I thought it was pushing it to do so. I never bought into it, myself.

I agree that Gatiss has had trouble translating his other work (like his Who novels) into success on the show. In Victory of the Daleks, he almost got us there before the candy Daleks showed up and the whole thing went to seed.

Martin Gray said...

Not being a deep Dr Who fan I'd not heard of the immigration business. Sometimes I think people look too hard for a metaphor. With this week's episode, for example, I can't see any reason to equate George's situation with, say, autism. He's a kid who's scared, that's enough - there's a universality there that would be eroded if we're reading George as, say, being on the autistic spectrum.

Then again, perhaps I'm 'under-reading' (for example I never noticed the 'in the flesh' line but knowing Moffat's ways, it's likely this is a hint, or a wink). Have any parent of kiddies with autism piped up with objections?

I loved this episode, it felt like a slightly less leftfield Sapphire and Steel. Hurrah for the lack of 'arc' storyline (I shall ignore the tacked on bit at the end).

Siskoid said...

Hi Martin! While I think the whole immigration thing was an "overthought", I do believe that their are underlying messages in media that at least part of the population will "get" and that writers (in the largest sense of the word) should be able to distinguish ahead of time, if only to make sure one's message isn't muddled by these counter-messages. These can be as complex as a political statement or as simple as making an image accidentally phallic.

As for the autism bit, I think it was touted as a possibility because psychic phenomena could have been explained away as being a form of savantism that could be associated to autism. George is not played as autistic, but he does have issues with anxiety that have brought his parents to the point of requesting help from social services. Revealed to be an alien, he stands in for any child who is different or might have special needs, so I think my analogy is sound.

I know parents of an autistic child and I know Doctor Who fans, but I don't think I know anyone standing at the intersection of that Venn diagram. I'd love to hear from them though.

LiamKav said...

Regarding Star Trek titles: "What are Little Boys Made of?" would have been fairly close to a TOS title, remember.

Siskoid said...

Makes all the difference. Would have been a keen title!


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