the distorted Modigliani faces of the dolls

TV As you may have gathered if you’ve been reading this blog for long enough I live in a high rise. Not the kind of monolithic Soviet edifice which the Doctor investigates in Mark Gatiss’s Night Terrors, just four corner flats per floor, but similar enough to be able to relate to the experiences of this family and little George. At night, when everyone has gone to bed and the only sound which should be heard is the gentle hum of the freezers, there’ll always be odd, unreal noises in the distance. They’re probably perfectly domestic, the closing of a door, an argument, a television. But in the dark, especially if you’re a fair-weather insomniac like me with a wandering imagination, in my mind’s eye they can become all manner of phantasmorica.

Fear Her done properly, Night Terrors taps into these qualms and returns to one of the pre-occupations of Moffat, those things which scare children. Perhaps he has them scrawled on a list taped to his writing desk and even if he can’t write it himself, he puts them in the season plan so that he can cross them off like a narrative chasing Earl Hickey. Before broadcast he apologised to parents for turning one of the child’s few refuges against them and in truth however us adults might have been unnerved by the distorted Modigliani faces of the dolls, this is an episode designed especially to give children nightmares. In their own bedroom. There’ll be a lot of parents doing the thingy with the lights tonight.

Everything Matthew Graham’s rushed second season script failed at, Gatiss’s manages with style. Whereas, as was the vogue back then, the situation was needlessly escalated to put the 2012 Olympics, the world and Huw Edwards’ career in jeopardy, the only jeopardy here was a few residents in the block, the Doctor and his friends. Having the monster in the cupboard Chloe Webber’s abusive father made it too specific, whereas the general bric-a-brac of a wardrobe can contain all kinds of dark secrets. When the Doctor was zapped into the drawing he disappeared from the episode, whereas trapping Amy and Rory in the doll’s house kept them very much in the adventure and a guide to the mystery in the first half.

Plus as I said the other day, the Eleventh Doctor is even more of a children’s storybook magician that his earlier incarnation who as we’ve seen time and again is able to relate to children which we saw here in his efforts to cheer George up, playing with a Rubik’s Cube, making his toys come to life. Tenth was most often seen in teaching roles, an authority figure, whereas Eleventh is much more adolescent (presumably because he’s played by an actor who’s closer to the child’s age himself by a few years). He’s closer in that sense to Fourth, and like we’ve seen in some of the dvd outtakes, you could imagine Matt keeping little Jamie Oram amused between takes just as Tom did.

Which means that to an extent in order to communicate with the parent, as we saw with Alex, he tends to have to return to their innocence by describing the universe to them, bigger and more fantastical that they can comprehend so that they will understand and won’t try and throw him out of the house before he can make the tea. Daniel Mays gives a very brave performance here. Usually seen in cocky roles, leaders, he’s called upon to pull all of that back and just be an ordinary bloke thrown into extraordinary circumstances and like James Corden in The Lodger, his scenes with Matt were a highlight. Such behaviour doesn’t come out of the blue, as we see with the landlord he has a natural fear of authority. The Doctor just tweaks that a bit.

Such analytical talk usually indicates when I’ve enjoyed an episode and I did not least because it also risked making the real world seem sinister from the moment the TARDIS landed. Director Richard Clark and photographer Owen McPolin perfectly recreated the eerie artificiality of a near deserted housing estate bathed in yellow street light, and the sense that anyone could be living behind these anonymous doors (not least the girls from The Shining). Notice that for all the accents which point in the direction of the south east and imagery towards the south-west (the episode was shot in Bristol), no location was given rendering the story fairly locationless as though it could have been happening in your city.

The ensuing exploration is of the kind which is always my favourite bits of the longer spin-off stories, allowing the characters to interact more than they’re usually allowed to in the plot-based format of the Moffat era. We’ve had few scenes like the one in The Impossible Planet in which Rose and the Doctor mulled over the implications of the lost TARDIS and although this wasn’t quite the same, it was refreshing to see Amy and Rory just together, existing, albeit whilst searching for a frightened small child or making their way through a darkened house armed only with a wooden pan. Like I’ve said before, I could quite happily just have forty-five minutes of these three chatting in the TARDIS console room or some such.

But for all of that, Amy and Rory’s drift through the doll’s house wasn’t as chilling as it might be. At a certain point I became very pre-occupied with the windows which throughout had light streaming through them. I wondered why neither of the companions thought to open the slats especially in the kitchen once used for The Unicorn and the Wasp. To do so would have given the game away too soon of course, but it's an example of wilful obliviousness of the kind we usually see in the T-word. Later, when Amy became the doll, it was treated in a strangely offhand manner, not the end of the world scenario that similar transformations wrought on Peri, Rose, Donna or even the Doctor were.

Perhaps this is partially a side effect of the episode’s change in series position. Night Terrors was filmed earlier then later exchanged for The Curse of the Black Spot. Perhaps it was switched because an element of the resolution was so close to The Rebel Flesh, albeit with a human father coming to terms with a non-human child rather than the other way around. But the episode ran short (only about forty-minutes) and ended somewhat abruptly suggesting that all the team did was to reshoot the closing scene. When originally shot this was supposed to be the Ganger-Amy, who would have become a doll. As Arthur might say, "Not sure how that'd work. Um. Err."

As the previous thousand odd words probably illustrated this was an episode better watched than written about, unless you're Kim Newman or indeed Gatiss and can draw upon the history of horror as your reference point. That's unusual in this continuity heavy future with its plots and arcs. It's also an episode which unlike Let’s Kill Hitler doesn't demand an immediate rewatch so that every angle can be dissected and chewed over. Like Black Spot, this is old school Who but unlike Black Spot, there was a confidence to the storytelling, a clear understanding of the pacing and none of the characters disappeared mid-episode without an explanation. Perhaps next year, Moffat will surprise us and produce a season with a few more of these. As it stands this was just the thing for a rainy night in a high rise, as winter closes in.

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