Doctor Who And The Night Terrors

The last of the actual Doctor Who reviews - though there's a couple of Who-related pieces still to come - and originally puntastically titled 'Dolly Part-One (Of One)', this review of Night Terrors was done pretty much as a favour for a fanzine editor, as by that point I'd long since started to tire of reviewing 'new' Doctor Who. It wasn't just that, on the whole, I hadn't been enjoying it as much since Steven Moffat took over as showrunner, but also that the revived series is so streamlined that it's difficult to get any sort of a critical angle on it, either positively or negatively, and the amount of effort required to find something vaguely original and cliche-free to say about it was starting to feel like more effort than it was worth; indeed, I had earlier discussed that very point at some length in another review (which will also be appearing on here in due course). It was also - and as you'll see this did inform the review to an extent - a fairly turbulent time in general, and this would feed in to my overall reaction to it in quite an unexpected way. If truth be told I did actually quite enjoy Night Terrors, without thinking it was anywhere near up there with the best of the revived series nor indeed Mark Gatiss' own previous contributions, but the fact that I'd named the original file 'whogatissyawn' perhaps reveals a lot about how I was feeling regarding the idea of actually having to review it. As a result, I was probably a bit harsher on this perfectly decent episode than I should have been, but you have to look at it in context; 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. But that said, there are much more important battles to fight. Like the one against Jimmy McGovern's views about TV drama ever being taken seriously by anyone...


What a difference a short mid-season break makes. Only a couple of weeks ago, this writer was happily enthusing about how the revived 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 - the promisingly-titled 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 preturbed 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!").

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 (or, at least, something more akin to episodes like Midnight), 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. The disparity between the script and the direction meant that the hefty debt to two separate Sapphire & Steel stories - something of a jarringly recurring theme in the Moffat era- was perhaps not quite as subtly concealed as it should have been, and adding to the overall underwhelmingness, there were a number of puzzlingly context-free apparent eighties references in the design and direction that felt like a pointer towards a plot detail that never actually came.


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' thingy 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's 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.


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. And, 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 (actually, that does sound like it would be quite good). 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. And 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 River Song et al please. Deal?


You can find my huge piece on the entire Russell T. Davies era of Doctor Who in my book Well At Least It's Free, available as a paperback here or as an eBook here.