Monday, September 26, 2011

Young Man, There's No Need To Feel Down

A strange and sensitive boy who's scared about what he's keeping in the closet seeks acceptance from his father. No, I can't see any kind of subtext in this episode at all...

To say that Night Terrors is an improvement on Let's Kill Hitler would be a gross understatement. Night Terrors is pretty comfortably the best episode of DW so far this year.

(Pause on that thought. We're nine episodes into the season, and the best episode so far is the Mark Gatiss one. Erk.)

The only one that might give it a run for its money is The Doctor's Wife, but I'd suggest that Gaiman's episode is a story about DW as much as an actual DW story, possibly more so. Whereas this is unquestionably DW, original flavour. That is, after all, what you get when you commission a DW script from Mark Gatiss - a conventional, some might say workmanlike, but undeniably Who-scented adventure story. If New Who were a pub food menu, Gatiss' writing would be the beef and ale pie, and it'd be described as "hearty fare". Cast into sharp relief by the rest of the season to this point, that's unusually welcome.

It helps that this is also Gatiss' best DW story to date. It's his first not to be set in a queasily nostalgic theme park version of Britain's recent past. There's no sign of the reactionary politics that laid a steaming subtext on The Unquiet Dead and neutered Victory of the Daleks. This leaves us free to enjoy the stuff that Gatiss genuinely excels at: witty showcase scenes for the Doctor plus guest actor, character gotchas that are simply conceived and easily realised in an eye-catching way, and of course four-square spooky Who action.

The directing deserves a mention too - I actually noticed the directing this week! It was better than average! The materialising TARDIS' image caught in a puddle and the scene of George's bedroom being sucked into his cupboard were notable moments, I thought. Nice guest turns from the kid playing George and the guy playing his dad. In fact, I wouldn't say anything about this episode was really wrong - again, this is refreshing even as we quietly acknowledge that it really ought to be the baseline for DW. Some more information about the dolls might have been helpful - were they all just bystanders who got sucked into the representation of George's fear, and if so what started them turning into dolls? and if not, where did the first dolls come from? - but this is a great gaping hole in the plot that I somehow find I can forgive. This is Mark Gatiss' hour of glory, bless 'im.

Random observations:

A couple of Moffat-era motifs make their presence felt once more. The giant glass eye in the doll's house, incongruous as it is, harks back to last year's recurring business with eyes. The other revenant device is the use of crap nursery rhyme as a substitute for story-telling, although in this case it's specifically substituting for the equally crap doomy foreshadowing, so I'm less bothered by it than I could have been.

That surely wasn't the estate where they filmed the video for Aphex Twin's "Come To Daddy"? (In which a snarling face inside a TV set steals kids' faces and threatens to eat your sooouuuul... sound strangely like The Idiot's Lantern?) Be a bit of a laugh if it was.

People on the Who forums have criticised the fact that this story contains absolutely no follow-on from Let's Kill Hitler in terms of Amy's and Rory's character - as if that weren't a f*cking blessing. I'll actually be able to watch and enjoy this story again in years to come, hurrah. By now it's a given that week-on-week character development in DW is non-existent, so we might at least cherish the episodes that don't stomp all over the characters. I wouldn't go so far as to say this is a niner, but I'd certainly give it a high 8 out of 10.


John Toon said...

I should also point out that this story is "Fear Her" done properly.

Strabec said...

Re: Fear her
That's because it wasn't mucked about with by RTD on the way past. (Yes I know Matthew Graham wrote it, and if 'The Rebel Flesh' two parter had popped up in the Pertwee era with another half dozen episodes, it might have fitted in nicely).
I sort of disagree with you about the continuation of character development from 'Let's Kill Hitler'. They are parents and I find it inconceivable that they wouldn't even mention their daughter. I'd expect them to be constantly nagging the Doctor about saving her in some way. On the other hand that fact they don't mention her means the episode is indeed far more watchable, I'm sick to the back teeth with the whole 'River Song' story!

Christopher Pittard said...

Not quite as impressed as you with this one, for the reason that this is, indeed, "Fear Her (to the max)." Who's been around long enough that avoiding retreads is difficult, but it could try harder than five years ago. And the eighteenth century 'tick tock' dolls? They didn't remind you of anything? Anything fireplacey?

Actually, I do think this episode has some rather questionable moments along the lines of the Silurian fist-bump last year (maybe not quite so bad, but certainly in that area). Twice in this episode we get a scene where the Doctor more or less turns away from the danger faced by the father. The first is when he's being menaced by the landlord; the second is on the staircase at the end. In the first, you say, he's merely distracting the child by playing with the toys. Well, yes. But wouldn't it have been a better scene if he'd confronted yer man the landlord? I'm not sure why, but it seemed like a retreat. Likewise for the father fighting off the dolls, while the Doctor is too busy leaping around filling in the plot. I suspect this was meant to be amusing, but again it seems like the Doctor's priorities are elsewhere. As demonstrated at the end of "War", this is the Doctor who runs away.

Still, though, a step up. I'd say 7/10.

John Toon said...

Strabec: Personally I'd be inclined to just blame Matthew Graham. I've yet to see definite evidence of his genius.

Re the character development... I realise it may look as if I'm applying double standards here, but there's an important difference between the two episodes in the way they position themselves with regard to this. LKH is an arc-significant episode - it's all about River Song and the whole arc thing, and it therefore should (if only in theory) follow on from the preceding episode(s). Whereas NT is clearly intended as a filler story that can be moved around in the running order without stalling the engines (and see also the next-but-one paragraph). So it's much less of an issue (for me, at least) if NT doesn't reflect the hypothetical series-wide development of character, but a critical failing in LKH.

And quite honestly, at this point I face two options if I want to continue being a fan of Doctor Who: give up any hope of the Moffat Masterplan cohering and just salvage what I can from episodes like this, or write the whole show off as lost and wallow nostalgically in the pre-2010 material. I much prefer option 1. I realise there's a danger of me overrating episodes like this one out of sheer bloody relief, but what the hell. I intend to let that stand, and re-evaluate it in a few years' time when the dust around it has settled.

So, yes, the moving of episodes. This episode was originally supposed to occupy the slot that was filled by The Curse of the Black Spot, and vice versa, and forasmuch as people have knocked this episode for its lack of arc follow-up, other people have defended it on the basis that it was switched around in the running order. But look again. The only thing that ties CotBS into the first demi-season's bit of the arc is a single image of Blackhat McEyepatch stuck onto a scene in which Amy's looking in an odd direction. NT could be adapted to that slot with as little modification. Just exchange the 'Lake Silencio' caption for the 'Pregnant/Not Pregnant' caption on the TARDIS screen at the very end and you're done. But would CotBS be a better fit for this slot? Amy swinging about in pirate clothing, jolly japes with Cap'n Avery's son... there's just no way out of this. CotBS doesn't show any more sign of having been conceived as a second demi-season story than NT. Arc schmarc, say I.

Pitsy: I can't let your questionable moments go unchallenged. You've got it all wrong. Scenes of the Doctor not thrusting himself into the thick of danger - either retreating from it or simply distracted from it - aren't even in the same room as the Silurian fist-bump. I mean, there you've got the Doctor endorsing (or at least, by the kindest possible interpretation, overlooking) mass child abduction and human vivisection. That's not even on the same street as the Doctor being too busy distracting a child or plot-dumping to tackle a monster head-on.

Good spot re the dolls, though. Now, was it mucked about with by Moffat on the way past, or should I just blame Gatiss? ;)

Christopher Pittard said...

I did say "along the lines of..." All right, there was bit of hyperbole (pronounced hyperbowl) on my part there. But I stand by my argument that these moments are distinctly uncomfortable. It's not so much that I expect the Doctor to wade in and punch any given monster in da troat, but here he just seems hugely unconcerned that someone else is in danger. Does he have to take that plot dump immediately? Is the narrative turtle showing its head?