Mark Gatis has, in the past, been the most infuriating of writers for new Doctor Who. While most of the ‘name’ writers on the series have done precisely what one would expect of them, with Neil Gaiman writing a Neil Gaiman story and Richard Curtis writing a Richard Curtis one, there’s always been the sense that Gatiss could do far better.

His first story for the new series, The Unquiet Dead, was, apart from a few dud lines, one of the better ones from the 2005 series, (though as Lawrence Miles pointed out, it had an entirely unintentional anti-immigration subtext that leaves a nasty aftertaste), but after that, every episode with any involvement from Gatiss either as writer or actor has been nearly universally regarded as the weakest of the year.

It’s very odd, because on paper, Gatiss is the perfect writer for the show. He’s clearly an imaginative, witty writer, as both his work for the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and his novels have shown. He’s also a longtime fan of the show (his first professional filmed work was a direct-to-video series called P.R.O.B.E. which is required viewing for anyone who ever wondered what it would be like if The X-Files were made in Britain for a fiver, and had a middle-aged pipe-smoking woman who used to be The Doctor’s companion instead of Mulder and Scully), and seems hugely enthusiastic to be working on it. Yet a Gatiss episode is now always the one everyone knows to avoid.

This time though, he has done the best work of the series so far.

A horrible disembodied eye in a desk drawer

Where Gatiss’ last few stories have been romps in the typical new-Who style, this is a horror story, and owes probably more to Sapphire And Steel than to anything from recent Doctor Who. For all that publicity materials talk about children hiding behind the sofa, new-Who has rarely been scary (though it was more so in Moffat’s first series than at any other point since the show’s return). This, however, has one clear purpose in mind, and that’s to scare the living shit out of any small people watching it.

The evil blank-faced doll thing is coming to get you!

In fact, to call this a story is to give it far too much credit. There’s no plot here, no conflict to be resolved. It’s just a series of images and sounds (a nursery-rhyme like song about dying and so forth) designed to put the willies up anyone watching. It’s not coherent, but it’s effective, and that’s because Gatiss is here in territory he’s utterly comfortable with.

Even though he’s known for comedy, Gatiss’ first love is horror, and the gothic style specifically, and here for the first time he’s really allowed to pull out all the stops and go for creepy imagery over and above anything else.

But in fact, he does something rather clever here, and combines two very different styles of Who stories. The most obvious one is that of the little child who’s scared of something in the cupboard or under the bed. This has become a cliche of new-Who, especially stories by Moffat, with the trope appearing in one form or another in The Girl In The Fireplace, Fear Her, The Eleventh Hour and more, because it’s very easy to write (I wrote a story along those lines myself, in fact…). In fact, this has been so overdone by Moffat particularly that when I was watching this, my wife (not a Who fan) overheard the pre-credits section and said “Oh, it’s a Moffat episode then?”

But Gatiss makes this a little more complex than normal by making the scared child actually be the monster. Now this was done, to an extent, in Fear Her, but there the child had been possessed by an alien being and could be freed of it. Here the child just is the alien being, and here Gatiss is going back to something that was an element of the very earliest Doctor Who but has been very rarely seen in recent years.

The scary twins will get you!

The clue is in the word ‘cuckoo’, mentioned a few times in the script. The very early episodes of Doctor Who, back in 1963, were heavily influenced by some of the more progressive science fiction of the time, and in particular John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos (filmed as Village Of The Damned), about spooky blonde-haired autistic-seeming alien children with psychic powers taking the place of human children.

In the late ’50s and early ’60s, the baby-boom generation indeed seemed to their parents to be an alien race, with their loud rocking and rolling music and their long hair and their self-obsession, and there’s a whole sub-genre of stories in this vein (and having seen what the Baby Boomers did to the world once they grew old enough to vote, who’s to say their parents were wrong?). Other than The Midwich Cuckoos, probably the most famous example is Jerome Bixby’s short story It’s A Good Life, about a child whose powers to alter reality terrorise the entire community around him. (Many more examples of this subgenre can be found in the Asimov-edited anthology Tomorrow’s Children.)

The influence these stories had on Doctor Who is most readily apparent in the very first episode, An Unearthly Child, which, as the title suggests, is far more about the freakish, strange, child at the school than about her grandfather, the Doctor. But they helped set the tone for the whole style of the show in the black and white years, and remain among the biggest influences on how the show evolved.

And these stories have more resonance today than they have for many years. We’re currently seeing a similar demographic bulge to that of the late fifties and early sixties working its way up, and with similar consequences. Where in the 50s and 60s there were Teddy Boys (young men wearing old fashioned suits! How scary!), juvenile delinquents and Mods (young men wearing suits in a modern cut! Call the police!) we now have ‘feral youth’, ‘chavs’ and ‘hoodies’ (young people wearing jumpers with a hood to keep their head warm! It’s the end of civilisation!), who are being demonised by much the same types of people who previously argued that the pulsating negro rhythms of Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard would destroy the western world.

Unfortunately, Gatiss pulls back and delivers a happy ending, in a story which really would work far better without one, with child and father reconciled. Whether this is, as one might hope, because he’s seen the problems with the subtext of The Unquiet Dead and decided to ensure he does nothing that might be seen as enflaming right-wing Mail-reader prejudices, or, as I rather uncharitably suspect, because the current batch of Who writers all seem to be obsessed with fathers and sons reconciling (the only relationships which appear to matter, in large part, in new-Wholand, are father-son ones and those between romantic partners), it means that the punch is pulled.

That’s not the only fault – in a story which actually begins with the Doctor answering a small child’s prayer, how could it be? – but most of the faults of this story are minor ones, and they’re examples of writerly clever-cleverness that should have been pulled out by a competent script editor, like “we’re dead – again” (which just reinforces the problems I mentioned last time), or the continuity references (I only picked up on “Snow White And The Seven Keys To Doomsday”, but Millennium mentions several more).

It’s far from perfect, but in a series which has so far been mostly about big story arcs at the expense of actual story, and where the big high-concept pieces (‘the one with the pirates’, ‘the one with Hitler in for five minutes until they forget about that to concentrate on Mary Sue’) have been such gigantic let-downs, ‘the one where they’re trapped in a doll’s house by a creepy kid and those creepy dolls attack them’ will probably be remembered more fondly in twenty years than many of the other episodes.

18 Responses to “Doctor Who Season 6B: Night Terrors”

  1. Who Review At The Mindless Ones « Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! Says:

    [...] In which I talk about Night Terrors, cuckoos and demographic bubbles. Rate this: Share this:StumbleUponDiggEmailPrintRedditFacebookTwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. [...]

  2. DoctorSmashy Says:

    Ehh. Like all Gatiss episodes, this was full of good ideas but the end result was disappointing. The dolls were creepy enough, but they barely did anything and I didn’t really feel like there was a strong climax to the episode. Just as the tension was reaching boiling point and the dolls had everyone cornered on the staircase, the Doctor then simply talked his way out of it and everybody was okay again. Boo.

  3. Bill Reed Says:

    I wanted more creepy doll people shenanigans. This one felt like a Twilight Zone riff (Good Life, ‘natch) stretched out to fit the runtime.

    My favorite one from Gatiss was The Idiot’s Lantern, easily.

  4. Andrew Ducker Says:

    I could have done with the whole “Your son is an alien” part of the plot having some room to breathe, rather than being uncovered almost at the end, and disposed of instantly. If it had been discovered halfway through, and then the father had had to actually deal with it, I might have found it actually interesting rather than a tacked on plot device.

  5. Carey Says:

    <b."Unfortunately, Gatiss pulls back and delivers a happy ending, in a story which really would work far better without one, with child and father reconciled."

    You do recall this is written with children in mind, don’t you?

    “The current batch of Who writers all seem to be obsessed with fathers and sons reconciling (the only relationships which appear to matter, in large part, in new-Wholand, are father-son ones.”

    The father and sons line completely ignores one of the primary arc stories of the year, which is the relationship between a daughter and her mother. In this setting, the fathers and sons motif is a reflection of that, and the reconciliation between the father and the being he is told is his son is a further exploration of Amy being told that her childhood friend and her travelling companions romantic interest are her daughter.

    Further than this, as the father of a new child myself, the end spoke very truthful about the conflicting emotions of being a new father: this being, so unknowable; who relies so much on you; both fragile and strong (especially when it comes to screaming) and who didn’t even exist until a few weeks ago, can at the most frightening thing in the universe.

    “Because he’s seen the problems with the subtext of The Unquiet Dead and decided to ensure he does nothing that might be seen as enflaming right-wing Mail-reader prejudices”

    Totally missing the other subtext to the episode, which is the acceptance of your child no matter how different he may be (and for different read gay).

    “The only relationships which appear to matter, in large part, in new-Wholand, are father-son ones and those between romantic partners”

    Before the Moffat era, how many stories explored these relationships? Are you saying that Doctor Who should not move on, and explore things it never used to? Seriously, the closest thing to romance being explored in Doctor Who in the classic series was usually when a companion needed to be written out quickly, and we were presented with the entirely truthful “meet and marry in a couple of hours” departure of such characters as Susan, Jo and Leela. Oh, and Peri running off with Brian Blessed (having said that, the last never failed to put a smile on my face, mainly because of imagining their consumation scored by Queen and Blessed booming out “Diiivvvvvvvvvveeeeeeeeeeee!!” at the apposite moment.

  6. Your wife Says:

    (not a Who fan)

    Hmph! Just because I can’t follow your interminable six-parters and make fun of your being a big nerdy nerd and prefer the audios to any other format of Doctor Who stories doesn’t mean I am not a fan! Indeed, would a not-fan know this was a Moffat trope? I don’t think so.

  7. FredH Says:

    Hell, I’ve wanted to see P.R.O.B.E. for years, but can only find old VHS tapes I’ve no way to play.

  8. Liz W Says:

    There’s no plot here, no conflict to be resolved. It’s just a series of images and sounds (a nursery-rhyme like song about dying and so forth) designed to put the willies up anyone watching.

    I think this is why it didn’t work for me. I’m not a very visual person; I definitely prefer strong plots, or failing that, some meaty thinking to wrap my head around. It looked good, but it felt hollow, and is my least favourite episode of this season so far.

    One thing I did like about it, though, was that the doll’s house belongs to a boy and no-one in the story finds that in any way odd. Particularly in the scene where the mother and father are arguing about what the boy’s problem is and what kind of help he needs, it would have been far too easy for one of them to throw in some kind of slur about how his timidity is all the other parent’s fault for allowing him to be a sissy and play with dolls, because in real life, when parents get upset and worried for their child, they do say terrible things. I’m very glad that this time, Gatiss decided just to let the doll’s house be seen as what it ought to be, a perfectly normal toy for any child.

  9. Andrew Hickey Says:

    Agreed with those who say the plot could have been better, but as much as anything else I think that’s a fault of the 45-minute individual episode format – there’s simply not enough time in a single-episode story to do more than the simplest plots.

    Liz, I actually agree, and am far more verbal than visual myself, but I think the episode was successful at what it tried to do, and will be well-remembered.

    Carey, perhaps you could try reading my review and responding to what I said, rather than to things I didn’t say but which you imagined I implied?

    And FredH, far be it for me to suggest copyright infringement, especially now that copyright laws have just become even stronger (and as we all know, Home Taping Is Killing Music), but given that Gatiss has said PROBE will never become available on DVD, I think you would be justified in looking on the torrent sites, where it seems quite readily available.

  10. Gavin Burrows Says:

    ”It’s very odd, because on paper, Gatiss is the perfect writer for the show.”

    Absolutely agree that a writer of surreal black comedy is a much better fit for the show than a ‘proper’ SF writer, and that (alas) Gatiss has never quite lived up to these hopes. ’Victory of the Daleks’ is the only episode I’d call a dead loss, though.

    ”Where Gatiss’ last few stories have been romps in the typical new-Who style, this is a horror story, and owes probably more to Sapphire And Steel than to anything from recent Doctor Who.”

    I see where you’re coming from, indeed appreciated those things in the episode myself, but I think all that part-led to my feeling that Gatiss was just re-shuffling the pack.

    ”Unfortunately, Gatiss pulls back and delivers a happy ending, in a story which really would work far better without one”

    While I didn’t much like the ending we got, that was more because it just felt perfunctory. It was a bit like those old Spike Milligan sketches where he’d suddenly get up and say “stop, that’s the end of the sketch.” (Only “time for dad and lad to get reconciled, seeing as we’re forty minutes in already.”) I liked the way the kid was an alien but it didn’t matter!

    ”the current batch of Who writers all seem to be obsessed with fathers and sons reconciling”

    Is that because mothers and daughters bonding is taken as a given? Back in the day, it didn’t matter because that was all the Mum’s job. Now both parents tend to work, the Dad has to be “part-Mum” and popular media has turned into a kind of how-to guide.

    Don’t know if you’ve seen the film ’Kill List’ yet. The main character is presented as rather inarticulate and macho. Yet he clearly loves his young son, and the son’s not so dense that he can’t spot that. It’s weird something like that would stand out, but in today’s culture I think it does.

    I also wonder whether it has anything to do with the ‘crap bloke boyfriend’ thing. On ’Who’ alone we’ve had Mickey and now Rory, and a similar thing over ’Dirk Gentley’s Detective Agency’.

    Carey says:
    “…completely ignores one of the primary arc stories of the year, which is the relationship between a daughter and her mother.”

    I have to say I’ve absolutely no idea where you’re getting that from! Would a casual viewer even guess Amy is River’s mother, if they didn’t watch a scene where that’s explicitly referred to. To me that’s one of the many things that have been glossed over in the headlong pace of it all.

    PS Andrew, good to read your thoughts. But what will it take for you to resume your reviews of Old Who?

  11. Prankster Says:

    I’m with Mr. Ducker–I think the “child reconciling with parent” plot COULD have been really powerful, and actually still worked to an extent, far more than the usual forced sentimentalism this show sometimes wades into, because here we’re actually given a reason for the parent to potentially reject the child. (Which makes it a shame they linger on the “he’s still afraid of the dark” aspect for so long, when “there’s something wrong with him, it’s like he’s not human” would have cast a much darker shadow over the episode.) Call me a big sap, but I’m a sucker for stories about families that overcome the dictates of the platonic model and manage to love each other despite not being “ideal”. My girlfriend helped raise children with developmental disabilities, and I suspect it hit her even harder than it did me. And that was in very rushed form–if it had been realized better I suspect we would have been blubbering wrecks.

    Long story short, I think this stood out significantly from the usual sentimentality this show tries to foist on us, and there’s nothing wrong with exploring a father-son relationship when it’s “earned”, as I’d argue it was here. The problem the show keeps running into is that it usually ISN’T earned. I’m all for emotionally impactful stories, but that doesn’t just mean Murray Gold cranking the dial up to eleven at the climax.

  12. Prankster Says:

    Also, possibly irrelevant side note: I didn’t find this one particularly scary, to be honest. I guess dolls have never really freaked me out much. Moffat’s episodes still stand head and shoulders above the rest for creep factor, with the Weeing Angels, the Empty Child and, honestly, the Silence still taking that particular cake for me.

  13. Gavin Burrows Says:

    “I think the “child reconciling with parent” plot COULD have been really powerful”

    It sounds like we’re all agreeing it was rushed!

    But why did it have to be the father? Why does it always have to be the father? There’s a whole plot device just to get the mother offstage for most of the episode, while “you were never pregnant” would surely be a stronger line than “she was never pregnant.”

    It’s the cliche that there’s something inherently difficult in fathers bonding with their children, compounded with the cliche that they inevitably will in the end so what’s everyone getting so worried about?

  14. Carey Says:

    @Andrew Hickey
    “Carey, perhaps you could try reading my review and responding to what I said, rather than to things I didn’t say but which you imagined I implied?”
    The last paragraph or so of any essay are amongst the most important because the author is summarising his argument. As it is, I disagree with much of what you have written and responded accordingly.

    @Gavin Burrows
    Hello Captain Courageous– long time no see. Didn’t realise you had a blog, will check it out after finishing my reply.

    “Would a casual viewer even guess Amy is River’s mother, if they didn’t watch a scene where that’s explicitly referred to.”
    There are continual references to Amy’s pregnancy throughout the first eight episodes of series 6, and continual clues as to Amy being Rivers mother, from the similarity in names (River/Pond) to Amy’s theme being played over the end of The Impossible Astronaut (the first time Amy actually meets her daughter– and the disturbing image of the first action she undertakes is attempting to shoot her). I haven’t met a single person who failed to get that River was Amy’s daughter, and the text is very much about exploring that, albeit from an oblique angle.

    “But why did it have to be the father? Why does it always have to be the father?
    In the case of both The Curse of the Black Spot and Night Terrors (and remember, the former was originally intended to be shown where the later was) I believe it was to further the main theme of the series, which is coming to terms with parenthood. And in the case of Night Terrors in particular (and I can say this as a recently new father) from the father’s point of view a newborn child is a cuckoo, and something that can be seen as frightening. From a mother’s point of view, it is the pregnancy that is frightening (see many of the films of David Cronenberg for a good metaphor. And after the birth it is the protection of the child that causes her the greatest fear (certainly for my partner the scene that elicited the most horror for her this series was Baby Melody dissolving in “A Good Man Goes To War”). By changing the gender of the parent in Night Terrors you are changing the story, and it wouldn’t work, nor contain the same message. Personally, I always prefer to review on what is there as opposed to what I would have liked to be there, but different strokes for different folks, I suppose.

    As I may have said in my original post, because of my new found parenthood, I may be far more sympathetic to series six than others: the first half coincided with the later part of my partners pregnancy, and the second half with the second month of our son’s life. There have been many things this season I may have otherwise not enjoyed, but even my partner has commented on how closely the story is reflecting our own lives (child being kidnapped and turned into an assassin not withstanding, of course!-) This sympathy extends to Night Terrors for me, because the end really does reflect feelings I have had, and while it could be said that its a tad heavy handed, I found it moving and I was impressed that a man who I believe has no children could write such a scene.

    All the best,
    Lee

  15. Zom Says:

    I think Andrew’s argument is that the Amy parent thing is under developed – much less developed than the father son wotsit – not that it’s non existent.

    Love Zom

    (Sorry, not meant as an attack, I just can’t stand it when people sign their comments)

  16. Carey Says:

    I know what you mean by signed comments, but it was meant for Gavin as we know each other but I don’t think he knows my surname, and may not recognise me from my previous post.

    I think the amy/parent thing is developed, but as a theme. Not unlike how much of Morrison’s work explores themes more than literal events, Moffat very much strikes me as a writer in the Morrison mode.

  17. Zom Says:

    Re the sign. Ah, right, I see.

  18. Gavin Burrows Says:

    ”…it was meant for Gavin as we know each other but I don’t think he knows my surname, and may not recognise me from my previous post.’

    Hi Lee, how’s it going? I did know your surname (I’ve seen your art published after all!), but didn’t recognise you until you put the two together. There are many Lees and some Careys, but only one Lee Carey. (Apart from the others, that is.)

    ”from the father’s point of view a newborn child is a cuckoo, and something that can be seen as frightening. From a mother’s point of view, it is the pregnancy that is frightening”

    Interesting point. I will probably think about that for a while, and come to absolutely no conclusions whatsoever. Though generally sympathetic to Andrew’s review, one point I made on my own blog was that I liked the ‘good cuckoo’ thing. (“He’s actually an alien, but so what?”) Partly because it vied with the standard alien invasion trope, and partly because as you say in a sense all children are cuckoos.

    ”There are continual references to Amy’s pregnancy throughout the first eight episodes of series 6, and continual clues as to Amy being Rivers mother”

    Ah, but here we argue at cross-purposes! I don’t doubt that a plot point has been Amy being outed as River’s mother. But that’s more of a formal device to give River an origin. If you took out all the explicit references and showed the show to a guinea-pig audience, I wonder how many would discern any kind of bond between them. Amy is River’s birth mother, but most of her upbringing is by Eyepatch Lady. (Or not at all, as it happens offscreen.) It’s like the cuckoo child in reverse. There his Dad accepts him even if he’s not his biological father, on the grounds of all the time they’ve spent together. Amy is River’s birth mother, but so what?

    Incidentally, I don’t mean an audience of guinea pigs. They probably wouldn’t be very attentive and would just play in their wheels instead of… oh, you guessed that already.

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