Night Terrors by Mark Gatiss
Review and analysis by Damian Michael Barcroft. The following views and opinions are my own and do not reflect those of The Gallifrey Times.
I can think of no better way to begin my review in a fashion that will accurately express my reaction to the latest episode of Doctor Who than by confessing that I find Mr Mark Gatiss a rather curious sort of chap. If the reader has the slightest inclination to agree with me then I’m confident that they will have their own very good reasons for this, but since this is my review, then we will have to make do with mine for the moment and this won’t take too long either because my reasons are both short and finite.
Firstly, I seem to share Gatiss’ film, television and literary passions (including Doctor Who, Hammer Horror, and Sherlock Holmes) thus making virtually any project he touches immediately tantalizing but secondly, and indeed most importantly, in an age when most television writers try to write what they and the TV executives think the audiences at home want to see, Gatiss actually writes what he wants to see. His work is typically bizarre and macabre, often working within the conventions of horror and sci-fi genres and his work is evidently influenced by the aforementioned childhood obsessions. While he has appeared in or written for many cult television shows, perhaps his most notable works include The League of Gentlemen (beginning on the stage in 1995 and later becoming a TV series and film), last year’s Sherlock in which he was co-creator/writer and performer, and Doctor Who.
Gatiss’ association with Doctor Who started with the Virgin novels, audio plays, video spin offs and some rather charming, affectionate and really quite amusing spoofs including The Pitch of Fear, The Web of Caves, The Kidnappers and The Corridor (1999). I was only recently aware of this and I am almost reluctant to even acknowledge such a rogues gallery of Doctor Who fanatics but there is a petition on a certain social network that seeks to prevent Gatiss from writing any further episodes for the program. I will certainly not be adding my name to such an outrage and I only mention it to highlight the passionate and contrasting opinions surrounding his contribution to the show which has amounted to five episodes thus far. Gatiss has served as a performer for one of these, the poor and cliched The Lazarus Experiment (5 May 2007), and written the other four, The Unquiet Dead (9 April 2005), which I consider, perhaps with too much bias, to be the best because of our shared passion for Dickens and all things Victorian, the less successful and slightly tedious The Idiot’s Lantern (27 May 2006), the average but entertaining Victory of the Daleks (17 April 2010) and of course Night Terrors.
Given the hit and miss nature of the Gatiss episodes, I was immediately relieved when I saw early publicity material and eventually the trailer for Night Terrors, not only because it looked like a very traditional episode of Doctor Who but also the content and style could not be more suited to his artistic sensibilities. Furthermore, if Gatiss couldn’t pull off an episode like this, then I would be very sceptical about his involvement with the program in the future. So did he pull it off and was the episode any good?
Well, yes and no really. While Night Terrors succeeds perfectly in its attempt to frighten and shock its audience, the way in which these scares were executed seemed both derivative and surprisingly lacking in Gatiss’ trademark style of dark humour and surrealism. For someone who admits to being such a devoted fan of the Hammer series of films and television, I am shocked and almost embarrassed by the similarities between this and Child’s Play(1984) which was an episode of Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense in which a family finds themselves trapped in a doll’s house. I also felt the transformation scenes were far too similar to those of The Empty Child for the episode to really stand out as a classic.
Now, regardless of when this was originally intended to be broadcast, I think it was probably wise to offer the audience an almost completely stand alone episode after so many “complicated story arc” plotlines. It was good to see the Doctor interact substantially with other characters for a change especially the eight-year-old little boy George who was played so well by Jamie Oram. This obviously resulted in little screen time for Amy and Rory, literally reducing their roles to minor supporting roles in which they run about in the dark pretending to be scared, but this was a small price to pay for the difference in pace and direction. I also enjoyed some of the cheeky references, winks and nods that Gatiss delivered with obvious relish including Rory’s tongue in cheek line to Amy, “We’re dead again!”, and especially when Alex explains that it was scary things on television that were perhaps frightening and affecting George’s behaviour so they stopped letting him watch to which the Doctor replies, “Oh, you don’t want to do that!”.
Other aspects were less satisfactory such as yet another mawkish father and son declaration of love (enough already!) and the memory loss of Claire not being able to remember her pregnancy was far too a convenient and contrived explanation or indeed justification for the story and situations. The council tower block setting initially served as a good red herring in terms of the horrors which were to follow and this was particularly the case when one considers the almost kitchen sink type of dialogue at the beginning which suggested the episode might stray into Mike Leigh or Ken Loach territory. Now, I’m obviously not suggesting that either of these two gentlemen write for the show – could you imagine? – the TARDIS may be bigger on the inside but I doubt there is much room for naturalistic social realism punctuated by self indulgent rants on political and economic issues, but I was disappointed that after exploring so many different species of aliens and cultures for all these years, we couldn’t just pause to reflect on representations of some of our own social classes that haven’t been portrayed since Rose and her mother’s introduction to the show back in 2005.
Additionally, it did seem a shame that some of the themes Gatiss hinted at in his story were never developed but quickly dismissed instead in order to pursue the more obvious monster of the week aspects. For example, the idea of a child or anyone else for that matter, conforming to a perceived set of social expectations in order to be loved and wanted is as interesting an idea as it is heartbreaking. Furthermore, the theme of a parent’s unconditional love for their child regardless to who they are or who they might turn out to be is equally fascinating and worthy of exploration especially when one considers Gatiss’ own sexuality.
If, as some observers have suggested, Gatiss could be a suitable replacement for Steven Moffat when he steps down as show runner, I sincerely hope that he will either try to look further afield from his usual pool of inspiration or actually come up with his own original material that serves as neither a homage or camp spoof but instead showcases his undeniable yet rather curious talents.