Wednesday, September 07, 2011

The Nightmare, The Glitch And The Wardrobe

After the grandstanding antics of Let’s Kill Hitler, this week’s episode – Night Terrors – feels like a real back to basics Doctor Who episode for the modern era. It’s a welcome toning down and reining in of the usual extremes, relying instead on atmosphere and basic horror-flick ghost-story scares – and turns out to be all the more effective for it. At its core there’s a very simple idea, but like The Unquiet Dead (Gatiss’ contribution to the Eccleston season) it’s let down by an ending so pitiful you almost feel sorry for it. Sorry for the story that could have been.

And it doesn’t have the great period setting or the formidable Simon Callow going for it. What it does have is a well-realised Victorian dollhouse (pretty easily figured out where Rory and Amy had been deposited, some while before they worked it out themselves), uber-creepy wooden dolls and oodles of terrific direction, with all the shadow play and spooky shots you’d expect from a suspenseful tale designed to give kids nightmares.

Appealing to the audience’s inner child and inviting us into the world of little George, so chronically frightened of all the monsters under the bed, outside the window and most especially in the cupboard, is a worthy aim and seems all part of Gatiss’ ongoing mission to mine the quintessential ingredients of good Who. I always get the impression that Gatiss is trying hard to capture some elusive, perhaps mythical ideal of Whodom that, like a faulty TARDIS, never quite materialises. In many respects, Victory Of The Daleks smacked of more of a creative departure for him, while this represents a return to form. There’s a twisted imagination at work, but it’s never quite twisted enough – The Unquiet Dead, for example, would have been much more interesting and memorable if it had properly pursued its conceit that we humans have no further use for our dead, so why not let aliens make use of the corpses. Here, making little George the alien is a nice twist, but one that somehow fails to turn expectations on their head in the way it should have done. Maybe this should have gone further and made the child a fully-fledged monster. Have George as a proper 'cuckoo in the nest' perhaps, having displaced a previous child - a daughter, maybe, which would explain the presence of the dollhouse and possibly her banishment within it.

Maybe though it’s simply all a bit too familiar. In pushing traditional buttons, Gatiss seems to produce something that’s a little too pedestrian and average. Even tired - perception filter, for instance, seems to be the new reversed polarity of the neutron flow, trotted out as a throwaway explanation for everything. To be fair, it’s not all in the pen work – there’s doses of dark humour to go with all the shadows – and some of the fault here has to be with the cast. I don’t think anyone outside the regulars (and the dolls) managed to entirely convince and possibly better actors would have helped connect me more to the situation. But there’s also a distinctly unreal quality to the domestic setup that possibly stems in part from the direction, and just as probably is there in the script. It’s like kitchen sink drama from someone who’s only ever known automatic dishwashers. The dialogue frequently doesn’t ring true (the dad is too gormless and the landlord pure caricature) and although there’s a clear effort to paint the kind of surreal perspective you’d envisage through the eyes of a child, I think more realistic characters might have provided a more solid grounding and involved me more in the fantasy elements of the tale.

On top of which, it’s all unfortunately a bit close to the Tennant ‘adventure’, Fear Her. Not a Gatiss story, but basically instead of a frightened kid putting everyone into drawings, we have a frightened kid sticking everyone in the cupboard. Which, while a change from the Rusty era of every other character coming out of the closet, ultimately makes for nothing very new.

This is better than Fear Her in that the fear element is more present and there are some actual terrors to justify the title. Plus it doesn’t have the silly shenanigans with the Doctor and the magic (Olympic) torch.

Rory and Amy don't actually achieve much, reduced to sneaking about in corridors, but it’s here that the story delivers its best scenes. It is the stuff of suspense and the dolls, as I say, are supremely creepy – all the way up until the point when Amy is converted, when you realise that, oh dear, it’s all going to be undone with a horribly rushed and overly easy resolution.

Little George just needs to feel like he belongs. Quick, dad, run and give the boy a hug.

But wait, this all came about because of Alien George’s insecurities that he was going to be ‘taken away’. And yet, mummy and daddy (not altogether believably) only discussed packing him off into care because of his chronic fear syndrome. There’s an internal logic failure in there somewhere. And if you’re going to have those, you really need to follow Moffat’s example and make your tales so complicated it’s easier to trust that they’ll all hold together come the end than attempt to unravel the tangled threads. Internal logic has perhaps rarely been Who's strongpoint, but here it's freely abandoned, both in Amy's absurd conclusion that the only way to take control of the situation is to let the dolls in - d'uh? - and I can't say I saw any reason for little George to enter the wardrobe - and the dollhouse - based on the Doctor's pleas. It would have made much more sense - and the situation much more difficult for the Doctor and friends - if he'd just gone ahead and locked the wardrobe at that point and waited for mummy to come home.

Anyway, what it all adds up to and balances out as is an average Doctor Who story. Right alongside Gatiss’ The Idiot's Lantern. Make no mistake, average is better than bad, but it’s also unfortunately more forgettable. Indistinctly average, I suppose. So I suspect that by season’s end, this one will have faded in the mix and we will be left with the usual bipolar episodes characterising this year’s (so far uneven) memories.

It’s always a less than encouraging sign when you’re left more excited by the Next Week trailer than the preceding episode and sadly – despite all of Hitler’s comedy clout - that’s been the case for the past two weeks now. White robots, white backdrops, sword-wielding Amy, fantastical setting – are we due a revisit to the Land Of Fiction?

At this stage, a straightforward remake of The Mind Robber would feel like the series upping its game. It could use some magic about now.



Amethyst Greye Alexander said...

My dear, wonderful, lovely Simes, I must disagree with you. While I know I am--in comparison to your vast Whovian experiences--a Whobie (Who newbie--cute, huh?), I found this week's episode completely boring and completely unoriginal. In fact, I used it as the background noise while I freshened by dye job.

You'd think being a girls who has been terrified of certain types of dolls ever since the age of seven when she unfortunately was allowed to watch CHILD'S PLAY, this dollie ep would scare the pants off me. Not so, and furthermore, the idea of a extraterrestrially possessed child with a demon-Dad-fueled closet monster creeped me out WAAAAY more.

Maybe it's because I have my own Daddy issues, or because I have children and my greatest fear is bad stuff happening to them, but E.T. Chloe Webber ratcheted up my heart rate far higher than Cuckoo George and his zipped-lipped splinter posse. For me, the mom's terror, Chloe's need, and the looming, clock-ticking-down promise of abusive dad bursting through a flimsy door beat the crap out of George's idiot, gelatinous father, who couldn't even be relied upon to give a convincing, "MY SON!" where needed.

As for the ephemeral floaty alien in FEAR HER, and The Doctor's Olympic contributions, I kind of needed something beautifully fragile and something hopeful (corny as it was) after the tension of the preceding 35 minutes.

And as a side note, FEAR HER is Middle Son's favorite episode.

SAF said...

Vive la difference, that's what I say, Ames. Scares are inevitably going to be subjective. But what most impresses me is that Fear Her left such a mark on you. Fair to say, I haven't seen it since first broadcast and I suspect that given a similar stretch of time, Night Terrors will fade just as much in my memory. Maybe one day I can be induced to rewatch Fear Her, but in the meantime you know your disagreements are always welcome here! :-)