[A revised and improved version of this essay appears in my book The Eleventh Doctor: a critical ramble through Matt Smith’s tenure in Doctor Who.]
When Series 6’s complex and demanding opening two parter Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon was followed by the relatively straightforward third episode, Curse of the Black Spot, I couldn’t help but feel a little underwhelmed by comparison. It had a lot to recommend it (in fact I really must go back and watch it again), but set against the sprawling ambitious of the opening gambit it seemed somehow mundane. That’s harsh, but based on a true story.
Night Terrors had the similarly difficult job of following on from Moffat’s mid-season two parter A Good Man Goes to War/Let’s Kill Hitler; but would it be substantial enough to stand up against those very rich episodes?
Sadly, the answer is “nearly but not quite”. The ingredients are all lined up: the stuff that classic Who is made of. The frightened child, the spooky old lady, something weird happening to the companions while separated from the Doctor. And yet while there’s plenty to like, the episode somehow never really sings. Given that it was very deliberately designed to be frightening, it didn’t really achieve that goal — at least, nowhere near as well as The Empty Child or Silence in the Library. And I think there were three main reasons for that.
First, the frightened child himself. We’ve been spoiled for child actors in recent years. I’ve seen Hayley Joel Osment in two films, for example, The Sixth Sense and the very demanding A.I., and he was absolutely convincing in both of them. Closer to home, Caitlin Blackwood did a fine job of portraying Amelia Pond in Series 5 of Who. The result has been that I had more or less forgotten how excruciatingly bad child actors can be — as for example, the pair of Cute Kids in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. George is nowhere near down at that level, but the poor kid is not quite good enough to be convincing. And in a story like this, that’s crippling.
Second, the characterisation of the Doctor seemed somehow a bit off. There were delightful moments as usual — notably the don’t-open-the-cupboard/do-open-the-cupboard sequence. But there is usually an intensity to this Doctor that’s apparent beneath the surface in even the more tranquil scenes — a sense that wheels are spinning somewhere inside. In Night Terrors, for the first time in a long while, there were times when it seemed as though the Doctor just didn’t have much idea where he was headed or why.
And third, the plotting wasn’t as tight as I’d hoped. For example, very early on George’s mother just drops silently out of the story. That seemed like it should be relevant, especially once it became apparent that Alex’s memory was unreliable — could it be that she didn’t really exist, and was a figment of George’s imagination? No, it turns out, she had just popped out for a bun or something, and returned for the Happy Ending. Meanwhile, we were introduced to a couple of extras: the Threatening Landlord and the Creepy Old Lady. But as it turns out, neither of them really had anything to do with anything: they became victims of the Scary, sure, but that fact didn’t play into anything else that happened. It would have been perfectly possible to snip out one or both of those characters and use the time to develop George’s mum.
None of this makes the episode bad, of course. There’s a lot to like about it. Had it cropped up in a Tennant-era series, I would probably have classed it as one of the better ones. But my sense is that Who has shifted up a couple of gears since then, and is aiming for more. In that context, Night Terrors feels a bit like treading water. It isn’t just a matter of its being a non-arc episode, or of Moffat-vs.-the-rest, because The Doctor’s Wife took wings and flew in a way that this didn’t, quite.
Here’s how it feels to me. When Moffat writes an episode, especially since he took over as show-runner, it feels to me as though he’s got behind the wheel of a powerful sports car that he’s lusted after since he was a child. And he’s thinking, “All right, let’s see how fast this baby can go!”, and flinging it round the corners for the sheer delight of doing it. He seems to be surfing on the edge of the possible. Whereas Mark Gatiss’s writing, in Night Terrors, seems altogether more sober and, well, cautious. It could have jumped in much deeper, but it was content to stay, if not paddling in the shallow end, then at least not going out of its depth.