...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Day 3898: DOCTOR WHO: Fear Him


Tonight's Doctor Woo starred DADDY ALEX! Well, A daddy Alex. Which is nearly as good.

(For Daddy Richard – aka Sir Quincy Flowers – see "Phantasmagoria", also by Mr Mark Gatiss!*)


"Night Terrors" is an episode that rewards a second viewing.

Perhaps because we weren't anticipating anything happening, we enjoyed more of the moments along the way. Mostly these were scenes between Matt Smith and Daniel Mays, though there was nice badinage between Amy and Rory and I think the laconic performance from Bernard the Bulldog is worthy of mention as well.

What is it with dads hugging their little boys this year, though? Cap'n Avery and Toby; Ganger Jimmy and his bouncing boy Adam; now Alex and George. Does Mr Moffat have some issues that he's trying to work through?

Jenny asks, not unreasonably, couldn't it have been a mummy and her girl needing a hug this time around.

Well, I suppose the first answer is that that would have made the comparison to 2006's dud "Fear Her" all too painfully apparent.

The second, more considered answer is that it would have made the comparison to the situation of Amy and her daughter Melody – who is surely in need of a hug – all the more achingly overlooked.

The real answer, though, is that – like 2006's other dud "The Idiot's Lantern" (yes, you may follow the links and see how nice I was about them in those days) – this is a semi-autobiographical piece: author Mark Gatiss has confessed that he suffered night terrors as a child, and it is very clear that the fear of rejection and the feeling of being a cuckoo in the nest are his own. The need for affirmation from a dad "no matter what you are" is extraordinarily powerful. Compare Alex's acceptance of George with Eddie Connolly's rejection of his son Tommy.

It was lovely to see a working class family again. Post-Rose Tyler the Doctor drifted into much more middle class territory (plus developed an extremely irritating habit of dropping his Time Lordly "Lordliness" into conversations to the extent that you wanted to slap him by the time "Planet of the Dead" came round). Thankfully, Smith's Doctor seems very much more at home here than Tennant's would have done. The juxtaposition of the council flat of "EastEndersland" with the grand house interiors of the dolls' house world rubbed them up against each other with the right sort of wrongness.

Where Gatiss was being clever – and let's not think that he isn't a clever and thoughtful writer – was in rubbing together two completely different kinds of horror trope: the "classic" haunted house and the modern suburban horror – and there was in particular a terrifically "Poltergeist" vibe going on with George's story (most obvious in the fantastic moment where his bedroom seems to concertina in on itself as his dad and the Doctor are dragged into the wardrobe with an actinic flare of light), which was all triggered by a "special" child's emotional trauma (the traditional "cause" of poltergeist activity).

And there we touched – if very briefly – on the buried pain of infertility and IVF. Daniel Mays' expression after blurting out "Claire can't have children" as though he wishes he could swallow the words back capturing a world of guilt and self-recrimination for the underlying thought that "it's not my fault". There's also the sense, from "as much IVF as we could afford" and the landlord coming round for his £350 that they ran themselves into debts that they still haven't got out of more than eight years later.

Where Gatiss was being too clever-by-half – no, that's unkind; I think he got away with it – was playing the hidden continuity reference game: "Snow White and the Seven Keys to Doomsday" referencing the stage play staring Trevor Martin as the 3½th Doctor; the old lady is Mrs Rossiter which is the married name of the sixth Doctor's Big Finish companion Evelyn Smythe; the Doctor refers to "Empires of Glass" which is (almost) the title of a Missing Adventure (in Venice with the first Doctor).

In terms of Moffat-arc continuity, of course, this episode was moved from third to ninth this year, necessitating the trimming of an "eye-patch lady moment" (must have been some time during the meet the neighbours montage). It has been suggested that the Doctor's "good to be back together… in the flesh" line is a bit… odd? Suggestive, at least. Although that might be a hangover from the flesh-Amy arc too. The creepy/prophetic nursery rhyme was nice – reminding Alex, among others, of the girl in "Remembrance of the Daleks" and her similarly-creepy hopscotch rhyme – but would have worked better if we'd heard it properly in the dolls' house where it would have been a completely left field moment; playing out with it, especially over a reprise of the scanner showing the Doctor's date and time of death was just a bit "and remember this year's arc, kiddies". (And if we get it again next week it'll be every bit as bad as the repeated scanner image of Amy pregnant/not pregnant in the first half of the season.)

The dolls were distinctly disturbing, in the same way as the earlier clockwork robots, and particularly the malevolent way that Amy-doll turns its head towards Rory just after she's been "done". (Though maybe could have done with a slightly greater similarity in the clothes to what the human characters had been wearing, if only to spot whether Mrs Rossitter got got at all.) And they could have done with longer on screen.

But that was the problem all over: the pace of the episode was all shot to hell.

The creepy dolls – the main feature of the episode, if we're honest – only make their first appearance on the dot of halfway in, and it continues to do setup rather than payoff well into the second half. In fact, at times it was so languorous, that I thought we were headed for an unexpected two-parter.

Mr Purcell, for example, (oh, Andrew Tiernan, I remember when you were young and pretty in "Cracker") doesn't get eaten by his carpet until the second half, and old Mrs Rossitter is still wandering about in the dolls' house too – though in fact we never see if anything actually happens to her there, like being turned into a doll, say, and she is next seen crawling out of the bins the following morning, which is exceptionally weird in an episode that could have done with more punch lines to its participants' plots.

Structurally, the pre-credits sequence was screaming out for Mrs Rossiter to get into the lift, George and mum Claire do the thing with the cupboard, and the lift doors open… and now it's empty!

Of course that would have been a bloody obvious opening, a real groaner, but when the whole episode is drowning in "trad" it would fit right in. But no! Instead, she gets to wheel her creepy shopping basket past George's window, do a scene with the Doctor about her hip replacement, go down to the bins and only then get vanished. In fact she survives longer than Amy and Rory do!

Nor is it immediately apparent why people start vanishing tonight. There's no sense that people have been vanishing for a while. In fact, everything suggests that Amy and Rory are the first victims. (Though where the other dolls in the house come from is unclear. I mean, they might just be dolls.) Alex theorises that George's fears and powers have been building for a while but that both reach a pitch on this one night and that simultaneously grants him the power to reach out to the TARDIS in flight and to start vanishing people into the dolls' house. That seems logical. Which means that the scenario only feels like a massively contrived coincidence, and this ought to have been covered with a dab of exposition somewhere.

(You might even guess that it's Amy and Rory's "loose" connection to time that lets George vanish them first, and that's what creates the entire dolls' house world, and only after than can he start zapping people he's really scared of. But there's nothing in the episode to say that that's the case.)

Basically, it all smacks of a great idea for a scenario – haunted dolls' house, straight out of Sapphire and Steel via Paul Magrs' "Hornets' Nest: The Dead Shoes" – but no real idea about what to do once in there.

It means we get lots of little backstories from a miniature Royston Vasey's worth of bit parts around the flats rather than all the proper haunted house tropes that Gatiss could and should have been using: the fake-outs, jump moments (the one good jump is Mr Purcell getting his makeover, lovely use of ramping and jump cuts), "let's split up" and all.

It means that we have Amy and Rory sneaking round an old dark house trying to work things out for a huge chunk of the episode while the audience at home know perfectly well that George and his cupboard are the cause of their problems.

In part this is a flaw because when they end up so far behind the audience it leaves us screaming at the companions: "you're in a dolls' house, you morons!" And in part it's a flaw because we know the solution to Amy and Rory's problems lies outside anything they can accomplish because we know that the problem and the solution (i.e. George and the Doctor) are still outside the dolls' house. Plus, you want to find out where you are? Hello! Try looking out the bloody windows, you idiots!

So, lovely as those scenes of them exploring are, they are also frustrating.

Personally, I'd have gone for a cold open of Amy and Rory coming to in the old dark house with Rory's lovely "We're dead. Again." line; done the exploring; and finished the pre-credits with a zoom out of the window to reveal they're in a dolls' house with George outside shaking with terror and crying "save me from the monsters" (nice double meaning: does he mean Amy and Rory?).

Of course, there's then the question of how you sustain the episode for forty more minutes. How long can you carry on with essentially a game of tag, where the monster kills you if it touches you? Well, Moffat managed to make a two-parter out of "The Empty Child", so it's not impossible

The chance to form a team of people to get dollied one by one is lost. Instead, it's really only ever Amy and Rory against the dolls, so we have them literally run into a dead end and decide, against all sense, that the best thing to do is to try and rush their attackers. Which goes about as well as you'd expect, really.

The problem of Amy getting turned into a doll is the same as Rose losing her face in "The Idiot's Lantern": it may up the scare factor for younger viewers, but for many, I suspect, that's the point where "oh, it must be reversible" sets in (leading to the inevitable "everybody lives").

You might be able to get away with that if you introduced a new twist to the threat – perhaps Alex and the Doctor (who don't know that the dolls are people) might be fighting them off with a giant box of matches instead of child safe scissors and setting them on fire. Then they unwittingly become a threat to Amy. (And before you say the Doctor wouldn't 'off' people: he doesn't have much problem doing that to Cybermen who are pretty much the same thing even though metal not wood and converted by science not magic.)

In fact, doing essentially a Cybermen story but with wooden dollies would have given the episode the narrative kick that it needed for the "inside the dolls' house" half of the plot: have the humans cast into the house creeping round, meeting up with each other, maybe have someone "betray" the others to the dolls. And balance that against the Doctor and Alex and George's story outside.

A word about cuckoos: cuckoos do not lay thousands of eggs in the hope one will wind up with foster parents; they lay one and they very specifically lay it in someone else's nest. George is clearly not a cuckoo. Perhaps if Alex and Claire had fostered an alien child and the cuckoo was not George, but another alien – the one animating the malevolent dolls – that had lodged itself in George's dreamworld and was parasitising the nurturing love of Alex and Claire's for George, and thus really was a cuckoo in their nest. Amy and Rory's story could then have its own conclusion by having them defeat the inner parasite, while the Doctor and Alex resolve George's rejection problems and let everyone out again.

Why, you might ask, am I script editing this? Well, someone should have. The thematic similarities to "The Idiot's Lantern" might be excusable if you think that Gatiss is exploring the same issues again, but somebody should have noticed the point-for-point remaking of "Fear Her": alien possess human child/takes human child form; develops power to vanish people; unspoken emotional trauma in past (abusive father/infertility); resolution through power of love et al.

It's not like Doctor Who must never recycle a plot: see "Caves of Androzani" – or "The Power of Kroll" as it was called first time out – or indeed most of the Mighty Trout. But this felt flabby and over-familiar.

Which is an enormous shame, as there were a lot of good ideas, designs, direction, performances and indeed writing on show too.

Next Time… The time is out of joint – O cursèd spite; It seems Rory's got two Amys again – how will he set it right? Or will he even want to? (See also "Space" and "Time" for more of the Grand Moff's subtle and original "the gormless man and the sexy lesbian twins" humour! Oh, my sides.) How do you choose between the girl who flew away and "The Girl Who Waited"?


*For BOTH daddies see, well, pretty much ANY of the works of Mr Simon, really.


Tat said...

As a consummate pasticheur (or, to put it bluntly, he has never shown any sign of having an original thought in his head), Gatiss has to have a template. This time, he's done Moffat-by-numbers so well that with any luck we'll not have any more tick-box compilations of childhood cliches of ooh-scary cracks in walls, nursery-rhymes, polishing a floor and putting a rug on it or whatever. But I think we've got another two episodes of that stort of thing coming up.
The fact that this story's been done as 'Fear Her' doesn't matter to the majority of the target audience (who won't remember that far back - we're getting old!) any more than it having been done as 'The Celestial Toymaker' or 'Paradise Towers' (his model for bits of 'The Idiot's lantern' Too). After an episode that was like a very long Part Three of a story with no start or end, it doesn't even matter that Gatiss is trying to do a proper four-parter in 40 minutes (it was a lot shorter than the bloated Moffat episodes). No, what's wrong is that somehow the Doctor is drawn into a story by psychic force of a child's fears and doesn't spot that the child's not human (all right, perception filters, but his psychic paper doesn't register anything odd). The central notion of a child's fears being powerful is diluted by the threat being that very child, and him not being a child as we understand the term. And yet I can't even condemn it for that because after all that kerfuffle over xenophobia and bogus asylum-seeking Gelth he's done a story where everyone's saved by someone accepting an alien as his family. It's flawed and misconceived but - perhaps because of the relative lack of this increasingly tiresome 'arc'- I found myself giving this one the benefit of the doubt. And after five years of Russell T's anti-Dad polemics, what's wrong with a bit of pro-dad stuff?
Just at a basic level, though: if they're strapped for cash, there's a valuable doll's house in a cupboard and a nine-year-old boy who obviously never plays with it...
(Perception-filters again. Why can't they come out and say 'stupidity-ray' just once?)

Bob The Fish said...

I liked one commenter on Gallifrey Base who pointed out that once the whole plot relies on the Doctor not figuring out what's going on because once he does he's got the solution and that's the end of the episode. So Gatiss has the Doctor literally make a cup of tea for no reason other than to pause the plot for a minute.

Incidentally, why does the Doctor saying that monsters are real change the dad's attitude from "my son has psychological problems and now this dangerous stranger who has only pretended to be a social worker in order to get close to my son has started to fill his head with nonsense" to "dear Lord that cupboard is scary"?

And I'm not sure how to put this delicately, especially given that Mr. Wood posts here, but, erm, does anyone else think that Moffat might have based the look of this doll: on Lawrence Miles?

Millennium Dome said...

Dear Mr Tat,

Oh dear, I cannot argue with any of what you say, and I begin to fear future reviews may just have to say "skip to what Tat says in the comments". I'm glad you were able to give it the benefit of the doubt because there is some good stuff in there.

Good point about the length, too – just 42 minutes this week compare to 48 last week – though I fear that that just adds to the "ran out of plot" feel (and see also Mr Bob the Fish's comment on how the story ends).

And I am DEFINITELY using "stupid ray" from now on!

Millennium Dome said...

Dear Mr Bob the Fish,

How's the dam going? No, that's JIM the Fish… sorry, anyway…

Oh dear, that is a bit separated at birth, isn't it. And I do have a bit of a regular moan about how some aspect or other of the current DW is EERILY REMINISCENT of some aspect or other of Larry's writing. I can see how he'd be utterly insufferable to work with, and yet it's hard to deny that he's had a pretty high level of contribution to big ideas in Doctor Who, and arguably used them more constructively than the MR Moffster's fire and forget approach.

And when you put it like that, yes Alex's sudden switch to believing in monsters is a bit of a swerve, but let's use that as an excuse for extra kudos to Danny Mays for smoothing it over almost unnoticeably :)