Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Doctor Who Indeed: "Night Terrors"

"Today we're answering a call for help from the scariest place in the universe: a child's bedroom."
--The Doctor, "Night Terrors"

Although "Night Terrors" was a fabulously good time, I was not as into this episode as I have been in previous Doctor Who episodes this season. I like to gauge my enjoyment of an episode based on how much it makes me cry. Although there were no glaring faults in plot or character, I did not get as much out of this episode. It was probably the ending, and my impression of it following such an episode as "Let's Kill Hitler" was not exactly plused. I'll get to that, trust me. Lots of good stuff in this episode, its minor faults notwithstanding. I'm afraid I'll be offending the fan-girls today, as I have some rather stiff criticisms of this one.

Basic Plot

"Making a house call."
"Night Terrors" is the story of a little boy named George who is scared of everything. The lift in his complex sounds like someone breathing. He believes the old woman in the flat across from his family's to be a witch. He has odd little rituals created to keep the monsters in his room at bay (flipping the light switch on and off five times), and he has developed odd little ticks, like blinking. His parents think he has something wrong with him and discuss in ear shot that George needs help. George wraps his little arms around his knees and whispers, "Please save me from the monsters." His plea is so desperate that it is received on the psychic paper in the Tardis. The Doctor immediately directs their coordinates to his apartment complex and they begin their search for the scared little boy. Rory and Amy get into the lift, which immediately plummets into another world. They find themselves in a strange house, without lights. The Doctor and Alex, George's dad, get banished to the doll house in the cupboard, where Rory and Amy have been all the while. The Doctor manages to squeeze from Alex that he can't remember George's birth. George has been using the cupboard for a psychic repository for everything he fears. Doll-like creatures pursue each of the pairs and eventually culminates with Amy getting turned into a doll. Rory, the Doctor, and Alex get trapped by the things on the stair case and try to hold them off, while George musters his courage and faces his fear: that his father and mother will send him away. George is a Tenza, "a cuckoo in the nest". Not a changeling per say but a creature that searches for a place to grow and assimilate. The Tenza that was George came to the parents of Clair and Alex because Clair could not have children. He became their baby, and wiped their memories to give them the impression that he had been born to them and was their natural child. However, when he began to fear the world around him, his adopted parents began to talk about sending him away. The feeling of rejection resulted in George's new-found fear of everything. George stops the madness by facing his fears, but the feeling of rejection returns once Alex realizes that his son is an alien. Alien or not, though, Alex rescues his son, promising never to send him away. The group returns to the apartment complex, and George's fears vanish as his conscious mind accepts his place and the things that surround him. The Doctor, Amy, and Rory leave and move on to their next adventure.

The Writing

The idea that an alien can choose his place in the universe and assimilate into a civilization is amazing, and the Doctor's dialogue that arrives at the conclusion that saves them all is equally brilliant. The story itself is not what I take issue with. There are pieces of this episode that do not sit well with me, despite my overall opinion that the episode is good. I have narrowed my problems with the episode down to two things.

The episode is classic Doctor Who, but it is also lacking in originality. Of course, many long-running television shows have a basic plot formula. For example, in the show House--a personal favorite--no matter how different the disease, no matter how thematic and engaging the sub-plot, the episode proceeds predictably: someone gets sick with symptoms that are seemingly disparate but are actually linked; House and his team come up with several treatments that seem to solve the problem until new, more horrifying symptoms emerge; Dr. House follows a trail of subtle clues and--through the amazing and accepted fictional understanding that he is far more intelligent than everyone else--deduces the real problem and treats it just as the patient is on the verge of death. Not all of the episodes proceed that way, and several of House's patients do die, but the majority of the episodes follow that formula. House and our Doctor are similar in that their experience and understanding are vastly superior to their team members'. Their deductions are usually derived from the irony that the audience and the companions are not privy to all of their knowledge, and must therefore accept that what the Doctor and House are saying is true. Also, part of the writing restricts character insight until the very end, giving the audience the impression that the fictional reality is concealed to everyone, including our heroes until the end when it is revealed in full, when subtle clues in the opening scenes or quickly following scenes reveal more to the audience than to the characters. This device is usually what builds tension. The less a character has to work with, the more desperate the situation is. The fact that the Doctor (in either case) cannot figure out the answer to a question in formulaic plots until the very end is that the tension must build into a climax, according to accepted fictional progression.

"Who are you, George?"
In the case of "Night Terrors" the tension builds marvelously, with the Doctor coming to the conclusion that the only creature with enough psychic power to manipulate its adoptive parents and assimilate into their society seamlessly is a Tenza. When this realization is completed, the Doctor shifts the responsibility of "sorting" the problem to Alex, whose worry for his son ultimately influenced he and his wife's decision to seek help, possibly even sending the Tenza away, which defies its prime directive: assimilation and survival. The dialogue from the Doctor and Alex make this conclusion fictionally sustainable, but the formulaic way in which the tension builds is what disappoints me. The plot is transparent. Aspects of the show like Rory and Amy's relative abuse as characters, means that one can always expect something terrible to happen to one of them. Since Rory's transformation in "A Good Man Goes to War," Amy has become the subject of abuse (as we will see again in "The Girl Who Waited"), getting turned into a doll, which is of course undone when the Tenza is reassured of his acceptance to his parents. This does not help the fact that the Doctor, even though responsibility shifts to a minor character, is the driving force behind George's acceptance, as we understand that the Doctor is the only one that can convince George that he is responsible for the world they are in, and can destroy it. The Doctor's speech that George must "BELIEVE" is also disappointing, as it render's Alex's ultimate responsibility, what should have been endearing, hypocritical. We are set up with the expectation that the Doctor can solve any problem. Why, then, is the speech necessary when Alex had the power to solve the problem all along. The "you must believe" speech is metafictionally distracting and unoriginal at best, cliched and pointless at worst.

"Tick tock goes the clock..."
Something else that bothered me was the whole-sale switch from the River Song chronology to the standard chronology. The fact that Amy and Rory flip flop from being frustrated parents to not really thinking about it is jarring. There was little in the way of transition from the last episode other than leaving River in college. Also, the end bit, with the reminder that eventually our Doctor must die, is disturbing, but out of place. The episode veers to far away from the previous episode's chronology to warrant such a reminder. I would have thought that the Doctor's future, now known to him, would have carried more weight than a simple ending reminder, or could have been left out altogether. The ending is held together by the earlier device of the song, which goes something like this from what I heard of it, "Tick, tock, goes the clock...tick, tock and all too soon, you and I must die..." The end reminder of what is before us and what was behind us culminates at the end with the out of place reprizal of the doll's song, "Tick tock, goes the clock, even for the Doctor." The device is disturbing, and it is obviously meant to be so, but I wonder at the metaficitional purpose of it. What part of the plot or sub-plot of this episode had anything to do with the Doctor's death and his foreknowledge of it? Obviously its meant to ground us in the other chronology, but trust me, we don't return to that chronology for sometime, for today is the 21st and this episode aired two weeks ago. The last two episodes, "The Girl Who Waited" and "The God Complex" do not fall into the River Song chronology, and therefore, their relationship to that chronology should not be forced into each episode. The end reprisal of the doll song, is, therefore, unnecessary. 

Best Lines

Any Doctor Who episode will have its most endearing lines, and this one is no less apt. One of my favorites is the Doctor's description of George's mania:

"Pantaphobia. Its called Pantaphobia. Not a fear of pants, if that's what you're thinking, but a fear of everything...including pants, I suppose."

Amy and Rory have a good one as well:

Rory: "We're dead aren't we?"
Amy: "What?"
Rory: "The lift fell and we're dead."
Amy: "Shut-up."
Rory: "We're dead--again."

Alex, George's dad, is completely unreliable and very malleable. This is when they get sucked into the cupboard. Allusions to the Tardis are always awesome.
Alex: "We went into the cupboard. How can it be bigger in here?"
The Doctor: "More common than you think, actually."


I'd like to thank everyone for putting up with this latest intolerably long blog post about things nobody thinks about. Altogether I thought this episode was great in terms of plot and character, even if I think Steven Moffat is much better about progression and the Doctor's dialogue seems more natural coming from his writing. I'd also like to announce that starting on the next Doctor Who post, I will be initiating the Tear Factor, which gauges an episode's affect on me by how much it made me cry. For "The Girl Who Waited" this is entirely apt.

The Doctor is a time lord of Gallifrey. Being a time traveler, he knows that foreknowledge can be a dangerous thing. The Doctor's appointed death looms into our near and distant futures. Whatever happens, his companions will be there alongside him, but can he protect them from everything the known and unknown universe has in store for them? Next in the count down of season six, "The Girl Who Waited".

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