Developments So Far:
Well, you could just read my painstakingly detailed recap here, but, in short, in the last episode we learned the early origin of River Song, and how she transformed from a would-be Doctor assassin and proto-Time Lord into the Doctor’s future human paramour and accused murderer (ain’t that just always the way?). We also learned that her original training came at the hands of the Silence, a religious order trying to either cause or prevent the destruction of the Universe by the asking of the mysterious, unknown “Question.” The Doctor also learned, thanks to pillaging the computer files of the time-traveling robot-ship the Teselecta, the exact time and place of his death at the hands of the mysterious Astronaut, who is likely Melody Pond (though how, why, or if this is even completely true, has yet to be clarified). How this affects the Doctor’s character going forward remains to be seen, especially given how he has begun to confront (and perhaps even embrace) the darker aspects of his personality and reputation. Meanwhile, Amy and Rory both must come to grips with the awkward realization that their daughter is now a fully grown woman and must let her find her own way in the world.
Though regarded as one of the stalwarts of geek culture (and, more recently, geek chic) here in the United States, Doctor Who has been an important part of British mainstream popular culture for almost fifty years. And while the series is predominantly a popular show in the US among adult and teenage fans of science fiction, to British audiences it is regarded predominantly as a kids’ show, which is why it still airs on the “family” viewing hour on Saturday night. Part of its longstanding appeal is that, for younger viewers, it can be a pretty scary program, especially in regards to the famously grotesque monsters the Doctor typically faces week in and week out. A phrase common in the British lexicon that traces its roots back to the early days of Doctor Who is “watching from behind the sofa,” a euphemism for how British children would watch the many scary monsters, such as the Daleks and the Cybermen, while literally hiding behind their living room sofa. For an entire generation, such shared terror was an important part of British cultural experience, and though Doctor Who lacks the cultural footprint it had decades ago, it still pays keen attention to its rich history of presenting terrifying “monster” episodes that provide kids (and maybe even a few adults) the thrill of being scared. Tonight’s episode, “Night Terrors,” written by Mark Gatiss (who, along with present Who showrunner Steven Moffat, created the awesome Sherlock series) appears to be one of those episodes.
So, ladies and gentlemen…children of all ages…ready your sofas.
Tonight’s ep opens in a location atypical to the exotic locales often visited within the Whoniverse: one of urban Britain’s many high rise apartment blocks (well, atypical after the Rose Tyler era). Though modern, the entire landscape takes on an altogether gothic atmosphere of malevolence and dread, which is only enhanced by the eerie musical chimes playing over the soundtrack, like those from a children’s nursery rhyme. (Seriously, does that kind of music ever invoke happy, comforting thoughts and memories for anyone anymore? Yeah, I didn’t think so.) Into this scene we are introduced to some rather innocuous images and sounds: an elderly lady making the long, slow ascent up to her apartment, and kids playing soccer outside a door. Though innocuous, the shadows and atmosphere make these sounds seem almost monstrous, which they certainly do to little George, a ginger-haired little boy who lives in one of the building’s many apartments, whose mother is getting him ready for bed before she heads to her job on the night shift. It becomes immediately that George is a rather timid and anxious little boy. When he becomes scared by the sound of the elevator outside of his apartment, his mother reminds him of what he’s supposed to do when something scares him: “put it in the cupboard.” She knocks on his bedroom cupboard as a way of giving physical representation to her metaphor. As she leaves, her son insists that she turn the lights on and off five times, another comforting routine for young George. When she’s gone, George begins praying, to no one in particular, to “please save me from the monsters.” After a momentary glimpse of the outer cosmos, his mother tucks him in for the night, and tells him that there is nothing to be afraid of. Outside, George overhears his mother and father speaking tensely about him; his Dad is particularly agonized over the fact that he’s “terrified all the time.” The mother responds that they need to get help, an idea to which the father remains . When the Mom states, “he needs a doctor,” George becomes terrified, and begins muttering again, “please save me from the Monsters” over and over again. Strangely, his prayer again seems to travel through the cosmos, soaring through countless galaxies before reaching the TARDIS. Inside the TARDIS, the Doctor gets a sudden jolt and pulls out his psychic paper (for those unfamiliar, the psychic paper is a blank wallet badge that the Doctor uses to give himself false credentials when he needs them; it essentially appears as whatever the Doctor needs it to appear as). He pulls out the paper and reads the message on it, “Please save me from the monsters.” The Doctor informs Amy and Rory that he’s doing something he hasn’t done in quite a while. Amy: “What’s that?” “Making a house call.”
After the credits roll, the TARDIS appears outside the apartment building in Anycity, UK. Rory makes the comment, “No offense, Doctor…” Doctor: “Meaning the opposite…” Rory: “We could have taken the bus here.” Doctor: “See? The opposite.” The Doctor informs him that they are going to be entering “the scariest place in the universe: a child’s bedroom.” Inside his room, young George is still awake and scanning his flashlight across his room, looking for “monsters” while paradoxically making everything in his room appear more terrifying. Outside his window, the sound of the old woman’s labored breathing as she carries her groceries to her appartment scares young George, causing him to pull his blanket up over his chest. While waiting for the building’s elevator, the Doctor shares the psychic paper with Amy and Rory, and they make a plan to try and find “the very scared kid” who sent the message. In his living room, George’s Dad looks over pictures of George as he was growing up; they’re all happy and comforting, a sharp contrast to the terror that presently grips his young son. Inside his room, George is still terrified of all the random noises happening in the building.
At this point, it’s Humorous Montage Time (TM BBC), where the Doctor, Rory, and Amy visit various tenants at the apartment trying to find the source of George’s message. Of key interest is Rory meeting the building’s landlord Mr. Purcell, a gruff, solitary type who owns a large, threatening bulldog, and the Doctor meeting the old lady, Mrs. Rossiter, who’s a bit on the cantankerous side. The landlord, on the other hand, is clearly disliked by most of his tenants.
George is roused from under his covers by the sound of Amy and Rory passing by his window, wear he overhears them talking about how they have to “find that kid.” Rory then jokes that maybe they should just let the monsters “gobble him up.” This, as you have probably already guessed, will become regarded as a very bad move. The Doctor happens to see George nervously spying out his window, and decides that he may have found the child he’s looking for. After meeting up again with Amy and Rory, the Doctor sends them to check the lower floor while he goes to George’s apartment. With George becomes especially terrified in his room, Amy and Rory step onto the elevator, which then takes on a life of its own and sends the couple on an express trip straight down. When the elevator doors open however, Amy and Rory are nowhere to be seen.
The Doctor then knocks on an apartment door, where George’s Dad answers. Apparently, his wife said she was going to call Social Services, which the Doctor immediately claims to be a representative of. Walking into the apartment, he asks the father to “tell me about George.”
Out near the building’s dumpster, Mrs. Rossiter deposits her garbage while complaining about the general lack of consideration shown by her fellow tenants. As she’s walking away, one of the bags on the pile moves, drawing her attention and leading her to scold the person she assumes is trying to scare her (and calling out George by name). As she takes a closer look, the garbage pile sucks her in, and she vanishes…
Inside the apartment, the Dad describes George to the Doctor while the Doctor looks through a family photo album. Apparently, George acts very strangely for a child of eight; he never cries, for instance. The Doctor rightfully surmises that George’s condition has recently gotten worse, and the Dad confirms that they were considering sending George somewhere for help. This only further exacerbated his son’s neurosis, to the point he’s now “afraid of everything.” The Doctor explains that this is “pantophobia,” which, he makes sure to clarify, “isn’t a fear of pants.” After the Dad lists George’s various phobias, he states that he’s “not an expert” and expresses hope that the Doctor can get through to him. The Doctor: “I’ll do my best.”
Amy and Rory the suddenly awaken in a darkened old house. While pondering how they got here after being on the lift, Rory’s first conclusion is that “we’re dead…again.” Amy will have none of this, however, and they begin investigating their surroundings. Rory then assumes that the TARDIS has done something to them…again…while something in the background is watching them.
The lamp in George’s room then falls over, and the Dad and the Doctor come in to investigate. After finding our that the Doctor is, in fact, a doctor, George asks “have you come to take me away?” The Doctor says that he hasn’t, and that he just wants to talk to him “about the monsters.”
Meanwhile, back in the old dark house, Amy and Rory are wandering around their creepy surroundings, where they discover that everything appears to be made of wood instead of metal. They also find a lantern that also uses an electrical switch (like an oversized toy), and open a drawer which contains a giant glass eyeball. Rory and Amy then notice that his pocket flashlight rhythmically turns itself on and off again five times. Appropriately creeped out, they keep searching the house for an exit.
In the apartment, the Doctor and the Dad speak with George, while the Doctor attempts to fix a Rubix cube (and fails, declaring it to be broken…too funny). The Dad speculates that they thought George’s fear maybe have been something he watched on the telly or read in a book (which allows the Doctor to reminisce on some of the classic children stories of his youth, which apparently included “Snow White and the Seven Keys to Doomsday.”) As the Doctor begins getting all manic (as he is wont to do), he then points out George’s cupboard, which fills the young boy with dread. The Dad explains the significance of the cupboard as the place where George places the things that scare him. The Doctor: “Including the monsters, George?” When the Doctor goes to open the cupboard, there is a loud knocking on the front door that causes everyone to jump (nice shocker, actually).
Amy and Rory, meanwhile are still wandering the dark house, but now we get a better glimpse of “the monster” that’s following them: a strange looking doll with a large white head…
The person at the front door turns out to be Purcell the landlord and his dog; the gruff and unpleasant man has come to inquire about the coming rent, and we find out that the Dad is presently out of work. The Doctor, meanwhile, tries to protect George from hearing the conversation by showing off the sonic screwdriver. In a nice little bit, the Doctor uses the screwdriver to turn on all the toys in the room, which immediately makes them all seem far less terrifying. Outside, the Landlord intimidates the Dad. The Doctor scans the cupboard with the screwdriver and finds the readings are “off the scale.” After Purcell leaves, the Dad steps into the room and tries to open the cupboard, but the Doctor stops him, stating that the “monsters are real.”
Inside the house, Rory and Amy discover that they can’t get out, and find further evidence that everything in the building is artificial. They then hear sounds of running footsteps, and children giggling menacingly.
In the kitchen, the Dad tries to ask the Doctor to leave, feeling that his belief in George’s “delusions” are only making things worse. The Doctor refuses, and then tells emphasizes that he has come through time and space based on his son’s distress call, and that what is inside the cupboard is undeniably monstrous and powerful. The Doctor: “Do you see these eyes? They’re old eyes…and what I can tell you is: monsters are real.” The Dad: “You’re not from Social Services, are you?”
In the old house, Rory, Amy, and, in a separate part of the structure, Mrs. Rossiter, are being pursued by the unnatural giggling. When the couple come upon a door, it opens on them, revealing a wooden dummy, which they first think is harmless, but as they walk away, it starts moving after them.
Back in the apartment, the Doctor speculates, in a fashion as only he can, about whether they should open George’s cupboard. While they’re moving off to do it, the landlord Purcell, in his own apartment, is sucked into his floor, as his bulldog watches apathetically. The Doctor and the Dad, meanwhile, cautiously begin to open the cupboard, revealing an old dollhouse…and nothing else. The Doctor then has an epiphany, and runs back to grab the photo album. Looking through it, he points out to the Dad that a month before George’s birth, that his Mom wasn’t pregnant. The Dad then suddenly remembers that his wife actually can’t have kids, which then terrifies him as he realizes that George’s existence is, in fact, a complete impossibility. The Doctor then turns to George and asks, “What are you, George?” Before George can reply, the sound of the elevator again terrifies him, and he begins rhythmically chanting “please save me from the monsters.” The cupboard behind them springs to life and sucks both the Doctor and the Dad inside and then traps them within.
In the old dark house, Amy and Rory meet Purcell, who is also being pursued by the large wooden dolls. When one of the dolls catches him, it transforms him into doll himself, giggling all the time. Amy and Rory then finally realize that they are in extreme danger and run for it. The Doctor and the Dad, meanwhile, wake up in the house themselves, and the Doctor quickly makes the determination that they, like everyone else, are trapped in the dollhouse inside George’s cupboard. The Dad, still trying to come to grips with his altered memories, asks the Doctor to explain what his son is. The Doctor explains that the Dad under the influence of a perception filter (again, for those unfamiliar with it, a perception filter in the Whoniverse is a device which effects people’s perception, causing them to forget or ignore certain elements and details; the TARDIS, in fact, uses one, so people don’t otherwise notice a hugely anachronistic police box just kind of standing around). As they make their way into the house, one of the white[faced Giggling Dolls, or Gigglers, is shown to be watching them. Meanwhile, Rory and Amy are trying to bar the door against the Gigglers, without much luck. When they try to escape the room, Amy gets captured and is transformed into a Giggler.. The Doctor and Dad then realize that George is putting everything in the cupboard that scares him, using it as a kind of psychic repository for his anxieties. One of the Gigglers then shows up, and they then realize that they, too, are in extreme danger. After finding that the sonic screwdriver is useless against them (the Doctor: “I have to invent a setting for wood…it’s embarrassing!”), the grab an oversized pair of safety scissors, which they used to push off the Giggler, and make a break for it.
The Doctor then realizes that George is a Tenza, a kind of psychic alien who are dispersed throughout the universe to find foster parents, into whose lives they assimilate themselves. In this case, George sensed two parents who desperately wanted children but couldn’t have any, and thus filled the void in their lives as well as his own. Quickly cornered in the house by an onslaught of Gigglers, the Doctor realizes that George is causing all of this unconsciously. He tries to communicate with George, telling him that he’s the only one who can vanquish the monsters. Rory then shows up, with the Giggler Amy hot in pursuit. Meanwhile, in his room, George opens the cupboard and then appears in the dollhouse himself. For a moment, it seems everything is fine, but then the Gigglers turn on George.
Remembering the clues from earlier, the Doctor realizes that George is afraid of being sent away by his “parents,” which is what is causing all his other anxieties. The Doctor tells the Dad that he needs to go help his son, but the Dad is understandably cautious with the fact his son is an alien. However, just as George is about to be overwhelmed by the Gigglers, the Dad fights his way through and rescues him, telling him that he loves him no matter what he is, and that he will never send him away. The Doctor, meanwhile, looks on approvingly as the Gigglers vanish.
And with that, everything turns back to normal. At daybreak the next morning, Mrs. Rossiter climbs out of the garbage, the Landlord wakes up on the floor of his apartment and begins cuddling his dog, and Rory and Amy climb off the elevator, unharmed. Amy: “Was I a…” Rory: “Yeah.” Claire, George’s mom, comes home to find her husband and the Doctor making breakfast and George completely fine. As the Doctor leaves, the Dad catches up to him with concerns over George’s future. The Doctor tells him just to treat him as a normal boy, and everything will be fine. He does, however warn him, “that it may pop back again around puberty…always a funny time.” George and his Dad then walk back into their apartment, arm in arm and happy.
The Doctor then meets up with Amy and Rory again, they board the TARDIS, and discuss where to go next. As they talk, their dialogue fades out, and we hear the ominous singing of the Gigglers again:
“Tick-tock goes the clock…even for the Doctor…”
The final shot is of the onscreen data the Doctor downloaded from the Teselecta last episode, stating when and where he is due to die…
Not a whole lot, really, save for reminding us of the Doctor’s impending death in the last beat; this really was the definition of a “standalone episode.” With that said, the alien Tenza/George’s reaction and terror at the word “Doctor” again works into the theme of the Doctor being regarded as a something to be terrified of rather than a figure of benevolence. The Doctor also spent a lot of time in the episode bragging about the number of monsters he has fought and defeated, even though here his final role was as a healer rather than a warrior. Finally, though, after the wardrobe change last week, the Doctor was back to his “junior professor” attire again. Possibly a meaningless change after a one time anomaly, but perhaps indicative of something more.
A good “monster” episode in the grand tradition of them, as well as something of a meta homage to the show’s legacy of children peeking out from behind the sofa (or in this case, the bedspread). One thing I kind of realized in this episode, though kind of by inversion, is that Amy and especially Rory have a tendency to “suck up the oxygen” in many episodes and otherwise prevent some guest characters from developing properly. Here, by trapping them in the dollhouse early in the episode and giving them only brief cutaway scenes, it allowed Gatiss to develop the central dynamic with the father, son, and Doctor, making for an intriguing story and a touching finale. It’s a nice change of pace from what has sometimes been the norm lately. Not a vital episode to the overall mythology of the series, but certainly worth a look on its own merits.