Mark Gatiss has an enviable reputation as a writer and an actor. Together with Steven Moffat he masterminded the BBC’s modern take on Sherlock Holmes, an idea conceived during trips to Cardiff for Doctor Who. But despite his success elsewhere he’s not yet pulled off an outstanding trip in the TARDIS. The Unquiet Dead and The Idiot’s Lantern were both enjoyable enough adventures for Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant’s Timelords but neither episode shined as a highlight of their tenures, as Moffat’s previous scripts have done. And last year’s introduction of the new Daleks was a contender for the weakest episode of Matt Smith’s first series.
Expectations were high for Night Terrors though. This was Gatiss embracing the traditions of Doctor Who to deliver a classic story and a one off compared to Moffat’s increasingly series arc based romps. Here Gatiss was given licence to write the sort of episode Moffat used to excel at, based on simple childhood fears.
George is scared of practically everything, including clowns, which as Smith’s Doctor mutters brilliantly is “understandable”. His parents have established comforting routines to try to relax him, encouraging him to put anything that worries him in his bedroom cupboard, or wardrobe, which curiously no one ever calls it. The child actor playing George is a delight, getting by on a lot more than mere cuteness. He replicates nervous ticks such as constant blinking mentioned in the script, so that George really comes to life. His scenes with Smith are a joy to watch.
Also good is Daniel Mays, veteran of Brit gangster flicks such as The Bank Job, in the role of George’s Dad Alex. He has some zippy exchanges of dialogue with the Doctor that are tremendous fun but also more than copes with the emotional side to things that kicks in by the end.
After watching Night Terrors on Saturday I concluded that once again Gatiss had failed to live up to his potential. For me something wasn’t quite right. The doll’s house device wasn’t as good as it should have been, the creepy wooden dummies weren’t creepy enough and when George was revealed to be an alien I didn’t really understand what he was, why he had latched onto human foster parents or how he had caused so much trouble. The most striking thing about the episode was the contrasting locations of an atmospherically lit block of urban flats and the haunting interior of a big, dark house. There were also some great lines for Rory, Alex and the Doctor but I was disappointed.
Following a second viewing I felt I understood the story more and thought it far better as a result. Initially I didn’t think watching it again would be as rewarding as reanalysing the twists and turns of Moffat’s plotting but it was eventually extremely refreshing to get back to a well executed, standalone tale. The emotional ending salvaged the show on Saturday and was again, better still second time around.
It didn’t matter that George the alien wasn’t really explained. He is simply alive and desperate to be wanted, to matter to someone. Right now, where I am in my life, I can empathise a lot with that desire. I can also understand the need, which originates in childhood, to have a stable, secure home. Uncertainty coupled with loneliness is disorientating, distressing and yes, frightening. The fact that it all came down to a father reassuring his son will resonate universally, not just in my life.
Night Terrors could have been better but I have been converted into a supporter. It’s probably the best Who episode Gatiss has written. It has a setting that is at once classic and distinctive. It’s simultaneously scary and funny. And it’s got some big, albeit well used, themes. From facing your own fears to admitting that sometimes you need someone, this was a fresh take on classic Doctor Who with a big heart.