For a good chunk of tonight's Doctor Who episode, I was wondering if it was a bit of a retort to the people who claim the BBC's time-traveling horror-comedy is too scary for little kids. After all, the episode seemed to be saying, over-protecting children from what scares them can perversely have the opposite effect, of making them even more scared. But then it seemed like the episode was going in several directions at once, and the message became less clear.
At first, the metaphor in "Night Terrors" appears clear enough — young George is scared of everything, so his parents put everything that scares George into the cupboard, where it can't harm him. Except that soon the cupboard is full to bursting with things that scare George, and he becomes more and more obsessed with weird rituals to keep himself safe. It's as though the episode is saying that sometimes children need to confront scary stuff, and that trying to keep them away from what scares them will only make it worse. Of course, most kids aren't quite as much of a nervous wreck as poor George.
George puts out a plea "Please save me from the monsters," and somehow this is powerful enough to travel through time and space, past a huge laundry list of planets and galaxies and things, to the TARDIS, where it pops up on the Doctor's psychic paper. The Doctor shows up and eventually tracks down the source of the "distress call," then immediately proceeds to announce that George's monsters are real and the cupboard really is full of dreadful things. On the face of it, the Doctor is the worst child counselor ever, since he's basically exacerbating George's fears and confirming that George is right to be terrified out of his wits. Unless you buy that A) the monsters are real, and must be defeated, and B) the whole thing is a bit of a metaphor for children needing to be exposed to scary stuff so that they can deal with it.
Of course, then the whole thing gets turned on its head, because the cupboard is actually fine and it's George who's the monster, sort of. At times, "Night Terrors" threatens to turn into a bit of a do-over of "Fear Her," crossed with that Twilight Zone about the little boy sending everybody to the Cornfield. George sends the poor dotty old lady to the
Cornfieldcupboard, and then Rory and Amy (for making a truly idiotic offhand remark), and then the apartment's obnoxious landlord, and finally the Doctor and Alex.
It's one of those episodes that doesn't really benefit from close examination — like, for example, why is George sending everybody to the Cornfield on this particular night? He racks up a pretty impressive count of victims in just this one evening, and there's no sense that something in particular has caused George to ramp up his reign of terror. Also, I'm still a bit unclear on how this alien species actually works, what with the desire to be a normal human kid in spite of the near-omnipotent psychic powers. Is George going to grow up, grow old and die as a human without ever shrinking anybody else or turning them into a scary doll, now that he's gotten past his trauma? Like I said, best not overthink this one.
It's not really a standout episode, by any means, except that Matt Smith's performance really elevates it. He gets some amazing lines, and really makes the most of them. And his double act with Alex, played by Daniel Mays from Outcasts, is almost as good as his pairing with James Corden in "The Lodger" and the upcoming "Closing Time." Just the whole comic business of the Doctor trying to make tea and Alex trying to stop him is weirdly hilarious, and yet the Doctor's compassion towards a frightened child also shines through really nicely. Smith is a comic mastermind, and he's also terribly good at bromance.
The main weakness in the episode, character-wise, is Amy and Rory, who feel less fleshed out than they have in a while — even before Amy gets turned into a doll, she seems a bit wooden. (Sorry, couldn't resist.) I know that this episode was originally going to appear in the first half of the season, probably in the slot now occupied by the pirate episode, and it got moved to the second half for various reasons. But I was still sort of hoping that there would be one scene, perhaps one TARDIS scene added at the last moment, in which Amy and Rory briefly discuss the fact that they won't get to raise their daughter in any meaningful sense, and instead she's going to turn into a "bespoke psychopath" for an undetermined period of time. One scene. It would have been nice. Instead, Amy and Rory felt a bit shunted to the side in this one, sent to the Cornfield pretty early and then chased around by dolls. I did like Rory thinking they were dead again, given that they've both died at least once by now.
But luckily, it looks like next week's episode is all about Amy and Rory, so maybe we'll get a bit more development of their characters in general. Plus cool robots. Fingers crossed!
And then in the end, the episode throws us one more (quite welcome) curve ball. As expected, the Doctor announces that George has to face his fear. And George does — and it doesn't quite solve the problem, because it turns out the real problem is that George knows his parents have thought about sending him away. It's up to Alex to step up and promise that he will never let go of his son, in a very "Yes, I am your mummy" moment. And then at last, the problem is solved.
What elevates this episode above either "Fear Her" or the "Cornfield" episode is the fact that it does have a real emotional resolution, in which the dad has to reaffirm his love and commitment to his son, along with the son overcoming his fears. Also, the child's plight is made the centerpiece of the story from the beginning, instead of the child being viewed as an adversary from the start. And George is never really a monster — we don't get a reveal where George sends the Doctor into the Cornfield and then starts cackling or looking evil. George is always just a scared little kid. All in all, a pretty sturdy episode.