Note: Contains spoilers for this episode and previous episodes of Doctor Who.
One of my all-time favorite Doctor Who moments comes in the 2008 episode "Silence in the Library," written by current executive producer Steven Moffat. A little girl, living a seemingly normal life with her father, keeps having nightmares about a spooky, futuristic library full of shadows that eat people. Throughout the episode we see her talking about these scary dreams to a kindly physician, Dr. Moon, and at one point he takes her aside to tell her something in confidence:
The real world is a lie, and your nightmares are real. If you want to scare an entire generation of children—and make no mistake, Doctor Who does—that one line is an excellent start. Since 1963, Doctor Who has consistently made scaring children part of its mission statement, but it wasn't until the show came back in 2005 that children began appearing in the stories themselves on a regular basis, usually in the act of discovering that all of their worst fears were real. Yes, Doctor Who wants you to know, your teachers really are aliens. That smile-shaped crack in your bedroom wall is sinister. There is something horrible hiding under your bed, lurking in the dark, and scuttling up the back of your closet. You did hear something snickering in the darkness; you did see something scurrying away out of the corner of your eye. You're not imagining things: your nightmares are real. The grown-ups are wrong when they say there's no such thing as monsters, and they're flat out lying when they tell you everything is going to be fine.
More than any show I can think of, Doctor Who acknowledges that childhood is a terrifying time, a period of fundamental powerlessness combined with a dangerous combination of ignorance and imagination. I was a scared kid, even when I pretended I wasn't: I was scared of just about everything, and sometimes I was scared badly by things that it never would have occurred to my parents to shield me from—things overheard and misunderstood, adult conversations that my imagination transformed into nightmare scenarios. (One example, from many: I grew up in New England, and when I was 6- or 7-years old I overheard grown-ups discussing the settlement of a Native American land-rights claim. Whatever I heard, I misunderstood it, and for weeks I was terrified that Indians might come at any moment to take our house from us.)
I also—perhaps because I spent my waking hours full of anxiety and dread over things I couldn't control—had night terrors, the inexplicable panic attacks in which a child simply wakes up screaming. Some children don't remember these events at all once they're over, but I did, and I still do. What I remember is that they were a different creature from simple nightmares: nightmares were specific images, stories, like scary movies in my head. Night terrors, on the other hand, came with an overwhelming feeling of dread, unspecified anxiety focused into a fever of pure, concentrated fear.
I mention all of this because I found myself remembering how scary childhood could be while watching "Night Terrors," written by Mark Gatiss. It is not, for me, the most successful episode of Doctor Who, but the parts that work best capture perfectly those childhood fears, those often irrational and unspecified feelings of terror that come from projecting free-floating dread and helplessness onto everyday objects, people, and places.
I also mention it because I needed to remind myself—as all adult fans should do from time to time—that every episode of Doctor Who is not written for me. I'm a 42-year old writer with a critical mind and a degree in lit theory, prone to analysis and pedantry; it is remarkable and wonderful that so many episodes of this show do work for me, but I am not the primary audience for Doctor Who. Once in a while, an episode should speak—as "Night Terrors" does—directly to children. The show is for them, and once in a while it should give them what they need: it should take their more primal fears seriously while, at the same time, offering them hope that someone, somewhere in the universe, will hear their pleas and save them from the monsters.
"Today we're answering a cry for help from the scariest place in the universe: a child's bedroom." — The Doctor
"Night Terrors" is the story of George (Jamie Oram), a terrified little boy living with his kind but befuddled parents Alex and Claire (Daniel Mays and Emma Cunniffe) in one of a hundred identical council flats. George is scared, all the time, of everything: he's scared of the old lady who lives down the hall, he's scared of the building's sleazy landlord, he's scared of the sound the elevator makes. Doctor Who has featured many, many children (see above) who happen to run across real alien threats: the Doctor's current companion, Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), was one of them. But here writer Mark Gatiss is doing something different with the formula: he's dealing with fear itself, those free-floating anxieties that children feel even—or especially—when they are too young to articulate or understand them.
George's parents don't know what to do with him, and—in a lovely display of terrible-but-well-intentioned parenting—they've worked out a makeshift solution: everything that scares George gets locked in the cupboard. If Doctor Who understands childhood fears—and I think it does—it also comes down firmly on the side of confronting those fears head-on, not ignoring them or locking them away. The Moffat era of Who gets some criticism for relying too much on the "perception filter" gimmick—which makes another appearance here—but it's a useful and appropriate metaphor for the show's overall philosophy: it's the things you don't look at that can get you. (Perception filters don't make things invisible, they just make you avoid looking at them. They're still there, "just out of the corner of your eye, where you don't want to look.")
Facing your fears is important, which is one of the reasons Doctor Who is so unapologetically scary. (There's a nice sequence here that references this philosophy, as Alex says they thought television might be George's problem: "You know? Scary stuff, gettin' under his skin, frightening him." So they stopped letting him watch. "Oh, you don't want to do that," the Doctor says. Kids need scary things, if only to tell them that fears can be confronted, and conquered.)
"You see these eyes? They're old eyes. And one thing I can tell you, Alex: monsters are real." — The Doctor
And "Night Terrors" is scary. Director Richard Clark and the production team create one of the most visually arresting episodes in recent memory, from the details of George's bedroom (filled with ominous shadows and toys that take on a sinister appearance by night) to the spooky dollhouse set where Amy and Rory (Arthur Darvill) find themselves sent. Frightening dolls, high-pitched giggling, and creepy nursery-rhymes may be cliches, but that doesn't make them any less effective, and in fact their lack of sophistication contributes to the childlike menace that permeates this episode.
If I put on my grown-up, overly-analytical, grumpy critic's hat, I'd take issue with the explanation for the mystery at the center of this episode. (And the show seems to know it's a weak one, since it's delivered by Matt Smith in an almost incomprehensible rush of dialogue: I had to listen to it about three times before I caught it.) George is a Tensa, an alien cuckoo who was drawn to Earth by Alex and Claire's desire for a child. It appeared, and adapted itself to be exactly what they wanted, and has been using its seemingly omnipotent alien powers to put everything that scared it—literally—into the cupboard.
But the thin science-fiction explanation is just a necessity of form. I wish it were stronger, and better explained, but it serves its purpose: to create a situation that is emotionally strong and true. And in that sense it succeeds, making a child's fears and insecurities manifest. George is scared of the world around him, but more than that he is scared of not being what his parents want him to be: he is scared of disappointing them, scared of upsetting them, scared, ultimately, of being rejected by them. In childhood we are all new to the world, uncertain of our place and anxious about our security. All children feel like aliens or cuckoos sometimes, and all children fear, at one point or another, that they are somehow unworthy and that their parents might stop loving them. These are very real, very primal childhood emotions, and I give Mark Gatiss credit for finding a simple but effective way to explore them.
Likewise, on first viewing, I was disappointed with this episode for being so simple, and so self-contained. Still waiting for the emotional payoff of the ongoing Amy/Rory/Melody storyline, it was particularly frustrating to have an episode that centers on parenting and hear not a single reference to the fact that Amy and Rory have effectively lost their child. (The fact that this episode was originally planned to appear earlier in the season accounts for the disconnect, but doesn't make the elephant in the room easier to ignore.) I wish Moffat and Gatiss had managed to at least give a nod in the elephant's direction, but that's a small complaint.
"Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us dragons are real, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten. — G.K. Chesterton
Every time I describe Doctor Who to someone who has never seen it, I explain that its beauty lies in its flexibility: it can tell any kind of story, and appeal to any audience. "Night Terrors" was a different kind of story than we've had recently, and it's targeted at a different audience. We might recognize "Night Terrors" as something of a low-budget filler episode, but I have a feeling that the young children who watched it on Saturday night from behind their sofas may remember it as an absolute classic: an episode that scared them, and comforted them, and told them exactly what they needed to hear.
For the solution to the episode's dilemma is simple—perhaps (from my jaded perspective) too simple: George must open the cupboard, face his fears, and learn that his father will love him anyway, no matter what. We can quibble about whether we believe Alex and Claire will be completely comfortable raising an omnipotent alien child, but that's our cynical perspective as overly-analytical adults. I know exactly what you are, and I still love you: that's what the child needs to hear, what every child needs to hear. (For that matter, it's what many cynical adults could stand to hear as well.) Once in a while, kids need to hear that monsters aren't real—that they are just projections of our fears and anxieties, and can therefore be faced, and dismissed. Sometimes they need to be reminded that the only thing they have to fear is fear itself.
Sometimes, they need to be told that everything really will be okay.
Next: "The Girl Who Waited"