Sci-fi shows have it hard. Harder than most shows on television. There’s a difficult juggling act they have to do between episodes that move season- and/or series-long plots along and episodes that are meant to simply stand alone. The best sci-fi shows are able to blend the two almost seamlessly, giving fans and casual viewers episodes that could air at anytime during its run and is still able to please most people (sci-fi fans are hard to please, which is why I wrote most).
An example of such an episode would be the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Four episode, “Hush”. There, you had a Monster of the Week known as The Gentlemen (who seem to be an inspiration of Doctor Who’s Season Six nemesis, The Silence) that wrecked havoc on Sunnydale by taking everyone’s ability to speak. Buffy and her pals had to learn to communicate with one another in new and different ways in order to defeat these baddies, which paralleled the adjustments Scooby Gang needed to make while navigating their way through their college and adult lives. “Hush” could have aired at anytime during Buffy’s run between Seasons Four and Seven because the theme of that episode was a theme that the show constantly touched upon, and no matter when it aired, it would have still packed a wallop. “Night Terrors”, the ninth episode of what has been so far a pretty awesome season of Doctor Who, is another great example.
Written by veteran sketch comedian Mark Gatiss, “Night Terrors” not only touches upon the show’s current themes but it can also be considered a great stand alone episode. If you have a friend who has never seen Doctor Who, I’d recommend this episode (as well as “Blink” from Season Three). Interestingly, “Night Terrors” was supposed to air when “The Curse of The Black Spot” — my least favorite Doctor Who episode of the Steven Moffat-run — did but producers switched their order. I get it. “Black Spot” was a dud of an episode with uninteresting guest characters (a pirate ship, for goodness sake!) and a plot that had no bearing whatsoever on the main cast. Airing it early enough in the season that we can get to move along to the nitty-gritty of near-classics like “The Doctor’s Wife”, “A Good Man Goes To War”, and “Let’s Kill Hitler” was a pretty good move. “Night Terrors” will give viewers an emotional punch to the gut, especially during the last fifteen minutes, and the great thing is, it would have done that same trick no matter when it aired.
Now, let’s get to the meat of the episode: The Doctor (Matt Smith) decides to make a “house call” after receiving a message (or hearing a prayer, depending on how you see it) from a young, frightened boy named George (Jamie Oram) who lives in a dilapidated tenement, not too unlike the one depicted in this summer’s best sci-fi flick Attack The Block. George believes that there are monsters in his cupboard, which his parents have dismissed as the antics of an overactive yet troubled imagination though they sometimes indulge him. Of course, once The Doctor and his companions (Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill) are on the case they discover that George isn’t completely wrong. There are indeed monsters in the cupboard, or more specifically, in the dollhouse that’s been stored in the cupboard (‘dollhouse’ makes for two Joss Whedon references in one article!). Turns out, weird-looking peg dolls (think of them as wooden Raggedy Anns) have been sucking George’s neighbors in though various vortexes and turning them into dolls. Terrifying, indeed.
It’s not too soon then that Rory and Amy wind up in the dollhouse, with Amy being turned into a giant peg doll. Meanwhile, The Doctor tries his darnedest to convince George’s father (Daniel Mays) that the boy’s fears are real but quickly discovers that George isn’t the man’s son at all. Turns out, George is actually an empathetic alien being known as a Tenza. A perception filter has been used to convince his parents that George is their son, and they have been raising him ever since he was a baby. George is still a child, though, who has no knowledge of his true origins nor of the ability to control his feelings. All of the things that scare him (which would also frighten other little children) have manifested themselves in the dollhouse. (George has the same troubles as Drew Barrymore’s character in Firestarter but she, obviously, started fires when she became angry. He can’t muster even a peep. He just hides under his covers.)
After The Doctor and George’s father get sucked into the dollhouse themselves, and are cornered by the peg dolls, The Doctor tries to get George to gather the courage to face his fears, that most of it is in his head. Now, I’ll have to admit that I got goosebumps while watching that scene. It struck me that The Doctor’s survival hinged on a small, frail, Dickensian-looking boy. It’s a brilliant piece of classic story presentation, like when actors would ask children to clap for Tinker Bell to come back to life in Peter Pan, or when superheroes would break the fourth wall in the movie serials of the 1930’s and 1940’s and ask children to cheer so they could defeat the bad guy. The Doctor is empowering George to save him and his companions, and inadvertently, empowering all the little viewers around the world to face their own fears. I got a little misty-eyed.
But, add that thrill to the fact that The Doctor also convinces George’s father to love George because his is still his son, perception filter or not. That’s a double-gut punch, since I’m pretty sure The Doctor will soon call on Amy and Rory to do the same thing when it comes to River Song. (Hence, the theme!)
Well, I’ll stop mushing over this episode. What do you think, Whovians? Did “Night Terrors” make you get out your hankies? And what do you all expect to happen in the final four episodes of the season?