Saturday, September 03, 2011

Night Terrors: Fear Itself

'You see these eyes? They're old eyes. And one thing I can tell you, Alex. Monsters are real.'
Ever since it began almost fifty years ago, Doctor Who has done one thing better than any other TV show, certainly in Britain and, arguably, in the world. Some people - and yer actual Keith Telly Topping is one of them - would argue it's done several things better than any other TV show but, I fully accept, this is not an argument which will find much favour with certain viewers. With some gobshite TV critics, for instance, or with various serious people who talk loudly in restaurants. Or, indeed, with any of the waste-of-space glakes currently filling up an Internet forum somewhere in the vicinity doing the 'Worst! Episode! Ever!' thing. As, I assume, several of the usual suspects will be. Because they do every week. It's quite a sight, actually, you want to check it out some time, dear blog reader, you'll laugh yer effin' keks off. But, forget about all that for the moment (we'll come back to it), there is one - generally agreed - thing that Doctor Who had always done and will, hopefully, continue to do which even its biggest critics and most committed haters will concede to it. After a bit of poking. And that is that Doctor Who has always had the unerringly ability to scare the living bejesus out of eight year olds. Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss experienced that, around the same time that yer actual Keith Telly Topping did in the early 1970s. Others had their epiphany earlier, or later, or much later, or as recently as last week. But the fact remains that just about every child who comes into contact with Doctor Who at one time or another had gone to bed later that Saturday night and woke up with their heart pounding in their chest sometime around one in the morning because they thought a monster was under their bed. Or lurking in the shadows in the corner. There you go, dear blog reader, Doctor Who's one, undisputed, contribution to child abuse; the ability to deliver sheer bloody wet-yer-own-bed pantophobia, week after week after year after decade to the nation's youth. Night Terrors was merely the latest card on the table. Or, shadow in cupboard, if you prefer. And, it was pretty good, too. Not the best ever, but a decent stab. A kind of needle in the camel's eye full of sinister little set-pieces and malevolent shadows, if you like. The primal fears of half-hidden laughter behind closed doors and shuttered windows. A story initiated by a child's plea to 'save me from the monsters,' that reaches out through time and space to the TARDIS. And, to a Doctor who can't ignore such a basic, heartfelt cry. He might have enjoyed hearing about Snow White and the Seven Keys to Doomsday himself as a child - actually, thinking about it, that explains much - but he, possibly better than anyone, knows that the Monsters of the imagination are often, terrifyingly, real.

Mark Gatiss' love of horror and the macabre is, of course, already well-established. Not only in his previous work on the series, or his Sherlock script but also in an award-winning and critically acclaimed BBC4 documentary series that was one of the best bits of TV produced by anyone last year. His ability to play with the old Universal, Hammer and Amicus genre clichés, the Gothic cobweberry and general shadowesque of the stories that Gatiss loves is, nevertheless, mixed with other elements (some nice bits of comedy, for instance) and standard Doctor Who shading - the Doctor makes a house call, the scariest place in the universe is a child's bedroom. Et cetera. All to produce an episode that flirts with genuine greatness but which is held back only by a slight feeling of familiarity and deja vu that all of the best ideas in it have been, sadly, used before. In The Girl In The Fireplace, in The Unquiet Dead, in The Empty Child. And that's just the recent ones. Another obvious point of potential connection is Fear Her, but Night Terrors is a much more satisfying episode, and not least in the fact that it had a much better child actor in the leading role.

When Daniel Mays put in his once-in-a-lifetime performance as the Satanic Jim Keats in the final series of the BBC's Ashes To Ashes there were plenty of Doctor Who fans who suggested that if the part of The Master were to become available any time soon, Daniel would be an ideal candidate. In the end, his appearance in the show was in a much less psychotic and more sympathetic part - a confused Everyman finding himself and his family threatened by unseen forces in their towerblock home. Mays puts in a lovely performance pitched midway between a man afraid of what he doesn't know but even more terrified of finding answers to questions he doesn't even realise he has. Another favourite actor of yer actual Keith Telly Topping is Andy Tiernan who always manages to get cast in really scummy, bonehead, violent roles (one remembers him giving great performances in things like Cracker, Life on Mars, Survivors and Waking the Dead) and yet he always plays them with an appealing sense of hidden tragedy. He does it again with his character here, Purcell, someone with one senses greater depths than the man of almost no promise who looks uncannily like his pet bulldog. There's always a slight trepidation when you find out that a child actor is key to the plot of an episode. Sometimes, they're great (witness Caitlin Blackwood, for instance). Sometimes it can be more of hit-and-miss. Thankfully, young Jamie Oram, in the essential role, of George, falls into the former category conveying a very decent scared little boy indeed. He's got an interesting stillness about him - unusual in child actors who often have to curb hyperactivity beneath a barely suppressed mask - which suggests that he may have a very good future ahead of him as an actor. Again, I imagine some cynical whinging 'fans' will be busy picking fault in the kid's efforts. To whom all I can honestly say is ... you sicken me.

For an episode which concerned 'the stuff of nightmares', parts of Night Terrors were actually very funny. Of course, there was the terrifying falling-lift sequence (who didn't love Rory's plaintive 'Aw, we're dead. Again!' when waking up on the floor?) The episode was full of some startling imagery (the eye in the draw, the walking dolls) and benefited hugely from a brilliant Murray Gold score that appeared to be influenced by all of the people that you'd expect to influence a little piece of horror hokum like this (Bernard Hermann, James Bernard etc.) Despite the pseudo-science explanations about perception filters and the like, there were primal fears going on in Night Terrors. False memories. Something nasty in the nursery. What's behind that locked door? And, of course, the one that Doctor Who does so often these days and usually so well, be careful what you wish for it might just come true. Gatiss's script mixed witty observations and clever intertextual moments - 'We went into the cupboard, how can it be bigger in here?' 'It's more common than you'd think, actually!' There are lots of good lines - 'I take it all back. Panic now!' - and more than a decent share of great ones. I particularly enjoyed The Doctor's horrified reaction to Alex confessing that he and his wife have stopped George from watching TV in case that was affecting his behaviour. 'Oh, you don't want to do that!' And then there were the moments where the dialogue just sang. 'Whatever's in that cupboard is so terrible, so powerful, that it amplified the fears of an ordinary little boy across all of the barriers of time and space. Through crimson stars and silent stars and tumbling nebulas like oceans set on fire. Through empires of glass and civilisations of pure thought and a whole, terrible, wonderful universe of impossibilities.' And then Matt Smith does the 'you see these eyes?' line and you know, you just absolutely know for certain, that some eight year old on a council estate in Nottingham or somewhere is sitting watching this and is going to memorise the words in exactly the same way the way Moffat, Gatiss, Davies and Cornell (and yer actual Keith Telly Topping) did with The Doctor's homily to Homo Sapiens in The Ark in Space, or 'I was with the Filipino army at the final advance of Reykjavik' from Talons of Weng Chiang. 'You're not from Social Services, are you?!' No, indeed.
Rory and Amy, in addition to their exciting adventures in the shadow world of the doll's house, get their fair share of excellent one-liners too. 'This is weird' being not only one of them but, also, a terrific summation of much of the episode. Good thing, in case you were wondering. I enjoyed The Doctor using reverse psychology to get Alex to open the cupboard; Purcell's incisive critique of the problems of multichannel TV ('there's nothing on. Bergerac? God help us, thirty years old, that!'); the Poltergeist riffs and the echoes of some classic TV chillers of the past that worked with similar iconography like Escape Into Night and Boys & Girls Come Out To Play - particularly the sinister little nursery rhyme in the case of the latter). I loved 'Look, wooden chickens. Cups, saucers, plates, knives, forks, fruit. Wood. So, we're either inside the doll's house or this is a refuge for dirty posh people who only eat wooden food. Or, termites. Giant termites, trying to get on the property ladder. No, that's not possible. Is that possible?!' And, 'Oi, listen mush, old eyes, remember! I've been round the block a few times. More than a few. They've knocked down the blocks I've been around and rebuilt them with bigger block. Superblocks! And I've been around them as well!' And, The Doctor's shameful confession that he can't remember everything and that when he can't remember someone's name - which isn't infrequently - he 'just plumps for Brian!' I like an aspect of the plot which, I imagine, may have gone down spectacularly badly with the cynics, the joyless and just plain wilfully gittish, the fact that the episode's denouement involved not some complex scientific jiggery-pokery, but simply a man learning to love his son. It's simple. Beautifully simply. Too simple for some people perhaps. But it's also wonderfully human, which - for all its highfalutin schemes and space monster fixations - is something that Doctor Who has always excelled in. Just like scaring the bejesus out of eight year olds. Maybe that's a problem for Doctor Who these days - that its hard-core fandom (such as it is), appears to be divided into a large chunk who are prepared to attempt to remember what the thrill of watching episodes through a child's eye was all about and those who can't, or won't. It's probably not much of a problem, to be honest, as fandom doesn't really matter anymore. We've been replaced by 'normal people.' Millions of them. I must see if I can work out someday how you join The General Public. It sounds rather like fun. 'Might pop back around puberty, mind you. Always a funny time!'
So, Night Terrors. Not the most original of ideas, then, but one that was carried out with some considerable gusto and lots of pluck. And, tonight, across the country, there will be eight year olds shivering in their beds wondering what the banging noise is coming from the airing cupboard. Is it just the boiler heating up, or is it a monster?

For the latest Keith Telly Topping's 45 of the Day here's something really scary. Look at the state of them dodgy barnets! Get your collective hairs cut, Blue Öyster Cult - anyone'd think The Punk Wars never happened. Pfft. Hippies.