Friday, September 30, 2011
Night Terrors is a breath of fresh air. Not because it's a classic or anything. It's a good, solid, well-made episode that wouldn't particularly stand out in any era of Who.
But it's a relief to have an episode this season for which I actually feel certain of my feelings. I've had to watch the last four episodes three times each before even deciding whether or not I liked them, and then rewrote my Good Man review after seeing Let's Kill Hitler. Even The Doctor's Wife had me torn a little between its shining brilliance and its unsatisfyingly jammed running length. So a story I can watch once and know exactly how I feel about it is just wonderful.
Much of the praise goes to director Richard Clark, of Gridlock and The Doctor's Wife. Clark's framing and pacing are superb; he creates a creepy yet whimsical atmosphere out of some pretty simple settings. His visual sense adds a lot to the story; the TARDIS appearing reflected in puddle is a particularly nice touch. The long shadows and sharp lighting reminiscent of German Expressionism give Night Terrors a uniquely eerie atmosphere that elevates the story.
Clark's mastery overcomes the shortcomings of Mark Gatiss' script, which is fine but entirely unspectacular. It seems to come from the concept that Doctor Who's one and only subject is Monsters and the funny British guy who fights them. Which is an important part of Doctor Who, but a very narrow view of the show. (I'm not saying Gatiss views it that way, but he sure doesn't give any hint here or in his other three Who scripts that there's much more to the show. I haven't read any of his Who novels, to be fair) It's pretty straightforward: the Doctor lands somewhere, finds monsters, talks his way out of it, everything's happy again.
But the execution, on the whole, is really good. Much of the story focuses on the Doctor trying to help out a worried father, nicely played by Daniel Mays. He also gets some time with the kid, and Smith always amazes working with kids. Amy and Rory mostly run through creepy hallways and such, but they do it very well. Arthur Darvill has a particularly marvelous scene where he almost sighs when he comes to believe that the two of them are dead. Again.
The monsters, when they do show up, are creepy enough; the transformations are very unsettling, utilizing terrific effects. The choppiness of the transformations in particular sells the effect to the point that it's hard to be certain how much is CGI and how much is practical. Nicely done.
This is, unfortnately, yet another case of Murray Gold blaring music over scenes that clearly need no music at all. And again, it's not bad music, but it takes from the scenes' effectiveness. And very often, his music really is effective; he (or the director, or producers, or someone) won't turn it off when it isn't needed.
The story, ultimately, ends up going exactly where you expect it, without ever quite managing to raise the stakes or the intensity high enough to really score. But it's watchable, entertaining, and solid, thanks largely to a director who knows how to squeeze all the atmosphere and drama out of a simple yarn and small setting.
* * *