Hi guys, Alastair here. As you probably noticed, Lani and I are passionate about story. That means that, from time to time, we’re inspired to write about stories we love or hate. In this post, I talk a little about the last two episodes of Doctor Who, Let’s Kill Hitler and Night Terrors. Spoilers abound, so please don’t read any further if you haven’t watched the show. Instead, go and watch the show. It’s really rather good.
In the episode A Good Man Goes To War, River Song fears for the Doctor. “He will rise so high, and then fall further than ever before,” she says, and we assume that she is talking about the events on Demon’s Run; now, it seems like she was referring to the second half of the season.
In Let’s Kill Hitler, we are treated to an hour of the most dizzyingly audacious, ridiculous, emotionally-connected storytelling I’ve ever seen. In the guise of a story about a shape-changing robot piloted by miniature people – and, lest we forget, Hitler – we were given instead an array of poignant, beautiful insights into love, guilt, pain and loss. Consider River’s sacrifice, Rory and Amy, the Doctor’s guilt when faced with the images of his past companions… and indefatigable strength when faced with Amelia Pond. These are powerful forces; indeed, they are the most powerful.
Night Terrors, on the other hand, is a stupefyingly unsatisfying episode. I should say, before we proceed to the dissection, that it was not without its charm: it was imaginatively shot, and the run-down estate was effectively claustrophobic, as haunted and decayed as any ancient starship or benighted world that the Doctor has visited in his travels. In this formidable environment, we have a simple story: a child is terrified by monsters in his cupboard. So terrified, in fact, that Things Are Happening.
This is where Doctor Who excels: the human story on a canvas as large as the universe; metaphor, crashing into reality; truth found in the heart of a fiction. Consider the Weeping Angels,The Girl In The Fireplace, or Midnight. This is what science fiction is for, and this is New Who’s wheelhouse.
Except… Night Terrors gave us nothing.
We might be distracted by the moment-to-moment storytelling, but they aren’t what’s important. Ignore the singularly dubious parenting – “Throw all your fears in this ominous-looking cupboard, darling, that is directly across the room from your bed. And then… don’t think about them, I suppose. Good night!” George, I think, has a bigger problems than a closet full of nightmares. Overlook, too, the missed potential of a properly-structured three-beat: Rory and Amy, the old woman and the landlord frighten George, and so are swallowed into the cupboard, but the connections are too tangled and unclear for the tension to properly build. We should even skip over the largest hole in the episode’s internal logic : we are told that George’s fears manifested because of his fear of being taken away, yet his parents were only considering giving him up because his fears had become so disruptive and harmful. Which came first?
Either. Neither. Both. It doesn’t matter, because that’s not what Night Terrors is about. We can overlook the small stuff when the big stuff is so much more important: but that leads us to a numbing thematic inconsistency at the heart of this story. There is nothing more frightening, or powerful, than a child’s imagination – but aren’t dealing with a child. George is an alien, an imposter, so we aren’t connected to a truth about our own childhoods, or our own humanity; instead, we have a wave-of-the-hand sci-fi explanation so that the Doctor can run away from dolls for fifteen minutes.
It could have been so much more. Forget the idea that George is an alien. Make him, simply, a human boy. Rather than the opening scene with his mother, who plays no further part in the proceedings, give us a scene in which his father tries to calm fears that have been awakened by the absence – or even the death – of his mother. Losing people is frightening, and the combination of the two could have given us a touching meditation on those first steps along the path to adulthood. Build the fantasy upon a foundation of real fear, of real terror, and you have something resonant and rather beautiful, albeit in a grotesque, macabre fashion.
Let’s Kill Hitler embraced its universe whole-heartedly; that combination of ludicrous ambition and emotional truth is the hallmark of modern Doctor Who. Night Terrors was anonymous and empty – indeed, perhaps the most damning indictment that it could have been any supernatural or science fiction drama series. Let’s Kill Hitler plays with – revels in – continuity; Night Terrors doesn’t even address the relevance of a terrified child to the Ponds’ loss of their own daughter.
It wasn’t the worst episode that the show has given us. Love & Monsters was worse by orders of magnitude, for example, and I’m no fan of Victory of the Daleks. It was, however, a crashing fall from the glorious – and apparently Icarian – heights of recent episodes. That said, I have no doubt that it will return to brilliance by the end of the season; despite the evidence of Night Terrors, this is a show that knows what it is, and which story it is telling. It lost its way for an episode, but all the evidence suggests that it will find its way back.