‘Ceiling shadows shimmy by,’ Morrissey sung once, a long time ago, ‘and the wardrobe towers like a beast of prey.’ It’s hard to tell precisely what he was on about, but it’s just possible that he was envisaging this frightfully enjoyable episode of Doctor Who.
Written by that practised purveyor of petrifaction, Mark Gatiss, ‘Night Terrors’ sees the Doctor, Amy and Rory summoned across the stars by an eight year old boy named George (Jamie Oram), who is terrified of… well, just about everything. His parents, Alex and Claire (the excellent Daniel Mays and the underused Emma Cunniffe) are concerned but baffled by their son’s insistence that something hideous lurks in his bedroom cupboard – until the Doctor turns up at their claustrophobic tower-block flat and reveals that the monsters are real.
While the assured Doctor makes tea and tries to get to the root of George’s fears (although perhaps using the sonic screwdriver to make Optimus Prime swivel his hips will only scare the poor kid even more) his companions are sent plummeting into a dark, mysterious old house via an evil elevator reminiscent of the one in last year’s ‘The Beast Below’.
While Rory panics (the biggest clue that this episode was originally scheduled for transmission in the first half of the series is in the difference between the calm, assured Rory of ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ and the more typically doleful character on display here) and moans that ‘some time slippy thing’ has sent them into the past, Amy establishes that everything is made of wood and finds a giant glass eye in a kitchen drawer. It isn’t long before they realise they’re in a dark, doll’s house of horrors, along with pantomime bastard landlord Purcell (Andrew Tiernan) and aptly-named, Rigsbyish whinger Mrs. Rossiter (Leila Hoffman).
By the time Amy is dummified into one of the wooden-faced residents of the house, the Doctor works out that George – an alien cuckoo rather than a human child – is inadvertently causing all the scary stuff himself and only he can make it stop… or rather, his dad can. Alex runs to his extraterrestrial offspring, barges the nasty dolls out of the way and tells his son: ‘Whatever you are, whatever you do, you’re my son and I’ll never give you away.’
It’s a moving conclusion to an episode full of wonderful touches (the reflection of the materialising TARDIS, the pile of overflowing bin liners that attack Mrs. Rossiter, Purcell’s bizarre attachment to his dog Bernard) and, of course, a bucketful of frights.
The brakes have deliberately been put on the scarebus to keep it within the city limits of acceptably frightening early evening viewing, but although there are only a few jump-out-of-your-seat screaming-for-Mummy moments for adults (the worst being the shocked silence after the twist announcement from Alex, ‘Claire can’t have kids!’) the suffocating eeriness persists until the final denouement.
As for younger viewers, the dark chest of stylishly executed horror movie tricks – sweeping shadows, diabolical nursery rhymes chanted in oh-so-innocent voices and the grinding fearfulness of the noises coming out of the soundtrack at all angles – will be more than enough for a widespread insistence upon lamps being left burning at bedtime; and, perhaps, light switches being flicked five times… just in case.
Aired at 7pm on Saturday 3rd September 2011 on BBC One.