Old story for old eyes (and new)
There's nothing especially original or thought-provoking about Night Terrors, the ninth episode of Doctor Who's 2011 run.
Indeed, both the story and the monsters are reminiscent of a number of episodes from the not-too-distant past. The gas-mask children from The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, the clock-work robots from The Girl In the Fireplace, and the pointless guardian-thingies from The Beast Below, to name only three.
Beyond the visual effect of a semi-human face thrust suddenly into the camera, the monster in a closet and the child-as-cuckoo are well-travelled fantasy paths.
But, as I think I've said before, originality is over-rated. Especially when dealing with a vessel whose basic premise is as ludicrous as Doctor Who, story is usually best served by simple; the superstructure can only support so much weight before it collapses under its own contradictions.
That said, there is but a fine line between trope and cliche and this episode's early moments saw me worried we would be served a dish over-flowing with the latter.
The Doctor receives a distress call via his psychic paper: "Please save me from the monsters."
Matt Smith whirls and twirls as he reads the message and changes the Tardis' course. "Haven't done this in a while," he says. Haven't done what, Amy wonders and Smith then really over-plays his character's tendency towards the enigmatic.
"Making a house-call," he says as his eyes shift left and and then right and back again, as if he knows the camera is watching.
But no matter. There's a little boy in mysterious trouble in a cramped apartment in a British Council Estate and we are quickly drawn into the mystery of what's inside that child's toy-cupboard.
The episode gets stronger as it moves along. As noted above, the pre-credit set-up in the Tardis verges on the annoying and the initial flat-by-flat investigations are forced and not nearly as amusing as they were meant to be.
But the conceit serves the purpose of dividing our heroes' forces and, specially, of putting Rory and Amy in danger. And of course, of introducing the Doctor to the frightened child, George, and his father, Alex.
Alex is a man out-of-his depth, who does love his son but who doesn't know how to care for a child who is afraid of everything. Believing the Doctor is from a social services agency, he introduces the Doctor to George, and the story proper begins to unfold.
Naturally, there really is a monster in the cupboard — or rather, as Rory and Amy are discovering around the same time, monsters, plural.
There's no need for a blow-by-blow. The parallel stories connect at the end; secondary characters, pleasant and otherwise, are briefly but sufficiently sketched; and a growing sense of dread, culminating with our heroes trapped on a staircase, with monsters above and below coming out of the dark.
In a shout-out to the good old days, the day is saved not through the Doctor's direct action, but by the strength of another player entirely, one "made better" by the Doctor's advice and example.
As I said, the journey is a familiar one, but with variations enough to entertain a long-time viewer and, I think, one that would thoroughly entertain a new-comer.
And scare hell out of a child.
Night Terrors brings to life the familiar claustrophobia of dark corridors, of locked doors and of eerie, animate dolls; leavened with a sense of humour and a brisk, no-nonsense pace, it is a thoroughly solid entertainment, one that could serve almost as a step-by-step practicum in the fine craft of genre screen-writing and production.
And one that would reward a fan's casual re-watch or two as well.