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"Doctor Who" -- "Night Terrors": Reliably Creepy Doll Faces

By C. Robert Dimitri | TV | September 6, 2011 |

By C. Robert Dimitri | TV | September 6, 2011 |

“That’s what it’s called: pantophobia. Not fear of pants, though, if that’s what you’re thinking. It’s the fear of everything, including pants, though, I suppose…”

Don’t get too excited. If you’re afraid of everything, then you’re also afraid of a lack of pants.

There is something elemental about being a child at bedtime and worrying about what lurks in the dark just beyond sight. I used a nightlight in my bedroom out of habit into my teenage years, but the inspiration for its first use when I was extremely young must have been related to one of those fears.

I had a variety of vivid, macabre nightmares as a kid; perhaps this was a product of my very early exposure to movies like Alien and The Shining. A recurring one involved a panther perched outside my second-floor window on the roof of my house that then burst through the glass in an attack pounce. I would wake up just before he landed on the bed. (Later I realized this dream was the cause of the déjà vu I experienced during my first viewing of The Neverending Story when the Gmork attacked Atreyu, even if the Gmork is more canine than feline.) One nightmare about a rabbit-eared humanoid serial killer sent me hiding in my closet.

George has his own fears about monsters. He insists his mother, Claire, perform a light switch warding ritual before she leaves for her night shift at his bedtime, and once alone he sees peril in the subtlest shadows cast on his bedroom wall. His pleas for help summon The Doctor, Rory, and Amy for a rare “house call.” They show up to George’s apartment building, thus eschewing the “planets and history and stuff” for another adventure in present-day England.

A door-to-door canvas of the units in the densely constructed building brings The Doctor to George’s doorstep. However, when Rory and Amy use the building’s elevator, the car rapidly drops before they are mysteriously teleported to the interior of a large, dimly lit house in which everything is constructed of wood. For example, a wooden pan they find is painted to look as if it is made of copper. In this house, figures wait just around the corners and giggle mischievously like children. Rory guesses that he has died again.

They are not the only ones that fall victim to this odd phenomenon; an elderly tenant is sucked into a pile of garbage bags before disappearing, and a grumpy landlord leaves behind his bulldog sidekick when he sinks into his living room carpet. The common bond for all of these people: they passed outside George’s window and inadvertently aided in frightening him.

The Doctor meets George’s father, Alex, and poses as a social services worker to gain an invitation inside. Alex is under stress from the aforementioned landlord due to lack of employment. Kudos to Daniel Mays for skillfully playing the straight man to The Doctor’s manic self, as he gradually takes in stride the fantastical events that always accompany the Time Lord. George’s parents have been so concerned about his extreme fearful condition that they had asked for help and were considering sending him away for treatment, and The Doctor serendipitously has arrived at the correct time.

The Doctor does not ascertain much useful information from George himself, but he does find the source of George’s fears, which are centered inside his bedroom’s closed cupboard, where all the items that frighten George have been moved. Frustrated with The Doctor’s manner, Alex asks him to leave, but The Doctor reveals that he is from a location a bit farther away than social services and that the force in that cupboard amplified a little boy’s fears to produce a distress call across time and space. They settle on opening the cupboard, and inside The Doctor discovers nothing out of the ordinary. He realizes that the source of the power is George himself and that George is not the biological child of Alex and Claire as they believed. Stressed by the revelation and pressed by The Doctor for his true identity, George asks for rescue from the monsters once again. In a scene reminiscent of Poltergeist, the cupboard bursts with light and pulls in both Alex and The Doctor, who find themselves in another section of the house that captured Amy and Rory.

Stalking this house’s visitors and serving as the source of the creepy giggling and nursery rhyme chanting (e.g., “Tick tock… and all too soon, you and I must die”) are a group of lumbering wooden dolls. Yes, we have another creature in the Doctor Who universe that relies on an unmoving, unexpressive, unsympathetic visage for scares. Perhaps they are not quite as frightening as earlier monsters with that characteristic, but they did bring to mind one room full of seemingly innocent dolls I once saw that I found to be unsettling.

The dolls capture the landlord and transform him into one of them. Despite the best efforts by Amy and Rory to escape, they transform Amy as well. The Doctor realizes that they are inside the dollhouse contained inside George’s cupboard.

The dolls corner The Doctor, Alex, and Rory, when The Doctor realizes what George is: a Tenza. This alien creature latched onto Alex and Claire and used a perception filter to make them believe that he was truly their son. It was an adaptive reflex and not a malicious one, as George simply wants Alex and Claire to love him. Realizing this, The Doctor encourages George to open the cupboard, and George is transported into the dollhouse. Alex assuages any fears that George has about being sent away by embracing his adopted alien son.

All the people captured by the dollhouse revert to normality back outside, including Amy, who is a little shaken by her sojourn as a wooden dolly. The Doctor assures Alex that George will adapt perfectly into life as a human, although perhaps he should pop back in to check on them at puberty. Back on the TARDIS, The Doctor, Amy, and Rory depart for another adventure, as the dolls’ song informs us that even for The Doctor the clock is ticking, as we see a visual reminder of The Doctor’s impending date of death.


For those wanting to escape from the highly serialized nature of “Let’s Kill Hitler,” “Night Terrors” fits the bill as “stand alone episode” as much as any in the Matt Smith era. That said, it seems odd to see Amy and Rory back on the TARDIS interacting almost as if the whole drama with their daughter never happened. (This episode was originally slated for the season’s first half and rescheduled with only a couple minor adjustments.) Even if Amy and Rory essentially knew their daughter throughout childhood and thus “raised” her in a sense, there is still a parental experience that has been completely stolen from them. Carefree, random adventures on the TARDIS should only satisfy them for so long.

This palpable shift in urgency contrasts too sharply with the imminent events that will lead to The Doctor’s death. The fact that we are biding time is all too evident. Don’t get me wrong: I am eager for quality Doctor Who adventures that are not dependent on the surrounding episodes. Perhaps the fact that the characters themselves now joke about the frequency of Rory’s death removes the suspense from the story.

If you were to ask me during this episode if Rory or Amy were in any genuine danger, even in the absence of any in-jokes I would have said “no.” If we ever witness Amy’s true demise, then being turned into one of those wooden dolls would not be the method. I realize at its most basic level Doctor Who is a children’s program and a light adventure, and heroes rarely die in that sort of story. Explicitly reminding me of this can undermine the tale, however. Humorous winks only work so many times before one begins to feel emotionally divorced from the stakes.

Perhaps the scares in “Night Terrors” were a little too obvious. What made the episode enjoyable for me was another fine performance by Matt Smith. I particularly liked his delivery in describing how far George’s message had traveled across the universe to reach his “old eyes.”

If you were wondering, my recurring nightmare about the panther ended happily when for some reason I slept through the end of it without waking up in fear. The attack pounce culminated in a friendly lick to my face. Just as little Tenza George did, facing the night terror worked out.

C. Robert Dimitri wishes that he had had a TARDIS at his disposal to help him move over this Labor Day weekend.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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