After a mid-season low point, Night Terrors is a return to form in Doctor Who, indeed a script that the old Steve Moffat could have written. Mark Gatiss hasn't given us anything this good since The Unquiet Dead, though it plays more like The Girl in the Fireplace meets Fear Her with the latter actually done well. It's monsters in the closet, in the vein of classic children's storytelling -- giant dolls who turn out to be an elegant and striking projection of one's fears.
The decision to set the story in a mundane urban locale is inspired, with Gatiss exploiting the minimalist setting for maximum effect. The pacing is slow and patient, a welcome reprieve after the mid-season cacophony, and Moffat would do well to recall the power of silent visuality (something he used to rely on well instead of motor-mouthing bombardments and other auditory excretions). The giant dollhouse is convincing, with perfect levels of darkness and weird touches like the clock with painted hands. Gatiss is able to use the situation to sideline Rory and Amy while still giving them enough to do, so we can take in the horrors of the house through their eyes, a narrative strategy rather reminiscent of their TARDIS entrapment in The Doctor's Wife. As for the dolls themselves, they're very effective, and while some critics complain about poor special effects, that's much the point, meshing with a child's rough, haunted perspective. Lumbering gaits and primitive facial expressions ratchet up the creepiness where CGI would be self-defeating.
The only weakness, indeed that which prevents a solid rating of 4 from me, is the melodramatic climax which sees the destruction of the doll world through the father's love and final acceptance of George. Part of me likes this, but the other part says this kind of device has been used far too often for the show's good. And not least in Gatiss' own previous script. The Victory of the Daleks was about a bomb-android that overrode its self-destruct program when Amy reminded it of its human feelings for a loved one. The Mark Gatiss of The Unquiet Dead wasn't afraid to let Gwyneth simply die in her sacrifice to destroy the Gelth, and that sort of authentic tragedy is always what made Doctor Who what it was. These days the "triumph of love" theme is becoming a cheap contrivance of easy-outs (the most offensive example being from The Lodger), though I confess this story can get away with it on grounds of its premise. Bedroom nightmares easily feed into themes of childhood trauma and parental neglect, and what child underneath it all doesn't simply crave love?
A serious concern I had after the mid-season fiasco was that complex story arcs and too many plot twists were getting buried under manic dialogue and killing good storytelling. Night Terrors redresses the balance, for this is the first episode of the season completely devoid of any allusion to issues surrounding Amy's questionable existence. Even The Curse of the Black Spot threw in a vision of Madame Kovorian at one point, but for once we get a story that doesn't need to lean on any sensationalist crutches of "what went before". And there is a rumor that season seven won't have any story arcs, which would be a first for new series. If that's true, I applaud the decision. Story arcs are fun when done well (season two's Torchwood and season five's crack-in-Amy's-wall were the only ones I thought worth the energies expended), but solid, self-standing stories like Night Terrors add up to something stronger in the long run.
Rating: 3 stars out of 5.