Dear Steven Moffat: Night Terrors

Dear Steven,

With Whovianism comes many burdens. Chief amongst them is the defence known as “The Fry Riposte”, a tried and tested strategy for justifying fandom, in which life long viewers attack the notion that Who is programme for children.

Any self-respecting fan of science fiction has had to use the riposte, named in honour of genre illiterate opineatron Stephen Fry, at some point in their lives. Sci-fi, to those that know nothing about it, is short hand for an infantile thirst for fantasy. Childhood after all, is the time when our imaginations are supposed to be at their strongest. Then, so the thinking goes, we grow up, get bogged down by responsibility and the mental muscles we use to facilitate escapism wither from lack of use and eventually waste away to nothing. This, apparently, is normal and, er, healthy.

Human nature dictates that once wide eyes start to narrow, becoming sunk in their sockets and bookended by crow’s feet, we start to resent those that refuse to join us in the fucking awful real world. The accusation is that such refusniks are childish, an insult that implies underdeveloped, mentally stunted, when in fact they may have retained the creativity long dormant in their detractors.

Yet, it’s interesting isn’t it, that when Who scribes get stuck for a story hook they reach for childhood fears. You know the kind of episode, Steven, it’s the Fear Her school of Who, written using the IOCDE (Iconography of Childhood Defamiliarisation Engine) plug-in to your LBF, or Low Budget Filler, software. I suppose this implies that deep down, users like Gatiss, who “penned” last night’s episode, agree with Fry. Whatever they say publically, they think it’s really for the kids and consequently, when the production can’t afford to blow up a planet or CG a fleet of starships to encircle the Earth, they reach for the core audience, a little like politicians preaching to their core vote when they want to play it safe, having run out of ideas.

So once again Who got all domestic and whereas the results were fine, I couldn’t quite enjoy it. You see, Steven, I’m just too old for this shit. Fear of being abandoned by my parents? Monsters in the cupboard? Dolls coming to life? Seven year olds will remember this one alright, probably mark it down as a firm favourite, but I’m 34 old fruit, and childless. What’s in it for me? I can watch any Star Trek episode without feeling like I’ve walked into the wrong room. Is it too much to ask that this could be my Doctor Who experience too?

Anyway, I don’t want to make too much of it Steven, in fact I’d like to compliment Gatiss on creating what might have been a nigh on perfect average episode. The degree of calibration required to get this exactly right is quite difficult, so it’s high praise indeed. It wasn’t bad in any way, it wasn’t stupid, yet nor was it too exciting or in any way unique. I enjoyed the care taken in making it familiar and low key, while keeping it moving so I never felt completely bored. It also had a neat line in predictability; I was never surprised and sometimes, late at night, when your brain is just too tired to do any work, that kind of banality is just what the Doctor ordered.

There was good stuff in it, of course there was, there had to be to balance out Amy and Rory’s lack of involvement, the slightly mawkish ending and so on. I liked the idea of the Doll’s House running amok – that had something, even if it felt old hat, and The Doctor’s awkward house call routine is always a joy to watch; his argument, essentially with himself, about whether or not to open the cupboard, was very funny indeed. Still, does season filler have to be this disposable, Steven? Last year’s The Lodger did the same job much more effectively, I thought. It had something extra.

That’s it for this week. You may be interested to know that I’m thinking of adopting a child in an attempt to cultivate some strong kiddy-fears. It’s to be my new project. I thought about giving it a cat complex by starving the animals and letting them into the child’s room late at night, ravenous. They’d smell the dead mice I’d stuffed into the kid’s mattress, which should make for unbearable evenings.

I’m also having furniture designed that looks like a naked old man with his hand extended, once the light’s off. Let me know if you’ve got any thoughts on those ideas.

Yours in time and cyberspace,


Previously, on Dear Steven Moffat:

Published in: on September 4, 2011 at 16:17  Comments (5)  
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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. It didn’t seem to me to be so much filler, rather instead a slightly calculated anti-arc episode aired to quell criticism of falling ratings and over-complicated story threads. Both of which have been oft-cited claimed as inaccurate, but hey, breaking America and all that.

    That all arc based shows contain self contained episodes anyway, I would usually argue countered much “filler episode” criticism- independent stories act as a nice respite, allow a show to explore other themes, and help to catch new viewers. In this instance, this however seemed to make it stand out like a sore thumb following a long spate of entirely arc based episodes. I think that in and of itself made the framing of this one rather jarring.

    Insofar as the regression to childhood fears stuff is concerned, that the show didn’t have the association of “it’s for kids” would you have been disappointed?

    This had all the elements of a standard horror story- monsters in the cupboard, confusion of identity, even body horror. I suspect that rather than failing because it falls back on childhood fears, it surpassed these in the true horror of the story- asking instead what would happen if you learned that someone close to you was a myth? While I don’t have any children myself, I would imagine that the revelation plays on a base fear for the parents in the audience. Perhaps it would be fairer to claim that this was a true family episode, fears for the children and parents resolved equally.

    Much framing of horror revolves around children. Turning the Screw, Ring, The Others- this works partly because the child is vulnerable, and partly because when the child is made a monster, this is entirely alien.

    Your friend etcetera etcetera,


    • I’ve got no problem with stand alones, I think you’re right, they act as a breather, so that’s not an issue, and yeah, maybe I let the childhood bit colour things for me a little. I’m not dead set against, I thought the crack in the wall gimmick in Eleventh Hour worked really well, as did Amy’s introduction to the series; perhaps I just didn’t like this kid very much, or wasn’t that interested in his fears because I felt I’d seen it, or something like it, so many times before. That’s where the sense of it being filler came from I think.

      It wasn’t bad, you know, like I said inoffensive, and it worked well, it just seemed a little inconsequential. I hope this doesn’t mean, as you imply, that the arc is conditioning me to get bored watching self-contained episodes. I don’t think so, primarily because the combination of the two things in say, Trek, has never bothered me before. This episode just felt slight for me. Who by numbers. The contrast, I suppose, would be with next week, which looks to be a lot more interesting.

      Anyway, there you go.

  2. I didn’t enjoy last night’s ep much – I think my main concerns were around A) the potential psychological effect on young children of implying that if they’re afraid of things in the night, they’re probably an adopted alien whose parents love them in spite of their not actually belonging there, and B) Amy and Rory’s complete lack of interest in the fact that here we were, investigating a terrified child, when they both lost their young child only a few….in their timeline, weeks ago? Having discovered River as an adult wouldn’t have removed the young parents’ feeling of loss for their infant daughter. But they merrily forgot this as they tromped about some other child’s nightmare.

    It was meant to be both touching and clever, but didn’t succeed at either for me. I didn’t notice that Gatiss wrote it, and am disappointed in you, Mark.

    • I think I’m right in saying that the latter incongruity can be explained in the production order, because this episode was supposed to go out forth but was moved to the second half of the series (you’ll notice that the only reference to the arc was the final shot).

      It didn’t work for me either but it was diverting enough. Next week looks a little more tasty.

  3. The episode was beautifully directed, but the story itself fell quite flat (and gets worse the more I think about it).

    I’ve written a bit about what I see as the central problem with the Ponds this season, and would love your thoughts on the matter.

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