“Doctor Who” Recap Tick-Tock Goes the Clock, Even For the Doctor

I’m always a little anxious when Doctor Who downshifts from sweeping story-arc episodes to self-contained single episodes. (I refuse to call them “filler episodes” because that feels needlessly disparaging. And anyway, sometimes the best stuff is in the stuffing.)

“Night Terrors” had me particularly worried because it was originally meant to air as the third episode of the first half of the season.

Instead we got “The Curse of the Black Spot“, which was so weak story- and production value-wise, it still hurts my brain to think about it. I was afraid this episode would trip in the same lackadaisical ways — but I’m glad to say I was wrong.

“Planets and history and stuff, that’s what we do. But not today. No, today we’re answering a cry for help from the scariest place in the universe: A child’s bedroom.”

Night Terrors” was written by long-time Who scribe and Sherlock co-writer Mark Gatiss, with whom the fandom has an abiding love/hate relationship. It was high fives all around for “The Unquiet Dead“, but then he unleashed those iDaleks in “Victory of the Daleks“, and some people still haven’t recovered.

“Night Terrors” feels a bit pre-showrunner Moffatesque to me, and not just because it contained shades of “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances“. (It always comes back to Captain Jack Harkness, doesn’t it?)

The concept is quite lovely: “Through crimson stars and silent stars and tumbling nebulas like oceans
set on fire; through empires of glass and civilizations of pure thought, and a whole terrible wonderful universe of impossibilities,” a child’s cry of “save me from the monsters!” reaches the Doctor’s ears. Or, well, the Doctor’s psychic paper. And off he goes to make a house call to rescue little George.

George has some OCD-like tendencies and a wildly overactive imagination. His parents’ solution is simple: Put everything you don’t like in the cupboard. (It worked with Hitler!) Unfortunately, George is literally putting everything he doesn’t like in the cupboard with his mind. The creepy old lady with her squeaky-wheeled trolley? In the cupboard! Amy and Rory clowning on his fear of the dark? In the cupboard! The oily landlord who comes to collect the rent? In the cupboard!

“We’re either inside the doll’s house or this is a refuge for dirty posh people who eat wooden food.”

More specifically, George puts them in the dollhouse in the cupboard, where humans turn into dolls and dolls sing sinister songs in the dark. (More on that in a second.) Where the visuals kind of killed “The Curse of the Black Spot,” I think they really brought “Night Terrors” to life.

The dollhouse conceit is one of those things that’s just real enough to take your mind from silly to sinister. The gags land easily: The wooden pot painted copper, Amy’s plastic lantern, the giant scissors Alex wields as a weapon. But those dolls were creepy as hell; no one was laughing when they were attacking.

I love the gentleness Matt Smith can bring to the screen, particularly when he sits on George’s bed making his toys ding! and whir! with his sonic screwdriver so George can’t hear his dad arguing with the landlord.

And speaking of gentleness, it’s good to know this episode was flipped with one from the first half of the season; otherwise Rory and Amy’s behavior would seem pretty callous. Having “lost” their own daughter quite recently, you’d think they might show a little more empathy for a terrified child.

I think Gatiss found the perfect balance between pathos and peculiarity this time. While Rory fights off the murderous dolls — “I mean if this place is all lit up we wouldn’t be worried at all” — we find out that George is a Tenza, an orphaned alien who became exactly what his human parents needed.

I went from chewing my fingers to brushing away my tears when Alex fights off the dolls and says, “Whatever you are, whatever you do, you’re my son. And I will never, ever send you away.”

I think one reason gay men and women love Doctor Who so much is that we relate to the otherness The Doctor is so keen to help the world embrace. “Funny’s good,” he tells George’s dad. “We like funny, don’t we?” (Yes. We do.)

The Three Little Sontarans, The Emperor Dalek’s New Clothes, Snow White and the Seven Keys to Doomsday. Yeah? All the classics.”

There were some good continuity throwbacks this time: The Doctor’s favorite “children’s books,” tea and jammie dodgers, Rory making reference to all the times he’s been murdered. (“We’re dead. Again.”)

The biggest hint at the greater story-arc comes from the dolls’ menacing nursery rhyme.

Tick-tock goes the clock
And what then shall we see?
Tick-tock until the day
That thou shalt marry me?

Tick-tock goes the clock
And all the years they fly
Tick-tock and all too soon
You and I must die

Tick-tock goes the clock
He cradled her and he rocked her
Tick-tock goes the clock
Even for the Doctor

It’s River and the Doctor, right? That’s what they’re singing about? He cradled her, rocked her, married her, and then they both died? If that doesn’t give you chilly-willies all the way down to your toes, I don’t know what to tell you — except maybe you’re not alive!

What did you think of “Night Terrors”? And what about those persistent rumors that Gatiss has been tapped as the next Who showrunner? Does it fill you with excitement or dread?

Heather Hogan is a freelance writer/editor from Atlanta.