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The House in the Cupboard

September 7, 2011

After last week’s Germanic hijinks Saturday’s episode of Doctor Who took the show back to its hiding-behind-the-sofa roots. With its classic monster themes and its modern urban backdrop Night Terrors successfully blended old and new to great effect, and as far as terrifying children goes this episode was up there with the best of them!

I mentioned last time about episodes that start with a message or summons for the Doctor. These episodes begin with more purpose than most, as was the case here with the message in the psychic paper, the line “making a house call” and the early scene with Rory, Amy and the Doctor knocking on doors looking for the frightened child. Though maybe an inefficient approach this did provide some rather good comedy. It also reflected the more low-key, back-to-basics approach of the episode, with more focus on the unfolding mystery and the characters of Alex (the dad) and George (the child) than on any outlandish plots or big distracting effects. Having said that I thought the effects were rather good, particularly when the landlord sank through his living room floor and when he got turned into a doll. Though Rory and Amy didn’t seem best impressed with being on a council estate having previously travelled to other planets, less spectacular episodes like this can be important for exploring the emotional personalities of the characters – for example we now know that Amy’s got some fight in her when she’s in a tight spot, and that when Rory’s panicking he rambles on almost as much as the Doctor does – but also for reminding the viewers that a good plot premise and some convincing performances can be just as entertaining as the louder, shouty, ‘spectacular’ episodes that come towards the ends of series.

Speaking of performances, I was really impressed by the actor playing Alex. Having seen him in one episode of Hustle, where he played a cockney businessman-type idiot, I’d naively assumed that his character here would be similar, and thus similarly annoying. How wrong I was! His portrayal of the worried father was far from the panto charicature I’d expected. He was measured, sensitive and displayed a real internal conflict anchored by his concern for his son’s wellbeing. Alex was very realistic and believable character, and he worked well in particular in the dialogue scenes with the Doctor, providing a very fitting character for the Doctor to bounce some of his crazy out-loud thoughts off. The scene where he couldn’t remember George’s birth was very well acted too – “Claire can’t have kids… How can I have forgotten that?” A commendable performance, well done sir!

Because there was less spectacle in this episode the monsters really had room to breathe. Initially a subtle presence until round about the time the Doctor tells Alex that “George’s monsters are real”, the dolls then moved on to threatening and then aggressive at a pace that made them nicely frightening by the time they’d trapped Amy and Rory in that room. I expect there were a few children hiding behind the sofa in classic Doctor Who tradition at this point, and that a few more joined them when Amy was captured and doll-ified. And even when the dolls weren’t on screen there was that strange laugh that Rory and Amy kept hearing. Veering from childish glee to what could have been childish sadness, and occasionally into something else more evil sounding, this laugh added a nice extra layer to the disconcerting atmosphere inside the dolls’ house.

Speaking of the house, this was an interesting use of setting, not least because George is a boy and an only child, so why he had a dolls’ house in the first place is anybody’s guess. Still, it gave the crew an excuse to film in a lovely old manor house which I’m sure would have been fun. It also lent some effective confusion to the episode early on when Rory and Amy were trying to work out where they’d ended up after being in the lift. Having the dolls’ house in the cupboard was an interesting mechanism too. Apart from the great scene where Alex and the Doctor get sucked into the cupboard it also provided a focus for George’s terror that was all the more effective for being an object that’s totally normal, not to mention providing some very entertaining dialogue between Alex and the Doctor when they were debating whether or not to open it.

The episode’s resolution – that George was actually an alien foster child called a Tensa who just wanted to be accepted by his foster family – sounds on paper like something that’s going to take a lot of convincing, but on screen this was a concept that I think worked rather well. This is mainly thanks to the good performances by Alex and George but also because of the convincing setup throughout the episode with all the talk of George’s problems and how Alex and Claire (the mum) have been trying to deal with it. Overall I think there was a really nice level of backstory to flesh out the plot. The old lady and the aggressive landlord were part of this as well, and although as victims of George’s imagination they didn’t add a huge amount to the plot they were quite effective for establishing George’s family and the community they lived in.

One other part that I rather liked was that Rory and Amy were separated from the Doctor. I like how this provides a different dynamic to the show from when it was the Doctor and just one companion. When there are two established companions who go off on their own together, because they’re already familiar with weird situations less basic set-up is needed (e.g. “OMG it’s bigger on the inside!”, “Doctor? Doctor Who?” etc) and they can get stuck right into whatever’s going on. With only one companion off on their own you either need some sort of confused out-loud monologue so that the viewers can keep up, which is difficult to make convincing at the best of times, or you need another character just for that episode’s storyline, and such characters tend to feel a bit like hangers-on who need all the basics explained to them before they can do anything useful or fun. I remember saying a while ago that I’d prefer the Doctor to travel with two companions rather than one, maybe even a couple, and that Moffat’s taken it this way with Amy and Rory pleases me greatly. I think this also adds a slightly different and new dynamic to the show from what it was like under Russell T Davies, allowing Doctor Who to evolve as it progresses and helping it to stay fresh, which is always important in a show as long running as this.

Best bits:

  • We’re dead. Again!
  • The way the Doctor’s accent changes when he’s talking to Alex.
  • Will you stop making tea I want you to leave.” “No.” And jammie dodgers again. Brilliant.
  • In the dolls’ house, “How can it be bigger in here?!” “It’s more common than you realise actually!
  • I’ve got to invent a setting for wood it’s embarrassing.” Excellent Library reference there.
  • The Doctor activating all of George’s toys with the screwdriver was a nice scene.
  • Rory and Amy coming out of the lift at the end. Amy: “…was I…“, Rory: “Yeah.
  • The excellent double take by Alex and the Doctor when they first see the doll.
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