After the character heavy, revelation filled mid-season finale “A Good Man Goes to War” and the twisty, table-turning return of “Let’s Kill Hitler,” it was high time Doctor Who let us all kick back with something light and self-contained. Drawing from the series’ long and often classic tradition of horror stories, “Night Terrors” sends the Doctor (along with Amy and Rory) back into the business of fighting monsters.
It all begins with a little boy named George, a kid so paralyzed by fear that he’s almost literally scared of everything. He spends his nights patrolling his flashlight beam around the room and waiting for monsters to come. His parents have invented a system of dealing with this. Whenever something scares him, they put it in the cupboard in his room, flick the lights five times, and the monsters are taken care of. But things are getting worse, and his cosmic wish for someone to save him somehow makes its way to the TARDIS.
The Doctor, Amy and Rory arrive on the scene (a rather dodgy collection of flats) and begin looking for George. The Doctor manages to find him, but Amy and Rory suffer a bizarre elevator accident and find themselves stuck in a dark, creepy house that doesn’t seem quite real. There are phantom sounds, very few lights and worst of all, someone is following them.
The Doctor quickly realizes that there’s something more at work than just a boy with an overactive imagination, and begins working to unravel the mystery of just what George’s monsters are. It’s a refreshingly straightforward scary story with a satisfying and even heartwarming (albeit corny) ending, and it’s one of the most enjoyably basic Doctor Who stories of the Smith/Moffat era.
Though it does pack one hell of a creepy monster payoff in the end, a big part of what makes “Night Terrors” so effective is the way it makes the source of fear an almost intangible thing. The monsters exist in shadow only, and often only as theoretical things, for much of the episode. Amy and Rory are running from them and The Doctor is hunting them down, but they often exist for us just as they seem to exist for George: as something in our heads. It’s an episode that’s in many ways all about how frightening the world of our own bedroom can be, and much of its effectiveness is in its willingness to keep the monsters in the dark.
“Night Terrors” won’t replace “Blink” as the creepiest Doctor Who story since the series revival, but it serves another purpose. It’s an episode that gives us a break from what’s been a plot-heavy season filled with intense emotional turbulence and allows us all to remember why we love the show in the first place. “Night Terrors” is not just about the reality of monsters, but about the importance of them, and about that age-old Doctor Who tenet that you can find something strange just about anywhere, including your cupboard.