Sunday, 23 September 2012

Playing with Dolls

UPDATE, 25/09/12:  If you read this post, please read on through the comments too.  Some astute readers used the comments section to set me straight on some issues both of fact and interpretation.  As a result, my attitude towards 'Night Terrors' is now considerably more negative than my initial reaction (which you can read in the main review below).  In fairness to myself, I do spend most of the piece saying what I don't like about 'Night Terrors', including identifying some of what I call the "latent hostility" towards working-class people... but I failed to notice the wider context of the episode and so also the scale of the problem.  I don't mind admitting when I'm wrong (of course, I do really) but I hate that I blogged before giving myself sufficient time to think.  

Okay, my foolhardy project of catching up with all the Doctor Who I've not seen in order to re-synch with the new stuff (and hopefully provide myself with blogging material) continues.

Last night I finally watched 'Night Terrors'. Much to my astonishment, I didn't absolutely hate it. I mean, it wasn't particularly good... but it wasn't actively offensive most of the time either. Which is fairly good going for Moffat-era Who written by Gatiss.

I was horrified by the idea that the Doctor now hears and answers prayers like God, with the pleas of a little boy travelling up to him through the heavens, but that was somewhat neutralised later by some technobabble explanation that made it sound very much like a special case.  In the end, I liked that the Doctor actually seemed comparatively less full of himself, and more like a guy making it up and thinking it out as he went along.  Matt Smith should be encouraged to slow down a bit more often.  He had some nice, quiet moments (inbetween all the usual frenetic gibbering) that were very likeable.  He does 'kindly' rather well.

There were cliches galore, of course.  An old lady complains about her knees.  A yobbo guy with a pitbull.  Hoodies, etc.

Where would any mainstream BBC drama be nowadays if it had to try and depict a housing estate without the employment of hostile cliches?  I think the latter stages of RTD's depiction of Rose's estate are the last example of such places being sketched without such latent hostility.

But... there was an interesting visual stress on the uniformity and blandness of the housing estate, bathed in that sickly yellow night-time street-light aura.

And this made the opulent but fake interior of the 'mansion house' into a fairly interesting visual counterpoint.

Of course, it was entirely predictable that the mansion would turn out to be a dolls house.  But even that was kind of covered when the Doctor immediately realises it when he ends up there, treating the conclusion as though it's self-evident.  It looks like evidence of two tracks of thought at work in the story.  We're more on the Doctor's wavelength than the other characters... which is not self-evidently the wrong way to do it.  It does, however, hammer home the idea of the Doctor's intellectual superiority... which is questionable.  Is it really superiority to think in such a ludicrously illogical way?  Within the confines of cult TV, I suppose... which only emphasizes the way in which Moffat-era Who consciously operates in a universe run along the lines of cult TV.  To be clued-up about how reality works in this show is to think like a cult TV writer.

Parenthetically, I wonder what sex the Croatian traffic warden was.  Why wasn't the story about him or her?  Unsympathetic, I guess.  At least, that would be the assumption.  The story can only engage us because Alex and Claire are 'typical' Brits, i.e. native born, white, heterosexual, etc.  Still, the neutral mention of an Eastern European worker (albeit in a job that is typically stigmatised) is relatively good going these days.

On the subject of gender politics... this is the second time in the same season that a father/son reconciliation/understanding is treated as monumentally significant, leaving the mother absent or near-absent in the background.  Also, Claire's infertility is simply a plot point (this issue © Richard Pilbeam).  We never get to hear how she feels about it.  She's not involved in the resolution of the problems.  In fact, she seems never to be told that her son is actually an alien cuckoo and she's got a barren womb (O, poor woman... robbed of her ability to be a true mother, a female's only true role and goal in life!).  This is typical Gatiss.  Remember the abused Mum in 'The Idiot's Lantern'.  Nobody bothers to wonder how she'll feel about her son reconciling with the man who's been terrorizing her for years.  The Doctor and Rose simply remind the young man that he should be nice to his Dad, whatever he may have done.  In 'Night Terrors', we get an insight into how Alex feels about Claire's infertility, but Claire's feelings seem irrelevant to the story, even non-existent.  In the end, it's implicitly better that she be kept in the dark about the workings of her own body.

I'm beginning, as I write this, to wonder if I was too hasty when I said that the episode wasn't actively offensive.  Maybe it just looks better because it's sandwiched between loads of Moffat-written 'strong women'.  Claire, at least, seems able to think about things other than Her Man.  She's depicted as being something more than just a wife and quasi-mother.  With Alex sacked, she's the family breadwinner.  Of course, she's a nurse... which is a responsible job outside the domestic environment (good) but is still one of those female jobs that is 'sympathetic' in the terms of patriarchal fiction.  A 'caring', 'nurturing' job.  A kind of displaced motherhood.  The classic example of this kind of thing is probably Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which there was only one regular female character who wasn't a 'carer' of some kind... and she got killed almost immediately.  Too scary.

(Well... there was Ro Laren, who was the hardbitten non-conformist who gradually melted to Riker's charms, however she might refuse to admit it.  Sigh.)

I mention TNG because they also had an episode called 'Night Terrors' which was scarier than this because it dared to be quiet.  I think quietness is the key to real scariness.  This episode of Doctor Who rather fumbles its own self-imposed mission to be horror-film-style-scary by doing the usual thing of never letting the jabbering dialogue stop, let alone the music.  Look at the opening.  We have a squeaky child's swing.  Why do we need Murray Gold's bland gloop gurgling on underneath.

In the end, the dolls weren't particularly scary because:

a) we'd already seen them in trailers (a persistent problem for nu-Who, even without the 'help' of the Radio Times),

b) it was entirely predictable that they'd twitch into life, and

c) they didn't really seem to have any reason to be there or to do what they did.  Saying "We just want to play" and converting people into more dolls... what did that have to do with anything?  It was all very formulaic, standard and obvious.  Cue the inevitable nursery ryhme music.  (Yes, the exact same thing irritates me about 'Remembrance of the Daleks', before anyone cries hypocrisy.)

There was a rather good moment which looked like an implicit critique of the Doctor and the show, when the Doctor is in the bedroom with the kid playing with toys while the father/adult faces up to the frightening/painful/grubby reality of money worries in the next room.  The story touched upon austerity and unemployment.  However, it cast it in rather silly terms - villainous (working class) landlord/super vs virtuous, sacked family man.  The landlord (well, supervisor, as I say) is a chav stereotype.

Big screen telly, tasteless carpet, etc.  The depictions of working people were, at least, less insufferably cutesy than those in the similar episode 'Fear Her', even if they were more cynical and hostile.

Of course, the end let it down.  Into a pit of syrup.  The monsters were eradicated by the boy 'believing in himself' and 'facing his fears' (puke) and, natch, by the re-establishment of the nuclear family unit and heteronormative contentment.  Earlier in the episode, I found myself responding to Alex's fear and frustration, but his mechanical switcheroo between "But he's an alien!" back to "But he's my son!" just felt like the gyrations of a wind-up dummy.  Ironically enough, it all looked (to me) a bit like the writer was moving his dolls around inside his little house.  Daddy doll hugs Little Boy doll and then Mummy doll turns up and they all live happily ever after.  It seems unfair to be too hard on Gatiss about this because it really is standard procedure nowadays.  If they remade 'Snakedance' they rewrite it so the Mara was defeated by Lon realising how much he loved his Mum... well, his Dad probably (see above).

At least we didn't get something I feared: the nasty supervisor guy turning over a new leaf.  That would've been truly vomworthy.

On the whole, not all that bad.  Probably the least irritating episode since 'Vincent and the Doctor'.  Surely, the best Gatiss TV script... though that's not saying much.


  1. Star Trek: The Next Generation does have problems with gender roles, yes. Tasha Yar's death was deeply, deeply unfortunate, but remember having her character written out was Denise Crosby's decision, not the production team's. Could they have handled it better? Absolutely. Could her character have been given more to do and treated with more respect thus encouraging her to stay on for the rest of the series? Unquestionably. However, I still think, all things considered, TNG was more progressive than many people give it credit for and if nothing else set the stage for Deep Space Nine, which is still one of the most forward-thinking things I've ever seen on TV. Anyway, I have to wonder how many of Tasha's problems would have been avoided had Roddenberry gone with the original plan and let Marina Sirtis take her role like she wanted. Denise Crosby is a fine actress, but I'm starting to feel she was miscast. As was Sirtis, actually.

    Also, I don't think Ro was quite as bad as you say (if anything it was Picard, Geordi and Guinan she seemed closest to, not Riker, who anyway had by that point long since abandoned the "Captain Kirk Ladykiller Clone" role he had originally been written with in mind) though she undoubtedly still got a little shafted. Again though, she laid the groundwork for Kira Nerys, who I find it very hard to claim isn't an absolute triumph of a character.

    As for Gatiss' "Night Terrors", the actual topic of this post, I think you've once again pretty much encapsulated everything about it well. I didn't like it at all, but that's my default mode of operation with Doctor Who these days so, y'know, consider the source.

  2. I didn't know Denise Crosby asked to be written out and, if I'm honest, I was judging Ro Laren on vague memories. So I stand corrected on that. Cheers.

  3. No worries! I love talking Trek politics.

    Yeah, Denise Crosby wanted to be let go because she was frustrated her character wasn't being given a whole lot to do and (apparently) was worried TNG wouldn't last beyond a season or two. She still liked the show though, hence why she made a nearly-annual guest appearance starting in Season 3, although that might also have had to do with the fact the show finally had a production team that actually had its act together by that point. Of course, because Tasha was unceremoniously killed off, accommodating Denise required a great deal of temporal shenanigans, but you work with what you have I guess.

    Denise wasn't the only one concerned at the end of the first season either: From what I gather LeVar Burton, Marina Sirtis and Patrick Stewart were all worried about the show's future too and considered leaving at one point or another (Patrick Stewart allegedly never even unpacked until he heard the show was picked up for a second year)-Denise was just the only one who actually quit.

    I'm also beginning to wonder if Denise was ever really comfortable in her role to begin with, as Tasha was never the character she auditioned for. Perhaps that had something to do with her decision to leave as well, who knows? Maybe I'll have a more concrete theory once I actually finish rewatching the first season. Either way it's unfortunate as her character had some of the most interesting potential of all of them that first year and, despite how good characters like Kira and Ro eventually got, Tasha remains a huge missed opportunity IMO.

  4. "I'm beginning, as I write this, to wonder if I was too hasty when I said that the episode wasn't actively offensive." I genuinely love essays where the writer changes his mind as he write it. Makes everything seem possible

    I couldn't stand this one I'm afraid. Partly for the mother issue that you deal with so well (although a coda including her could've really helped this episode). Partly for the ugly portrayal of the working class.

    I kept thinking of all the Who-fans who were disgusted that the Doctor's companion was a "council estate chav". For them this episode must have been a punch-the-air-moment, particularly when Amy jokingly calls it "Eastender land".
    In this show, council estates are simply ugly scary empty places where maybe one or two simple souls huddle obliviously-just like you see on tv. No real people live there.

    The landlord figure was the worst though(can you believe he was once Piers Gaveston in Jarman's Edward II?) Horribly portrayed and dialogue like (paraphrasing slightly) "Nothing on TV-time to watch my special video". Just grim-like the worst of Roald Dahl, done straight

    I might have missed this if the central idea hadn't been so bloody pedestrian. Again you've got creepy old things running around chasing people (Victorian dolls, old mannequins...what next ventriloquist dummies?) and Again it's nothing really malevolent, just out of control alien tech. In the last 5 mins the Doctor works out the puzzle and that's it.

    But you're right, it looks great! The directors, Nick Hurrans, Jeremy Webbs and the Richard Clarks may well be seen as the best of this era. It's not the worst just pedestrian and unthinkingly hostile.

  5. Hmmm.

    The portrayal of working-class/high-rise life does indeed seem laced with hostility. Perhaps more so than I originally noticed.

    I think the "Eastendersland" remark is a character note, a quip from a character who grew up in a rural village... but it does ventilate some contempt.

    Ironically, 'Eastenders' is an absolutely atrocious portrayal of working class London. It's a fundamentally middle-class fantasy: sentimental, patronising, with little link to reality.

    I think 'Night Terrors' does better, but it shares that same fundamentally contemptuous, patronising outlook. The tower block is, as you say, a collection of little stasis pods in which little lives trundle along in a state of entropy. There'd be a way of doing this that made the point that such places *can* be socially entropic, that they *can* strand people. The episode doesn't really pick this up though. There's a hint of something in the dolls house, but that doesn't seem to be a reflection or opposition. It just remains a counterpoint that seems to say little.

    The sentimental vision is one of the 'deserving' family man hounded by a modern-day version of the old evil landlord... and this figure has become the ultimate in working class evil: the chav (elitest hate speech for a demonizing concept). Money worries become about Mr Virtuously Unemployed hassled by the guy with a pitbull rather than about, say, bullying banks or maxed-out credit cards... still less authoritarian policing or racism (our 'good' working class people have to be, as I mentioned, 'typical', which means white and native born.) The Mum is, as I also mentioned, a virtuously employed woman in a caring job.

    Implicitly, the episode seems to be saying that sympathy is the correct attitude towards working class people or the unemployed, as long as they are of the 'deserving' kind. The existence of the opposite kind would thus be implied even without the presence of a character who personifies it. The effort seems to be to absolve the 'good' working-class characters of any hint that they are part of that bad working-class that middle-class people (especially in the media) have nightmarish fantasies about: the chavs, the dependent, the imagined legions of feckless spongers who own pitbulls, buy big screen TVs with their benefits money and leave their kids without shoes.

    The cutesy old complainey lady is another anti-chav, moaning about how she's the only one who bothers about the bins. The implication is that the rest of them couldn't care less.

    The contempt is there, announced silently and largely off-screen, implied by the way we are invited to like certain 'Eastenderlanders' because they are implicitly opposed to the 'bad ones'. Not because they're, y'know, human beings.

    As for ventriloquist dummies... well, this is Moffat and Gatiss we're talking about. Don't write it off yet.

  6. I find this to be my least favorite of Gatiss's episodes to date, and its politics are a big part of it. It's impossible for me not to read this story alongside the London riots that Series 6 straddled. Here's the one story in Series 6 to even depict the working class and outright impoverished society out of which those riots sprung. And it shows it as a source of horror, and, more to the point, class-based horror: the council estate is full of horrors that are functionally directed by the child's vision of poshness. So the child's fears initially appear to be justified class resentment: the rich people are coming out of his doll house and making his council estate world terrifying.

    Except in the end that's not what it is - it's just that he needs a more stable family unit and a better dad. And the Doctor, having fixed his family unit, cheerily bounds off into his glimmering TARDIS, leaving the boy in dire economic conditions as though nothing is wrong with the boy's life whatsoever except that he didn't have a strong enough family relationship.

    Or, as David Cameron put it after the riots, "Perhaps they come from one of the neighbourhoods where it’s standard for children to have a mum and not a dad… where it’s normal for young men to grow up without a male role model, looking to the streets for their father figures, filled up with rage and anger. So if we want to have any hope of mending our broken society, family and parenting is where we’ve got to start."

    Mark Gatiss makes the Doctor into David Cameron. Fuck that.

    1. You're right. I should've mulled this one over for longer before blogging about it. I think my initial reaction was pure relief at seeing something new without River Song in it. Her absence makes Fox News look relatively likeable.

      I still think this is Gatiss's least offensive script, politically speaking. At least it isn't an outright metaphor about evil immigrants or about the Doctor being best buds with a blood-soaked racist imperialist.

  7. Being from the States I don't know how the projects of Pontiac, outside Detroit where I grew up, compare to the council estates of Britain, but the depiction here reminded me so much of home -- dodgy elevator, intimidating dogs, irregular trash pickup, terrible lighting, and rows and rows of boxes all just the same. There *is* something hostile about this way of life. Of course it's the result of class inequality, but that wasn't apparent from the environment (and it's certainly not apparent from the episode.)

    What I found more striking about Night Terrors was how it functioned as a queer narrative. I'm queer, so I readily identified with the little boy, who's completely alienated from his family. The Doctor's reveal of the boy's alienness functioned as coming out of the closet; it's the closet that generates the nightmares, and coming to grips with the closet, opening that door, was the only way to banish the monsters therein. I was lucky -- like the little boy's father, my family embraced me, though it took me until my thirties to come out. Thankfully *I* got to choose the timing of that narrative, not my doctor, but otherwise I found this aspect of Night Terrors rather satisfying as a queer metaphor.

    I'm not surprised this line of analysis hasn't made it into the Graffiti. What surprises me is the lack of consideration of what's been happening with Amy in Series Six -- namely, that she's becoming a monster. She's shot at her own daughter, fought like a pirate, raised a gun to her daughter again, inhabited a possibly evil "Flesh" body (hence the thick makeup this season?) so she could adventure while pregnant, been depicted as an emotionless robot, and has now been turned into a wooden dolly because she had the temerity to "fight back." Really, Jack? How on Earth have you missed this?

    Meanwhile, in Night Terrors the absent mother (hmmm) is a nurse -- which is only the beat-you-over-the-head occupation of Amy's husband, the character who can do no wrong, of course. (Well, except for killing his fiancee while in plastic warrior mode, but he's apparently been given a free pass for this transgression.)

    1. "Really, Jack? How on Earth have you missed this?"

      I'm clearly off my game at the moment.

      I have noticed the way Amy is being treated though, and I'm working on a big post about the hostility of the Moffat era towards women in general, including Amy.

      Regarding the closet thing... I did consider that but rejected it as too literal. Was I wrong?

    2. The closet thing doesn't need much more layering to its metaphor, as it's already in the territory of metaphor to begin with. Simply by making George an "alien" he's available for all kinds of queer narratives, and even as an adoption narrative -- my cousin K adopted after three miscarriages, and her daughter (completely and utterly loved) had to deal with issues of alienation when she learned of her origins.

      The other bit that supports this reading of Night Terrors, and which is contentiously problematic, is the bit at the end where the Doctor tells the father that George, now that he's overcome his fears, will be whatever the father wants him to be. This is a narrative about passing, which goes well beyond queer politics.

      Within queer politics there's debate about the value of passing as straight. Some have the desire to fit in with whatever community they came from, or the mainstream, what have you, while others feel this it's important to display this identity. And both personal preferences have been politicized -- passing, it's argued, makes it easier to gain widespread acceptance; queering, it's argued, prevents queerness from erased or swept under the carpet. Both, of course, are true.

      I think this goes beyond queer politics -- this is an issue for class politics, too. Look at the estate George lives in -- every dwelling is the same. On the one hand, it's good to have mass affordable housing, and on the other, it can be dehumanizing to live in rows of identical boxes. It's problematic because it's not black or white; this arrangement is a compromise.

      How do we identify ourselves as belonging to a particular class, yet still maintain an individual identity? Or is this something that extends even beyond class, and into the territory of being human? It's a balancing act, belonging to a group, to a culture, while also being an individual.

      Which brings me to the Dolls, and to the supervisor. The Dolls have the power to turn people into other Dolls. How can this not be about passing? And because they're monsters, they can be read in both directions; culture, we fear, will turn individuals into conforming little dolls; queerness, it's feared, will turn "normal" people into queers. I already touched on Amy being monstered; the other character who gets monstered is the rent-collector.

      Yes, it's a trope to make this role villainous, but it's not dishonest: there is not a single walk of life that inures people from the "joys" of exercising power over others, and these are the people who tend to end up in power-over situations. As with any narrative, there's a choice here -- one could make the individual exercising power-over sympathetic, but this yields the same problems as giving us a Sontaran nurse, or, going further back, the "noble mercenary" of the Saward era. At least in Night Terrors the role of exercising power over others is critiqued: the supervisor is visibly turned into a monster, as is the other character who advocates violence, which is ultimately the nature of power-over in the first place.

  8. Talking of the deserving and undeserving poor, have you ever seen a BBC programme called Saints and Scroungers?

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    1. Thanks for reading. I did post some irritated snark about 'Doctor's Wife' some time ago:
      One day I'll expand on it more judiciously, I hope. :-)

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