This is a refreshing break from the arc-heavy material that has predominated most of Series 6 up to this point. It’s an effective standalone story, a typical modern Doctor Who story that oozes scariness but also carries an emotional touch. It’s not everyone’s cup of their hot beverage of choice, but I really like it, and in my opinion it’s easily Mark Gatiss’s best Doctor Who story to date (although the episode he’s penning for Series 9 sounds excellent). For the most part it’s a charming, sweet story about a father and son and the strains on familial relationships. It sympathetically portrays a family struggling to cope with the mental issues of their son, although, in typical Doctor Who style, it’s revealed that there’s more than meets the eye in this boy’s excessive paranoia.
The main reason I like this episode is its fear factor. The episode starts modestly enough, with the Doctor answering a call from a small child to “please save me from the monsters”, remarking that a child’s bedroom is the “scariest place in the universe”. At this point I’m sure a lot of hardened fans would have been facepalming and preparing themselves for disappointment. I don’t necessarily blame them—the premise is a bit corny. But, thankfully, this episode really does become something genuinely scary and eerie as Gatiss displays an unexpected Moffat-esque flair for the creepy. The scenes in the dolls’ house were surreal and pulse-quickeningly claustrophobic, with great use of light, camerawork and especially very creepy aural effects to induce anxiety and tension. The dolls themselves were downright terrifying, playing on the disturbing appearance of dolls, especially old-fashioned dolls like these life-sized peg dolls, after they’ve aged and decayed. I’m sure there were a lot of shaking children nervous about going to bed after watching this.
Another area in which this episode succeeds is its portrayal of the personal side of this extraterrestrial dilemma. We see the relationship between George and his parents strained over George’s issues, and we see George insecure and anxious about his sense of belonging to his parents. Despite the oddity of George’s being an alien, this is a sympathetic reflection of the emotional struggles countless concerned parents go through over children with peculiar issues, be they physical or mental. I’m sure it’s natural for such children to question and feel insecure about their parents’ feelings about them, as George did. Here we see two loving parents, especially one loving dad, totally dedicated to helping their child. It was a moving, heartfelt moment when Alex embraces George, assuring him, to the latter’s tearful relief, that he loved him and was devoted to him no matter what. Some might cringe at such an “over-sentimental” resolution, but I think it worked perfectly well, given that the science-fictioney dilemma in the episode was caused by George’s insecurity about his parents’ feelings about him.
Some final thoughts. Although Amy and Rory played a diminished role in this episode, I thought Rory was delightfully funny in the dolls’ house. “We’re dead — again!” should be his catchphrase. “Lights are great, aren’t they?” is also another Rory Williams classic. I also have to add that I wasn’t convinced by Jamie Oram, the child actor who played George. Child actors are always hit-or-miss, and this one, I’m afraid to say, was decidedly the latter. I hate to be harsh on an eight year old, but the thing about child actors is that if they’re not good, they’re positively distracting, and their performance actively detracts from the story, as here. Sorry, kid, but don’t take it too badly; very few children can act well, and you’ve got years and years to improve anyway.