I’m perhaps inclined to be overly forgiving of a Mark Gatiss episode. I’ve admired his television work and novels for some time, his A History of Horror documentary series is the best overview of horror film history I’ve seen, and he wrote what I consider one of the best Doctor Who stories ever. And so while there are a few flaws in this episode, I find it hard to say that they hurt the episode overall, partly because I like Gatiss, but also because, despite those flawss, this is the episode where it feels like we’re back on track a bit.
Scaring children has always been part of the show’s DNA, intentionally or not, and a recurring theme since 2005 has been to take something that isn’t scary and make it horrifying. It seems only natural that eventually we would get an episode that not only continues with that theme, but also makes itself explicitly about a frightened child. It’s interesting that Gatiss makes the relationship between the father and son in this episode both the thing that lies at the heart of the boy’s fears but also the means of resolving the threat. It feels like something of a call back to “The Idiot’s Lantern,” another Gatiss episode that had the relationship between a father and son at its center. Most of the efforts to plumb realistic emotional depths on the show tend to fall a little flat, as if the “drama checklist” is being gone down, but it mostly works here, perhaps because it is used to resolve the conflict.
Most of the flaws then are in the little details. The supposedly menacing dolls end up looking rather cheap and unspectacular, like something out of the “wobbly corridor” era for the show. Mileage varies greatly on the scariness of dolls in the first place, but it’s hard to see how tatty looking plaster mascot heads are particularly unnerving. What little scariness there is to be found in a dollhouse populated by albino bobbleheads is somewhat undone, though, by the revelation that the boy is not, in fact, a boy, but an alien. An alien whose psychic powers are causing all the things that are scaring, well, him. It’s a circular sort of story, which mostly works in context, but the notion of the boy being an alien or that he is the cause of the problem are enough. To combine them into one plot point feels like gilding the lily somewhat.