Friday, 1 August 2014

Magical Misery Tour

Doctor Who
Series Four, Episode Ten

Let's say you're the showrunner and head writer for Doctor Who.  (Let's call you Bertram, er, Davies.)  You're a busy man (or woman – Beatrice?), and you've got thirteen scripts a year (on a good year) to write, or rewrite, or otherwise put into production, or all of the above.  You realise quite late in the day that one of them doesn't work.  No one else is available to fill that slot, so... surprise!  You've got to write a new one.  Oh, and you're shooting the series by this point, so licketty-split, Bertram.

This happens occasionally.  Notable replacement episodes include Boom Town and Fear Her, and neither is entirely without its charms (although Fear Her comes pretty close, and that was another writer), but both have got varying degrees of obviously-not-their-first-choice syndrome.  And then there's Midnight.  Written in something like a week, shot on a smallish amount of money and only featuring half the main cast (so, one of them), it's not exactly your blockbuster episode.  But if you didn't know better, you might not think it was a replacement at all.  (And I only know better because I read The Writer's Tale.  Sorry to keep banging on about it, but if you're watching Series Four you'd be mad not to read it.)

"Okay, Russell, it's a replacement episode, let's save some money.
...Hi, Russell?  It's Russell.  What the hell are you doing?"
The Doctor takes a bus ride on an alien planet.  Donna's busy sunbathing, so it's just him and his fellow travellers.  They encounter something sinister – something outside, knocking on the walls, except no life can exist here.  It gets inside somehow, and into one of the passengers.  Things escalate.  And that's it: a short play, in real time for the last two thirds, wringing the tension out of a small cast on a tiny set.

Admittedly this setup isn't massively original.  I've seen it compared to Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (which I've not seen), Russell T Davies apparently claimed inspiration from a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, and in The Writer's Tale he mentions seeing Jeeper's Creepers 2 and jokes that the writers must have stolen his idea and gone back in time with it.  But Doctor Who is versatile enough, in theory, to take any old setup and make it special.  You just make it Doctor Who.

What Midnight does is examine the Doctor's effect on other people.  Nearly every episode has him wading into a group of strangers and assuming command.  How does he do it?  Usually by appealing to their better natures and making them feel safe.  There's always a degree of trust involved, rounded off with characters dazedly wondering who the hell he is, generally as an afterthought.  Midnight is what happens when that doesn't work: when the psychic paper doesn't cut it and "I'm clever" isn't reassuring in the slightest.  And it's not exactly without precedent.  I'm forever moaning about how David Tennant's Doctor tries to get people to listen to him with no success.  Maybe it's the increased reliance on the sonic screwdriver or the psychic paper, both of which anybody could use with at least some success, but this Doctor never seemed all that influential to me anyway.  He's just very friendly and quite loud.

That said, it's a bit of a stretch that For One Night Only absolutely no one listens to him in the slightest – you may wonder how he's gone this long without being strung up.  The time it takes everyone else to go from "scared" to "let's kill the alien" is terrifying, yet also (thanks to the runtime) chucklesomely brief.  We're talking twentyish minutes here; these guys would tear each other's throats out in the queue at the chip shop.  It's probably A Sobering Examination Of The Dark Side Of Human Nature, but it's extremely pessimistic if it is.

Then again, this isn't the normal Doctor Who setup, since the Doctor's on his own.  Perhaps Midnight is A Sobering Examination Of Why The Doctor Needs Someone To Vouch For Him?  It may not be much, but having Donna on hand to say "I know he seems like a dipstick but trust me, he's clever", or at least "I vote not to kill the alien", might have made a big difference to the group hysteria.  In that sense, it's a very successful episode.  The Doctor clearly shouldn't leave the house without her.  (But then, she's great, so what else is new?)

All this arguing over throwing someone out, but if they do,
what's to stop The Intangible Knocking Thing coming right back in?
If this were a horror movie, it would end with: knock, knock, knock... 
While it is a bit of a leap that this group of people agrees to murder someone in the time it takes to watch an episode of Friends, it's still incredibly tense.  The "monster" is the ultimate in budget-saving technology, i.e. we never see it.  The driver thinks he saw something (I'll bet you went back and looked!), then there's a knocking on the outside (simple and scary), then it possesses one of them, who begins to copy everything anyone else says.  Slowly, the copying gets closer in time to what's being said, until she's speaking at the same time.  And then she speaks first, before the Doctor.  It's a brilliant, novel way to handle a possession story, and a brilliant, creepy way to create tension in a small room.  (Shut up!  SHUT UP!  Right, that's it, let's do a murder!)  It's also mysterious enough that it remains interesting, with the Doctor unsure whether the creature is evil or just trying to communicate.  You'll figure that out: Lesley Sharp does an amazing job with the looped dialogue, but also at scaring the hell out of her fellow passengers (and us) just by looking at them.  After she "swaps" with the Doctor, who's rendered motionless as he now copies what she's saying, her performance takes another devious turn, full of creepy little nuances.  Keep an eye on the lighting, which singles her out sinisterly.

All the while, David Tennant sits there unable to move.  Another thing I often bang on about (I'm beginning to sound like I take pots and pans everywhere) is how David Tennant is less effective the more over the top he is.  Following that logic, this is his best performance ever.  He is seriously brilliant early on, trying to get the others to listen and watching his efforts land like tossed blancmanges, but it's the final minutes of the struggle, as he's paralysed, listening to the conspiracy against him and repeating his own death sentence when he's at his best.  It's a stunning, gripping, lots-of-words-ending-in-ing performance, about as restrained as it's possible to be without clamping his mouth shut, and all the more potent for it.  The moment where he makes a relatively enormous effort to save his own life – sticking his foot out – is more compelling than anything he could have done with the screwdriver.  It's seriously good stuff.

The rest of the passengers are interesting enough, in particular David Troughton as Professor Hobbes.  (He's a wonderful actor, but I can't not geek out over how much he sounds like Troughton Senior.)  However, they're not exactly rounded.  The tensions running between them are amped up at super-speed, because we haven't exactly got all day.  (And also, as I may have mentioned, this was written in a week.)  This is particularly egregious when the Doctor says "I'm just a traveller, that's all", and one of the surlier passengers responds: "Like an immigrant?"  (Wince!  Doctor Who is good at lots of things, but subtext is apparently not one of them.)  There's still some room for complexity, as even though nobody's listening to the Doctor there's still one or two who notice that Lesley Sharp isn't what she seems, and then act on it without his influence.  But ultimately, one-note-to-quite-good as the others are, this is mainly a two-hander between Tennant and Sharp.  Both are amazing.

Midnight is a concentrated effort to create tension, and though it takes a few shortcuts to get there, and raises some worrying questions about the current Doctor's usefulness, it is utterly effective at that.  Just bear in mind you may need a lie down and a cuddle afterwards.


  1. Hey! Sorry I've been absent, I've had a bit to deal with of late. But glad to see you're still doing these reviews :)

    Midnight would probably be my second favourite RTD-era story, and my favourite single-episode RTD-era story. Yes, the passengers resort to murder alarmingly quickly, but they are on a schedule ;) But the tension is fantastic, this is Tennant's best performance by far, and I like the simple concept. I think this is probably one of RTD's most genuine scripts - he's prone to depression and pessimism and this bleak assessment of humanity seems to be the closest we actually get to his real feelings on human nature. It's a really impressive bit of writing for the short time-frame he had to work with, but The Writer's Tale really does seem to make a case that he works best under high pressure. So yeah, I love this one - not much more to say I guess.

    Now if you'll excuse me, I had better go back through your recent reviews to see what I missed :)

    1. Oh, hello again! Glad you're back. Yes, I'm still at it - paused slightly longer than I meant to when my DVD player died. All working now, aiming to polish off the RTD era before Capaldi...

      Yes, it's bloody good, this one. A definite highlight!