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.|
EXT: BEAUTIFUL CGI LANDSCAPE, MADE OF DIAMONDS.
...Hi, Russell? It's Russell. What the hell are you doing?"
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...
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.