October 14th, 2013
2008 was, artistically if not commercially, the nadir of Doctor Who. By this point, a series which, when it returned, had seemed fresh and vibrant, had become barely coherent, with each episode being little more than a set of effects set-pieces strung together with no thought for logic and topped off with a couple of ‘comedy’ moments and some over-the-top emoting. While Russell T Davies was regularly describing the series as “the best drama in the world”, there was precious little drama in it any more.
Midnight was a very welcome exception.
As we saw in the last episode, after 2006 the series would often have a “Doctor-lite” episode, where the regular cast were largely absent, in order to save time by filming two episodes simultaneously. In 2008, they tried a variant of this by having a “Doctor-lite” story focussing on the companion (Turn Left, about an alternative timeline where the Doctor and his companion had never met) but also having a “companion-lite”, very low-budget, episode in which Catherine Tate (as the Doctor’s companion Donna) only appears in two scenes.
In fact, apart from those two scenes, almost the entire story takes place in one single set, and other than a couple of cutaways to CGI landscapes the special effects mostly consist of a very bright light. For one of the only times in the post-2005 series, there is no visible ‘monster’ (and in the post-2005 series they are, largely, monsters rather than aliens with more complex motivations) — the monster in this case is that staple of the budget-conscious science fiction series, the disembodied intelligence that takes possession of people.
With the crutches he uses to build excitement in most of the stories gone (no massive amounts of CGI, no London landmarks being destroyed, no cameos by celebrities on TV), Davies is forced to do some actual writing, and the results, much like in the similarly low-budget Blink, show what the series was still capable of when those involved were trying.
In fact, Blink was possibly the model for this story, in that the monsters in both amount to childrens’ games turned nasty. Blink is a game of grandmother’s footsteps wrapped round a predestination paradox — the statues can only move when you’re not looking at them, and have to tag you, just like in the game. The monster in Midnight, on the other hand, starts out by playing “why are you copying me?”
But Davies manages to turn this in an effectively creepy direction by having a monster which starts out by copying the victim, then speaks at the same time as the victim…and then says things the victim was going to say first. And when it does that, it’s taken their voice away and left them with no mind of their own.
Davies uses this to write a nice, tight variation on the old Doctor Who staple of the base under siege, modelled loosely on the Hitchcock/Steinbeck classic film Lifeboat, with the people inside the vehicle first being attacked from the outside by noises whose origin they can’t see, and then discovering that the monster is among them. (And fittingly, for a story that would have fit nicely into the “monster season” of 1967-68, one of the passengers on the vehicle is played by David Troughton, Patrick Troughton’s son). The scenes where David Tennant and Lesley Sharp play off each other, in particular, are wonderful at raising the tension.
And as with all good base under siege stories, it’s not really about the monster, so much as about the people’s reaction to the monster. And this is the one area where the story missteps, in a manner that is unfortunately familiar.
Ever since the third story of the 2005 series, Mark Gatiss’ The Unquiet Dead, the revived series of Doctor Who has drawn occasional criticism for unwitting xenophobia — even though that xenophobia is argued against by both characters and writers. And that happens here in one of the more blatant examples of good intentions failing by not being properly thought through.
The major section of the plot is taken up with the characters debating how to deal with this intruding monster, and Davies clearly has things to say about mob mentality, with the Doctor arguing for sanity and calm against people who, through both stress and psychic interference, are desperately wanting to kill both the monster and its human host. The Doctor argues that the alien lifeform is valuable in itself, and that killing it and its host would be barbaric — and when he’s revealed as an alien himself, one of the other passengers practically spits the word “immigrant” at him.
But then, when he’s rendered immobile himself, and Sharp’s character (the pulpishly-named Sky Sylvestry), still possessed, is manipulating the other passengers, the situation is resolved by the unnamed stewardess sacrificing herself along with Sylvestry and the monster, in precisely the way the Doctor was trying to avoid.
The end result leaves a slightly nasty taste in the mouth, because the story seems to be saying that people who stand up to baying mobs and argue for basic decency are on the right side, but that in the end if you want to actually solve a difficult moral problem, you need to do what the mob wanted. The Doctor is absolutely on the wrong side of the narrative here — the story is resolved by precisely the thing he was trying to avoid.
And when the explicit link between the mob and anti-immigrant sentiment has been made… well, the implications aren’t pleasant.
I don’t think for a second that that is the reading Davies wanted anyone to have. I think he was on the side of the Doctor here (if nothing else, the Doctor is the protagonist of the series, so it would be odd if his views were massively different from those of the writers). I suspect, though, that he was so trapped into the necessity of having a simple, action-driven, resolution, that he didn’t think through the consequences of what that would do to the story’s message.
And this is, fundamentally, a problem with the whole of Davies’ tenure as showrunner. The programme wants to be taken seriously as drama (“the best drama in the world”), and invites the kind of reading that proper drama does, but the drama is overlaid on a plot made up of genre cliches, without enough thought as to how the two aspects affect each other.
But to give Davies his due, while Midnight shares some of the flaws of his period on the show, it is still an enormously strong piece of television, and probably the single best episode of the post-2005 series. As Davies was nearing the end of his final full series of the show, he showed that even in its worst year, there was still something about Doctor Who that was worthwhile.
But it was a show that needed renewal…