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June 18, 2008

Knocking on heaven’s door

1 Doctor Who: Midnight

There used to be a lot of talk during the fag-end of the JNT era that they were looking to bracket the stories, pigeonholing them into easy-to-pitch categories.

So you got your traditional tales, your big action story such as Remembrance or Battlefield, and your quirky stories - Delta, Happiness Patrol, Ghost Light.

Midnight falls firmly into this category, which in the new Who has become the final story before we run at the season climax proper.  In the past we’ve had an alien on the loo in Cardiff, Fan-ageddon, and DVD easter eggs as drama.  Now we get Who as one-act play.

for the first time since Utopia, Russell T Davies stops fannying about and justifies that OBE 

And we also get the point where, for the first time since Utopia, Russell T Davies stops fannying about and justifies that OBE, with perhaps one of his best scripts since pulling the show from the deep-freeze in 2005.

There was a real sense of stripping the Doctor down here.  Almost, in fact, as if someone was gearing up for a franchise reboot.  Everything the hero usually relied on was removed or otherwise neutered.  The most notable aspect, of course, was his voice, as the Doctor was left a literal echo of himself, seemingly reduced to parroting Sky while shivering in terror. 

Even his wit was gone by the end, as his usual jokey chastisement for his companions about their speech became a serious, chilling warning.

It was as if this was a wrapping-up of the show, in a way.  The phrase about always being darkest before the dawn seemed made for Midnight.  More than ever, we saw how vulnerable the Doctor can be - indeed, it almost feels like a running theme this year, as it was with Eccleston.

Given the nature of a story like Midnight, which was effectively a one-act, single set piece of psychological theatre, it helps when you’ve two genuinely international class performers to carry the bulk of the script.

Tennant’s credentials are beyond question - indeed, I hope someone sits Jonathan Miller down with a copy of Midnight - while RTD repertory company member Lesley Sharpe was chilling as Skye.  Coupled to that was a supporting cast which, distracting though they were for being lookalikes, added to the quality of the performance.

late substitute David Troughton looked and sounded so much like his Dad it was disturbing 

Although they were drawn in the broadest brushstrokes possible - Lindsay Coulson’s Daily Mail-on-legs being the worst example - it worked in the same way that lifeboat movies are about putting stock characters together and seeing how they interact.

2 I wasn’t kidding about the lookalikes.  Daniel Ryan, as Biff, was a slimmer Ricky Gervais, while late substitute David Troughton looked and sounded so much like his Dad it was disturbing.  Seriously - watch the scene where he’s delivering the lecture on Midnight’s surface with your eyes shut, and it could be Pat doing some technobabble.

What was wonderful was that this was an episode that didn’t look for easy answers.  Indeed, at times, it didn’t look for answers at all.  As viewers we were as clueless and impotent as the holidaymakers, but we could at least take comfort from the presence of the Doctor as our familiar identification point.

If anything that made the Doctor’s loss of control and Sky’s subsumption of his speech more chilling.  Even we, as viewers, were being left without the one defining identification point we can rely on.

That said, I don’t think Midnight was anywhere near the perfect episode that it’s been hailed as elsewhere - although for once, it wasn’t Rusty’s script that was the problem, it was the implementation.

bright and flat, and lit as a homage to The Happiness Patrol

I’m not sure what it was, but something about the set failed for me.  Remaking Lord of the Flies in a single room should be an exercise in terrifying claustrophobia, but for some reason the tour vehicle felt just that little too large and spacious.  Even as the survivors huddled and plotted at the back of the bus, they seemed to have enough room to mill about. 

Overlit The lighting, too, didn’t help.  It was bright and flat, and seemed lit as a homage to The Happiness Patrol.  We had moments of startling shadow and torchlight which, although masking the dimensions of the set, also masked the limitations.  Once the lights were back up, that tension was gone.

What did work was the sound.  Just as well, given how much they banged on about the sound mix during Confidental.  In fact, my regular viewing partner Jamie and I were left howling with laughter at the proclamation from the sound mixer than there’s as many as 40 channels of sound in your average Doctor Who episode.   Maybe so mate, but you can’t hear 35 of them for Murray’s music.

Here, though, it worked.  And it had to, given how much of this episode was about dialogue and performance.  The knocking on the side of the vehicle was reminiscent of the sound of Hell breaking through from Evil Dead 2 (incidentally, given how many other pointless cameos we’ve had in Who these last few years, when do we get a Bruce Campbell appearance?), while the mix on the dialogue was perfect, adding to the creepiness of Skye’s repetitive behaviour.   

And Gold’s score was spot-on this time - neither too intrusive or too over the top, building tension and hitting its peak at just the right time.  Well done those sound mixers.  You deserved your screentime on Confidential this week.  Hurrah.

Midnight is one of the rare occasions in the new series where the show gets away with it despite production flaws.  So often the hoary, ropey cracks running through nu-Who have been papered over by gorgeous production values and a feeling that we’re watching, if not actually experiencing, something special and unique on British TV.

Instead here we got a show that felt special and unique in spite of its production, thanks to writing and acting that most shows could only dream of.  As a palate cleanser for the final course of Doctor Who 2008, it worked a treat.

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