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June 14, 2008

Midnight Shakes the Memory

Doctor Who: Midnight

Sharp At one point, many years ago, I was such a fan of Peter Davison's portrayal of the Doctor that I became taken with the idea that the best kind of Doctor Who episode would involve the Doctor strolling around with his hands in his pockets, generally soaking up the atmosphere and chatting to anyone who took his fancy.  I've always loved it when the Doctor takes a bit of time out from the adventuring, and just decides to do a bit of mingling instead.  Even when he visits the hospital in The Hand of Fear.  Looking back there was a lot of aimless strolling going on during Davison's reign.  Black Orchid is one long mingle, and although it's been a while since I've seen it I'm sure that the first episode of Enlightenment consisted solely of the Doctor walking around a ship with his hands in his pockets occasionally peering into some rooms.  But there's not been a lot of that in recent years.  The pace of modern television militates against ambling, idling, chatting and mooching which I'm not saying is always a bad thing.  Instead it tends to favour running, shouting, snappy one-liners and hysterical action accompanied by deafening music – which I'm saying is frequently a bad thing.  Russell T Davies OBE (good on him – I'd pay money to see it presented as he must be three times the size of Brenda) has the power to vary things and a lot of people (probably me amongst them) wish he'd chanced his arm more often. After Midnight, a really excellent and arresting piece of work, I find myself looking back over the last three-and-a-half series and thinking about how different things might have been if he'd tried experimental pieces like this more often.

makes me pine for those episodes he might have written but now never will

I know not every episode can be like Midnight – that would make for an intense experience, Davies's dismissal, and probably result in demotion to BBC2 after the Darts coverage, but the fact it exists and that Davies wrote it so well makes me pine for those episodes he might have written but now never will.  So many of his previous episodes carried the baggage of story arcs, involved a threat to the entire known universe, and generally climax a season in a manner that suggests that the various components of the storyline had been randomly picked out of a tombola at the Rampton summer fete.  The lower-key, slightly off-message (aka “good”) scripts were left to the lucky and talented buggers like Moffat, Cornell and Shearman.  On the evidence of Midnight, Moffat should make it a condition of his new “King of Who” contract to force Davies to write one script per season on anything he likes as long as it doesn't involve the Time War, the end of the planet, galaxy, universe, anti-universe, time vortex, and isn't set in the year 8 squillion billion.  Admittedly he's done something unusual before with Gridlock which was certainly a one-off, but Midnight knocked it into a cocked hat.  Stick the companion on a sunbed/delta wave augmenter – how old-school is that!   Ten minutes or so of the Doctor mooching and chatting, and doing what he used to claim to enjoy: mixing with humans.  That in itself marked out Midnight as unusual, but it was what came next that made it special.

The scene had the inexorable momentum of a nightmare and was wonderfully written

Tennant Previous filler episodes have always been a bit transparent.  Even Julie Gardner disliked The Long Game, and only a mother could look upon Boom Town with any fondness.  What those stories needed was a good strong helping of a paranoid thought-experiment reminiscent of The Prisoner.  One of the greatest episodes of that series was Once Upon a Time which was written by a booze-fuelled Patrick McGoohan in about 24 hours roughly the kind of time it took Davies to write Midnight.  It largely featured McGoohan and Leo McKern shouting nursery rhymes and phrases like “six of one” at each other for about fifty minutes.  But that was a long time ago.  In Midnight Davies had a good 30 minutes of so of characters shouting hysterically with every line coming not just straight back at them, but with them and finally ahead of them. Imagine the pitch for that - "everyone will shout hysterically while it's all repeated. For ages." It then moved on to a classic confrontation scene with the Doctor surrounded by a kangaroo court of humans who just would not accept his authority.  The scene had the inexorable momentum of a nightmare and was wonderfully written.  Every time the Doctor tried to close it down, another inconvenient human piped up and contradicted him, and even though they were being manipulated by the thing – which was what?, who cares, let's carry on – all of their objections to the Doctor were based in truth.  The Doctor was enjoying the danger, he does think he's special, and his cleverness is double-edged.  For once, the blasé, some would say smug Tenth Doctor was in real trouble, and at long last some peril was on the agenda.

From the insouciant passenger, to the leader bathed in flop-sweat because the led wouldn't follow

Coulson Praise too for David Tennant's performance which followed Davies's mad and wonderful script wherever it took him.  From the insouciant passenger, to the leader bathed in flop-sweat because the led wouldn't follow, and ultimately to the paralysed animal being dragged to the abattoir – he was terrific. The rest of the cast was great, and although Lesley Sharp was typically brilliant as the inexplicable monster, I especially liked Lindsay Coulson simply because few people can do a “hang 'em, burn 'em” characters quite like her. There's something about the way she contorts her face with  hatred, and her screams of “Just do it” as the Doctor was dragged towards the airlock by the angry mob started to tip the whole thing towards the hysteria of The Crucible.  And her character wasn't done then, since Davies rounded things off beautifully with her deeply bleak excuse “I said it was her”.  For an episode that began with the Doctor happy to mooch around with the humans, it all ended, despite alien manipulation, with humans showing the worst kind of mob mentality while the only good person was fried to a frazzle.  And when the Doctor ended the episode with a simple “Don't” for once you felt he really meant it. This Doctor looked really scarred.

my reaction at the time was to blow a raspberry, shout “bollocks” and slam-dunk the magazine into the wheelie-bin

Probably a couple of years ago, maybe after the second series had finished, there were a few voices, both within fandom and outwith, that raised concerns that the series was too formulaic, and there wasn't a whole lot of variety between episodes despite the usual cant that Doctor Who is “the most flexible format of all” and some kind of ultimate blank canvas. Around this time I seem to remember that there was an article in Doctor Who Magazine that took about seven pages to convey the message that although the “classic” series may have shifted between wildly varying adventures occasionally, but that modern television couldn't do that anymore because the audience wouldn't like it. An example used was Warriors' Gate following hot on the heels of State of Decay and preceding The Keeper of Traken.  Those of us who rather liked the moment on a Saturday when after five minutes we'd think “What the fuck is this” were told firmly by DWM that that kind of nonsense was in the past.  I'm probably horribly misrepresenting the article, but my reaction at the time was to blow a raspberry, shout “bollocks” and slam-dunk the magazine into the wheelie-bin.  I nearly put my back out, but my aching back has been salved because Midnight has demonstrated that this doesn't have to be the case at all.  OK, Davies has seen Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, and clearly Voyage of the Damned didn't rid him of his disaster movie cravings, but this story was just what Doctor Who should be.  It was mysterious, it experimented with dialogue in a way that just wouldn't happen on any other family show, it'll have the kids repeating what their parents say, it remained resolutely unexplained, and it showed a moment of sacrifice amidst the darkest of shadows that on the grand, story-arc, Time War level meant nothing, but in dramatic terms meant much, much more. And on BBC1 at 7.10pm just a smidgeon of the old days of television drama was back in the living room.  Something unexpected.

I liked it.



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