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June 14, 2008

Pi-eyed

Doctor Who:  Midnight

Mid_2 When I mentioned to my parents that Russell T Davies had been handed an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours, my Dad (who hasn’t seen an episode since School Reunion) said “Was it for services to Doctor Who?”  To which I replied “Yes, because he resurrected the Macra.”  I really did, cause I’m that funny.  But if the reason had been that specific (the honour was actually for drama in general) it wouldn’t have been too surprising.  I’ve said it before, and I'll repeat myself.  Though we’re all looking forward to seeing where Steven Moffat takes the Doctor next (with apologies  to Neil then Damon then Neil and Damon and John) if it wasn’t for Russell this weblog might not have existed either.  The man brought our favourite show back to television, didn’t totally fuck it up, made it a success and gave us something to write about and for that he deserves all the awards he gets.

All of which accepted, you really don’t ever know what you’re going to get when the man scripts an episode.  Looking back through previous reviews, I’ve generally been very positive about his work, though even I have to admit that sometimes I wished he’d reign his ambition in just a little bit, drop the mythology and tell a bloody good story.  Because every classic bit of writing we’ve seen from him has either been the character based fun of Love & Monsters or the grand adventure told in confined space.    Arguably (and controversially) his best episode in the first season, Boom Town, actually had the Doctor battling an alien over a dinner table!  I’d throw Tooth & Claw onto this list, which basically takes place in a couple of rooms and a corridor, Gridlock, which is one room pretending to be a bunch of others and now we have Midnight which trumps the lot.

I wished he’d reign his ambition in just a little bit

As close as Nu-Who can get to theatre without anyone bursting into song, Davies somehow managed to craft what’s probably been the tensest and most economic forty-minutes the new programme has been use a single cabin, a dozen cast members.  He said himself it was a reaction to Voyage of the Damned, to an extent it’s the same story, another group of tourists on the brink of death and indeed as he also identified in Confidential (as usual nicking everything I wanted to write here), he wanted to see what happened when humanity actually acted realistically in the face of the Doctor’s platitudes.  Having been on coach trips and in train carriages when something goes wrong, I can tell you that the way this lot turned on each other was absolutely realistic, even if I don’t actually remember anyone wanted to randomly chuck someone through the doors (presumably because they’d only really sustain a few bruises from the road or railway tracks).

In point of fact, Moonlight was the total opposite of Damned, even down to the sacrificial hostess not being resurrected at the climax and we didn’t even find out her name.  Were that space spectacular offered empty pyrotechnics and pointedly black and white  two dimensional characterisation, this had the impressive verbal sparring and shades of grey; no one actually evil, just trying to survive even if it meant letting a bit of their judgment and humanity seep away.  No beslippered monarch to wave the timelord on here; instead he’s rooted the ground, helpless, requiring someone else again to make the supreme sacrifice and save everyone.  Which is becoming a trend by the way – the Doctor hasn’t properly saved the day once yet this season – think about it – most of the time he’s been mopping up afterwards.

the Doctor hasn’t properly saved the day once yet this season

Yes, there really is something far more exciting about unknown thumping sounds hitting the hull of a ship rather than three CGI missiles, prosthetics are all well and good for creating a scary alien but naught in comparison to well respected actress presenting crazy eye syndrome and an intense way about her, and nothing creepier in having your words repeated back to you either afterwards or in sync.  Never mind the staring contest from the sketch show Big Train – synchronous recitation would be just the thing for us less sporty types who took the Bridge option during Games lessons at school, the textual difficulty increasing with each round.  Though both David Tennant and Lesley Sharp are clearly in which a chance for Silver medal at least having demonstrated the ability to repeat pi to dozens of places.

Tennant was on top form here, offering yet another iteration of his performance.  Desperation.  We can now add to the list of reasons the Doctor needs a companion, she’s the honey trap or convincer.  Like the improbably sexy Jess in The Real Hustle, Rose and even Donna are all there to persuades the norms that her friend is brilliant and will save the day.  Martha spent a whole year walking around a planet telling people that.  We’ve seen loss and loneliness from Tennant before, but we’ve never seen it mixed with panic and genuine despair.  As desperation set in, the character realised that nothing he could say would convince anyone and Tennant sold that perfectly.  Oh you’re clever.  Yes, and?  Arrogant bastard.  Out you go.  Intelligent stuff.

the improbably sexy Jess in The Real Hustle

But this was a great little cast.  Including the emo posterboy, most of them seemed selected because of their normality rather than, again unlike Damned, their distinctiveness.  Even last minute replacement David Troughton had the look of a university professor who’d been at the job for years, much of them full of bluster and academic subterfuge.  But all of the voices were controlled, a genuine chemistry building across the episode, though clearly Sharp’s was the most difficult and so compelling.  At some point I’d wondered if she’d be the interesting choice for a companion and it’s a shame that she’s been blown through an airlock door.  Though the death one characters hardly kept actresses out of the running before.

None of which is to say we didn’t miss Catherine Tate’s presence, though the prologue and coda which seemed to distill the character Donna to her essence worked well, especially as part of the opening which chucked out a bunch of comedy before going bad, right down to the ironic into-titles cliffhanger.  She’s back next episode though in what looks like, in mythology terms yang to Midnight’s ying.  Not that the arcish threads of the series weren't worked incongruously in  here somewhere, what with the lipservice given to the Medusa Cascade, the Doctor’s inability to repeat his own real name, the recap on who Who’s companions have been and one of them shouting without much luck through a computer screen.  The surprise of Rose’s appearance was perhaps purposefully spoiled by the cast list in Radio Times but it still made me giddy.  One week to go…

Next Week:  Squees are flying out like endless rain into a paper cup, they slither while they pass, they slip away across the whoniverse …

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