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June 18, 2008

You Crazy Diamond

Doctor Who: Midnight

Mid1 You've got to hand it to Russell. On the very same day it's announced that he's been awarded an OBE for services to camp and frothy nonsense, and only a couple of weeks after informing us that he's decided to up-sticks and leave (so we can all shout "hooray!" as we start picking holes in his successor's efforts), he only goes and produces the best episode of Doctor Who ever. How very dare he!

The first thing that struck me as the credits rolled - after I stopped pinching myself that is - was that every child in the country must be driving their parents nuts. I certainly did my wife's head in for a couple of hours. Who needs contrived catchphrases when you can simply repeat everything that's said to you! We've all done it. We've all had it done to us. We all recognise its power. Midnight's effect on the playground zeitgeist alone should immediately elevate this episode to classic status; detentions probably went through the roof on Monday.

It's such a simple and chilling idea that I'm not ashamed to throw the word 'genius' around. I'm even tempted to mention Satre, Pinter, Miller, Ibsen and Straczynski at this point but book-learning is frowned upon in these parts and I don't want to find myself being ejected into space. Let's just say that as a single piece of drama Midnight is up there with the very best of them. And as Battlestar Galactica hurtles inexorably towards a graveyard of dead sharks, Doctor Who has never been more exciting, inventive or moving. Not to mention cheap.

Then again, if you had problems with people standing around in rooms talking during Silence in the Library, you must have been tearing your hair out this week.

RTD only goes and produces the best episode of Doctor Who ever. How very dare he!

Mid2 Amazingly, I've actually heard people complain that the alien isn't adequately explained. That there are far too many threads left hanging. That the costumes aren't sci-fi-y enough (oh f**k off). I've even seen people whining on about how the monster doesn't have a bloody name. That last one was from Character Options, I think.

Are these people mad?! I was dreading the technobabble explanation that I was certain was coming, right up until the moment when the theme music kicked it. I actually shouted "YES!" at my telly when we didn't see Tennant sucking in a great lungful of air before exhaling via a stifled burp, "it was probably a psionic energy field magnified by the crystalline structure of the blah blah blah". Not only that, we didn't get a whacky revelation about Sky's ex-girlfriend or the Professor's research into the planet; we didn't even get a scene where the son stands up to his fascistic mother and saves the day at the last, crucial moment. We didn't get diddly shit. And it was fantastic.

I loved the absence of any easy answers. I applaud the fact that it wasn't made entirely clear how the alien did what it did, why it did it, or even when it did it; that's what makes it alien. And this is exactly why Midnight is such a terrifying and fascinating ordeal. Yes, an ordeal - I was utterly exhausted by the end of it.

Just how relentlessly dark is this episode? I initially believed that the alien was using some kind of telepathic mind control to influence the passengers but it quickly became apparant that Russell was shining a light on the darker side of human nature - at 7pm no less!  The way in which the Doctor's qualities are turned against him - his curiosity, his compassion, even his smugness ("I'm clever!") - is probably the bravest thing I've seen in this programme so far, while the unavoidable and uncomfortable truth that the passengers were right all along - they should have flushed it out the airlock when they had the chance - is so grim and pessimistic they should have set up a help line.

And then there's the sheer craft on display. The incredible sound design (for the very first time you can really call it "special"), the flawless direction by Alice Troughton, the evocative score (Murray is mostly watching Lost) are all very impressive. But what really sells Midnight is quality of the acting and, thankfully, there isn't a weak link in the chain. Everyone on that bus was perfectly cast and note perfect - they had to be: this was the RADA workshop from hell! Lesley Sharpe was simply incredible, Lindsay Coulson put the Vashta Nerada in the shade for pure malevolence, and who didn't close their eyes just so they could imagine that the 2nd Doctor had strolled into the action. I know I did.

It's the RADA workshop from hell!

Mid3David Tennant has never been better. It's a powerhouse performance that illustrates perfectly exactly how good he can be when he isn't arsing about like an idiot and showing off. This wasn't David Tennant being all David Tennant-y for a change - this was something special. The moment when the Doctor is dragged to his death - by his precious humans no less - and he repeats their Daily Mail sloganeering back at them is easily the most horrific and disturbing thing I've seen on British television since I was twelve years old. Just look at helpless terror in Tennant's eyes. God, he's good.

But the greatest compliment I can pay to Midnight is that it's only 20 minutes long. When the passengers started to drag the Doctor towards his doom I was convinced that we were only half-way through the action and we'd soon descend into the usual last-minute jaw-jutting and head-slapping before Sky would be saved (naturally) and evil would be defeated at the hands of our indefatigable hero. I had become so engrossed in the drama that I'd lost all track of time. When the hostess sacrificed herself (the least obvious but most appropriate candidate for redemption) I was left reeling at the sheer audacity of it all.

In fact, the only thing that didn't ring true for me was the Doctor's contention that he could somehow convince the authorities to shut down the entire planet. He couldn't convince five tourists to stay calm on a bus so how's he going to fare when it comes to a overturning an entire economy?

But Midnight is so damn good I might even watch Doctor Who Confidential this week. If there was ever an episode that deserves some hearty backslapping and Collinson's liberal use of the word "clever" it's this one.


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