Thursday, 3 July 2008

Doctor Who, Series 4, Episode 10: Midnight

And so we reach episode 10, in which we have an innovation. We are now used to the idea of doctor-lite episodes, with "Love and Monsters" in Series 2 and "Blink" in Series 3, but now we also have a companion-lite episode, in which Donna stays behind to sunbathe on Planet Midnight, in a sort of glorious Center Parcs on steroids, and the doctor goes off to enjoy himself in a shuttle with a small selection of other travellers, one of whom, Professor Hobbs, is played by Patrick Troughton's son David. The journey begins with every little piece of enjoyable light-hearted quirkiness that we have come to expect (and which I very much enjoy) in Russell T. Davies's scripts. But a third of the way in, everything goes pear shaped, the shuttle is under attack with some kind of strange knocking noise, and one of the passengers, superbly played by Lesley Sharp, appears to be inhabited by some kind of alien presence, stalking in the corner, imitating the patterns of speech of everyone on board, and ultimately learning how to speak in sync with the doctor:

I am a huge fan of Russel T. Davies, the person who, more than anyone else, is responsible for the revival of Doctor Who, as the show-runner since 2005. His reimagination of the series, character-driven drama with great story-arcs, always with homage to the past, has been a revelation over the last few years. And now he delivers one of his best individual stories since the revival. The vast majority of the episode happened in a tiny, confined space. It would make the basis for a great stage play. It demonstrates that what is great about new Who is not simply that they have a bigger budget, with proper special effects and no need for the wobbly sets that were part of the charm of the original series. This low-budget piece could have comfortably been filmed back in the 60s or 70s and would not even have strained their budget, with no dodgy prosthetics, no crappy mini-explosions. No, what is great about new Who is that the writing and the acting is just so compelling.

Its scare-factors were generated by three very simple ideas, all of which are carried off effectively because of the strength of the script and the quality of the acting. First we have the mysterious banging on the outside of the shuttle. That "knock, knock, knock" is a staple feature of some of the best spooky stories. It reminded me of Arnold Ridley's 1923 play, Ghost Train. When the banging starts, you begin to feel seriously claustrophobic. The second simple idea was the peculiar imitation of everyone's speech by Sky, then morphing into the lip-syncing with the doctor mentioned above. Russell T. Davies mentioned in this week's "Doctor Who Confidential" that the idea comes from the children in the playground, irritating people by repeating everything they say. Simple, but here, in this context, menacing.

And the third simple idea was to find ourselves as viewers becoming steadily more anxious as our hero is turned on by all the passengers. All those lines that usually work so well, where he is talking about how clever he is, attempting to take control -- all of these things worked so well on Christmas day last year, when he was with Kylie in "Voyage of the Damned" but here, suspicions built as fear increased. We find out just how difficult things become for the doctor when he does not have a companion. He actually needs that person by his side in contexts like this. As so often, Russell is exploring the very idea of the Doctor Who franchise, and stressing just how important the companion always is by illustrating the problems he has when he is alone.

Although a great free-standing episode, viewers find themselves reflecting on just how important Donna has become in his life, which itself sounds like the basis for another great episode, and one which will explore what will happen if Donna had never met the doctor.

This was one of the best episodes of the series so far, no question about it, and worth 5 TARDIS groans, bringing the series totals to the following:

Partners in Crime: 4 1/2 TARDIS groans
Fires of Pompeii: 3 1/2 TARDIS groans
Planet of the Ood: 4 1/2 TARDIS groans.
The Sontaran Stratagem / The Poison Sky: 3 1/2 TARDIS groans.
The Doctor's Daughter: 4 TARDIS groans.
The Unicorn and the Wasp: 4 TARDIS groans.
Silence in the Library: 5 TARDIS groans.
Forest of the Dead: 4 1/2 TARDIS groans.
Midnight: 5 TARDIS groans.


Loren Rosson III said...

And now he delivers one of his best individual stories since the revival.

I say this is actually the best story he's done for the four series. (Tooth and Claw a close second.) It's very exceptional for Davies. Easily my third favorite of the season, after Moffat's library story and Fires of Pompeii.

Anonymous said...

If ever there was a case for Doctor Who being an adult DRAMA series, and not just adventure stories with special effects, this was it. But if you listen to the commentary, you'll also see how it probably couldn't have been done in the 60s or 70s - the sound engineers were up all night working on getting sounds matched up, stretched, etc Spare a thought for their work, which is almost unnoticed (as it should be if it is so well done as this)