Sunday, June 15, 2008

Doctor Who - Midnight

Each series of Doctor Who has included an episode which seems designed to split the viewers. We had 'Boom Town', 'Love & Monsters', 'Gridlock' and now 'Midnight'. It's really excellent that the show can include this sort of more experimental drama in the mix, as it all helps to show that Doctor Who can be inventive and unexpected as well as presenting the usual same old same old battles with Daleks and Cybermen.

My feelings about 'Midnight' are a little mixed. As usual I've watched it twice so far, once on transmission and then again to take notes for this review, and I'm really not sure what to make of it.

On the surface it's a standard mid-season money saver. Limited CGI effects, no prosthetics, no monster, limited cast, and only a couple of sets (the area where Donna was, where the Doctor phoned from, and the shuttle). Many series do an episode like this at some point in their run to save a little cash, and Doctor Who, to its credit, has never gone down the route of doing the 'flashback episode' with the bulk of the content being scenes from earlier shows.

If this is the case, then all kudos to Russell T Davies for taking what could be a limitation and turning it into something more experimental. The drama is all about the interrelationships with people, how they react when put under pressure in an enclosed space. It's informed by shows like Big Brother of course where normally rational people behave totally irrationally, and where tempers get frayed very quickly.

We open with the Doctor and Donna enjoying a holiday on the planet Midnight. The Doctor wants to dash off and enjoy a four hour excursion to see a sapphire waterfall, but Donna just wants to sunbathe. So the Doctor heads off alone. On the shuttle we meet Professor Winfold Hobbes (expert on the planet), Dee Dee Blasco (one of his students), the Cane family: mother Val is an opinionated loudmouth, father Biff is somewhat put upon, and son Jethro is your usual rebelling teenager. Then there's Sky Sylvestri, another singleton. There's also a Hostess, the Driver and an Engineer (who might as well have been wearing Star Trek red shirts!). Off this happy party goes, following a new route to the waterfall.

The Doctor disables all the annoyingly blaring entertainment in a nice touch, but who would put them all on together anyway! This bit just didn't ring true, and the Hostess also seemed a little wooden and stiff. A shame as all the other performances were very good indeed.

All is going well until the shuttle breaks down and stops, apparently for no reason. The driver calls for help, and the Doctor determines that there is nothing apparently wrong. He calms the other passengers down, but then knocking is heard coming from all around the shuttle. Sky goes off her rocker and screams that it's coming for her in the least effective moment of the show. The shuttle shakes, sparks fly, and the door is dented by something from outside ...

It transpires that the control cabin has been ripped off and Driver and Engineer are missing presumed dead (as the planet is believed uninabitable due to Xtronic sunlight). It also seems that Sky has been possessed as she repeats everything that everyone says. This is a lovely conceit, and certainly in the Confidential episode, Russell T Davies and Phil Collinson hit the nail on the head when they commented that this is a very annoying thing to do. It was handled well, and Lesley Sharp made a good job of appearing snake-like and alien in her movements during the sequence.

The basic concept here is well thought through. First the alien possesses one of the humans, starts to repeat everything it hears (learning or absorbing as the Doctor postulates). Then it speaks at the identical time as the others, before homing in on the Doctor as the cleverest there, and then speaking before he does, placing him in a paralysed stasis as the creature continues to drain him. While all this is going on, the other passengers squabble and shout and try and work out what to do, initially agreeing between themselves to throw Sky from the shuttle despite the Doctor's protestations, and then to do the same to the Doctor when it appears that the alien 'infection' has passed to him.

I liked the Doctor trying to outsmart the possessed Sky with companion names and TARDIS, and his 'Shamble bobble dimble dooble' also made me smile. How long before the t-shirts and badges with that written on start to appear?

It's only the entity now pretending to be Sky using words previously used by the Doctor that alerts the Hostess and Dee Dee to the fact that this is not, in fact, Sky at all, and the Hostess takes matters into her own hands and pulls Sky to a door, opening it, and being ejected out onto the planet surface with her.

The Doctor returns to normal, and the rescue shuttle arrives to take them back to base.

I wondered why the earlier captions refered to 'kliks' as some unit of time (or maybe distance) when everyone talked about 'hours', and the final caption referenced 'minutes'. This sort of thing just annoys me anyway ... I think a 'klik' was a unit of distance in the Virgin New Adventures novels ... I really have no idea why writers like to invent and use new measures like this.

I think on balance that the story worked. I'm a little worried at not showing the monster at any point (or even naming it - what plastic action figures might appear from this episode are very much in doubt), and also what younger viewers might have made of it all. However my young nephew was today slyly repeating everything everyone else said ... so maybe there is an inherent humour here which can get lost in too much pontificating and analysis. Just as Steven Moffat likes to try and tap into primal fears, so Russell T Davies has his finger on what kids can do to annoy everyone around them.

The episode reminded me a little of older science fiction fare like episodes of Out of the Unknown (I'm sure there is one there where a small group become trapped in a space shuttle or something), or even The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone. Sometimes we need the simplicity I feel to make us appreciate the more complex adventures, and so something a little different and left field from time to time is no bad thing.

Next week: Rose is back, the Doctor's dead, the stars are going out, and everyone's going to die. Cheerful.

8 comments:

Matthew said...

Personally, this episode really annoyed me. The Doctor came across as incredibly arrogant, going on about how smart he is, and then he caused the death of the Hostess by telling them that they can't throw Sky out. To be honest, if I was in that situation I certainly wouldn't listen to some arrogant guy who won't even tell anyone his name, and I'd be all for throwing her out. The concept was interesting, but I just didn't like the execution.

Anonymous said...

A Marmite episode - you either loved it or loathed it.

Personally, I really enjoyed it. I think this is the first RTD script that delivered a top notch plot without it being drowned out by a cacophony of screeching storyline mechanics. It was a terrifying story: no unsubtle authorial didactic messages shoe-horned in; no clawing attempts to show this is "proper" drama. Just a good story well told.

There were clever allusions to real-life issues in the UK though; for example, a clever dig at tabloid anti-immigration hysteria. But was I alone in seeing a possible parallel to the US led occupation of Iraq? The shuttle is filled with "Crusader" logos; a group of naive, passive consumerists blunder into a dangerous situation that could have been avoided by more thorough reccie of the situation? I could be wrong though!

There were some elements that didn't work as well- too many paper-thin characters and a plot that is streamlined to the point of being oversimplistic - I don't think you could rewatch this episode very often. Also, David Toughton was great ... but why have we seen 2 children of DT's predecessors in this series? Coincidence or an attempt to generate publicity?

The teaser trailer for next week looked good but I've had my hopes dashed by the last 2 years' closing stories.

(Please no naff Aussie soapstar's pop music or the Daleks in ultra camp bitchy mode.... Now swear on Rassilon's hilarious novelty slippers RTD!!!!!)

Daveym said...

*Shrugs*

I've seen it all before, that's the problem. Whether it be big budget thrillers like 'Sphere','Event Horizon' or more pertinently zero budget fan productions.
Fan-made fare uses the exact same plotting (out of necessity) and often delivers the same 'make up your own mind' conclusion to the story, but I find it grating when used here - I didn't even care much for it in 'Edge of Destrustion' but that story offered an explantion for it all...

It was 45 minutes of nothing really. I can't condemn it as i can see what they were going for and it was experimental in a way, but neither can i really find anything to praise in it - it was just filler pure and simple.

Tom said...

Klicks.

I too was glad of something a little different. What Matthew describes was my favourite part of it; the Doctor's generally a bit of a wanker (though, a lovable one) and it was nice to see the other side of people's reactions to him for a change.

Dave Owen said...

A klik's a kilometre! It's either used to mean km or km/h.

Dave.

Benjamin Adams said...

Kliks definitely was referring to distance; it's used by the US Army to mean 'kilometer,' and has been used in military SF for a long time.

Abu Yair said...

I've been overwhelmed with work and family matters and have not had a chance to comment much on the recent episodes. I finally found the time to watch Saturday's episode this morning (Wednesday!) on the journey to work and finally enjoyed something from the new season.

Yes, it's been done before - it reminded me a lot of The Twilight Zone, with a bit of Star Trek thrown in (those poor old "additional crew members"). Nonetheless, I felt that the episode drew upon Russell Davies's strengths as a writer rather than his weaknesses (which I fear are doomed to show up in the next couple of installments) and also made good use of the 45 minute format.

For once, we had an episode based upon the interplay of characters, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. The threat is so abstract as to be secondary - the threat comes more from the beast within (strong shades of Lord of the Flies). Now this is also not a new concept, but what was nice is that there was almost no preaching in this episode. The moral tension is represented through the development of the situation rather than by being spelled out for the audience. The limited setting gave the programme something of a theatrical aspect, but this was only to its advantage: it meant that the piece was made or broken by the central pillars of drama through the ages, the writing and the performances. The design, costumes and effects were secondary.

It seems that the entire casted sensed they were on to a winner because everybody seemed to play their parts with such great relish. I totally failed to recognise David Troughton (he's aged a little since I last saw him on TV, which was probably in A Very Peculiar Practice) but I felt he struck just the right balance between real intelligence, expertise and passion in his field on the one hand, and pomposity on the other. This was supported by Davies's avoidance of the cliches of the all-knowing Professor Hayter-style man of science.

The two parents and their 'orrible teenage son (he was cast a little too old or they were casta little too young, but never mind) were also well presented. In particular, I was impressed at the way that Jethro makes the switch from enjoying the freak-show of the wierdo fellow traveller to realising the seriousness of the siutation and participating in the discussions in a serious manner.

However, it was David Tennant who really shone through. I felt that in this episode, he was truly a Doctor-y Doctor, and gave a performance that could stand proud with the best of his predecessors. After some travesties this year (which reached an all-time low with the ridiculous "Doctor's Daughter") he was finally give a story in which he could reveal all the subtlety of his craft.

Even the music was better - no bombastic overkill, but more subtle moods (shades of Bartok, I thought) common in the earlier days of the classic serial.

In summary: totally original? No. Compelling? Absolutely.

Anonymous said...

Hope you're well David; I noticed that you haven't reviewed "Turn Left" yet.

Perhaps it turned your stomach like it did for most Whovians ?