Thursday, December 12, 2013

There Should Have Been Another Way (Midnight)

Such a heavenly way to die
I completely forgot to do the images for the next Last War in Albion before 4am, so I'm running that Friday and this today.

It’s June 14th, 2008. Mint Royale are at number one with “Singin’ in the Rain,” with Sara Bareilles, Duffy, Rihanna, and Ne-Yo also charting. In news, Euro 2008 is unfolding in Austria and Switzerland without England’s involvement. Apple introduces the iPhone 3G. The US Supreme Court decides Boumediene v. Bush, which ruled that foreign terrorism suspects in Guantanamo Bay could offer habeas corpus petitions in US courts. And massive floods break out in Iowa.

While on television, it’s Midnight. There is a school of thought that, not unreasonably, views Midnight as the greatest script Russell T Davies ever wrote for Doctor Who. It is not that this view is inaccurate so much as that it is a claim that often has a wealth of unseen premises. To be sure, Midnight is very good - a blend of creepiness and furious cynicism with real bite. But often the praise for it seems to tacitly be criticism of, well, essentially every other Davies episode. Midnight has few jokes, an ending that’s the polar opposite of “the power of love,” and, more broadly, is clearly Davies writing to push himself and get out of some of his ordinary tropes. In other words, it’s seemingly a Davies script for people who don’t like Davies scripts.

It is true that there is something strange about Midnight. Reading The Writer’s Tale, one gets the feeling that it’s an almost hallucinatory experience. According to the dates in The Writer’s Tale, on September 27th, 2007 Davies determined that the planned script for what was then episode eight of Season Four (it got moved late in production) wasn’t working out. On October 5th, after finishing rewrites to the Sontaran two-parter, Davies tells Cook that he’s thinking of writing it, though he frets about the time he has to do it in. Five days later, on Wednesday the 10th, he mentions to Cook the basic outline of it - everyone trapped in a bus (to save money) and a monster on the outside that possesses a woman (to be called Sky) who begins repeating people. What appeals to him, it seems, is both the creepiness and the fact that it would be technically difficult to shoot but very cheap - he speaks of “all that production-tension creeping onto the screen,” and about it being a story where the Doctor loses his speech. But he also admits that he has no idea how it ends. 

That Saturday he clears the weekend to work on it, with the goal of starting production on Monday if the script works out. The weekend is a buzz of e-mails between them in which Davies describes the intensity of writing it. He tells Cook about the difficulty of juggling eight person scenes, and says that his “brain is bleeding,” but less than ten hours later It’s “buzzing” and he’s having trouble keeping all his ideas in check. He hands the script in on Monday, and Julie Gardner and Phil Collinson love it. He sits down with it again on Wednesday, and finishes it up that evening, and that’s that. From idea to script in just about a week. 

The way in which the script seems to have haunted its writer comes out in the story itself, which advances with a sort of dizzying anxiety that seems to just spill out of nowhere. The nature of the season structure and of the story’s promotion allowed this one to be a bit of a sleeper; the preview teased the basic “people stuck on a bus and a monster knocking,” but gave no particular indication of the story’s hook. Sandwiched as it was between the big Rose Tyler return in Turn Left and the Moffat era’s Episode Zero, this story looked innocuous. The degree to which it actively, angrily challenges basic premises of Doctor Who wasn’t clear, so that the way in which the bus turned toxic was scary and unnerving in a way that can’t quite be captured outside the context of 2008.

It’s also oddly to this story’s benefit that it was eventually moved to go after Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead and thus after the announcement that Moffat was the incoming showrunner. Because for all that this story is unlike other Davies scripts, it’s very much like a Moffat script in several regards. This is the first time that Davies has really attempted a straight horror script (Tooth and Claw not having gone for fear), a format usually associated with Moffat. On top of that, the repeated speech technique feels very much like a Moffat invention. Moffat is often described as being fascinated by repeated catchphrases, but it’s more accurate to say that he’s fascinated by glitches in communications media - he rarely does repeated phrases that are not based on some piece of technology that isn’t working quite right. In many ways Davies takes that approach to its most extreme level, having the phenomenon of language itself become a technological glitch through which repetition takes place. 

It’s interesting, then, that this appropriation of Moffat’s iconography should come in such a pessimistic story. One could, if one was feeling snarky, suggest that this was some sort of swipe at what Davies perceived the Moffat era would be, perhaps picking up on About Time’s claim that Davies wanted the show to end when he left. But this is almost certainly nonsense - any perceived tension between Davies and Moffat is, in reality, the invention of partisan fandom picking fights where none exist. If Davies is playing with Moffat’s iconography he is doing so out of respect - trying to tell his version of a Moffat story, and reasonably so, given that Moffat will, inevitably, be doing his versions of Davies stories in years to come. 

And this is unmistakably a Davies story, in the end. For all that its pessimism may seem jarring in the context of Davies’s other Doctor Who, it’s very much him. He admits, talking to Ben Cook, that the story a conscious inversion of Voyage of the Damned’s band of plucky survivors, instead featuring  “humans at their worst. All paranoid and terrified. Much closer to the real world - or my view of the world.” Which makes sense. The Davies of Aliens of London/World War III, with his cynical, furious satire of the Iraq War was always closer to what one would have expected Davies-penned Doctor Who to be than what we got, which was an altogether more optimistic show. The entire Eccleston series, in fact, had a vein of anger running through it that mostly drained out in the Tennant era as the show became confident in its success.

Tennant’s story arc is, as we noted at the start of his era, one based around that theme of confidence and hubris. It is almost certainly coincidental, but nevertheless chillingly fitting that this story features a moment where the creature knocks on the side of the bus four times. Because it is this story in which the theme of the Doctor’s hubris becomes fully pronounced. It’s not just, in the end, that the people on the bus let the Doctor down. It’s also a story in which all of the Doctor’s skills turn against him. His absolute refusal to throw Sky off the bus becomes uncompromising arrogance that only worsens the situation. His enthusiasm and curiosity become a source of disgust as the other passengers accuse him of having fun. Even his intelligence becomes a handicap, his declaration that he’s “clever” (the same word he uses to describe Rattigan in The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky) becomes just another sign of his arrogance. Beyond that, of course, there’s the fact that his words are literally turned against him in the course of the story.

And so we get a story where the Doctor loses. Indeed, his presence makes it worse. The end solution - throwing Sky out of the bus - is exactly what the passengers proposed in the first place. The Doctor had nothing to do with the resolution, having been incapacitated by that point. The only difference his presence actually caused was that the Hostess died too because nobody threw Sky out early on. This is, seemingly, not the point Davies meant to make, as it’s ultimately quite xenophobic, and yet it’s there, quietly undermining the idea that all that’s going on is that the people on the bus are the worst of humanity. 

Indeed, there are ways in which the people on the bus are closer to the Doctor than one might expect. Professor Hobbes, in particular, is a clear mirror of the Doctor, complete with his own companion. To be sure, he’s a flawed mirror. He’s cruelly dismissive of his companion, and there’s the quiet implication that he’s taken her along not to foster her talent but because he finds her attractive. And he’s studiously close-minded, rejecting things as impossible instead of reveling in possibilities. Nevertheless, the synonyms of title are clear. And, of course, he’s played by Patrick Troughton’s son, which, while an accident (Troughton was cast two days before production started when the original actor broke his leg) hammers home the parallels. 

And opposite the mirror of the Doctor and his companion we get a mirror of the audience - Biff, Val, and Jethro being the ordinary “family” audience that might be expected to be watching Doctor Who. Yes, Jethro’s a bit old, but that’s kind of the point. If this is supposed to be a broken and flawed mirror of the audience it’s entirely fitting that the kid should be jaded and cynical and “too old” for Doctor Who, just as the mother and father show themselves to be flawed, hypocritical, and violent characters. It’s not some random bunch of people who are flawed and doomed here, but a specific set of characters who invoke and mirror the Doctor. 

So what we have is not a situation where the Doctor simply fails, but one in which there is, quietly and without fanfare, a narrative collapse that isn’t averted. The underlying premise of Doctor Who simply falls out and breaks down. The Doctor doesn’t make things better. He doesn’t save the day. The world is simply a cruel and vicious place. As, in Midnight, it literally is - a planet that it is impossible to survive on, and on which human habitation is simply terribly ill-advised. People shouldn’t be here at all. This, at least, contains the narrative collapse - it’s allowed to exist within the specifically hostile space of the planet Midnight. Nevertheless, within this space we find out that Doctor Who stories simply cannot function at all. 

This is something radical and new. Not even in The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit did we get a story in which it was suggested that Doctor Who as a series simply could not function in certain spaces. Sure, we got an abyssal horror, but the Doctor and indomitable humanity still won the day. That story only alluded to a death drive, and tied it to fandom. This is something else - a situation in which the Doctor simply doesn’t work. This is, to be fair, an existing subgenre in action-adventure serials. But typically, when they do stories where the hero is completely helpless the hero is impotent in the face of real-world horrors like famine or cancer or 9/11 (superhero comics, in particular, had a brief period where everybody did astonishingly bad pieces about how superheroes couldn’t stop 9/11). This subgenre amounts to mawkish glurge in which the fact that stories are fiction is treated as a flaw, and anybody who writes it should be punched. (Note: This proposal would likely prove fatal to J. Michael Straczynski.) Midnight does something markedly different, creating a situation in which the hero is powerless not because of something that exists in the real world that it would be tacky for the hero to trivially stop but because of something that is wholly a part of the fiction. The Doctor is defined as the sort of character who should save the day in exactly the sort of situation that Midnight puts him in.


And while the story quietly displaces this tension onto the planet, suggesting that it’s only within the confines of this eccentric space that Doctor Who fails. But the story hints at the real and darker truth. It’s not Midnight that renders the Doctor helpless, but the reality of people. The dark mirrors of the Doctor aren’t twisted in the way that the Master is - simple inversions of all that he is. They’re dark mirrors because they’re ordinary, flawed people - the same view of humanity that we get in Utopia.  They’re vivid portrayals of the myth of Doctor Who transported into everyday people, of the sort that Davies writes very, very well. And they break the show. In a wonderfully disturbing inversion of the mawkish glurge that usually constitutes the hero being utterly impotent in the face of a threat, it is not that the hero is flawed because he’s fictional. It’s that we are all flawed because we are not.

57 comments:

  1. (Note: This proposal would likely prove fatal to J. Michael Straczynski.)

    It has other advantages, too.

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  2. As I'm one of the people who think this is Davies' best script because I'm ambivalent about the rest of his scripts, guilty as charged. That said, it's clearly not a Moffat script either. For one thing, I think Moffat has a greater proportion of power of love scripts than Davies does. (Starting with The Doctor Dances.) It's just that when Moffat does them it feels as though they're not cheats. It's just that at this stage that Moffat was known for doing the scary stuff and Midnight is certainly that.

    The structure of the script isn't typical of Davies' scripts. There's no attempt to focus on emotional beats and then put in bridging passages. It's more organic. Generally the moments of greatest emotional involvement are the beginnings of each passage - that is,we get an emotional jolt as something new happens, and then the narrative slows down as the Doctor tries to get it back under control until there's a pause and then the Doctor loses control again.

    But also - I think if you put this script together with any other Davies' script you could tell that this script is closer to Davies' view of the world. Or rather that this script is more open about Davies' view of the world. I think a part of all Davies' scripts really happen on Midnight. The sentiment seems there because Davies wants to convince himself rather than because he's convinced. Sometimes, as in Gridlock the conflict between bleakness and sentiment bears interesting fruit. But more often it feels false, as unconvincing as Tory rhetoric about hard-working families. One doesn't like the sentiment because it is trying too hard to convince and it doesn't convince.

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    1. [quote]I think Moffat has a greater proportion of power of love scripts than Davies does.[/quote]

      One thing which is surprising looking back on the Davies run is how often falls back on the action plot. There's a bunch of baddies that need sorted. The era works because he runs that plot about every way it can possibly be run without the formula becoming obvious. The exception being the finales where everyone is just waiting around for the Doctor to find the magic "I WIN" button that will instantly eliminate the giant, unstoppable CGI army.

      Moffat, on the other hand, seems much more interested in stories where the Doctor solves a problem, and it's just as likely to be a failure to communicate as it is a baddie that needs to be sorted. He's just not as good at hiding the formula, so when you're watching that disappointing pirates episode, it's hard not thinking "hey, didn't they do this exact story back in Series One".

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    2. Good summary, David. I was reading this in explicitly religious terms, thanks mostly to "Last of the Time Lords", but my analysis matches yours. See below.

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  3. After they've each lost their spouses in Forest of the Dead, Donna says "Is 'all right' special Time Lord code for… really not all right at all? […] Because I'm all right too."

    But in this one, the Doctor comes out and can't even speak. And Donna just hugs him.

    Soon, they will become the same person, and Donna will die. More than once.

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  4. When you come to proof-read the 10th and 11th Doctor books, ensure you do a global search for "Sontaran" to ensure you haven't automatically suffixed it with "Experiment" when you clearly mean "Strategem". :D

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  5. Just to add some esoteric symbolism... "Midnight" is a temporal moniker, halfway into the dark. The planet is made of diamond, which shines darkly -- like a dark mirror -- but with a twist. Alchemically, the diamond often stands for the Philosopher's Stone, and its hardness makes it a symbol for immutability.

    However, the diamond of Midnight has been altered -- by X-tonic radiation. The X motif in fact describes the structure of "Sky's" possession: first an echo, then synchronization, then getting ahead. (Weirdly, this episode presages a similar play of language coming up on Fringe.)

    The X tonic reverses everyone. The Doctor's reflection turned against him. The nice family becoming bloodthirsty; the rebellious teen becoming compliant. The Professor loses control of his student; Dee Dee asserts herself. The hostess who practically sleepwalks through her tedious job takes decisive action.

    The bus tour company is named "Crusader," invoking another religious connotation -- the Crusaders undertook military expeditions to wrest control of the Holy Lands. Ergo, Midnight is similarly a Holy Land, which has (this time) been occupied by a capitalist force; it is "holy" in the alchemical sense, that it reveals the nature of the people aboard the bus to themselves and each other. In this context we can slot in the Lost Moon of Poosh -- the moon representing the subconscious, in juxtaposition to the consciousness of the sun -- what the characters have been repressing comes to the surface.

    Which brings me to Rose. Rose is the other agent who comes in from outside the bus, a brief flicker on the television set. On the one hand, this juxtaposes her with the Midnight creature itself; on the other, it demonstrates yet again her mastery of the narrative convention of the television itself. Just as the Midnight being knocks four times on the bus, Rose is a herald of impending doom.

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  6. I have to say that Midnight is one of my favourite Doctor Who stories, but it's never a story I'd show to a newcomer. Phil's right: this is a show where Doctor Who literally breaks. But I wouldn't say it's material, real people, per se, that destroys the show. It's pettiness. The other bus passengers become small-minded, petty, obsessing more in their paranoia and fear instead of trying to exalt themselves to rise to the challenge of the situation. Instead, they let squabbling and vindictiveness dominate their personalities.

    In that way, Midnight reminds me of The Caves of Androzani. That story put the Doctor in a remarkable trap: everyone around him was so self-obsessed and petty over the gangsterism of their drug war that they couldn't rise above their situation. Really, the closest thing to an ally in Androzani was Sharaz Jek, whenever he wasn't being a creepy would-be rapist, which was very rare. The Doctor often wins because he encourages people around him to be better than they thought they could be. He isn't able to do that in Androzani or Midnight because his entire supporting cast isn't able to broaden their perspectives beyond the bridge of their own noses. The companion is remarkably important in this sense: she's the diplomat of the Doctor in the world of normal people, a more ordinary person who can assure the skeptical that this eccentric weirdo is trustworthy and capable, because sometimes he's just too strange or arrogant to communicate that himself.

    I've run through the story of Midnight several times in my thoughts since first seeing it in 2008, wondering whether any other Doctor might have been more successful in seducing any cast members to measure up to the challenge. Pertwee: definitely not; they probably would have kicked him off the bus sooner. Hartnell, Troughton, Davison, and McGann definitely would have gotten some folks on his side; they were skilled at communicating fear and professionalism at once. Tom Baker, I'm actually not sure; it would depend on how much his charisma could have impressed Jethro. All the Doctor needs is one ally in the supporting cast, whether a companion or a guest, to help him rally people.

    Colin Baker probably would have been able to intimidate the passengers into keeping shut entirely. Eccleston seemed enough like a working-class guy to avoid alienating himself from the passengers as Tennant did. McCoy probably wouldn't have succeeded without Ace or another companion around. He's so stand-offish and elfin that such paranoid people wouldn't have trusted him from the start. I think Smith would have managed it, but only the more mature Smith from the Clara era, not the younger Smith from the Pond era.

    The Doctor is sometimes arrogant and always strange, traits that only encourage resentment from people who are already resentful. What makes his character most materially effective is his ability to communicate and inspire. That's why the companion is important, and why the Doctor is always most vulnerable when his friends aren't there (The Deadly Assassin is his greatest personal threat; he's collapsed by The Snowmen, John Hurt is all alone and about to give up his entire ethical identity, and then there's Midnight). The companion is his bridge to the skeptical: he's already won her over to his inspiring lifestyle, so she can more easily win over others.

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    1. Everything you said. Especially about younger Matt Smith not managing to pull it off. He gets too excited about odd things to calm anyone else down.

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    2. ... and i thought that i was the only one who would mentally insert other Doctors into certain scripts to see how they react. I disagree that McCoy would have been able to get anyone on his side. He was far more imperious than tennant often. Troughton would have likely retreated from sky more often and been able to charm others, but there were certainly instances where his charm failed him and he was rendered rather ineffectual on the sidelines, rather than lurking on the sideline.

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    3. You're certainly not the only one. It's the way I find easiest to get a grip on how I understand the Doctor's characters. Or companions. Cp Amy in The Beast Below with Clara in the Name of the Doctor.

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    4. I've also wondered how other Doctors would have fared in this scenario. In fact, I commented all the way back in Happiness Patrol, IIRC, that this story would have played out completely differently with Seven, who was a master manipulator who would have understood how the others were reacting and compensated before they gave in to panic. Ten got into trouble because, in his arrogance, he failed to understand how nearly everything he said was making things worse. For one thing, he never bothered to make the obvious point that killing Sky might simply have caused the phenomenon affecting her to jump to someone else.

      I'd say One, Two, Four, Seven and Eleven would have handled the situation better. Three would probably have had to use Venusian Aikido on the whole group. Five would have fainted for some reason. Six, Eight and Nine would have been in the same boat as Ten. YMMV.

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    5. The problem here is twofold - firstly, that the Doctor doesn't win over the mob, and secondly, that the mob is right and the Doctor wrong. Yes - it's arguably Davies' best script, but it's not somewhere you'd want to live as a Doctor Who fan.
      The only Doctor who would make the right decision - to throw Sky off the bus - is early One; maybe Six at his most Sawardian, maybe the New Adventures/ Big Finish Seven, maybe the War Doctor. All figures who are somewhat marginal to who the Doctor is.

      Four's ability to talk people down comes and goes. And it's based largely upon imposing his rules upon a situation as Ten's ability is. If it lets Ten down, it would let Four down. Two on the other hand is preternaturally good at talking people into anything, largely by subverting the preexisting rules until he fits. On the other hand, I think Eight is too likeable for anyone to want to throw him off.
      Seven wouldn't even try to take charge. (Seven's modus operandi is to point malevolent entities at each other to destroy themselves and give everyone else a chance to get out of the way if they have the sense to take it.)

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    6. You're assuming that "throw Sky off the bus" was the only solution. We still don't know what all the entity was capable of doing beyond possession and, presumably, telepathy. Nor do we know what it's true agenda was beyond terrorizing the passengers. (Indeed, the unknowable, almost Lovecraftian nature of the threat in Midnight is one of the reasons it's so frightening, IMO.) One of the less emotional, more clinical Doctors might have had success in persuading everyone to just shut up until the entity, deprived of speech to copy, was forced to communicate. Unfortunately, it was Ten's burden to be the sort of Doctor who can't help "ranting ... about every single thing that happens to be in front of him" as Five once wisely noted.

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    7. To delve into "what's actually happening," the book Sky is reading before she freaks out is called 'Oceans of Noise' by E.R. Butler.
      An advertisement for this same book appears inside tenants _OTHER_ bus story, Planet of the Dead, reading "Ocean the debut novel by E R Butler offers a window into a world that is as dark as it is enlightening." (Thus cementing Planet of the Dead's status as Bizarro-Midnight; a story about well-adjusted hopeful, helpful people trapped in a bus on a dead planet and how they all help one another get through it.)

      My preferred read on the story (and it's inscrutable so Believe What You Will) is that Sky was the monster from the start. She's lying about her wife leaving her for one -- when the monster is coming after her she shouts "She said she'd get me!" and then, without anyone looking at her starts melting down about "don't just stand there looking at me, it's not my fault!" Powerful, mentally ill psychic leads to poltergeist activity -- possibly with a history of it she's running from?
      In the entire scene prior to the bus grinding to a halt, when things are 'normal' the camera avoids Sky COMPLETELY, like she's been cut out of the bus entirely. And then once it stops we can see her again -- and Sky is just sitting there haunted, not really reacting to the bus having stopped but concerned about other stuff. What happened immediately prior to the bus stopping? Merlin and Professor whatsisname talk about the world outside really being unknown; never seen by actual eyes, never to have a foot set upon it, and the notion that there could be something alive out there.
      Claude says he sees something outside "maybe moving" but we never know. And even if he did... could it be Sky? She could be projecting her own persecution complex on people around her, acting as a mirror of their own increasing darkness then. The entire group acts as a herd in this story, and you could call that paranoia but they also 'turn' as a herd, all adopting the same attitudes/thesis/POV. ...so that's my thesis. Projecting telepath/telekinetic with a persecution complex / bad breakup.

      ...on the other hand I've actually had the opportunity to witness mass hysteria firsthand, and it does look just like this so it could just as easily be that.
      (But I DO maintain that Planet of the Dead was a deliberate inversion of this episode.)

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  7. This story is one I cannot and will not watch again. It scares me too much. The fundamental loss of language is one that horrifies me to the point that it keeps me up at night sometimes and to see it applied to the Doctor...shakes me to the core.

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    1. This story is one I cannot and will not watch again. It scares me too much. The fundamental loss of language is one that horrifies me to the point that it keeps me up at night sometimes and to see it applied to the Doctor...shakes me to the core.

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    2. [sorry .... somebody had to that...]

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    3. [sorry .... somebody had to that...]

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    4. Indeed. This was a very good, well-made episode that I have no desire to see again. Does that mean it hit the horror mark excellently, or too much, such that it's the opposite of an incentive to buy a DVD set or queue it up on Netflix?

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    7. I can't watch it either. The sense of claustrophobia and helplessness it triggers is too intense for me.

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    8. I can't watch it either. The sense of claustrophobia and helplessness it triggers is too intense for me.

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  8. There comes a story that only the current incarnation of The Doctor could do and this is an example. No one else, not even Eccleston, Smith or any of the classic series Doctors could do what Tennant manages here. His performance is almost note perfect, from the pitch of his voice at various stages to the look in his eyes. There may be better Tennant episodes but this is his baby, and his alone.

    While we're given a set of supporting characters who are, on the surface, quite negative and not designed to charm us they end up being stronger and more capable of doing what needs to be done. The human instinct to take the action needed to ensure survival, no matter how horrible that action might be, trumps The Doctor's desire for "once, everyone gets to live". The passengers are wrong...but they're ultimately right. Like Dave Bowman executing HAL, Freeman Lowell saving the forest domes, The Brigadier blowing up the Silurian caves and the humans on the Ark preparing to sit out eternity...humans do what they feel needs to be done to survive; the end justify the means. The Doctor is sickened, then humbled. He didn't have the answer, those humans with an infinite capacity to mess things up did.

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  9. This is Davies best script, bar none, and a return to "classic Who" in my book. And by classic Who I don't mean bubble wrap or naff acting or rubber headed monsters, but the triumph of the script over the effects. As Phil so memorably said, Doctor Who was often the show that punched above it's weight. What i appreciate is the version of the show that CAN show an army of Cybermen, but chooses not to, to do a perfect bottle script that just about kills it. Because, you know what i remember about the Pirate Planet? Not the naff effect of the planet dematerializing, but The Doctor and the Captain arguing morality if the "trophy room" with the shrunken cores of the planets.

    When everyone wanted to see "adult" Doctor Who (or adult Star Trek) it usually means adding in the sex and violence, when what it really means is tackling tougher themes, and the lack of easy outs for the passengers makes this episode particularly impressive. showing humanity in an unflattering light, and the Doctor as fallible is something that the showrunner has to be brave enough to do. Beautifully adult in all the right ways, much in the way that Turn Left is as well (which is what makes the final trilogy so utterly depressing, especially Utopia).

    This one is a bit of an antidote to all the Doctor is a lonely god episodes, and a good thing too, as I prefered my Doctor to not always be all knowing and searching for that big red "do over" button. the eccentric wanderer always worked

    And, by the way, Tom Baker, Tom in his second season, would have been beautiful in this script. it would have unnerved him in the same way that his contact with the anti-matter did in Planet of Evil, but when the always right Doctors are humbled, it makes for memorable episodes.

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    1. I know what you mean; the final episode of Planet of the Spiders does that. For all the chase scenes and a romp through the Third Doctor's shticks, his final confrontation with the Great Queen and his death are beautifully handled by Letts, Dicks and Pertwee. His admission that he is a bit of a cowardly rogue and the summoning of enough courage to finish what he started is one of those memorable moments.

      This never quite happened with the Seventh Doctor. I was re-watching "Remembrance of the Daleks" recently and the Doctor's arrogant and off-hand treatment of the humans around him wore thin after a while. In episode 3, Chunky Gilmore utters the memorable line "only a fool argues with his Doctor", an admission that he's going to follow the Doctor's instincts and instructions from now on and yet in episode 4 The Doctor is still admonishing him when the matter was resolved in the previous episode. We never had that moment of the always right Doctor being humbled with him, probably because the series was cancelled before such an event could happen. Maybe it wouldn't have suited Andrew Cartmel's agenda anyway.

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    2. I think part of that is the differing approached that McCoy and Tennant's Doctors take: McCoy never does anything without a purpose, and is always at least a few steps ahead of his enemies. He sits back and studies, he plans, he connives. Were he on the bus, it would be because he had come to the planet specifically to banish the monster forever and teach Ace another lesson about herself, after she's been possessed for a bit and learned about the horrors of body possession and losing your ability to speak. Then the Doctor would confuse the monster into revealing itself through some clever wordplay, which would cause it to trap itself into a logical paradox wherein it possessed itself, and forced it to wink out of existence, which, we learn, was his plan all along. Also the monster was Margaret Thatcher, probably.

      Tennant, on the other hand, swans about the universe without a care, looking for adventure and interesting things to do, and manages to get caught up in problems along the way. His problems and, indeed, the root of his hubris, can be seen in the fact that he doesn't plan for eventualities, just assumes that he can bluff or filibuster or charm his way out of any situation he finds himself in, and that whatever decision he's made without the benefit of careful examination and extensive planning is the correct one simply because of who and what he is.

      Or, to put it another way, he wants to be McCoy, but he's doesn't want to do all the work that goes into being McCoy.

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    3. Or, to put it another way, he wants to be McCoy, but he's doesn't want to do all the work that goes into being McCoy.

      I love this more than I can say.

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    4. I personally think McCoy wings it far more often than he lets on. Whereas Smith is often only pretending to wing it.

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    5. I personally think the idea that classic Doctors have a definite "personality" over their eras is an illusion based on the actor's interpretation of the role during their tenure. It's only in the new series that the showrunner has had such a strong handle on the evolution of each Doctor, and even that is open to interpretation by the script. I think when McCoy started he had no more idea of how his Doctor was going to be than Andrew Cartmel did. It's a tendency of fandom (well of human beings really) to look at a past Doctor's tenure and try and pick out a pattern of that Doctor's behaviour and overall personality.

      However we know from past eras that how the Doctor changes is more to do with the way the show and production crew change, not a conscious attempt to define that Doctor. By the time the 4th Doctor regenerated he was almost unrecognisable from his debut in "Robot", not because the Doctor had evolved, but because the actor had.

      Even Matt Smith's tenure is only now reaching the point where people are starting to appraise and define his Doctor, largely because he's got only more appearance left, so we effectively start to review the finished book so to speak. If you'd tried to describe him at the end of Series 5 you'd have got a definition largely at odds with the 11th Doctor as we see him now.

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    6. Spacewarp
      If you'd tried to describe him at the end of Series 5 you'd have got a definition largely at odds with the 11th Doctor as we see him now.

      I agree, and in Smith's case instance it seems due to a conscious attempt on the part of the production team to refine his character over the actor's tenure.

      Smith's doctor by the end of series 5 is still a young'un in Dr years. By the time of the Snowmen he's lived for at least 200 years. No other (televised) Doctor has had that sort of tempering made explicit.

      Troughton was 400-odd, Baker I was 700-odd, Baker 2 was 900-odd, and then Eccleston was 900-odd again. But no doctors have aged diagetically on screen to the extent that Smith had. It's one of the many reasons why I find Smith's doctor so compelling - he gets to age like no other onscreen Doctor has before.

      (And presumably Tennant didn't want to go because he'd only had about six years of life. Tennant is much more of a mayfly doctor than Hurt. It's not surprising that he didn't want to go... )

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    7. Given that we're fans, yes, we start to look for patterns where there were none initially, but certain ones do show up. I've always had this fannish idea that Tom Baker's Doctor lived for many, many years in that body, which is why his character evolved so much more from Robot to where he was in Full Circle and Warrior's Gate. It feels very good to give him a lot of years, perhaps 100, for that incarnation.

      Smith's Doctor truly has enbodied the young body/old man like no other Doctor, espeiclally in the scenes like him working backwards along his timeline talking to the young Amy Pond, telling her to remember him. I can't think of another actor in this series that could have done that as well. Seriously.

      and yes, i do think that McCoy's Doctor winged it more than he really wanted to let on, but part of his image was the master manipulator, so he had to keep that up.

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    8. It's a tendency of fandom (well of human beings really) to look at a past Doctor's tenure and try and pick out a pattern of that Doctor's behaviour and overall personality.

      I agree completely with you here.

      There's a bit in the beginning of Paul Cornell's Timewyrm: Revelation where the 7th Doctor makes seemingly random stops at seemingly random places in history, setting up long running schemes that Ace couldn't puzzle out for the life of her. And absolutely, this is a novel by a diehard fan that's extrapolating from the TV show to the nth degree, but darned if it isn't exactly how I'd imagine it working in between televised adventures.

      And no doubt, everything doesn't go exactly the way he wants it to (for example, I don't imagine his encounter with the sniper in The Happiness Patrol was planned), but he always seems to be going into his adventures with a much more established sense of purpose and direction than Tennant ever seems to.

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  10. Midnight is tied with Love & Monsters for my favorite Davies script. It fascinates me because it's the chief creative force breaking their own era, which has never to my memory happened before; usually it's someone else's era being broken (Attack of the Zygons breaking Sloman/Letts, Stones of Blood breaking Hinchcliffe). Davies sets up all the elements of a typical Davies script - a diverse group of likable, largely middle- to working-class people, the Doctor bringing people together, the indomitable human spirit - and proceeds to completely destroy them by having the Doctor fail. In my opinion, this is a story that would only work with the 10th Doctor, partially because of David Tennant's incredible performance, but also because he fails because of the 10th Doctor's fatal flaw: arrogance. If the Doctor had managed to control the situation by being less arrogant, the situation would have been more or less fine.

    I also think this story benefits tremendously from the tour bus sequences having been shot completely in order, adding to the already theatre-like atmosphere with the small, closed set and small cast of characters.

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    1. The apparent theatricality of it is wonderful: the imitation game reminded me of the sorts of performance games I used to use in my experimental theatre days.

      I say "apparent" because, as Confidential revealed, what looked like a bravura theatrical performance in the mimicry scenes was actually put together from a lot of takes with careful editing. It's a stunt, just as much as the way the scenes of the Doctor and Donna falling off a building in Partners in Crime were realised with trickery, not by actually chucking Tennant and Tate over the side and hoping for the best.

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  11. I'm going to add nothing to this thread by pointing this out, but I find it horribly jarring that in the 27th Century the tour bus has 100% human passengers in early 21st Century clothing speech and attitudes.

    The family especially seem to come from contemporary england: the sulky goth teen in sulky goth clothes, haircut and makeup, the slightly bovvered-attitude parents and so on.

    It's obviously a conscious decision but it baffles me - it's like the actors found the costume and make-up department were closed that day so had to use their street clothes, and adjusted their speech patterns and attitudes to match. Which would be fine except the script still places them on a distant planet in the 27th Century.

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    1. Apparently, Davies doesn't think we can sympathize with Zogs from the planet Zo-- I mean, humans from 27th-century Earth.

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    2. It does seem to be trying to address that concern, with a sledgehammer!

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    3. Eh. I find I don't mind the idea of futuristic humans reviving ancient clothing styles out of nostalgia nearly as bothersome as the idea of futuristic humans wearing what 21st century humans imagine to be futuristic clothing. We can't possibly imagine what will be fashionable six centuries in the future, so "something like what we wear today" is at least as plausible as "silver lame tunics with padded epaulets and boots." The Sixth Doctor claimed that his ensemble would be the height of fashion in a few centuries, and we all know what we thought of that.

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    4. A memorable example of humans from the future in a closed environment looking like humans from the future spending too long in a closed environment was "Robots of Death". Can you draw as many parallels with the humans in that with humans today? I can see both sides of the argument.

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    5. If Midnight were read as an attempt to realistically portray the social relations and clothing fashions of a plausible far-future human society, then your observation is spot-on: Midnight fails to make the slightest effort to show the characters' society as being any different from ours.

      But what on earth made you think that this would be a productive way to read the episode? It so obviously wouldn't work, because if more production and script effort were put into portraying the characters as futuristic, the episode would becomes about that futurism, and its impact would be diluted. Instead of the message being "us humans are xenophobic and paranoid", it would become "those weird 27th-century humans sure are xenophobic and paranoid, aren't they?"

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    6. Personally, assuming we don't destroy ourselves outright, I think there's a limit to how much humans will change over the next few centuries. I think we will still have professors and students, still have pilots and flight attendants (after a fashion), still have bickering families, and they will all be found at popular tourist destinations. The details may change, but not the broad strokes. The alternatives are either (a) we destroy ourselves or (b) some sort of transhuman singularity that makes us so different that a depiction of those future humans' lives would be meaningless to us.

      And I think it's reductionist to say the message of Midnight is that "us humans are xenophobic and paranoid." I think the message is that it doesn't take much for the veneer of civilization to fall away, which is not the same message. Sky was no different from the other passengers pre-possession, so their antipathy towards her was not based on xenophobia so much as terror arising from a mysterious, seemingly supernatural force that seemed deliberately intent on provoking panic among them.

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    7. However you interpret the message, it packs more punch if it's "it doesn't take much for the veneer of civilization to fall away" rather than "it doesn't take much for those 27th-century humans to lose their veneer of civilization".

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    8. Well it's probably largely to do with budget. This is why the participants of Big Brother on Satellite 5 and inhabitants of New New York in "Gridlock" largely wear contemporary 21st Century clothing (and adopt 21st Century voice patterns), and also why the humans of the far far future in "Utopia" are dressed in familiar "funky future" style.

      Secondly though it's incredibly difficult to design clothing that looks futuristic but doesn't date. "Robots of Death" just manages it, but it's a rare example. Look at any episode of 60s or 70s Who set on another planet and it's dreadful. Troughton lands on planets populated by girls in mini-skirts and men in Nehru jackets, whereas Pertwee's interplanetary hops always seem to land him in Fascist Leather territory.

      Thirdly, the more common points of reference viewers have with the characters in a show, the easier it is for them to "get into" the story. This is why the Doctor and his companions themselves wear contemporary dress, so we feel comfortable with them. Others may correct me on this, but I think that in SF drama, futuristic clothing is largely there as dramatic shorthand to tell us that this is the future and these people are different to us. Take a look at the glammy fashions of the Controller's female staff in "Day of the Daleks". Their futuristic otherworldly appearance is there to reinforce their robotic performance. Same with the Tesh in "Face of Evil", whereas the Sevateem are dressed much more funky, more naturalistic, more sympathetically.

      I think the main point of the characters in Midnight is that we're supposed to realise that they're no different from us, and that given the same circumstances we would behave the same way. Dress them all up in futuristic clothing and you lose a large part of that, and therefore the impact of the story.

      Incidentally a large complaint about the Pertwee era was the high body count. Note this was largely UNIT personnel though, who the public don't identify as much with, because they're faceless soldiers in uniform. Compare the many UNIT firefights with Autons gunning down ordinary contemporary shoppers in "Spearhead From Space" - arguably the most iconic scene of the Pertwee era.

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    9. Robots of Death works because it goes back to art deco. It's a good choice because it invokes Metropolis and so is compatible with some visions that look futuristic, but at the same time is close to something people have actually worn. It's also obviously the reverse of functional, which actually says something about the society these people live in. It's not just about a future technological wheeze allows them to spray on clothes.

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    10. Babylon 5 did a good job of this - you can tell someone is wearing a smart business suit, but it's different enough to flag this isn't the 1990s without making the suit look idiotic.

      However you interpret the message, it packs more punch if it's "it doesn't take much for the veneer of civilization to fall away" rather than "it doesn't take much for those 27th-century humans to lose their veneer of civilization".

      If it's too hard to achieve with 27th-century humans, then why set it in the 27th Century? It could have been set in a hostile environment on near-contemporary Earth just as easily. Tourists daytripping inside a Volcano, at the South Pole, down Mariners Trench...

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  12. Above all, this feels to me like a Twilight Zone episode. (Midnight Zone?) Think of "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" combined with one of the claustrophobia episodes.

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  13. Midnight was the first episode of Doctor Who that I watched. On the strength of this episode I got into Doctor Who.


    This episode and having read the recaps for a large portion of the new series. It wasn't solely based on the psychological horror that I got into the show.

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  14. I doubt it's anything other than a coincidence, but if anyone's interested in a very similar story in which the Fifth Doctor comes up against a formless mirroring entity in an enclosed space on an inhospitable world and the point is that his arrogance and pride (spoilers) cause the situation to play out worse than it would have otherwise, with the result that people die unnecessarily and he doesn't even find out what the entity was, they might want to read The 57th in Short Trips: Seven Deadly Sins. :)

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    1. From clivebanks.co.uk, for those who don't have the book or may not be fans of my prose! :

      There are sixty research stations on the inhospitable planet of Fraternity, and the fifty-seventh is run by Professor Sarah Emmins. Together with her husband, Doctor Stuart Gorey, and assistant Ian Bird, they carry out research into the flora and fauna of the planet. However, one day, after Ian returns to the base, he is followed back by a duplicate of himself. The scientists are initially suspicious, but when tests show nothing out of the ordinary, they soon accept the second Ian as part of the team. Head Office is still concerned, and sends an independent advisor called the Doctor and his assistant, Nyssa, to investigate. However, the suspicion and questioning only serves to anger the duplicate, who then takes a gun, captures Sarah and holds her hostage in an airlock. The duplicate believes that it is an ambassador created by the planet, and after its mistreatment, it demands to talk to the team’s head of research. The Doctor tries to reason with the creature, but it refuses to listen, and opens the airlock to let in the vicious storm raging outside; Greg and the Doctor rush to save Sarah, but Greg loses his life, and the duplicate vanishes. Some time later, the Doctor and Nyssa make their report to head station, who recommend that the project be scaled back, even abandoned. After their ordeal, the Doctor and Nyssa decide to take a holiday.

      Unlike Midnight there's no suggestion here about the inadequacies of anyone other than the Doctor; it's purely his pride that makes the entity behave as it does.

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  15. One of the many reasons I love this story (from a distance; it's hard to want to cuddle it) is that it's juxtaposed with the other stuff Davies did. If we'd gotten nothing but optimistic or nothing but this it wouldn't feel right. I appreciate his tug-of-war between "the best in humanity" and "throw her off the bus" even if I'm not always thrilled with each individual story.

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  16. The thing I was most expecting from this essay was a load of "As I discussed in the Silence in the Library/ Forest of the Dead post on Wednesday" type sentences, just to screw with us. Ah well.

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  17. I have a religion-centered interpretation of Davies's scripts as a whole.

    There's a contrast between two impulses. One is Davies's *desire to believe*, his desired belief that faith (in the Doctor) will save us all. The other is his knowledge that it doesn't work that way, which seems to upset and depress Davies (though it doesn't upset or depress everyone).

    The second is more realistic and makes for better scripts. Midnight is the high point on that. The first goes to its extreme in "Last of the Time Lords", which I find unwatchable.

    I think Rose is, especially in later scripts, very specifically written as an avatar of Davies rather than a generic "put yourself in the companion's place" companion -- especially obvious (and creepy) when she gets given "metacrisis Doctor" as a gift. If you recall this, the tug-of-war between faith and lack of faith shows up clearly in most of the scripts by Russell with Rose.

    But the theme comes back even stronger in Russel's later scripts.

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  18. Loved this episode and its claustrophobic narrative collapse, a beautiful stripped down to basics humbling for the Tenth. The thing that blew me away at the time was its place in the context of Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead and Turn Left. Wow what a set of episodes.

    Enjoyable in a grim sort of way, seeing RTD let his fatalism run riot.

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  19. Midnight is essentially a canned version of RTD's The Second Coming, is it not?

    Messiah put among humanity, says he'll save them but in the end they turn on him and resolve the story themselves.

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