Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Doctor Who: Midnight

“Sorry, I’m a Doctor. I’m very clever.”

Ahem. Been a while, hasn’t it? Well, I’m back.

Some nice CGI, to start with. And that’s all that we’ll be getting of this sort of thing, as I believe this is what those Trekkie people call a “bottle episode”. And if this is what “bottle” episodes are like then let’s have more of them. This may be a filmed stage play with very little of the visual, but it’s a bloody good one, and the best thing RTD has written since The Second Coming.

We briefly see Donna at the start, which reminds us how bloody useful she would have been to the Doctor in what is to follow. It’s a very nice touch that the “Donna-lite” story is one in which her absence is really felt; for once the Doctor needs her to stop others, not himself. This story features the most terrifying foe the Doctor has yet faced: the slavering, vicious, unreasoning mob; the sort of mindless conformity which at its worst extreme… sorry, came very close to invoking Godwin’s Law just then. And we learn more of RTD’s views of society here than in anything we’ve so far seen.

The early scenes in the shuttle show us once again what a master at the nuts and bolts of economical storytelling is our showrunner. In a few brief scenes he nicely sketches out the characters whilst amusingly taking the proverbial out of the petty irritations of air travel which are so familiar to us all. But the early humorous touches (I liked “I must warn you that some products may contain nuts” a lot) very quickly turn into misdirection; when the Doctor states jokingly that “We’ll have to talk to each other instead”, he’s already started to misjudge the situation, the people he’s with, and his own status. These early scenes are full of subtle touches that, oblivious though he may be, for once he isn’t the alpha male.

There’s quite a cast here: Lesley Sharp is of course superb, so is David Troughton. And I’d forgotten that Merlin was in this. But these aren’t the quirky, loveable types we’re used to seeing in RTD Who scripts; in their own ways they’re all self-absorbed, narrow-minded and entirely lacking in the qualities we’re used to seeing in a programme based partly on the Doctor’s making others into better people. There are no suitable candidates here. And yet, arguably only Biff is truly nasty. Well, with a name like that.

The initial scenes of suspense as the craft stops and the banging starts are very well done. I was reminded of The Edge of Destruction, in a good way. And even at this early stage the sight of everyone panicking is almost as scary as the external threat. Mobs and groupthink are far scarier than alien possession.

Oh, and it seems the mysterious alien force knocks three times. How interesting. Don’t know why I mention it. We get Rose on the screen again, too…

Then the two pilots are the first to die, Sky starts repeating people’s words, and RTD cranks up the tension quite majestically. Credit also has to go to the performances, the claustrophobic setting, and the more than usually noticeable soundtrack for modern Who; almost musique concrete at times, a bit Tristram Cary. Almost modern enough to have appeared in this very programme back in ’63…

The mood of the mob shifts decisively once the subject of throwing Sky comes up, and even the apparently nice Dee Dee is implicated. From this point onward things are very, very dark, much darker than anything previously seen in the marathon so far. They all start to turn against the Doctor (Disturbingly, he’s described as being “Like an immigrant!” It’s a mob of Daily Mail readers. The horror.). He’s accused of “loving” the danger of the situation- there’s a germ of truth there, as has often been pointed out- and he finally alienates everyone with his fantastically misjudged “Because I’m clever!” In the land of the mob, no one likes a smartarse. Smartarses don’t conform. They’re too intellectual. They read things into things. They’re weird. Let’s just throw them out. Chilling stuff.

Things then proceed to get better than this, as Sky speaks first, the Doctor is apparently possessed, and the Doctor is left repeating everyone’s words as they set about throwing him out. The expressions on Tennant’s face here are incredible.

There’s one potential seed of redemption for humanity, though; the stewardess, who’s hardly been saintly so far, finally realised what’s happened and sacrifices her life to save everyone. No one even remembers her name. And the Doctor then has to spend twenty long minutes in the company of the mob which had attempted to kill him although, of course, everything goes unsaid. How very English. Unusually, it’s made clear at the end that the Doctor is deeply upset by what has happened.

Superlative: a stage play with a camera plonked in front of it, perhaps, but a triumphant example, and one that makes me want to go to the theatre more often. By which I mean, these days, at all. 5/5 and straight into my top ten at number six.

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