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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

‘Doctor Who’ blogging: “Midnight”

(tons of spoilers! don’t read till you’ve seen the episode! and no comments from party poopers — this is a love fest only / previous: Episode 9: “Forest of the Dead”)

I don’t think I can say that I’ve actively been putting off blogging about this episode. I’ve been insanely busy, and that pushed this to a backburner, unfortunately. But I do have to say that I’ve been dreading writing about this episode because it totally turns everything about Doctor Who on its head… and that is so supremely disturbing that I have not been able to watch “Midnight” — and I’ve seen it four or five times now — without being completely shook up by it.
Because there is absolutely nothing in pop culture that touches me or fires my imagination the way that Doctor Who does. I still have not been able to completely articulate why that is, even to myself. Clearly part of it is the escapism… but just as clearly, there are many equally escapist universes to which I do not react so powerfully. Whatever it is, there are elements to this episode that take things we take for granted about what works here and what doesn’t… and it puts them on a rug and then yanks that rug out from under us. It says: You think you know what Doctor Who is all about? Think again.

And I’ll say this: I suspect that Russell Davies forced himself into a bit of a corner, from a producer’s perspective, with this one. You’ll see, with the three upcoming episodes that constitute the season finale, how ambitious they are, from a production standpoint: they’re full of shoots at multiple locations; demand numerous speaking parts from a sprawling cast; and were probably expensive as hell to achieve. I can see him looking at his budget for the season and realizing that he’d left himself about two quid to pull off this particular episode. And what does he do? He boxes himself into one set, with a limited cast, and comes up with something that is among the greatest bits of television drama since Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. In fact, you see hints here of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and particularly “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”… but also hints of United 93 and all of our post-9/11 paranoia, not just about air travel but about whom we think we can trust, and whom we think we can’t, and how we let our smallmindedness speak for us when our fear blinds us.

I’m not sure I believe it’s truly comforting to see that the Brits have let themselves get as fucked up as we Americans have since 9/11, but perhaps it at least demonstrates that we Americans are not uniquely fucked up. For whatever that’s worth.

So here is the Doctor, on a little plane — well, actually, it’s kind of a truck, not airborne at all, but we recognize it as the near sibling of air travel as we know it today. And “Midnight” starts out satirizing the experience of air travel, from the unctuous flight attendants to the inescapable “entertainment,” and does that so well that it’s shocking how serious everything eventually turns. Wait, were we just getting jokes about packets of peanuts that may contain nuts? And now we’re talking about throwing someone out the airlock? How did we get here?

Before we get there, though, we get a little taste of what all the non-life-and-limb side of traveling with the Doctor is: sunbathing at an exotic offworld resort, and making dinner plans (“We’ll try that antigravity restaurant. With bibs.”). Isn’t that the kind of stuff we want outta life with the Doctor? Though, frankly, I continue not to get Donna: How could she not go with him on the little sapphire-waterfall-tour thingie? How could she not be satisfied just to sit next to him for four hours out and four hours back, and listen to him talk, not to mention the spectacular alien sights to behold in between? I know I’m so very very very very very very pathetic, but how do you not be so madly in love with him that you don’t want to be at his side so continuously that he’s the one trying to get away from you for a few hours, you’re so smothering?

But of course that’s the simple, stark beauty of this episode, from the angle of brilliant fucking drama: it strips the Doctor of what he really needs to be effective, and shows us what happens, and how pretty it ain’t. And what he needs, of course, is us, his human champions, people who know him and stand beside him and tell all the doubters that yes, the Doctor knows what the hell he’s talking about, and all you folks had better listen to him if you want to get out of [insert disaster du jour] alive. In just the most recent mess before this one (at least that we saw, althought it’s easy to see that the Doctor and Donna decamped immediately to a leisure planet like Midnight in an attempt to recover from the horrors of the Library), he had both Donna and River to vouch for him, and so vociferously and with such love that you had to believe them — even though he himself didn’t believe one of them! — that their endorsement was ultimately unignorable.

And he needs the endorsement of someone, because man, what an arrogant, superior prick, right? Just jumping in and taking charge like that? Who died and left him in command? Well, you and I know that he is totally justified in believing himself special and wonderful and capable of figuring everything out, but his fellow travelers don’t know that… and his arrogance is his downfall here, or almost so, where it usually is what ends up saving everyone. (That so many people get saved here is incidental to his actions, not the result of his actions.) Everything that makes the Doctor the Doctor turns on him here. Which has never quite happened before that I can recall.

And he knows it. He know, somewhere deep down and probably subconsious, that he needs us. “I’ve done plenty of that, traveling on my own,” he tells Sky. “I love it. Do what you want, go anywhere.” But he’s only trying to convince himself of that — “It’s no fun if I see it on me own,” he tells Donna, and that rings far more true. He is so social that he turns the little truck thingie into a traveling party: “We’ll have to talk to each other instead” of zombie-ing out in front of the inane (and, thanks to him, unworking) recorded entertainment, he says, and gleefully. I’m not sure, too, if I’ve ever heard the Doctor laugh as loudly and enthusiastically as he does to Jethro’s dad’s inane story about the abstract pool. If the Doctor is in his glory amidst disaster — as the other occupants of the truck can’t help but notice — then his only slightly second-place glory is at a party, just being alive and surrounded by people and talking to people about whatever they’re passionate about.

In that way, the Doctor is our champion too, on an individual level, not just the human race on the whole but for each of us and our stupid anecdotes about our exes and our work and our vacations and our mundane humanness. And yet you have to wonder how well he knows us at all: Could they actually murder Sky, those humans? he demands of them. Or are we better than that? Um, have you met us, Doctor? Can you be so naive about what humans will do when scared? Surely, he cannot be.

The Doctor scared, terrified… and such a shift from his earlier enthusiasm. He goes from this:

to this:

with only the interim “shocked over his utter lack of agency over his very being” to bridge it. The Doctor not in charge, not in control, is the very antithesis of Doctor Who. I respect the power of that, dramatically speaking. I’m not sure I ever expected to really experience it like this, though.

Random thoughts on “Midnight”:

• The professor is played by David Troughton, who is the son of Doctor No. 2, Patrick Troughton. (The director of this episode, Alice Troughton, is not related.)

• Didi could have been a great companion for the Doctor. She’s clever, and the Doctor likes those clever girls. I could see Jethro, too, as a companion: he’d be like Turlough, only we’d actually like him. Maybe. I mean, it was cool that we didn’t like Turlough — that was the way it was supposed to be, he was such a snot and such a selfish brat. Turlough was the first complicated companion in the long time for the Doctor, and actor Mark Strickson was awesome in the role. Too bad they couldn’t do more with him.

• Rose:

• Mystery meat:

I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten that meal on a plane more than once.

(next: Episode 11: “Turn Left”)

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MPAA: not rated

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb
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  • How could she not go with him on the little sapphire-waterfall-tour thingie? How could she not be satisfied just to sit next to him for four hours out and four hours back, and listen to him talk, not to mention the spectacular alien sights to behold in between?

    I’m pretty sure that for Donna, it was the 8-hour round trip prospect. Remember that earlier this season, she said that she had given up on traveling because it was all the same–get on a plane or a bus, same guided tour, all that. I imagine that this prospect looked like more of that to her.

    Also, what I adored about this episode is that the Doctor’s arrogance almost cost him his life. I thought that the passenger’s fears here were completely justified. After all, let’s face it–they’ve been ATTACKED. And the life form, whatever it is, has killed two members of the crew and, for all intents and purposes, kidnapped a third. It’s the Doctor, who has capably dealt with danger before, who has let his arrogance naively lead him to believe that he can handle this problem, when really he has no idea and the passengers are absolutely right that the safest course of action is to jettison Sky/monster–who clearly manifests her malevolent intent once she “steals the Doctor’s voice.”

    And frankly, I didn’t see the passenger’s fear of the Doctor to be that irrational, either. He was, after all, lying to them and telling them, essentially, not to believe their own eyes.

  • The simultaneity of the voice acting was uncannily good. I wonder how many takes it took to get it right?

    But let’s face it: The Doctor was not the hero of this episode. He was saved by others and it had nothing to do with him.

    He got lucky.

  • I think I’ve not finished watching the last episode being referred to but I’d like to finish the whole thing before I comment at all even if I have to thank you for the spoilers. :)

  • Karen

    I find this episode very hard to watch, it’s so intense.

    And I’m very sad to see Jethro’s Mom say, at some point, “Like an immigrant?” as a bad thing. Humans aren’t past that, even this far in the future?

  • Karen

    Oh, and yay Lesley Sharp! I saw her first in “The Second Coming,” where she’s just extraordinary.

    (Oh, she was in “Clocking off!” Loved that!)

  • Danielle

    Really great performance on DT’s part in this episode (after the Doctor’s voice has been stolen, and he’s been paralyzed, and he’s just there, internally panicking). It was an uncomfortable sort of episode to watch, but it’s one of my favorites of the season.

    And I completely get Donna. No guy is so awesome (not even the Doctor) that he could prevent me from some much needed spa pampering after a mega-traumatic experience. Unless he had something much better than sightseeing on his mind.

  • In a fairly recent interview, Davies said ‘Midnight’ came to him as an answer to ‘Voyage of the Damned.’ In VotD, most characters’ true kind natures shone through in time of crisis. Of course, that’s hardly real life. ‘Midnight’ is full of fabulous post-911 paranoia: the relentless search for allies one can stand beside and, more importantly, enemies who can shoulder the blame.

    And you’re quite right – everything that makes the Doctor the Doctor works dead against him in this episode. May the future producers of Doctor Who always force themselves to come up with a ‘two-quid’ episode as brilliant and clever as this one is.

  • Martin

    This episode was one of my favourites of new Who but I found one of the last scenes, the scene after the Doctor is saved that I adored and hated in equal measures.

    On the one hand, the silence is absolutely crucial. There’s nothing the Doctor needs to say to those people because this is an experience that will haunt them for the rest of their lives (and hopefully the Doctor too).
    But on the other hand, something needed to be said to the mother. Maybe it’s because the whole “I was always right” attitude is one of my pet hates but I felt the Doctor had to say something to her then because if she has learnt her lesson, she went back to her old ways very quickly.

  • Joanne

    I see Donna’s decision to stay behind as very much a reaction to the Library – and indeed all that’s gone before, such as Pompeii. She just wants a nice little break by the pool with no possible danger for once, and it sounds like the Library was originally going to be that – doesn’t she have a line about beaches in “Silence in the Library”? She knows that if she goes with the Doctor something’s bound to happen, because something always does, and it’s a very human thing to want a bit of peace for once, I think.

    I was shocked by this episode too, partly because I wasn’t expecting it at all in any way. It was so different to what we’d had the previous week and it was so powerful and disturbing. I think it ties nicely into the series’ general theme of what and who the Doctor is, and what he means for those around him.

  • Weimlady

    Everything Danielle said, plus:

    The final scene, when he grimly walks into the spa, and Donna, all soft and cuddly and vulnerable in her white robe, goes to hug him, and he can’t even hug her back just destroys me every time I watch it. He finally manages to put one hand up on her back and then, after a long beat, puts the other up, but he is so clearly damaged by his experience that it makes my heart hurt for him. God, what an actor.

  • Weimlady

    how do you not be so madly in love with him that you don’t want to be at his side so continuously that he’s the one trying to get away from you for a few hours, you’re so smothering?

    Short answer: Beats me. I’d be right there with you, glued to his side.

    Longer answer: You know that the whole reason you’re along on this incomparable ride is that you are just his “mate” and any signs of smothering behavior would spoil that. Even if you are in love with him–and personally I don’t see how Donna or anyone could not be–you know you dare not show it or he will run for the horizon.

  • Aderack

    Something fun here about the placement: in this episode, as you say, we see just how much the Doctor needs Donna. Or someone like her. Which becomes… a relevant point, over the next three weeks.

    And considering the ending to “Journey’s End”, and the truth of which The Foe convinces the Doctor and his relationship to others… I wonder how this will play out. The Doctor does not do well on his own, yet is now pretty well convinced that everyone he touches he ruins.

  • angel

    I love your take on this episode. Just when you think David Tennant could not get more brilliant…

    But Lesly Sharp was magnificent as well. After watching “The Second Coming” and “Bob and Rose” I’m so impressed with the way she interprets Russell T. Davies’ characters. Wow!

  • Ibrahim

    I admire Davies for what he’s done with the Doctor, but it seems to me the way the Doctor survives each episode is becoming somewhat formulaic:

    – a bunch of others die in his place
    – the enemies are exceedingly kind and will helpfully stand by and talk instead of killing the doctor outright (they are also very polite: every time the doctor yells “wait” they oblige!)
    – he gets lucky in the nick of time

    Midnight was a good example of the above. I prefer the Doctor who overcomes a situation thanks to dizzying heights of brilliance; I do not really like the doctor who talks about how really very clever he is, and then makes it to the end of the episode based on pure luck.

    And the secret of the series’ success? Best intro and end credit music of ANY show ever made!

  • MaryAnn

    I think that perhaps Davies’ overall thesis on the Doctor is that he is NOT so very clever after all, at least not in all the ways that he could be: his interpersonal skills, for one, suck. All the brainpower in the world isn’t going to help you in many situations if you don’t know how to deal with people.

  • Terri

    Here is a question for all of you. After re-watching the episode last night I began to wonder if the creature in Sky was evil to begin with or did it absorb the terror and willingness to murder from the passengers. The Doctor himself when talking to Sky said something to the effect of “what are you doing….learning, absorbing?” When the passengers decided to get together and throw her out that is when ‘it’ pretended to move into the Doctor…was it to save itself? And how did it get into Sky in the first place? Did it come through the walls or was it when they opened the door for a second to check on the cockpit? I love at the very end how the creature said “throw him into the Midnight Sky” combining the title of the story with the name of the character. Any thoughts?

  • MaryAnn

    Excellent questions. Is the creature honing in on Sky because Sky is scared, or is Sky genuinely somehow tuned into the creature and knows it’s honing in on her?

    What is totally fascinating to me about this episode is that it really does seem as if the creature poses no real threat, and that the only real threat is from the humans, who turn on one another (and the Doctor).

    Yes, the thing takes over Sky, and that’s not cool, but it just sits there after that, and we don’t even know whether it might have left Sky unharmed at some point. Maybe it wouldn’t have either… the thing is, we just don’t know. And in that vacuum of knowledge, fear and paranoia take over. *That’s* what’s scary.

  • Poly in London

    “What is totally fascinating to me about this episode is that it really does seem as if the creature poses no real threat”

    I do agree but with the twist: the creature gets actively agressive when the Doctor gets immobilised. The creature, through Sky, fuels the paranoia and encourages the others to kill the Doctor. But by that point a) the creature acts in self defense (the passengers had made it quite clear they will kill it) and b) copies and learns from their behaviour. They are paranoic and aggressive, it becomes paranoic and aggressive. Which means that the Doctor was right all along and if they had behaved differently, no one was on danger.

    On the other hand, someone can make the point that the creature was dangerous all along, the sooner they threw Sky out the better (they would have saved the stewardess that way) and that the Doctor was obstructive and unhelpful. Russell T Davies made that point in Doctor Who Confidential.

    The episode itself doesn’t give a definite clue. Which makes the story a superb example of moral choices. It’s easy to make the right choice when you are clear about a situation. If you attack me, I ‘ll defend myself. That’s not a moral choice, that’s self perservation. But what’s the default response in an uncertain situation? That’s a moral choice. The human passengers immediately retreated in paranoia and aggression. The Doctor wanted to understand, communicate. He had the moral highground (and in a move of emotional stupidity, he let them know it as well).

  • This just goes to prove — when you back writers/directors into a small corner; i.e., a small writer’s room, they most often come up with a gem. We’ve seen it before. (One of the best “Stargate SG-1” eps happened that way — “Solitudes” toward the end of Season 1. And a few “X-Files,” too.)

    The 180-degree shift in the tone of this ep is what hit me so hard. From road-trip glee to soul-changing terror in minutes.

    You’re absolutely right about the Doctor’s love of interacting with humans. And DT’s unfeigned delight in talking with us about the most mundane things is so beautiful. I never loved the Doctor so much as during his absolutely gleeful and authentic interactions with Foon and Marvin in VotD. “*F*ooooooon,” the Doctor said, as deliciously as when you slide a spoonful of the best Rocky Road ice cream into your mouth.

    So to see him here made silent. Struck dumb. Robbed of his reason for being — being able to communicate with others — was heart-sucking. And at the very end, repeating “Don’t. Don’t. Don’t.” Repeating for emphasis, yes. But repeating as an echo, perhaps?

    To know the Doctor is not invulnerable, again, is still as striking. And for all of us to be reminded that, to lose our voice, as individuals or a nation, is just about the worse thing that can be done to us or, worse yet, to do to ourselves.

  • Stu

    Karen R: Too true. One of the best episodes of ST:TNG happened when their money had run out and they didn’t want to have another clip show after the disaster that was ‘Shades of Grey’. ‘The Drumhead’ features the standing sets plus a courtroom and a single magnificent guest star in Jean Simmons unlike a range of their episodes had time to develop its themes over time rather than hammering them in between action sequences. It’s often forgotten amongst the crash/bang/wallop of ‘The Best of Both Worlds’ or ‘All Good Things’ but like ‘Midnight’ and ‘Boomtown’ actually from the first series of nu-Who are the essence of what drama should be about.

    MaryAnn: Across the series right from the 60s, the Doctor’s cleverness has usually been metered depending upon the needs of the story. All too often he’ll make a catastrophic error and overlook something and later chide himself for his idiocy. One of the Eighth Doctor’s catchphrases is ‘Stupid, stupid, stupid’ which is odd considering he’s the cleverest of the lot. Except during one of his many periods of amnesia…

  • MaryAnn

    Yeah, the Doctor has chided himself on his supposed stupity more than once. But it has never, ever backfired on his like it does here. This really is the first time that makes you think that he might actually change his behavior as a result of what happened.

  • Midnight was a good example of the above. I prefer the Doctor who overcomes a situation thanks to dizzying heights of brilliance; I do not really like the doctor who talks about how really very clever he is, and then makes it to the end of the episode based on pure luck.
    –Ibrahim

    It sounds like you’d probably like the original Dr. Who series which was a lot more in the vein you suggested. If you haven’t seen it yet, you might want to start with the Tom Baker episodes. That’s how I got hooked–and I’ve been a fan ever since.

    And the secret of the series’ success? Best intro and end credit music of ANY show ever made!
    –Ibrahim

    Well, the intro and end credits are pretty memorable but I’d like to think that there’s more to the series than just that.

    I could say something about the yonic symbolism of that intro but after seeing some of the stuff that’s been said on another thread…I’ll leave such comments for another day.

    One of the Eighth Doctor’s catchphrases is ‘Stupid, stupid, stupid’ which is odd considering he’s the cleverest of the lot. Except during one of his many periods of amnesia…
    –Stu

    Wait, there exist people who have fond memories of the Eighth Doctor?

  • Stu

    What d’you mean memories? He was the longest serving incarnation of them all:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eighth_Doctor
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eighth_Doctor_Adventures

  • Weimlady

    OK, silly question–and I could ask it on any episode where the Doctor says allons-y and/or molto bene–why doesn’t the TARDIS translate these expressions for us so all we hear is “Let’s go!” and “Very good!”?

    Hmm?

    Things you think about when you should be working….

  • Mo

    Weimlady: I would guess that the Doctor is using his native tongue whenever we hear English, but is switching to actual Italian when speaking those phrases. The Tardis is picking up that it’s a quote from a different language and leaving it alone. It is a telepathic link, so it’s probably intended meanings rather than exact words that get translated anyway.

    When he’s in a different place and time it seems to be translated into an equivalent other language. Maybe someone speaking Cantonese would hear the quotes as Mandarin for instance. Of course on that line of thought, maybe he’s actually quoting some ancient forgotten language that means something to him, and the Tardis chooses Italian as our equivalent. Remember in Pompeii they thought he was Celtic when he said allons-y, I think it was. But since they did speak Latin I guess you could ask whether it was being translated into a Celtic dialect by the Tardis or their Latin and Italian sounded Celtic because of their accents.

    (Interesting thought: if it was the former- the Tardis translating to something Celtic, that means even the Tardis thinks of the Doctor as being English! (Although I have a bone to pick with him saying it was Welsh- in that era Celtic usually meant French or sometimes Scandinavian. But the nature of the ancient Celts is a whole different discussion.))

    Yes, I do spend way too much time thinking about these sorts of things. ;)

  • Weimlady

    Thank you, Mo. Wish you could see the big grin on my face as I read your answer. Glad to know I’m not the only one who thinks about these things.

    I’ve also wondered if the Doctor is actually speaking Gallifreyan all the time and we just hear English thanks to the TARDIS.

    In Pompeii, I think it was Latin quotes that were heard as Celtic by the locals. Donna’s curiosity started it off–wondering, once the translation circuit was explained to her, what they’d hear if she actually spoke to them in Latin.

    Then, of course, there are the times when the Doctor speaks to aliens in their own language, e.g., the Sycorax leader and the Judoon, leading us to believe that he’s a universal linguist and doesn’t need the TARDIS at all. But what if that’s the TARDIS too, translating these ceremonial greetings/challenges into the proper language? But then, one assumes that the aliens were hearing everything the Doctor said in Sycoraxian/Judoonian already, so what was different about the part we heard as those languages and not English?

    My head’s starting to tilt. Back to work….

  • MaryAnn

    I’ve also wondered if the Doctor is actually speaking Gallifreyan all the time and we just hear English thanks to the TARDIS.

    I’m sure that’s it. And that the Gallifreyan accent sounds English to the untrained ear. :->

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