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:
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.
• Mystery meat:
I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten that meal on a plane more than once.
(next: Episode 11: “Turn Left”)