Friday, July 11, 2008

Doctor Who, "Midnight": Strangers on a train

Busy with press tour, so I'll be brief, but spoilers for "Doctor Who" coming up just as soon as I repeat myself...

When I saw the preview for "Midnight," and then saw that Russell T. Davies himself had written it, I assumed it would be a continuation of the disaster movie fetish he showed off in "Voyage of the Damned," or maybe some idea he originally had for "Voyage" before taking the Christmas movie off in a different direction. And though "Midnight" starts off in a similar vein -- The Doctor trapped on a badly-damaged pleasure craft with a group of colorful strangers -- it quickly veers off in a different, and much more interesting, direction.

I've been more scared by other "Doctor Who" episodes ("Blink," to name one), but I've rarely been as disturbed as I was by this one. It's a straight-up horror story, less creepy because of the monster than because of the effect she/it has on the other passengers. In some ways, the building paranoia and infighting reminded me of "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street," one of the best "Twilight Zone" episodes ever; there's a genuine alien threat present, but the bigger threat is what it makes the humans do.

What's interesting is the way this episode seems to take place in the future and yet in a part of the universe where humans haven't had much exposure to aliens. The characters were much more xenophobic than I'm used to seeing in The Doctor's travels.)

As always, we are going to respect the American broadcast order, which means no talk, however vague, about the season's final three episodes. Any comment that discusses episodes that have yet to air here will be deleted.

What did everybody else think?


Nicole said...

I was impressed that RTD wrote this story because it is a lot less flashy than usual with really only one main act. I was really creeped out when Sky was able to speak at the same time as the Doctor, and wonder at the difficulty for the actors to do that. Tennant was impressive as usual, but Lesley Sharp was great too.

While not as heartbreaking as the Forest of the Dead, it does show how the Doctor is not human, and while his companions have trusted him almost immediately, strangers who don't know him may not understand his arrogance.

The mother was a bit irritating, which may have been the point, but I still couldn't stand her.

Of course there was the Rose flash on the tv and a reference to the lost moon of Poosh to tease us a bit.

I would have expected something lighter prior to the lead up to the finale, but I guess RTD wanted to make us think a bit. I won't deny there were some sledgehammer aspects to it, but nonetheless I enjoyed this episode much more than I thought I would.

Matthew said...

Midnight was a surprisingly strong episode - I always get a bit apprehensive of RTD episodes, but it worked quite well.

One of the things I like about what they have done this year is the way they have workd with the limitations of the Doctor-lite episode. Not only did Doctor-lite episodes like Love And Monsters or Blink have to free up time for the actors to film another story, they also had to have minimal special effects.

This year, they did a rather job in dividing these problems up between two episodes, rather than concentrating them in one. So this episode had pretty minimal effects, a monster created mainly out of acting, and mostly took place in one room. But it was well done, and it had the Doctor completely involved in the story so it was still unmistakably Doctor Who.

Meanwhile, the actual Doctor-lite had lots of special effects, and was able to revolve around Donna, a character we already know, so it doesn't feel like a deviation.

The one problem with the episode was the clumsy way they wrote Catherine Tate out of the episode - "Come with me on a trip" "No" "Okay, see you at the end of the episode" It felt too much like a scene inserted just to justify keeping Catherine Tate's name in the title sequence and explain where she is.

J said...

I too really liked this one, and -- maybe because it was an effective, straightforward take on a classic situation, maybe because it was surprisingly low-key for Davies -- it's probably my favorite of the season.

Just good, solid stuff. Way to go, RTD.

Anonymous said...

He's got great hair. I mean... really great hair.

Toby O'B said...

I'm glad to see you also thought of "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street", because that's what first came to mind for me as well.

But it developed into a more intimate case of mistrust and fear and by the end of the episode, I came to appreciate RTD better. He still is a hack with actual science fiction, but I'll give the man this - he can write and develop interesting characters.

This was also one of the fastest moving episodes ever for me, and I think the intensity of the action (which doesn't feel like the right word) can be credited for that.

Not sure how many of your readers are as fanatical about 'Doctor Who' as I am, but David Troughton, the man who played the Professor is the son of Patrick Troughton, Doctor #2 (my personal favorite). So far as I know, the director, Alice Troughton, is no relation, but I could be wrong.....

Nicole said...

I was going to point that out too, but didn't want to be too geeky.

Now I am just waiting for offspring of Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy to show up.

Anonymous said...

Here's a third viewer who thought of "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street". (And note the kicker just at the end, when that woman says something like "I knew it was her all along"; that's to remind us that no, the alien didn't create the paranoia out of nothing.)

I found this far superior to the Moffat two-parter, which I didn't comment on but just didn't care for. In fact, if I'd gone into this week blind and been told that this was the Moffat episode, I'd have believed it, just because it doesn't seem like normal "Who".

And Alice Troughton is no relation to Patrick, but if you've seen the BBC's Robin Hood (running now on BBCA), that's Patrick's grandson Sam as "Much", the comic relief. I don't know if he's also the son of the Troughton in this ep.

OleNelson said...

Wow. I LOVED that one. The hostess was right. This was a time for violence. The alien should have been (and then ultimately was) destroyed. And that, right there, is a big old shake-up of the Doctor's basic philosophy.

Also, I thought the episode showed nicely how important the Doctor's companion is to his general success in these situations. Without a Donna/Martha/Rose there to ease people's minds, he can come across as strange, untrustworthy, and potentially dangerous.

Loved it.

P.S. My first time posting here. But I really enjoy your writing and analysis, Alan.

Anonymous said...

I don't want to be the spoiler police, but I noticed two big ones here in the comments.

Alanna said...

Without a Donna/Martha/Rose there to ease people's minds, he can come across as strange, untrustworthy, and potentially dangerous.

In this case, Donna's absence also rendered him nearly powerless. He was the voice of reason and did the detective work, but once the thing transferred to him, he simply sat there, well, impotent. Quite disconcerting, given how powerful and articulate he usually is. He might've had the same fate if Donna had been there, but she would've gleaned enough from him up to that point for her to continue diffusing the situation.

Anonymous said...

One of my favourites of the season, or of New Who. I loved that it could have been done at any point in Who's history - ok, there was a bit if flashy CGI but it added little. It was all that acting lark wasn't it? Brilliant.

Anonymous said...

The actress who played the possessed woman was one of the leads in "The Second Coming," also an RTD production, in which the Ninth Doctor Eccleston plays a man who turns out to be the second coming of JC.

dark tyler said...

Good idea, but there was no 40-minute story in it. Or there could have been, had the writer decided that character development is considered a good thing for a reason. All the characters in this episode were just cliched repeating themselves and SHOUTING!!!!! hyperboles one after the other. Why on earth should we care for the hostess' sacrifice in the end? Who was she? Why did she have a change of heart? With these sketches of characters there was not one moment as effective as Miss Evangelista's death scene from the library episode.

I most certainly have to give Davies credit for not trying to out-Bay Michael Bay for just this once, but in the end I didn't really enjoy this episode as much as I wanted to.

Anonymous said...

Dark Tyler said:
All the characters in this episode were just cliched repeating themselves and SHOUTING!!!!! hyperboles one after the other. Why on earth should we care for the hostess' sacrifice in the end? Who was she? Why did she have a change of heart?

This is a fair criticism, but the Twilight Zone reference ("The Mosters are Due...") is relevant here. The goal in that episode is to explore group dynamics (in particular mob dynamics), not individual character development. It's the type of thing that used to be a staple of TV anthology series, back when TV anthology series were common. The "What would you do in this situation" story.

That being said, I don't think this episode was actually interested in group dynamics, either -- the episode deliberately leaves ambiguous the degree to which the passengers acted out of their own free will vs. the creature's influence. In the end the episode was interested in what happens when the Doctor cannot get a hold of a situation. Most episodes have setbacks, but in this episode the Doctor is never ahead of the game, and in the end is saved due to actions and activities completely beyond his control. That's an unusual level of helplessness for this character to display -- caveat: my knowledge only extends to the Davies' era Who -- and actually what made this episode intriguing to me. For most of the running time it feels like a Twilight Zone-esque parable about humans fearing aliens, but in the home stretch it turns into a Twilight Zone-esque parable about aliens fearing humans.


dark tyler said...

the episode deliberately leaves ambiguous the degree to which the passengers acted out of their own free will vs. the creature's influence.

This, I found interesting as an idea. But I still feel that Davies aimed to tell a story where the humans en masse aren't the amazing and awesome and fantastic species that the Doctor is usually so fond of. In order to do that it should have been somewhat more clear who loses which part of himself when fear settles in, and it wasn't. When you deconstruct there has to be something constructed before, is what I'm saying.

Still, I'm not bashing the episode. I agree with most of the things you are saying, I find some of the concepts behind it very intriguing, and I always enjoy seeing Davies challenge himself. A success, but for me far from the top class episodes of the series. (But it is one of the better episodes of this mediocre season.)

Anonymous said...

@Dark Tyler re the hostess's change of heart: She noticed that Sky was using the Doctor's peculiar turns of phrases: molto bene and allons-y. From this, she realized that Sky had taken the Doctor's voice, rather than something moving from Sky into the Doctor. Although it's a bit vague to me why she was suddenly willing to sacrifice herself.

For me, David Tennant's performance is what made the episode. The look on his face as he crouched there, unable to move, unable to speak his own words, while the others turned on him and planned to kill him, was just incredible.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Although it's a bit vague to me why she was suddenly willing to sacrifice herself.

I think she does it because she realizes, after all the passengers badgered her about not doing a very good job of taking care of them when things went beyond the automated usual, that it was her job to protect them all, even at the cost of her own life.

A very effective moment, I thought.

Nicole said...

I would disagree that this has been a mediocre season. I think the quality has been much more consistent than in past seasons without any obvious clunkers, albeit perhaps none quite as great as Blink or the Family of Blood two parter.

At least in terms of the 10 episodes that have aired on this side of the Atlantic...