BBC1 - 14th June 2008 - 7.10pm
As the Government heaves a sigh of relief over its narrow victory in the vote over the 42 day detention ruling for terrorist suspects, I keep wondering where this is leading us all? The manipulation of public fear, by such disaster capitalists, to erode civil liberties is one that taps into our very primal reactions to 'otherness'. The strangers who deplore our foreign policies and the strangers who migrate to our borders are, deep down, tokens of our own fractured human psyche. There is a single moment in Midnight that tells you all you need to know. When Val Crane spits out venomously 'Immigrant' at the Doctor then we know that as a human being, and like most of us, she's reacting to the strangeness of the 'other'. Here she's attacking the Doctor who can't tell them his real name and is far too clever for his own good, and dealing with her xenophobia with one of two choices. Either you try and understand and accommodate this experience of strangeness or otherness or you repudiate it by projecting it exclusively onto outsiders, in this case the possessed Sky Sylvestry and the seemingly arrogant and alien Doctor. By having Val utter that one word, Russell T Davies encapsulates the arid mind-set of millions of Daily Mail readers.
All too often we choose to use our paranoia about outsiders to make sense of our confused emotions, resorting to schizoid states where we will follow a pack mentality and seek to follow an individual, around whom a leadership consensus might form, and also identify scapegoats whom we can blame when disaster strikes. The cleverness of Midnight is that it flips this troubled state back and forth between the ensemble of characters like a barometer traveling between right and left wing views. Eventually, even those who might be considered liberal humanist in their outlook descend into monstrousness. The consensus forming pack leader is, to begin with, the well meaning Doctor but this status terrifyingly unravels as we see the 'other' that possesses Sky, and the effects of this, reverse our perceptions of the rational and liberal inquisitiveness of the Doctor. In the eyes of his fellow passengers, he's seen as the arrogant, clever alien and he is rapidly demoted from leader to scapegoat in 45 minutes of screen time. I like the way that Davies shows us a mirror image of the Doctor where those that don't know him at all would probably react with suspicion and fear especially when there is no companion to mediate on his behalf. This also is an interesting position for the Doctor to be seen in - he switches between the role of a monster and a god as a result of the unconscious fears projected onto him by the passengers.
The passengers are also an interesting social structure in and of themselves. They, as Jean-Francois Lyotard might say, define their culture, imposing their own order and hierarchy within that culture. However, as we see in the course of the drama, the ownership of power in that hierarchy constantly switches and becomes oppressive, exclusive and incomplete. Even the social structures around education, gender and age are used by each of the passengers to perpetuate their own values and the relative worthlessness of those not in positions of power. This constitutive otherness is deferred upon the Doctor and Sky. Sky, once possessed, can only mimic everyone's speech patterns but only truly learns how to manipulate by possessing the Doctor's intelligence and to play on the fears of the other passengers to eliminate him. Davies trawls through the grand narratives of humanity and what he finds isn't pleasant at all. This ugliness is in complete contrast to his more optimistic view of humans in the series and it is even such a revelation to the Doctor that it quite obviously leaves him with a very bitter taste in his mouth. What's exciting here is that the Doctor fails to deal with the ambient fear on board the bus. It's the same fear that saturates day-to-day living and in monstrous form is the entity that possesses Sky. The Doctor is fascinated by the monstrous simply because he needs to, as a function within the series itself, name that which is difficult to apprehend and to domesticate and disempower the threat.
It's a tautly written and performed episode, reminding me much of Jean Paul Satre's No Exit, the source of that very apt quote, 'Hell is other people' , The Crucible, and also of The Twilight Zone's The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street. Davies is assisted by some phenomenally good directing from Alice Troughton and some stunning editing by Philip Kloss which combines precisely coordinated long takes with very brisk visual punctuations - short visual impressions, quick close ups - that feel very Hitchcockian. This was also, by far, Tennant's most emotionally interesting performance of the series and he took the Doctor from cheery ebullience to desperation with great dexterity. His utter helplessness as he realised he wasn't able to contain the paranoia and was dragged by the other passengers towards the airlock was disturbing and powerful. Lesley Sharp pretty much matched him and was stunning as Sky Sylvestry, glowing with a fierce intensity and mesmerisingly subtle as she depicted the entity slowly turning the tables on the Doctor and stoking the fears within the passengers pack mentality. Kudos should also go to Lindsey Coulson as Val Crane who managed to summarise with great accuracy the most repellent qualities of the human condition. David Troughton's Professor Hobbs was an essay in bloated, hand-wringing academia and he uncannily sounded like his father in some scenes. The coda for the ensemble of characters is terribly bleak as they don't seek reconciliation or attempt to apologise for their actions. That their fear might have led to murder is left unsaid by any of them, even the Doctor. The absence of Donna is also a profound admission that the Doctor needs a companion to temper his arrogance and his hollow victory here may well have taken a different course if she had been around. But what we see of Donna is a supreme exercise in deftly summing up the character in the few scenes in which she was present.
It's an episode that breaks a number of boundaries. It makes the human monstrous rather than a prosthetic or CGI creation, it questions the Doctor's modus operandi more succinctly than ever before and suggests that the way we idiosyncratically use language can actually define who we truly are. It also shows that tightly scripted, purely character driven drama can still work its magic on television. Sublime.
Cathode Ray Tube Doctor Who Midnight
Forest Of The Dead
Silence In The Library
The Unicorn And The Wasp
The Doctor's Daughter
The Poison Sky
The Sontaran Stratagem
The Planet Of The Ood
The Fires Of Pompeii
Partners In Crime
- Freelance writer and film and television researcher (for hire).
He has contributed to a number of books and websites about British archive television and cinema as well as recent television series including work for Moviemail, Frame Rated and Arrow Video. Publications include I.B Tauris's 'Doctor Who: The Eleventh Hour - A Critical
Celebration of the Matt Smith and Steven Moffat Era' (2013) and 'Doctor
Who - The Pandorica Opens' (2010).
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- from the north...
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