We’ve reached the part of the season that often gets called ‘daring’ and ‘adventurous’ by the production team, but is more often the point where some desperate budget-crunching needs to happen in order to finance the oncoming super-confict-tacular season finale. It’s especially strange because these episodes are often the closest (in terms of execution, at least) to old-school Doctor Who, and the New Who format doesn’t always work well when shorn of its big-scale CG and frenetic running about. Here, we’ve also got the “We need to give the Doctor/Companion a break” factor, which means that this week is all Doctor, and next episode (for better or worse) revolves around Donna. In the case of Midnight, we’ve got a prime example of a bottle show, with virtually the entire episode taking place on one set, and a convenient bit of plot gubbins meaning that there only needs to be a couple of shots of CG. This is also RTD’s first episode since the season opener (and starts a four-episode run of ‘All RTD, All the time…’ until the finale), and it’d be natural after the last two episodes of Moffat to feel a certain sense of impending disaster. We certainly didn’t get that – while Midnight may still be chock full of many of RTD’s biggest flaws, it definitely ranks as one of his better episodes, even if there’s never a point where it escapes feeling like not much more than a desperate budget-saving manouevre.
As confirmed by the brief snippet I saw of this week’s Who Confidential, Midnight is essentially the flipside of Voyage of the Damned, where the pastiche of disaster movies isn’t a cue for lots of Irwin Allen-style fun, but a cue to go for a darker strain of psychological horror. It’s hardly a very original touch – almost every single ‘locked room’ tale you can think of is essentially about exploring the bleaker side of human nature and our ability to turn on each other when under threat (in fact, what Midnight reminded me most of was Stephen King’s novella The Mist). What’s surprising about Midnight is exactly how far RTD goes – New Who has almost always (sometimes to a bewildering extent) been about celebrating humanity and how great it is to be an ordinary person, and while some of the writing in Midnight is clumsy (particularly the descent into Daily Mail-speak by the married couple), it’s very daring to go that far, and does provide the episode with a genuinely disturbing tone. It’s almost as if RTD is subverting the usual structure of Who that he’s laid down, especially in S1, where the Doctor is more of a catalyst to inspire another character to save the day – here, he comes so close to failing in this that it is genuinely unsettling, especially when he’s on the verge of being thrown out. When he leaves the comedy alone, RTD can be exceptionally good – but unfortunately, he’s still monumentally hopeless at thinking an SF story through, and in Midnight, the only real SF story device is the way that they’re trapped. Aside from this, the story could be taking place on a minibus stranded on the edge of the M4, and the ambiguity of the central threat would be genuinely spooky if there was more going on in the episode. Unfortunately, that’s all there is – RTD doesn’t want to dress this up in any funky concepts, and doesn’t seem to realise that he’s stretching the story out way too far. It’s a Twilight Zone-style story that would have been ideal around the 25 or 30 minute limit, but ends up stretched out by the rather wearisome ‘quirky’ characterisations in the opening 15 minutes, and the fact that the series is completely terrified of extrapolating characters too far. Even in a recognisably SF setting, we’ve still got everyone wearing normal clothes, and speaking exactly as if they’ve just wandered off the set of Eastenders – yes, some of this is so that the audience can (hopefully) relate to them and the later material can be disturbing, but the show does this all the time, and it often ends up feeling like lazy shorthand.
Plus, I’m not sure how wise it was to schedule three dark-and-creepy episodes in a row, as Midnight suffers majorly against its predecessors, and there’s also the sense that too much of the show’s deliberately scary content is being skewed towards easily copied scares. Here, the scares are everything – there’s no sense of specifically why anything is happening or what kind of creature we’re dealing with (It’s got a physical presence, can wreck the vehicle, and yet can also posess minds, learn through language, and apparently understand human psychology?), and while it’s more succesful than most, it’s still a very good example of the New Who strategy that the emotional storytelling is far more important than explaining why anything is happening (a style that’s pretty antithetical to SF). Lesley Sharp’s performance started off a little odd and mannered, but the posession sequences were fantastically done, and while the direction meant everything was a little too broad (the question needs to be raised of why the hell the director of ‘Blink’ hasn’t been asked back…), the acting was of a pretty good standard – ultimately, while there’s some fascinating stuff, and it certainly ranks way above filler nonsense like ‘Boom Town’ and ‘Fear Her’, ‘Midnight’ is a psychological idea stretched out for too long, and instead of revelling in its constraints (like ‘Blink’) ends up somewhat hobbled by them. More interesting than most RTD episodes, but something that’s more to be admired than liked, and not an episode I’d be in any hurry to watch again.
Next week? Rose returns, the Doctor dies/gets incapacitated, and we start the run-up to the no doubt absurd uber-climax. And are we possibly heading for a ‘Planet of the Spiders’ / ‘Runaway Bride’ crossover reference?