It's hard not to draw some kind of conclusion from the fact that last Saturday's episode of time-traveling action-comedy Doctor Who was obviously made for 50 pence and a Frobisher and Gleason raspberry flavored ice lolly. And it's the best episode of the year, far better than some episodes that were full of money being thrown at the screen. Could it be that Doctor Who's at its best when it makes do with less, budget-wise? Or could it just be that having to write a story about people in a small enclosed space, Russell T. Davies decided to go the claustrophobic-drama route, and we're all better off as a result? Spoilers ahead!
Either way, watching "Midnight" should put to rest any idea that Doctor Who is just a "kids show." It's a family drama, and has been since the early 60s (when it regularly featured things like a fur trapper trying to rape Barbara, and the Doctor manipulating a race of pacifists into fighting the Daleks on his behalf.) And the show has often been at its best when it's done episodes like this one — a horror story that has as much to do with the evil that people are capable of as it does with an external monster.
That's why I chose the clip above, by the way. Not only is it the best moment in this story, it's also the moment where the story shifts seamlessly on its axis, from monster horror to people horror. Suddenly, just like that, the people are the monsters. I was crossing my fingers and holding my breath that we wouldn't get an ending that explained that there was some sort of mind control or demonic influence or psychic nastiness. And thank goodness there wasn't.
Instead, these characters were just bastards in a crisis — under enough pressure, they were willing to commit murder to survive. It felt very much like an old Twilight Zone episode, or a knockoff of Sartre's No Exit.
The thing that was really amazing about this episode was that it used all of Russell T. Davies' usual tricks — except a lot darker than usual. You have the random cast of people, each of whom gets a little character moment to establish them: the bitchy mom, the blustering dad, the goth son, the wounded lesbian, the control-freak flight attendant, and then the pompous professor and his exploited grad student. Everybody gets to be just well rounded enough to be a decent caricature — and then later, Russell T. twists the knife. Like the moment when the exploited grad student, Dee Dee, decides to prove she's clever by showing them how they can murder poor Mrs. Silvestry. And then a while later she protests killing the Doctor, and her boss Professor Hobbes puts her in her place.
(By the way, Professor Hobbes was played by David Troughton, the son of the second Doctor. This was his second Doctor Who role, after 1972's The Curse of Peladon. Little trivia moment. But according to Wikipedia, he's not related to Alice Troughton, who directed the episode, though.)
And a lot of the episode had RTD's trademark quirkiness — but it totally creeped me out instead of being campy. Just imagine if someone had described this episode to you: "Their 'bus' breaks down in the middle of nowhere, and there's a thing banging on the walls, and then it gets in and takes over a lesbian who looks like Jackie Tyler. And she starts repeating what everybody says, like a parrot. And then finally she's saying stuff at the same time as them, and then it's only the Doctor. And at last she's speaking first, and he's repeating her." You would think it's another exercise in silliness — but in practice it's scary and disturbing, and the longer it goes on the more jarring it gets. You can see why the other humans start wanting to kill her.
Even the little funny touches, like the peanuts and juice pack and pop music and cartoons towards the beginning, end up contributing to the weirdness because they anchor the episode with their banality. (Oh and I should add: I don't always hate RTD's "funny" episodes. I loved the one with the ordinary people investigating the Doctor, where they turn into an ELO cover band. And there are a few other silly RTD outings that I've enjoyed. When it works, his humor is fantastic — it just gets a bit tired after the tenth fat-people monster.)
The other thing I loved about the episode was David Tennant's performance — for once the psychic paper doesn't get him anywhere, and he can't simply take charge of the situation. He's still the cleverest person in the room, but he doesn't know everything that's going on. And watching him try to take charge, you realize how much his "take charge" act depends on motion. He'll say something like "follow me," and start walking at top speed in some direction. But he can't do that in this episode, because there's no place to go, almost nothing to do except wait for rescue. A motionless Doctor, apparently, is a much more helpless Doctor. And yes, he did channel Peter Davison's super-vulnerable Doctor a bit. And the climax, where he's paralyzed, helpless and unable to stop repeating the evil lesbian, was amazing.
(By the way, are we supposed to think that the fact that Mrs. Silvestry starts saying things like "molto bene" at the end means the Doctor is fighting back the only way he can — by feeding her his weird vocabulary? Or is it just random?)
So yes, we're all monsters, and we're all ready to do the worst possible thing in a crisis — although, this time around, it turned out to be the right thing, sort of. It's one of the bleakest takes on humanity I can remember ever seeing on Doctor Who, and what makes it so great is that all of those characters also have moments of compassion or nobility in the same episode. They don't turn murderous and that's it — they keep veering towards murder and then away from it again.
Finally, I'm glad that we didn't get some kind of glib explanation of what the creature was, and why it was so ebil. And the Doctor didn't suddenly bounce back and crack a giant joke at the end, as if this experience actually got to him a bit.
To answer the question I sort of posed in the beginning, I don't think I liked this episode just because it reminded me of old-school Who, of which I remain a huge fan. This wasn't old-school Who by any means — it still had all the trappings of the RTD era, and was better for having them. I can't quite imagine any previous era of the show doing a story quite like this one — there would have been a rubber monster at some point, and some kind of explanation, and chances are the characters would have been a bit more straightforward. It would have been the crew of an exploraiton ship or something, with a few explorer archetypes on board. Anyway, no - this was new Who at its best, only without quite so much money, campiness or sentimentality. Molto bene. What did you think?