In the tenth episode of the fourth series of Doctor Who, the Doctor attempts to take a brief vacation from his hectic life, only to discover a sinister being after it takes hold of a passenger on his train. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Doctor Who.
If you’ll allow me to be a bit meta today, I’d like to talk about fandom.
What’s been really, really fun and fascinating about my experience so far with Doctor Who is becoming aware of what the fandom feels, in general, about specific episodes or story arcs, or about specific Doctors and their companions. Aside from when people like myself have felt a thematic distaste for the material or when something is problematic or offensive, I think it all essentially boils down to taste. Which tropes can you tolerate? Which ones excite you? Which ones bore you to tears? What types of characters send you into a tizzy? What storytelling mediums do you enjoy most?
I still read nearly every single comment these days (thank you iPhone!), but it’s rare (if nonexistent) that I’ll actually strike up a discussion and try to convince someone something I liked is actually great or it was horrible. If anything, it’s been a blast to see why you felt this particular episode was spectacular or lackluster or boring or trite.
This is all relevant to something I wanted to bring up and spark a discussion on. There are shows I will to defend to the death. Among those are The X-Files (ARE ANY OF YOU SURPRISED), The Wire, Six Feet Under, The Prisoner (UK version only, FUCK YOU AMERICA), Arrested Development, and Rubicon. There are a few more, but I’m getting pedantic. I’d like to thank the Internet for this, but over the last few years, I’ve learned that there are simply things I enjoy that I have no desire to defend. Because of the whole concept of Mark Watches, this style of blogging easily lends itself to fandom. I mean…to use a word I just wrote, it’s pedantic. It’s very specific, it’s detailed, it’s methodical, and it’s all encompassing. Because of that, I tend to attract people who have very polarizing opinions about specific moments of the show. “The Girl in the Fireplace” is awful. “Blink” is perfection. “Rose” is a subpar series opener. I could spend months recapping such things. That’s not the point. The point is that most especially with a show as erratic as Doctor Who, opinions fall all over the spectrum. But that goes to say with most things. What fandom ascribes as canon or acceptable stories or brilliant characterization constantly changes.
I’d like to think that by now, after over a year and a half of this style of “reviewing,” I’ve made myself clear about what I do enjoy, about what tropes I love and hate and what characterization twists I despise and what plotting devices I want to fellate on the astral plane. I’m certainly not leading to a point where I say HAY I AM ABSOLVED FROM DEFENDING MY IDEAS YAY!, I do want to open this review with this:
I am not going to defend “Midnight” to people who don’t like it.
There are a lot of things here to hate and to be irritated by. I am aware of this. Not only that, but I’ve found that things that exist in film and television that are off-putting or alienating, in terms of focus, structure, or pacing, tend to be things that I love so dearly. Maybe I think I’m some hipster, I DON’T KNOW. But I like movies like Funny Games or La Moustache (HEAD ASPLOSION!!!) or Dogville or Mulholland Drive or The Fountain or shows like Rubicon and LOST and Twin Peaks. All of those things I have listed are things PEOPLE HATE A WHOLE LOT. Like, murderous rage style hate.
When I watched “Midnight,” I immediately told a friend to watch it because I basically went HHHHHHHHNNNNNNNGGGGGGG for 45 minutes straight and I figured he’d like it. He found the dialogue grating and the concept unbelievably absurd. True story: He texted me about 20 minutes through and said WHY WON’T THEY SHUT THE FUCK UP. I couldn’t fight that.
And that’s the point. I am not interested in telling you that you should like “Midnight.” All I’m saying is that I liked it.
I expected, from the opening ten minutes, that we’d finally get an episode of Doctor Who where I could laugh most of the time, especially since shit has been unbearably bleak lately. BUT LOL, NO, AIN’T NEVER PREPARED FOR THIS SHIT.
“Midnight” terrified me. There are a lot of reasons why, but, for me, it all hinged on the way that this script, penned by Russell T Davies, managed to pull off what is, admittedly, an absurd concept. It’s the dialogue. I get why someone would hate it, but I’m a huge fan of dialogue being used to advance a plot. (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, anyone?) But Davies creates something twisted and horrifying here: What if dialogue was used as a weapon? What if something mildly irritating and childish could be the sign of something far more sinister? In fact, by focusing so much of the story on talking, Davies distracts us from the fact that we’re dealing with one of the most common tropes in science fiction: the Enclosed Space trope. Well…it’s also a hefty dose of Locked in a Room, as well, but you get it. We’ve seen movies and TV episodes before deal with this. (Obligatory The X-Files reference: “Ice.” Which is still one of the scariest episodes of anything ever.)
But, as far as I know, not one of these uses dialogue as the villain. Even scarier? WE NEVER EVEN FIND OUT WHAT IT IS THAT CAUSED THIS.
To make it all the more believable, the cast of actors who played the side characters are all believable actors and actresses who fully commit to the terror of the situation. Oh, and Merlin is there. Sorry, I couldn’t help it, that WAS kind of distracting. At any rate, the episode predictably sets up a lot of character archetypes we know well (the know-it-all professor, his assistant, the rebellious mother, the privileged/douchebaggy couple, the neutral employee) and then ALL OF THEM TURN EVIL. Well, at least at one point during the episode. It’s not until the end that we get a true voice of reason. And that was a TERRIFYING thing to realize, especially when there was a point where literally every character was turned against the Doctor.
But the two people who deserve the most praise are David Tennant and Lesley Sharp, who carry the dramatic weight of “Midnight” with a conviction that is rare for television. I can’t imagine being given a role on Doctor Who as one of the main villains facing the Doctor and finding out you’re first repeating everything all the characters say, and then controlling what the Doctor says. And yet Sharp does this with a horrifying determination in her eyes. God, every time that slimy smile was plastered on her face, I shuttered. For me, though, this was one of David Tennant’s best performances. There are any number of moments that stuck out to me, such as the second he realized the entire group had turned on him, and he begged them to recognize that he was scared. But before they all drag him off at the end, there’s a look in his eyes as he is frozen, tears brimming and about to fall down his face, where he knows he is losing. It is one of the most frightening things to me because the Doctor is never scared like that.
The real heartbreak comes during the moment after the entity and the Host have been sucked out of the train and the Doctor sits, dejected, knowing that, given the chance, he would have been murdered by these people. It’s especially hard to watch because of his speech earlier, wherein he told these folks that they had a choice: would they show themselves to be a species of murderers?
Yes. Yes, they would. And though we don’t find out what that thing was, I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that the humans aboard that train are far more terrifying than that thing will ever be.
- “Well, thanks, Dee Dee. That’s just what we needed.”
- “I can’t imagine you without a voice.” Right? How scary is that?
- I at least got the chance to laugh at the Doctor making Sky compliment him via repeating dialogue. Because I would totally do the same thing.
- JETHRO WAS MY FAVORITE. “666!” Again, would do the same thing. I AM AN ADULT, I MAKE ADULT DECISIONS.
- And finally: HOLY SHIT ROSE WAS ON THE TV YELLING AT THE DOCTOR OH MY FUCKING GOD