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New Who 4.10, Midnight

I'm up in Birmingham for the weekend, making sure that Mum's OK while Dad spends a weekend in Cambridge at his annual college reunion event. Mum continues to make good progress, but she's very tired out all the time. So, while she's sleeping, I hope you'll forgive me if I take the chance to catch up on a bit of Who blogging. There may be some spam - but I'm sure you're all very adept with the scroll function!

First up, Midnight (yes, you remember - from nearly two weeks ago...)

This episode had a head start with me in the first place simply because of the type of story it was. I'm not sure what the technical term for it is, but I call it a 'cabin fever' story, and some of my favourite examples of the genre are Night of the Living Dead, The Thing and Cube. The key elements are a small group of people trapped in a closed environment and facing an Unknown Terror - but the real focus of the story is not the terror itself, but the personality clashes which emerge between the core characters in the face of the extreme situation.

Put the Doctor in this situation with a group of (future) humans, and, fairly inevitably, the biggest division that's going to emerge is between them and the time-travelling alien. And that's really why I liked this episode so much. It's not just a reworking of a type of story I happen to like anyway, purely for the sake of it. It uses that setting to put the Doctor up for scrutiny, expose his flaws, and ask some of the fundamental questions about his interactions with humanity: the very sorts of questions, in fact, which Ian and Barbara asked right in the very first story. Like who actually is he; what qualifications or authority does he have; what makes him think he's so bloody clever; and above all, why should anyone listen to him or trust him? And with this at the heart of the episode, what absolute genius to leave Donna out of it. Because as the companion character, had she been there she would inevitably have acted as a bridge between the Doctor and the other passengers: again, much as Susan did for Ian and Barbara. Her behaviour towards him would have acted as a cue to the other passengers that he was worth trusting; and that would have robbed us of the chance to see the Doctor wriggling uncomfortably as he is grilled and found wanting by a group of angry humans.

That alone would have made for a pretty good episode. But it wasn't all we got. Because this episode was also about one of the key weapons in the Doctor's arsenal - speech. And this was batted about, and played with, and inverted and upturned throughout the entire episode, and I thought it was brilliantly done and again really addressed some of the unwritten 'rules' of the Whoniverse. Early on, we see the Doctor using speech as he normally does: to forge connections, build the trust he needs to operate, and learn about the people he's with and the situation he is in. Once he's turned the 'entertainment' system off, it's the Doctor who gleefully takes the opportunity to get people talking, and he is also the only one who sits down and has a chat with lone traveller Sky before she becomes possessed.

Interestingly, and much to his credit too, it's made pretty clear in these sequences that he is very much aware not only of the power of his own speech (as a means of persuasion), but of others' too. He (and we as viewers) learns a great deal about both his fellow passengers and the planet they're on from their conversations during the early 'chat montage' sequence, all of which helps him to understand them and the danger they are facing later on. Similarly, when disaster first strikes, and everyone is panicking about not having enough oxygen, he calls for silence not so that he can explain why they have nothing to fear, but so that he can give the stage to Dee Dee, whom he knows the other passengers will believe. This is the Doctor as an enabler, empowering the people around him - and I thought it cast an interesting light on his otherwise rather obnoxious habit of going round telling everybody how fantastically clever he is. It's not that he wants everyone to bow down in admiration, because if he did then he would have explained about the oxygen recycling - and besides, it is a long-established character trait, through all his regenerations, that he prefers to save planets and move on, rather than hang around for thanks. The "Because I'm clever" protestations are more about him being an alien - from his perspective, that should be all that's needed to establish his authority, and he's visibly frustrated when, in human terms, it's not.

Anyway, in this episode, the nature of the danger he's facing means that speech itself becomes a double-edged sword. Not only is it failing him as a means of winning trust in the absence of his companion, but it's also, of course, the means by which the Alien Menace of the week grows stronger. And so, this character who so often sails his way through situations via the gift of the gab, gradually turns to the power of silence instead. When the Unknown Terror starts banging on the outside of the ship, he several times calls for silence from the other passengers, so that he can hear properly to investigate what is going on. He does the same once the copying and then the synchronous speaking begin, so that he can use clear, directed speech (rather than a panicked babble) to test what is happening. And finally, he realises that silence itself is not just a necessary condition for further investigation here - it's also a containment device. That, in fact, is his plan for dealing with whatever has possessed Sky - to cut off the mechanism it is using to learn and develop, until it can be dealt with properly in less hostile circumstances. And we are given no reason to believe it wouldn't have worked - if only the other people on the ship had trusted him enough to follow his plan.

Which is what it all turns on in the end. The logical conclusion is that his ultimate weapon is not speech, or silence, but trust. Without that, neither speech nor silence can save him, and he's literally robbed of all control over both, while someone else has to avert the crisis (and in a way that causes the loss of two, arguably three, lives). Clearly, the trust which a legion of his former companions already have in him is going to save both the Doctor and the Universe in the final few episodes. And to me, that makes this exploration of the issue a very powerful contribution at this stage in the season.


( 19 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 27th, 2008 04:24 pm (UTC)
I did enjoy the episode. The only thing I thought let it down was the ending which felt a little lacking. Mainly just in that there was never any explanation. There was never any attempt to find out what actually happened from the doctor or anybody else and it left me with the feeling that he discovered dangerous entities on the surface of a planet and then just wandered off. It damaged what had been an excellent episode otherwise. Even just some kind of identification of what made it attack then (apart from that nobody had gone that way you got the impression it wasn't a huge detour off of their usual route). It felt very much like when the story was written all that good stuff you commented in mind was there and the way to build in the conclusion was just skipped entirely.
Jun. 27th, 2008 08:20 pm (UTC)
I think I was glad RTD didn't try to offer any specific explanation of what the thing that attacked the tour-buggy had been. It meant that it remained more frightening by dint of being unexplained, and left the focus on people's reactions to the attack, rather than the attacker itself. I think it would have taken the impact off how utterly devastated the Doctor was afterwards if they'd also had to put in scenes of him reporting back to the planet's authorities about what had happened, and advising them to get the hell outta there. It was made pretty clear in his dialogue with Donna that he would do that, anyway.
Jun. 27th, 2008 07:27 pm (UTC)
I loved the episode. But what I cannot understand is the viewpoint that I've seen on LJ that the episode was utterly racist. This was apparently cos at the end, the two characters speaking up for the Doctor are both black and are both ignored. Which suggests to me a total lack of awareness about what the episode is even about! As you say, speech is a key element of the episode, and human nature, and the point is that nobody would get through to those people by that stage, because they are consumed with paranoia and it would take action rather than speech to prevent the death of the Doctor. Similarly, it was felt by these people that the episode was racist cos the Hostess wasn't referred to by her real name, and she was black. Never mind the fact that she saved everyone with her selfless action! I do feel that they kind of missed the point of the entire episode...and if RTD was that racist, he wouldn't have had a non-white character in the episode in the first place, let alone have her save everyone else...
Jun. 27th, 2008 07:54 pm (UTC)
Yes, I've seen a lot of commentary saying this kind of thing: 'another anonymous non-white woman' and so on. I think that they are kind of conflating the actions and beliefs of the characters with those of the author.
Jun. 27th, 2008 08:06 pm (UTC)
I think that they are kind of conflating the actions and beliefs of the characters with those of the author.

That's very well said. Unfortunately, these are the type of people who are so adamant in their beliefs of 'racisim' that they won't listen to reason. It's awful, because bandying about accusations of racism is actually quite a dangerous thing.
Jun. 27th, 2008 08:13 pm (UTC)
It is. I do try to be aware, as a white woman in a Western democracy, that things that seem innocuous to me could be offensive to black and Asian viewers, but it still seems to me that sometimes the accusations go too far. And sometimes they don't; I think there have been genuine problems with the representation of a number of minorities in New Who, but because there are people who will protest any time a villain is anything other than a white man those get overlooked rather.
Jun. 27th, 2008 08:24 pm (UTC)
Yes, they've definitely gone too far in this case - particularly as Doctor Who is a major television show and RTD is going to be very aware of any potential offence that he may cause.

And as you say, there are plenty of other things to be concerned about - particularly gender. I found Stephen Moffett's two-parter highly sexist. But it's interesting how these people don't jump on that, and it was blatantly sexist, instead it's almost as if the race card is played because that's likely to be viewed as more offensive generally than sexism.

I hope that made some sense, by the way - I had an intensely long day at work so I am somewhat tired!!!
Jun. 27th, 2008 08:26 pm (UTC)
No, I agree - it really didn't come across as racist to me. I think one of the most important aspects of the episode is that every character in the tour-buggy has flaws, as well as strengths - including the Doctor, of course. I really couldn't see any distinction between the way the black characters and the white characters were portrayed in that respect.
Jun. 27th, 2008 09:03 pm (UTC)
Yes definitely - they were all flawed, black and white, but interestingly (in regards to those crying 'racism!'), the non-white characters had the most positive characteristics too (apart from the Doctor). I just don't know where this viewpoint came from at all, surely all of this is blindingly obvious to anyone with sense?
Jun. 27th, 2008 09:34 pm (UTC)
the non-white characters had the most positive characteristics

Yes, that's how I saw it too.
Jun. 28th, 2008 12:38 am (UTC)
But we have the black woman who's subservient to a white man who doesn't listen to her, and the black woman who sacrifices her life for a white man. These are, according to those people, racial stereotypes indicative of RTD's ingrained belief in black people's, or women's, role. I don't really agree with that, but I'll concede they're not just pulling the racism card out of nowhere. But I do agree with you that in this episode, they're the only two who are supportive of the Doctor, so it's a bit daft to complain about them as racial stereotypes. The other accusation of racism I'e seen recently is the Insidious Evil Chinese Fortune Teller in "Turn Left", and that one is a bit of a dodgy stereotype, honestly.

Why did you think Moffat's 2-parter was sexist? Because of Miss Evangelista being first beautiful and stupid, then deformed and brilliant? I have heard some people accuse Moffat because of this of thinking that women can only be intelligent OR beautiful, but that's clearly nonsense when you look at his other episodes, or even at River Song. As well as her, Sally Sparrow, Reinette and Nancy are all highly intelligent women and none of them is an uggo!
Jun. 28th, 2008 10:03 am (UTC)
Yeah, I guess that's true about the social position of the two black women.

Why did you think Moffat's 2-parter was sexist?

I think the clearest statement of my views on this point is here, on swisstone's journal.
Jun. 28th, 2008 05:31 pm (UTC)
I can't access that! I think it's probably friends only.
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 27th, 2008 09:40 pm (UTC)
Yes, I'd agree. I still think I just about preferred Fires of Pompeii - and of course Turn Left was pretty decent too! But I'd easily class this as my second-favourite episode of the season to date, just after Fires.
Jun. 27th, 2008 09:14 pm (UTC)
Brilliant review, I absolutely love your analysis of this episode, particularly the way that you link it back to the early First Doctor serials. This episode really had quite a lot in common with The Edge of Destruction, although in that case the Doctor was a character that the audience (along with Ian and Barbara) mistrusted for good reason, and the episode attempted to flip that mistrust around every way it could. This time, it's a matter of defamiliarising a Doctor that the audience, for the most part, trusts implicitly to act in the best interests of humanity.
Jun. 27th, 2008 09:38 pm (UTC)
Thanks. :-) Yes, I agree about the links with Edge of Destruction (which I also loved!). I think it does the character of the Doctor a great deal of good to, as you say, defamiliarise him every now and again. Otherwise he runs the risk of losing that fascinating alienness which makes him so interesting, and just turning into a bland superhero instead.
Jun. 28th, 2008 05:59 pm (UTC)
As usual your analysis is spot-on. I thought it was a fascinating exploration of the workings of trust - something far in advance of what you normally expect of any tv serial, let alone such a genre show. Every now and again I get struck by the astonishing way the whole of society functions on trust, for no better reason than we assume others trust us - and without it, where are we?
Jun. 28th, 2008 06:11 pm (UTC)
Every now and again I get struck by the astonishing way the whole of society functions on trust

Oh, I entirely know what you mean! It's scary to think how much of our basic everyday life rests on assuming that other people aren't going to kill us, rob us, or otherwise abuse us. Obviously, sometimes they do - but the fact that, on the whole, that basic assumption seems to work out all right is quite a credit to us all, really.
Jul. 14th, 2008 12:05 pm (UTC)
Nice analysis, and pretty much why I liked it (I think this might just be my favourite of the series). One thing that struck me that you didn't mention was that the way events panned out, the passengers were right and the doctor was wrong. He told them not to throw Sky out and that almost cost them their lives. Obviously, this is over-simplifying things, since he didn't want to murder a new life-form without trying to open the lines of communication and he wanted to try and save Sky if at all possible, whereas the rest of the passengers were getting hysterical. But I find it interesting that ultimately the hostess wasn't listening to / supporting the doctor at the end, but doing what she had said she would do at the outset.
( 19 comments — Leave a comment )

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