Because I’m clever.
So, something of an on-and-off theme of these reviews has been an attempt to re-evaluate past episodes of Doctor Who. Not necessarily because I think they need re-evaluation, or even because I think my re-evaluation would be especially important; there are, after all, a couple of other people who have written a few things about Doctor Who, to say the least. No, it’s much more of a personal re-evaluation, based on the contrast between the opinions I’ve held since first watching them, and the opinion I’d form as someone who is now ostensibly a TV critic. (Which still feels weird to say.)
But the other part of that is the question as to whether or not I can bring any level of critical insight to these episodes, or if they’re too bound up with the nostalgia and sentiment of my first viewing to be able to actually engage with them on that level. It’s something that’s come up a few times over the course of these reviews, and it is something I worry about; I do suspect that my reviews of Tennant era Who are fundamentally weaker than, say, the writing I’ve done about the Capaldi era in no small part because of the way I first watched them.
Which makes this episode something of an interesting limit point to that perspective. I’ve spoken a few times about how I basically always enjoyed every single episode of Doctor Who when I watched them a decade ago; they were, to me, pretty much perfect. (Which, again, has been part of the question with some of these reviews: do I only like it because I’m still viewing it with rose tinted glasses?)
Midnight, though, is the first episode of Doctor Who I didn’t actually like. I do quite keenly remember that, actually, and my reaction after it ended – that sort of sense of “is that it?”, and a general sense of dissatisfaction with it all. Specifically, if I remember correctly, it didn’t feel like the episode had gone for a full forty-five minutes – there was a sense that all we’d seen was the preamble and set-up, and the episode as a whole had been lacking in incident. There were no monsters!
Hence, anyway, the question I had in mind with this one – since it’s a very popular episode, and on an intellectual level I sort of ‘knew’ this would be one I ‘should’ like – was whether or not I’d like it, or still be stuck with the same mindset as before.
Obviously, yeah, I did like it.
Which does sort of make sense. One of the things about Midnight, which I don’t think anyone would dispute, is that it’s definitely one of the more mature and experimental episodes of the series; it’s aimed more at the older segment of the audience, arguably, rather than the eight-year-olds. (Indeed, if I remember correctly, I think it’s something Russell T Davies was worried about Which isn’t really a bad thing, and even then it’s not actually that simple – I imagine there were quite a lot of eight-year-olds who loved it because it was creepy and atmospheric. I think really I’m just trying to defend my relatively unrefined taste a decade ago. Whoops.
Anyway, yes, it was very good. It’s a great script from Russell T Davies, though it does feel rather atypical amongst his Who work; it’s not a unique observation to note, in fact, that it’s actually a rather direct inversion of Voyage of the Damned, looking at the worst of people in a difficult situation. I don’t think I’d be inclined to call it Davies’ best script – not because it isn’t good, but because it feels so different from his work in general, that much of what I like about Davies scripts is absent. In that sense, I suppose, I’d definitely be inclined to call it a great script by Davies, if not necessarily a great Davies script (even though that is splitting hairs in more than a few slightly unnecessary ways, and probably missing some nuance in terms of Davies’ wider career).
It’s worth singling out, of course, David Tennant and Lesley Sharp. In a lot of ways, this is an episode that feels well-tailored to Tennant and his Doctor; not just in terms of his use of language and speech, but his arrogance and assumed authority. (This is something that’s true of most, if not all, Doctors to a certain extent, but it feels like it’s especially the case with Tennant, or at least that Midnight approaches this in a way that’s specifically relevant to Tennant.) Lesley Sharp, too, shines throughout – I was going to say she does an impressive job, but really, that’s selling her short. The episode lives or dies on the basis of her performance; a big part of why it’s as good as it is is because she is as good as she is. It’s genuinely, really impressive stuff.
Both of the above points, though, are things that basically everyone has said about Midnight. Often less remarked upon, though, is Alice Troughton. Midnight is a really well-directed piece; it’s atmospheric, yes, but decidedly non-showy about it. There’s a subtlety to the direction, and a confidence to it too; it helps hold the episode together, giving the performances and the sound direction and so on space to breathe and be impactful.
So, yeah, Midnight is pretty great.
What did strike me as being interesting about Midnight, actually, is that there’s a very post-2016 reading to it all.
A character I found myself paying a lot of attention to was Professor Hobbes. Something he does a lot is try and position himself as an authority, insisting over and over again that what he knows is correct, despite the facts that are right in front of him. He’s a parallel to the Doctor, both in terms of his profession and the meta quirk of his casting, but where the Doctor is trying to learn new things and so on, Hobbes is trying to shut them down, insistent he already knows everything. Note also how he keeps shutting down Dee Dee whenever she offers a new idea, or speaks on something she does actually know about.
Also significant, I felt, was Biff Kane, the father character. If you look at his dialogue, he keeps referring back to a certain type of masculinity; he really resents the implication (or, what he assumes is the implication) that he’s a “coward”, and when he’s trying to get the Professor to help him throw the Doctor out of the bus he asks him “what kind of a man are you?”, which says a lot about what he values, and that strain of toxic masculinity. Look also at his wife Val, and that line about “immigrants”.
Essentially, though, when Russell T Davies wrote an episode about the ugliness of people, and the damage of the kind of mob mentality, it starts to feel very reminiscent of the things that prompted Brexit – that rejection of experts, that strain of xenophobia, so on and so forth. This is still a bit of a half-formed idea; I’d like to, and actually do intend to once I’ve finished these weekly posts, return to the idea and write a more considered article on “Doctor Who, Midnight, and Brexit”, actually taking the time to analyse it and consider it rather than offering a few off-the-cuff thoughts.
Ultimately, though, Midnight is in fact very good, and people were always right to love it. It’s a massively, massively impressive piece of television, and even though I didn’t get it at the time, a decade later this is exactly the sort of thing I want to see from Doctor Who.