Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Midnight

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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.

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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 TroughtonMidnight 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.

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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 WhoMidnight, 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.

9/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Doctor’s Daughter

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You talk all the time, but you don’t say anything.

If we take a moment to step back into memory lane, as we sometimes do in this ill-defined series of poorly written reviews, I’ll impart to you something that might seem strange.

The Doctor’s Daughter is perhaps the single episode I remember prompting the most discussion in the week before it aired. Endless theories! Probably the first time we all – and this was not, notably, just the geeks in the corner, because back then basically everyone watched the show – sat around discussing whether or not Susan was going to be coming back. (Entertainingly, in hindsight that’s not actually the most unlikely prediction people made – there was someone who was certain that David Tennant would backflip through the lasers after Jenny.)

I find that quite interesting to consider, because there was clearly something about the premise (and the title) that really captivated the imagination. And, actually, it’s not just the premise either, because it was still largely quite well liked after the broadcast as well. Maybe that’s not illustrative of much, since as far as I remember everyone liked every episode (we’re still a few weeks out from The First Doctor Who Episode I Actually Disliked On First Watch) – but it still suggests that there was some merit to this one.

That, of course, is a suggestion which is more than a little bit at odds with how The Doctor’s Daughter is perceived now – outside of the entertaining novelty value of the quirks of the Davison-Tennant family tree, the episode is met with a lot of derision. I wonder, though, if it’s misplaced criticism – that if the episode could captivate us back in the day, maybe there’s something of value to it. Certainly, in the past, I’ve defended the episode, in no small part influenced by remembering just how much I used to enjoy it.

So, we return to a question we’ve asked ourselves a few times in the past. Was this episode any good? Was I right to enjoy it, and pick this show to essentially base my life around? (Well, actually, if we start getting into that with The Doctor’s Daughter, I’ll have an identity crisis, and I don’t have the time for that.)

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It helps, if nothing else, to think about it as the third part of The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky; you can see the continuing threads of contrasting the Doctor against soldiers, or the colourful and fun monsters (I do love the Hath), and also Martha is there. Sure, it’d be a little too fast in places, and maybe some of the ideas aren’t quite explored as they should’ve been, and Martha still isn’t actually given anything to do, but if you look at it in terms of being another ‘for kids’ episode it works quite well. We’ve already seen, after all, the terribly convincing anecdotal evidence that about ten kids ten years ago really enjoyed it. Certainly, it’s not really any less entertaining than the Sontaran story that preceded it.

But it falls apart, though, because that very much wasn’t the point of the episode. It was conceived as an attempt to be a thoughtful, considered character episode for the Doctor, something that genuinely changes him – the equivalent of The Girl in the Fireplace or Human Nature in terms of intelligent drama, and a chance for David Tennant to show off his considerable acting skills. If that’s the benchmark you’re measuring it against – and why not, since that’s the aim the production team had – then there’s no way in which The Doctor’s Daughter doesn’t fail to live up to their lofty intentions. You might have noticed at the start of each of these reviews I always pick out a little quote, which I try and make sure is reflective either of the themes of the episode, or of the commentary I’m trying to offer on it. This week’s quote feels especially apt, to be honest; for all that The Doctor’s Daughter talks and talks – at quite some pace, too – it never gets anywhere close to saying anything.

Were I inclined to defend the episode from my own critique, I’d perhaps point out that even if it fails at one thing that doesn’t mean it doesn’t succeed at being another. And, yes, that’s true up to a point – but it’s also where it becomes clear that The Doctor’s Daughter was just grappling with too many ideas. An idea as significant as the Doctor’s family, particularly in the emotionally heightened, post-Time War Russell T Davies years, has to take centre stage and be explored properly – anything less is always going to be a let-down.

If this had ‘just’ been about that, or if it had ‘just’ been about the Doctor, Donna and Martha on a strange planet – Martha demonstrating how much she’d grown, finally given a proper chance to do something outside the confines of her series 3 plot – I’ve little doubt that the episode would’ve been much stronger.

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Something else that bothers me about this episode, actually, is the reveal that the war had actually only been happy for a week – turning around and realising it hadn’t been years, it had been generations, and each generation only lasted a few minutes away.

Why did it bother me? Well, I used to love it, actually. It struck me as such a smart concept, and I thought it was really neat that Doctor Who had included something like that… until, many years later, someone pointed out that it doesn’t actually change anything about the plot. It doesn’t make a difference! After it’s been revealed that they’ve only been fighting for a week, everything continues as if they’d been fighting for a thousand years; sure, there’s the fact that the ship and the Source still work, but they’re both sci-fi inventions that could have just as easily been said to last a thousand years rather than any other arbitrarily defined point in time.

And that feels indicative, in some ways, of a lot of this episode. Ideas are thrown around, but nothing’s really done with them – even, as we noted previously, The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky were able to eke out more interesting content than this. The fact that Jenny was originally set to die at the end is telling, really; it’s the most final and emphatic way you could conceivably avoid actually exploring any of the ideas in the episode. Or, perhaps more accurately, the ideas that the episode gestured at – it’d be quite a stretch to say there’s any ideas in the episode, given that implies at least a little bit of thought and engagement and exploration of concepts.

This all sounds fairly negative, and in many ways it is. Certainly, it’s a lot more negative than I expected to feel before I watched the episode. But there’s something quite frustrating about realising that an episode I was previously quite fond of is in fact such a forgettable, throwaway bit of whatever.

5/10

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