5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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Once upon a time, a man wrote something about a group of marooned passengers who become aware that one of them is their enemy. What follows is a taut and gripping psychological drama: the people involved face their darkest sides and find out just how far they're prepared to go to ensure their own safety - even when that means throwing others to the wolves.
Duh, we hear you say. That'd be Russell T Davies, then. Writing Midnight. Which you're supposed to be reviewing.
Nope. The man we're talking about is John Steinbeck. The director is Alfred Hitchcock. And the film is Lifeboat.
How do people behave when they feel under threat? Will their better natures rise to the fore, or will they do whatever it takes to ensure their own survival? Well, what do you think? Lifeboat is an incisive examination of humanity that turns a shatteringly cold and unflattering light on our less attractive traits and leaves the audience shaken and depressed. It's nihilism distilled, in the shape of a movie that's justifiably a classic.
If you haven't seen Lifeboat, we're betting Midnight looks very different to you than it does to us. In other words, it must have a million times the impact. These are powerful ideas (it's not for nothing the story got an Academy Award nomination). But if you've seen them before? Not so much.
Especially when it's not done, shall we say, quite so well. Davies is no Steinbeck. And it's not just because we've seen the story before that we think this lifeboat is marooned in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
In the new series, we've seen bad Doctor Who. We’ve seen dull Doctor Who. But we've never before experienced Doctor Who so mind-numbingly tedious that we had to struggle even to watch till the end. Normally, we watch all episodes twice before reviewing them, because it gives us more of a balanced perspective than our first impression supplies. But we can't watch this again. Not for you. Not for anybody.
Midnight is a bottle show (in this case, more of a specimen bottle show, but never mind): pretty much one set and a small bunch of people. No latexy monsters. No pretty planets. Just a very small budget and pages and pages of dialogue. It's certainly a departure for Doctor Who, and that we applaud. We have no objection at all to the idea: good dialogue, great psychological drama, what's not to like? Except it isn't. Either of them.
The fundamental idea's a great one (well, it would be, wouldn't it?) But since it's been done before, and more than once at that (it's even been done in space), it has to do something we haven't seen before. And that's just where Midnight falls down.
First of all, this is a character drama, so the characters need to be pretty bloody interesting. Alas, instead they're a walking bunch of clichés. The only ones with any spark of life are Claude, who snuffs it all too soon, and Dee Dee, who at least shows a glimmer of intelligence before joining the baying pack of wolves. Who royalty David Troughton does his best with the underdrawn Professor, but as with Dee Dee his moral skips back and forth are undeveloped and too sudden. The Cane family, complete with regulation snarky teenager, couldn't have been drawn with broader strokes if Russell T Davies had written the script with a paintbrush. Davies favourite Lesley Sharp, his other Rose (from Bob And Rose), is clearly meant to have a character, what with being haughty and lovelorn and all, but she scarcely has time to register as a real person before she's doing the possessed thing we've seen a zillion times before.
Although not, we have to admit, quite like this. We thought every drop of novelty had been wrung out of the possession scenario, but we'd overlooked this one: the hair-tearingly screamingly annoying. All that painstaking looping work in the soundbooth, and for what? A device that nearly made our heads explode from sheer irritation. Maddening and tedious! What a triumph!
As for the scrabble for survival, this is no doubt supposed to be hard-hitting social critique, but instead it's all too predictable. You can see every development, from them wanting to throw Sky out to turning on the Doctor, approaching from miles away. From the sledgehammer social comment ("I'm just a traveller." "Like an immigrant?") to the panicking, it's all so obvious. (What really would have surprised us was if they'd decided to be nice.) They can't even resist heavily underlining that Sky is still possessed: when she's standing in the middle of the group, she's the only one with a key light on her face. Hint, hint!
Now add to that sheer wanton stupidity that nullifies the entire concept: if whatever-it-is came from outside, as it so clearly does, what in God's name is the point of throwing it out again? Yes, Dee Dee speculates that it will at least "kill the physical form", but that's hardly a guarantee, and the strongest chance is that it will merely liberate it. It'll be able to get in again just as easily as it did before (and probably will be quite tetchy, too). But after Dee Dee's vague speculation, it's just taken as a cast-iron fact that throwing it outside will solve all their problems. We could stretch a point for the hysterical humans not spotting the flaw, but the Doctor doesn't get it either, and that's unforgivable. Despite repeatedly declaring himself the cleverest, he never once points out that chances are throwing it out will be useless; he just bangs on and on instead about turning the other cheek and extending the hand of friendship. Gah!
That's not the only stupidity, either. What about that light that's supposed to wipe out anything alive in microseconds: how did they manage to survive being bathed in it - twice - when the front and back doors were opened?
Amazingly enough, though, none of that is the worst bit. The worst bit is what Davies does to the Doctor.
It's pretty clear what Davies's intentions are. This Doctor's all about the glory of humans, especially the ordinary ones. He practically worships them. So what happens when those ordinary humans betray his expectations in the ugliest way possible?
It's not at all a bad idea in itself. And what he's overall trying to achieve isn't a bad idea either. We're all for gritty Doctor Who, dark Doctor Who, tragic Doctor Who, Doctor Who where the Doctor sometimes fails to triumph. However, if you're going to go down that road, you have to be able to back it up. Instead, Davies gets where he wants to go by tossing the Doctor out the window.
Just how does the Doctor do what he does, anyway? He turns up places, a total stranger, and somehow manages to get people to listen to him. Even if he's suspected of nefariousness, which is a classic series chestnut Davies recycles here, that normally doesn't last long: give him a few minutes and the locals are usually eating out of his hand. It's not through strength. It's not through force of arms. And although his being smart has something to do with it, it's by no means all of it. It's his sheer charisma, plus a mysterious alchemical process we can't label any more accurately than "being the Doctor". We can't calculate its atomic weight, but we sure know it when we see it.
This is not to say, of course, that as a result the Doctor always prevails. Doctorliness can only go so far. And fair enough too. But even when some around him shrug and go ahead anyway, the Doctor always retains his power to a greater or lesser degree.
Not in Midnight.
What is it that the plot events of Midnight depend on? It's that for once Doctorliness comes nowhere near cutting the mustard. The Doctor's being himself just as usual: there's the passion for a new life form, the instinct to save life, the desire to do the most humane and moral thing. But this time, it has no effect at all. Rather than at least some of them being drawn onto his side as you'd usually see, the people around him behave just as you'd expect them to behave if you dropped an alien in their midst who insisted on them risking their lives for a doubtful reward: they're not having a bar of it. That mysterious alchemy the Doctor draws on to charm and persuade people just doesn't work.
Again, not a bad idea in itself, but it absolutely has to have some justification. Why doesn't it work this time? We have no idea, because Davies doesn't give any reason. And that's cheating. You can show different, darker and less attractive aspects of the Doctor by all means (and please do), but you can't change his fundamental nature. Without that alchemical power, this isn't the Doctor. And without a reason why he's lost that power, none of this has sufficient meaning to make sense.
Does it have any redeeming features? Definitely. There's the trying something new thing, which gets half a point for effort, and the alien they don't explain, although points for that are cancelled by making it a The Monster Is Us story. But the true winner here is David Tennant's performance. It's absolutely stellar. Even when he's spouting the bleedin' obvious ("I think the more we talk the more she learns." YOU DON'T SAY!) he's a total pleasure to watch. Why, his "Actually, I don't think that's helping" almost (but not quite) redeems all the hysteria. And while we really hope that his perturbation at the end is due to his being taken over and almost flung out an airlock and not by his glimpse into human nature (because we all know perfectly well that he's struck humans being human before), he does an exquisite job of it. It's the single saving grace, but it is at least a really really nice one.
Tired plot. Stuff, like the peanuts joke, that's so old it’s got fur on it. Cardboard characters. Moral dilemmas so broadly and predictably enacted they have the punch of wet marshmallow. And yes, one brilliant Doctor. One of these things is not like the others. Pass the scissors.
MORAL: Bring a gun.
Could this be the first time we've ever seen the Doctor travelling somewhere other than in the TARDIS? Why travel Ryanair when you have a private jet?
FIFTEEN MINUTES INTO THE FUTURE
Another story set in another place and time where the humans are wearing current fashions. And it's still just as wimpy and unimaginative.
If you have to book months in advance, how come there were so few people on the bus?
WHAT A TURNOFF
Like much of this, the Doctor switching off the cacophony on the plane is all too clearly signposted. Not least because, like much of this, it’s not original: you can do it yourself without benefit of sonic screwdriver with that lovely little invention the TV-B-Gone.
Is it just us, or is that shot of the Doctor using the sonic screwdriver just a little bit…dodgy?