Tuesday, August 05, 2008

4:10 "Midnight"


And then, just before Doctor Who finally disappeared up its own arse, we got this tantalizing glimpse of what might have been.


"Midnight" has absolutely nothing to do with Doctor Who. It doesn't begin with the TARDIS arriving on an alien planet. It doesn't end it with it dematerializing. The Doctor goes off and has an adventure without a companion in tow. We're always being told that the Doctor wants to go and see this or that wonder of the universe; but I can't remember the last time we actually saw him behaving like a tourist (*); booking a trip on a tour bus, chatting away with ordinary people -- or, at rate, RTD placeholders for ordinary people. It suggests to us what the Doctor's life might be like on the days when he isn't saving the cosmos. It suggests that the there might actually be such days.


When the tourist bus gets stuck, an invisible alien wossissname gets on board and starts possessing people, causing everybody else to act in increasingly paranoid ways. We never find out what the wossissname is, or how it works, or what it wants, or what it's called. Of course we don't. Russell T Davies the writer isn't remotely interested in wossissnames. But he finds that wossissnames are very useful for setting up a weird, one-room exercises in dialogue in which one character starts repeating everything the other characters say; and then starts repeating it before they do.There's something genuinely Pinteresque about these scenes. You could imagine something a lot like "Midnight" being done as an afternoon play on Radio 4; or a rather decent entry in a university drama soc experimental one act play competition.


This is surely the kind of thing which Doctor Who ought to be doing. Providing an umbrella under which to erect good little dramas which would still be worth seeing even if the umbrella wasn't there. Forget, for the minute, about venerable traditions and sink plungers and the huge weight of history. There's this guy who travels in time and space. So tell us some stories about him, using the same kinds of dramatic rules you'd use in any other format.


It is very sensible for a writer of drama to be uninterested in wossissnames. His whole attention, and ours too, should be directed at the reactions and interactions of the characters on the tour bus. It is, however, quite a serious handicap when you try to turn your hand towards "science fiction".


Next week, Russell T Davies the writer is going to let Russell T Davies the Doctor Who fan out of the closet, and everything will go to hell. But it's nice to be reminded of what might have been. Of what should have been.



(*) "The Green Death"

15 comments:

Andrew Stevens said...

He doesn't really behave like a tourist in "The Green Death," but he certainly does in "Delta and the Bannermen."

Gavin Burrows said...

I may merely be casting about for one point of disagreement with what you say here but...

It is very sensible for a writer of drama to be uninterested in wossissnames. His whole attention, and ours too, should be directed at the reactions and interactions of the characters on the tour bus. It is, however, quite a serious handicap when you try to turn your hand towards "science fiction".

By which, I presume you mean, science fiction is about the wossissnames? If so I have to hold up my hand and say by that yardstick I care little for SF. How the anti-grav belts work, what cities would look like if we all had jetpacks, a new theory of faster than light travel, I care little when stock characters are arranged around such conceptions like worshippers at a nativity scene. But of course an accomplished writer should not just keep one eye on each, but devise them to impact upon each other. The SF I like allows for on-screen metaphors,but it’s always about the passengers on the bus and not its ion engine.

"Midnight" has absolutely nothing to do with Doctor Who.

While watching the episode, I wondered if it might have been imporoved by not being an episode of Who. When the other characters round on The Stranger we’re never quite sure whether they’re right or wrong.

But then I read people arguing on the Barbelith board that the impact comes through this being un-Who. The Doctor’s most fundamental power, that of persuasion, is suddenly stolen from him and used against him.

There's something genuinely Pinteresque about these scenes.

Definitely, but on a more lowbrow note they also reminded me of Asterix and the Roman Agent!

Next week, Russell T Davies the writer is going to let Russell T Davies the Doctor Who fan out of the closet, and everything will go to hell. But it's nice to be reminded of what might have been. Of what should have been.

Perhaps the weaknesses of Stolen Earth have corroded my memory but... It seems to me unarguable that the incidental episodes of New Who have always been more memorable than the big slam-bang ones that get a Radio Times cover devoted to them. But wasn’t it ever thus?

As everyone with a nerdish enough obsession to find out knows, The Daleks was a surprise hit, only appearing near the front of the schedule due to happenstance. When they tried to duplicate it, they came up with The Web Planet and The Chase. The story which followed The Chase had much of its budget cut to compensate – which was of course The Time Meddler.

Am I right or am I about to be inundated with counter-examples?

Greg G said...

Exactly how many people have heroically sacrificed themselves for the nuDoctor's benefit these days?

Phil Masters said...

Well, yes - RTD has somewhat re-emphasised that cliché. And then made a big thing about it in the final episode, which does seem a bit of a cheek.

But then, he cheerfully perpetuated the even bigger innate problem of Who, which is that most of the plots are driven by enormous coincidences. (Just to start with, the Tardis always drops the Doctor into random historical moments when it just so happens that there's some huge alien invasion about to start or whatever.) After which, he ran a big plot reveal that a certain subset of those coincidences weren't coincidences at all, but were signs of subtle manipulation of the timestream by some half-baked cosmic entity - and even had the Doctor kick himself for not noticing that these particular coincidences were somehow implausible.

And he did this twice.

Which seems like a cheek of an even higher order.

Andrew Stevens said...

Phil, I sort of agree with you on the plot coincidences of the TARDIS always showing up during an alien invasion. This is only a problem when the Doctor has control of the TARDIS, though. It seems clear to me (and has seemed clear to me since at least Season 3 of the classic series) that the TARDIS is choosing where the Doctor lands, based on where he needs to be. There is at least one coincidence which can't be explained any other way. That is in "The Ark," when the Doctor shows up on the Ark for the second straight time, only a couple hundred years later, to solve a problem he himself had caused in his previous visit (first visit in the first two episodes, second visit in the second two).

This was only ever explicitly referred to once. In "Planet of the Spiders," the Doctor remarks that he always leaves the exact details of the landing to the TARDIS itself. Sure enough, the TARDIS does indeed land him on Metebelis 3 at exactly the right time and place where Sarah Jane had been brought to. The TARDIS is explicitly telepathic and time-sensitive so this isn't much of a stretch, even if it isn't a terribly intelligent machine.

However, when the Doctor has control of the TARDIS, the coincidences become more glaring since the whims of the TARDIS can't account for them. Still, the new show has sort of kept the tradition. The Doctor is often a few miles and a few years off ("The Unquiet Dead," "Aliens of London") which happens to land him in invasions he otherwise would have missed.

And I think Davies has done all right as well, in this regard. The theory of the new show seems to be that Time "heals itself" somehow, grabbing the nearest available tool and doing what it can to preserve its integrity. Many, many times that tool is the Doctor and the TARDIS. But it will settle for Captain Jack, Sarah Jane, Martha Jones, etc. This was almost explicit in "Turn Left." Many people have asked what happened in Pompeii without the Doctor, but we already know of at least one time traveler present in Pompeii on "Volcano Day," who could have served had the Doctor not been present, so I don't see this as any sort of difficulty.

Phil Masters said...

Saying that the Tardis arranges the coincidences is a moderately solid retconned fudge-explanation for the coincidence-laden pulpy nature of Who plotting, but, well, it's still a retconned fudge-explanation. And it still means that declaring any given subset of the show's coincidences to be clearly significant and important is bloomin' cheek.

And, okay, I'll bite; what other time travellers were in Pompeii?

Salisbury said...

Phil Masters writes:

Saying that the Tardis arranges the coincidences is a moderately solid retconned fudge-explanation for the coincidence-laden pulpy nature of Who plotting, but, well, it's still a retconned fudge-explanation. And it still means that declaring any given subset of the show's coincidences to be clearly significant and important is bloomin' cheek.

Doctor Who does spend too much time these days wallowing in its own mythos. For the first twenty-six years and change, we never acknowledged that the Doctor was actively saving the universe every week, because, well, he wasn't actively doing anything. He just got into lots of scrapes. Now we've got this mythic defender of the cosmos, which, maybe it's just me, but where's the charm in that. And anyway, he still just kind of gets into scrapes.

I'm not sure your examples are on the money though, if I read you right. The Bad Wolf thing in season one was just in reference to the regular encounters with the phrase 'Bad Wolf', and the point he makes in season four is that he should have picked up on the bees and the planets disappearing before he did. Of course there is the unexplained coincidence of the Doctor visiting all and only those planets which disappeared, but that's a pretty standard genre convention and I'm willing to let it slide.

The one bit of cheek that did bother me was 'Turn Left'. In 'Turn Left', we discover that but for the direction of an indicator light, the Doctor would have died. The trouble is that, but for a hundred fortunate coincidences, the Doctor would have died a hundred times. There's an agreement between the audience and the program not to draw attention to this that 'Turn Left' betrays: either we ignore the thing and let the Doctor get on with winning every week, or we could have a different sort of program where his dubious invulnerability is explored. I don't think it's quite fair to ask the audience to accept both.

Andrew Stevens said...

Saying that the Tardis arranges the coincidences is a moderately solid retconned fudge-explanation for the coincidence-laden pulpy nature of Who plotting, but, well, it's still a retconned fudge-explanation. And it still means that declaring any given subset of the show's coincidences to be clearly significant and important is bloomin' cheek.

I agree that it's a bit of a retcon and a bit of a fudge, although I do think that's what Barry Letts was trying to get at with that line in "Planet of Spiders" where the Doctor says that he always leaves the specifics of the landing up to the TARDIS itself. He was aware that there was a problem with all the coincidences that the Doctor engaged in (and particularly aware of the coincidence that was being written into that particular script), so he threw off a quick explanation. Unlike Davies, he didn't dwell on the matter, probably because he realized that it might expose its holes. For one thing, it doesn't quite explain why Earth is constantly being invaded, never mind why it's always England, as soon as the Doctor shows up, although this too they tried to explain with the Brig's comment in "Spearhead in Space" that the Earth was "drawing attention to itself" by exploring space.

Of course, it's no more a fudge than the TARDIS translating languages for people, even written languages (except Welsh in "Boomtown"). This too was a retcon (originally seen in "Masque of Mandragora") which had simply been ignored by earlier production teams.

And, okay, I'll bite; what other time travellers were in Pompeii?

The time traveler in question was Captain Jack, who explained in "The Doctor Dances" that Pompeii was a great place to use his time-traveling con so long as you set your alarm for "Volcano Day."

I must confess that my version of Doctor Who in my own head is much more satisfying than the actual programme. I think of the Doctor as an unwilling adventurer who wants nothing more than to explore in peace and quiet, but the TARDIS, in its unintelligent wisdom, simply won't allow him to travel the Universe in peace. It won't let him do this for two reasons - it would be bad for the Universe and it would be bad for the Doctor. The Doctor needs all the excitement he gets; he just doesn't always realize it. The TARDIS, able to read the Doctor's mind, does.

Note that this theory was explicitly the theory behind the show Quantum Leap which I believe was hugely influenced by Doctor Who. Sam never did find out who was guiding his adventures. (I came up with my own theory many years ago, in fact shortly after watching "The Ark" for the first time, so very early on in my viewing of the show, and only realized that I was subconsciously stealing Quantum Leap's premise much later.)

I freely admit that I work very hard to save Doctor Who's writers from themselves. I suppose that makes me a bit of a sad retconning fanboy, though I prefer to think of it as the "principle of charity." If there's a reasonable spin to put on an episode or dramatic convention so it makes sense, I'll come up with it and apply it.

(You should hear my explanation for why the Doctor calls World War I "Earth's past" when he's talking only to Jamie, for whom World War I is a century and a half in the future, during "The War Games.")

culfy said...

Just to start with, the Tardis always drops the Doctor into random historical moments when it just so happens that there's some huge alien invasion about to start or whatever

I always got round this problem by assuming that there were hundreds of episodes where the Doctor simply landed on a planet, took a bit of a look around, had tea with a friendly inhabitant and then took off again, but these just weren't shown.

Just as we never see the episodes of Eastenders where no-one goes down to the Queen Vic but just sits at home with a takeaway and a DVD

Andrew Rilstone said...

Doesn't Dr Watson say this in so many words: the reason that Sherlock Holmes always solves the mystery is that the many, many mysteries which Holmes can't solve don't get written up as short stories. (And niether do the ones which he solves very easily.)

The Doctor is always talking about learning archery from William Tell, being a close personal friend of Lord Nelson, taking tea with Chairman Mao, etc. This either suggests a very large number of journeys prior to "Unearthly Child", or an equally large number of subsequent journeys that we never get to hear about. (Or that he's a collossal fibber, of course.)

Salisbury said...

Andrew Rilstone writes:

The Doctor is always talking about learning archery from William Tell, being a close personal friend of Lord Nelson, taking tea with Chairman Mao, etc. This either suggests a very large number of journeys prior to "Unearthly Child", or an equally large number of subsequent journeys that we never get to hear about. (Or that he's a collossal fibber, of course.)

Surely this is part of the same unspoken agreement between show and audience that allows for everyone in the universe to speak English except when they can't. (Or for the TARDIS to translate it except when it can't.)

The third Doctor knows Venusian aikido (and Venusian karate), though logically he must have learned it sometime before 'Spearhead from Space'. Nonetheless it seems whoppingly out of character for the first or second to have picked it up. Similarly, when the third Doc says he is or was a personal friend of Chairman Mao, he probably didn't mean he was jetting over to China sometime between 'Spearhead' and 'The Mind of Evil', yet at the same time I don't think he means this happened while he looked like William Hartnell or Patrick Troughton.

Ultimately, I think the show is more interesting when we just let these mysteries linger than when we try to explain them away.

Phil Masters said...

Well, yes, there have often been hints that the Doctor makes a lot of non-story non-adventure visits to random places between the big events seen on TV, and that's fair enough. But unless you assume subjective centuries of non-TV downtime for him and the companions between each adventure, the coincidence level is still pretty high. Apart from anything else, the presence of a new companion in the Tardis seems statistically guaranteed to trigger an adventure at the next location visited, however that's chosen.

(And let's not talk about The Sarah Jane Adventures, in which rampaging aliens are actively incapable of keeping out of one patch of West London. That's children's TV, so no excuses are required.)

And yes, sure, I'm happy to take this as a dramatic convention of the particular show, and not complain about it. (And the idea that the Tardis is somehow influencing things is a fair retcon, although it's bound to raise a lot of further questions in fannish minds.) But then, we're told that Donna's being drawn to the Tardis (by some handwavium particles, fully discussed at the time), and then meeting the Doctor again (when she's actively investigating weird-sh*t incidents in the hope of making her life more exciting), are somehow significant, and the Doctor looks gobsmacked when he thinks about them. When really, by the show's dramatic-convention standards, they're small potatoes.

culfy said...

But then, we're told that Donna's being drawn to the Tardis (by some handwavium particles, fully discussed at the time), and then meeting the Doctor again (when she's actively investigating weird-sh*t incidents in the hope of making her life more exciting), are somehow significant

Exactly! It's rather as if RTD had been asked to write the final episode of Inspector Morse and he had Lewis say 'you know sir, for a provincial English middle class town, there aren't half a load of grisly murders happening recently', followed Morse finding that the cause of it all was some handwavium released into the Isis causing the population of Oxford to turn murderous.

Doesn't Dr Watson say this in so many words: the reason that Sherlock Holmes always solves the mystery is that the many, many mysteries which Holmes can't solve don't get written up as short stories.

Well Holmes didn't always solve the mystery, most famously being defeated in 'A Scandal In Bohemia' but he also totally misinterpreted the situation in 'The Yellow Face' and allowed his clients to be killed in 'The Five Orange Pips' and 'The Dancing Men'. Watson in fact apologised for writing up the cases where Holmes didn't show his usual genius and instead chose his material depending on how exciting it was rather than how good Holmes was in solving the case. But in almost all of the cases, Holmes was actually asked to investigate as part of his job so no coincidence is entailed. (Unlike say Poirot or Miss Marple who always just happened to be present when a murder occured).

Andrew Stevens said...

(Unlike say Poirot or Miss Marple who always just happened to be present when a murder occured).

Partly fair. Certainly true of Miss Marple and often true of Poirot as well. However, there were lots and lots of Poirot cases where Poirot was called in to investigate. (Of course, in many of them, he's called in to investigate a non-murder and a murder just happens to occur after he's on the scene.) Agatha Christie too pulled a similar Davies stunt of the kind that Mr. Masters is (correctly) complaining about. In "Curtain," Poirot is sure that a man is a murderer because he happens to know five murderers and their victims and Poirot finds the coincidence entirely unlikely (though he does agree that it's quite possible for policemen and private detectives to know five murderers). Left unstated is the fact that Poirot himself has coincidentally been on the scene when far more than just five murders have occurred. Partly, however, Mrs. Christie is poking fun at herself as she often did. Her fans are supposed to get the joke like when her mystery writer character complains about the awful mistakes she has made in her books, which just happen to include mistakes Mrs. Christie herself had made in previous books. Whether this excuses Mrs. Christie's cheek in the "coincidence" scene, well, I tend to agree that it doesn't.

Andrew Stevens said...

I always got round this problem by assuming that there were hundreds of episodes where the Doctor simply landed on a planet, took a bit of a look around, had tea with a friendly inhabitant and then took off again, but these just weren't shown.

Goes to show the difference between my perspective and the typical fan. This is a fine explanation for the '70s and '80s and '00s, but doesn't work at all for the '60s (the period I first watched) when each adventure ran into the others.