I remember you by
Thunderclap in the sky
Lightning flash, tempers flare,
Round the horn if you dare!
The tyrany of distance
Couldn't stop the cavalier
So why should it stop me?
I'll conquer and stay free
Oh come on all you boys,
Let's forget and forgive
There's a world to explore
Tales to tell back on shore
I just spent six months in a leaky boat
Lucky just to keep afloat...
After the shamefully embarrassing 'here's the pre-credit title sequence to Midnight' at the convention the other day - and those bastards were supposed to show the whole thing and would have the time if they hadn't performed their sub-Sparacassian murder 'mystery' - I finally have the chance to see the story proper. My recent TV Comic reviews have opened my eyes to new possibilities in Doctor Who stories - has there ever been a story set in a zoo? Closest I can remember is Nightmare of Eden for crying out loud - so the idea of a road trip episode effectively set in a coach for 45 minutes appealed to me right away. For a start, it's an experience most people would be able to relate to, and one untapped by the show. The closest I can think of is Nightmare of Eden (wierd, huh?) and even then it was just for a chase scene.
As I bored my companions yesterday, these 'bottle episodes' have always impressed me if only for their sheer difficulty to write. The Bottom Live shows and that episode of One Foot In The Grave set entirely as one scene in a waiting room are not lauded enough. Hell, YOU try writing one. I spent ages trying to pen such an episode of The Youth of Australia set entirely in the open deck of a Sydney Tour bus, with the three characters stuck with each other their main quest to try to get indoors without being ravaged by the guide dog that was on the lower deck and did not like them. And it was going to be raining. Having your characters relate and have conversations is one thing. Trying to give them a plot that requires them to stay in one room and puts them on an emotional journey is another. The day I can look RTD, Steve Moffat and Rob Shearman in the eyes as a writer is the day I'll have penned a satisfying plot that never takes Nigel, Dave and Andrew from the railway platform they're stuck on.
RTD returns to pen his first episode since Partners in Crime, and it's odd that Donna's biggest fan only got to write one episode about her with the rest being season finale (and yes, Kaiser Davros is in da house, I saw the photo - he's put on weight, hasn't he?). Still, maybe he's edited every last scene with her in it because there's not another character in New Who who has been written so consistently. Donna Noble, Gone Too Soon. And so the lonely Doctor is left in RTD's latest pet script 'the package tour that goes horribly horribly wrong' last used in Voyage of the Damned but a few echoes can be found in Gridlock and Boom Town!
The first few scenes really show the Tenth Doctor is very much a social animal, as we see him without companion and NOT simultaneously heartbroken and desperate for a replacement, and the scene as he eagerly checks out his company aboard the coach it's hard not be reminded of a Mr. Bean episode, though he's more talkative and less... lobotomized. Our company consists of - David Troughton playing a kindly old man Hobbs and his not-so-old black girlfriend Didi; Leslie Ash with a permanent look of disgust which might be down to the fact she has to sit opposite a regenerated Stephen Baxter (but actually down to her girlfriend giving her the Dylan Moranesque "I need more space specifically the exact same hieght, width and depth as you" excuse); a sullen teenage boy called Jethro and his parents who are getting on each other's nerves; the long-ago-stopped-giving-a-shit hostess; and the driver Joe and mechanic Claude.
The Doctor and Donna have gone for a holiday on the airless, diamond planet (as in, everything is made of diamonds, like that First Doctor cartoon Where Diamonds Are Worthless) of Midnight. Donna wants to chill out in a health spa while the Doctor has gone on a coach to see a waterfall of sapphires - but the four hour trip there and back puts Donna off and leaves him to go on alone. When the coach sets off, having to take an unannounced detour off the beaten track, the Doctor's spirits sink as all the windows shut and the hostess provides in flight entertainment of simultaneously being bombarded by a Betty Boop cartoon (no Drawn Together?), the Eurovision Song Contest and some trippy corporate art. In a Pertwee story, this would be revealed to be an attempt to brainwash people. Here, it is just the inflight movie. The Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver to short out this youtube of terror - much to all the passenger's delight - and gleefully suggests they pass the next three hours fifty-nine minutes by ACTUALLY TALKING TO EACH OTHER.
I wonder how Mad Larry the Pirate King will react to such revolutionary and unorthodox behaviour.
Seriously. Imagine the other Doctors. The First would have had a nap. The Second would have played the recorder. The Third would have demanded the wine list. The Fourth would read a book. The Fifth would meditated. The Sixth would have sung along with the Eurovision Song Contest. The Seventh wouldn't be on the bloody coach in the first place. The Eighth would have watched the cartoon. The Ninth would have sulked. But none would actually have gone out of their way to talk to the others - bar a friendly hello or a question, they would have kept themselves to themselves. Especially the Ninth (odd how the most common of Doctors acts most like a snob, huh?). And they would ALL have taken the window seat. But not the Tenth...
Of course, the moment alien monsters start rampaging, all the Doctors would react more or less predictably.
No sooner has Hobbs (in probably the most Second Doctorish performance I've ever seen him give) noted that civilization has never actually TOUCHED the surface of Midnight, but simply watched from behind glass, the coach stops dead - an unheard of development. While Jethro is blackly amused at the idea of being marooned in literally the middle of nowhere, the grownups are more unnerved than they'd like to be, especially as it's no mechanical fault. The coach has stopped dead and no one knows why. Not even the sonic screwdriver can get us out of this one. And it strikes that all concerned that - due to the unfiltered sunlight - no one ever actually LOOKS directly at the surface, merely at computer maps and the like. Which means if, say, there was something outside the computers didn't pick up, something that wouldn't instantly perish due to the radiation, then civilization would be completely in the dark about it... so to speak.
At this point something starts banging against the walls of the coach...
Do not underestimate the spookiness of this. As I discovered to my great psychological cost when writing The Enemy Within, effect without cause is the definition of the supernatural. We do not see what is causing the knocking, not even a shadow. Our point of view is that of the passengers, and thus the rising hysteria of them is hard to mentally disentangle. Oh, and notable that RTD managed to in less than ten minutes create a cast of characters more convincing and compelling than Steven Moffat managed in two whole episodes. The darkened damaged coach with people silently standing in the shadow are better than the 'horrific' nodes as well. So, think on that when you attend the next 'The Moff Has Saved Us' ritual orgy on OG...
Since my paranoia has been shown to have at least a foothold in reality, I'll say that RTD was cruising this blog for more of my ideas to steal, saw my review of River's Run and decided to use that to make a genuinely scary, unsettling and character-filled story. For a start, the Doctor doesn't know the wikipedia entry of the enemy he faces unlike Vashta fucking Nirvada. Actually, the truth is never revealed, which makes it all the more scary - is there another story that tells us nothing about why any of this is happening?
Meanwhile, in the 'childhood things made scary' stakes, the old 'incredibly annoying human echo' trick works a lot better than 'darkness eats people'. The idea that the person repeating everything you say has been hollowed out, left an empty vessel to echo what you say... that's scary. Dust in sunbeams ISN'T. The big tense moment where Leslie Ash is hiding her face in the shadows, refusing to turn around or talk to anyone works well... even better when she turns around and... THERE'S NOTHING WRONG WITH HER FACE! Yes, it does deserve the block capitals. She's not mutated or weeping blood or an android or have a fucking gasmask. She looks normal. Which makes what happens next so much scarier.
Yeah, this is a good episode. And it's dark, proving once again that you never listen to RTD when he tells you what he's doing next year. Only two stories this year avoided the "dark label" - one was a comedy, one was by Helen Raynor who couldn't do dark if you threw her in a black hole. Without story arc, without the fate of the universe, or anything epic like that, RTD shines, exactly the way Robert Holmes did when they gave him space to breathe. The Tenth Doctor's arrogance from his first year is gone, but this episode shows that his all-purpose "I'm clever" can be construed as racist abuse, as the passengers gang up on this man with no past, with no claims to being a human being, who thinks he's better than everyone else and worst of all IS ENJOYING THIS. In the previous episode's Confidential, RTD explains he gave the Doctor his sonic screwdriver and psychic paper to cut through the escape-capture-suspicion stuff which padded out many a story and made it frustrating to wait for the Doctor to get into the plot. This time, ironically, there is a story of nothing BUT that suspicion, nothing but being locked up. Of course, it's not like we're waiting for him to escape for an adventure with all his past companions and the Daleks and...
Mind you, there IS a little bit of story arc there. Not long after the Doctor recalls he had a friend who went to another universe, after listing his companions (no Adam, Mickey or Jack... or Ben... heheh), the malfunctioning monitor behind everyone stops showing the Eurovision Song Contest and show Rose screaming instead...
Next Time: "There's something on your back..."
The Doctor's body has been found, still clinging to his sonic screwdriver. A bereaved Donna finds herself accosted by a blonde woman from another universe... and it isn't Romana. Mushroom clouds over London. Threads meets Exogenesis. UNIT claiming the TARDIS as their own. Martial law. Wilf watches the sky turn black as the stars go out. And the words of Lucius Dextrus Petrus come back to haunt us in every way possible. This is - in every way - the beginning of the end.