Monday, June 30, 2008

Fear And Loathing At Midnight

[The Doctor and another group of strangers try to solve a new mystery. Image credit: screenshot by Cujo359]

Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear. Ambrose Redmoon

Recently I saw what was probably the most interesting Dr. Who episode ever. For a show that has had thirty seasons, most of which I've seen at least once, that's saying something. It's also saying something when you think about the changes that have happened to this show recently. It's far more frenetic than it once was. It's more overtly sexual in tone. This year, the Doctor's companion, Donna Noble, is both over the age of thirty and, while attractive, not glamorous. You have to go back to the first couple of seasons, when Barbara and Ian were the Doctor's somewhat reluctant sidekicks, to see a similar character. Even there, the similarities aren't all that great. Unlike Billie, Donna, played marvelously by Catharine Tate, isn't athletic, and unlike Martha, she's not in the same mental class as the Doctor. Yet she doesn't hesitate to tell him when she thinks he's wrong. She's also not above poking fun at him. She is his equal in ways few of the previous companions ever were.

So it's already been a unique season. Yet even so, this show is a standout. For one thing, Donna isn't really in it. For another, neither is the TARDIS, the Doctor's time ship. And, in contrast to many episodes, all you really need to know about the Doctor to understand his role in this episode is that he's a very old, very intelligent alien time traveler who looks like a human being.

The plot of the episode, "Midnight", is a rather basic one. The Doctor decides to go on a trip in a spaceliner to see an interesting natural phenomenon on a planet with a poisonous atmosphere and radiation levels that are fatal for any known form of life. Nevertheless, the spaceliner makes an unplanned stop, a powerful and previously unknown form of life gets on board, and apparently takes over the body of one of the passengers. The other passengers have to figure out what to do.

So far, this sounds rather humdrum and ordinary, of course. What makes this show interesting is the interaction of the passengers in reaction to their predicament. As you'd expect to see on an airliner, the passengers are a varied group people of above-average intelligence. There's a professor and his grad student, a young man and his vaguely professional parents, a recently divorced woman, and the Doctor. They, plus the flight attendant, spend the remainder of the episode trying to figure out what has happened, and what to do.

The confined space of the cabin, combined with the helplessness of the ship and an unknown and potentially dangerous intruder, quickly brings emotions to a boil. The passengers start to panic, and despite the Doctor's experience and self assuredness, he cannot calm them down. They decide to throw the woman who has been possessed out the airlock, and over time it becomes tragically clear that the Doctor can't talk them out of it. Appealing to neither their reason nor their humanity can dissuade them.

The episode features taught dialog that is delivered beautifully by the actors. In particular, David Tennant, as the Doctor, and Lesley Sharp as the possessed passenger, do a wonderful job of delivering dialog not quite in unison, and then in unison, in a gradual transformation that shows the alien's gradual success in taking over the Doctor's mind.

There's no doubt that the writers had our times in mind when they wrote this episode. The last few years have seen the kind of ugliness that unreasoning fear causes in the form of useless restrictions on freedoms, unnecessary wars, and acquiescence to, and sometimes celebration of, torture. On a more personal level, people seem less inclined to trust their neighbors, particularly if they are somehow "different". The rhetoric against immigrants, Muslims in particular, has grown alarmingly ugly. It's considered a slur to imply that a Presidential candidate is a Muslim. Considering some of the events that have occurred in the United Kingdom, I doubt the writers needed to look far from home for inspiration.

Some days I feel like the Doctor, trapped on a ship of panicky nitwits who won't think even though their lives depend on it. Unlike the situation the Doctor was in, though, for us there seems to be no hope of rescue.

Those American viewers who have cable should be able to catch this episode on July 11 on the SciFi Channel. I think this one's worth setting the VCR for.

UPDATE (Jul.1): Added another sentence to the paragraph about the Doctor's efforts to dissuade the passengers. It reads better now, and doesn't seem to give any more of the plot away.

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