Thoughts on: Midnight

The genius of this script lies in its simplicity. It’s a group of people in a room talking for forty-five minutes. That’s really it. The simplicity of the script facilitates the intimate study of these people that made up this story. What happens when you put a group of ordinary people in a locked room with an unseen monster? That was the question this phenomenal script set out to explore. A disturbing study in group psychology, this captivating story presented us with a grisly vision of humanity in stark contrast to Doctor Who’s usual gushing celebration of our species, showing us how a group of ordinary humans can turn into a lynch mob. When the ship first stops, we initially see the Doctor trying to reason with the confused group as it starts to become hysterical—and successfully manages to calm them all down… at first. When the creature makes an appearance, thudding on the exterior of the ship and eventually taking over Sky, the Doctor increasingly loses his control and hold over the group as their fear drives them to become ever more hysterical. The Doctor struggles to reason with them and keep them calm. Their fear took them beyond reason, however: the critical moment came when the Hostess suggested, “We should throw her out.” At that point, the group had gone beyond the point of no return, and the Doctor’s vain pleading was not going to prevent the inevitable lynching; their fear was too powerful.

I’ll say it again, this is a truly disquieting and compelling study in group psychology. The group’s increasing fear and hysteria took them so beyond reason and inhibition and sensibility such that they were driven to almost commit murder, almost two murders. The sight of the helpless Doctor being dragged by Biff and Professor Hobbes through the shuttle, egged on by others—particularly that odious Val woman screeching “Throw him out!”—was exceptionally powerful and chilling. The group, in their fear, had talked themselves into a frenzy, feeding off each other, bringing themselves to the point that they resolved to do something none of them would normally ever contemplate. They turned on the Doctor when he tried to persuade them out of their murderous frenzy. Here we see what fear makes humans do when they’re scared and in a group. Even Jethro, easily the most reasonable and level-headed of the lot, in the end succumbed to the collective hysteria of the group, almost committing murder alongside his father and Professor Hobbes. Only the Hostess’s heroic act of self-sacrifice stopped them from throwing the Doctor to his death, and it was obvious the group were horrified to realise what they’d almost done. Who was the real monster here?

This script relied on a cast of convincing, realistic, fleshed-out characters, and that’s what we saw: seven well-developed, relatable characters whose dialogue made for a chillingly realistic playing-out of events. We were familiarised effectively with all of them at the beginning of the story: charming, if flawed, but essentially ordinary people. We saw them transform into monsters over the course the episode. It was all the more disturbing, watching these people become frenzied murderous animals, when you remembered how charming and quaint and normal they all seemed at the beginning. The acting all-round was just superlative, the passion and the fear and the hysteria of the characters was all eerily believable. Lesley Sharp as Sky was particularly captivating, her facial acting as she played Sky possessed by the creature genuinely chilling. David Tennant, needless to say, was magnificent—easily one of his best performances yet.

I think this is probably Russell T Davies’ best script. It’s certainly his tightest. It’s powerful, compelling and unnerving. It’s one of the few times Doctor Who in the revived series (or at all, really) has ventured beyond its standard formulas and into genuinely provocative, creative territory. It’s one of the most bracing and thought-provoking stories Doctor Who has ever done. Who would have thought such a simple concept could be realised so powerfully? Its simplicity is its genius: it’s simply humanity laid bare, naked, in all our ugly glory. Warts and all.

Rating: 10/10.

Series profile: Merlin

Merlin is one of the shows I’ve been most enjoying watching lately. Merlin has been off the airwaves for some time now, but I’ve always been meaning to catch up. Merlin first broadcast when I was 13, in my first year of high school, and it was one of my favourite shows at the time. Unfortunately, at that age I was distracted by “stuff”, and gradually stopped watching; apart from not having the attention to follow an ongoing television show series to series, no one else I knew watched it, so I slowly stopped paying attention.

That was a great mistake, as I absolutely adored the show and its characters, and re-watching the show recently has reminded me of the fondness I once had for this franchise. In my current marathon through the show, I’ve just finished Series 3, although I can’t remember up to where I had seen when I stopped watching originally. In any case, I think it’s time to put down some thoughts on the show’s progress thus far.

For those unfamiliar with the show, Merlin follows the life of Merlin, the great wizard of Arthurian legend, in his youth. To make this work, Merlin takes great liberties with the Arthurian legends as traditionally told, re-imagining Camelot under King Uther Pendragon as a kingdom among many in an early medieval Britain, probably somewhere in Wales. Arthur, here, is not a commoner destined for greatness, but a prince and the son of King Uther (but still destined for greatness). Merlin is Prince Arthur’s servant and friend. Other characters from the Arthurian legends featuring prominently include Morgana (Morgan le Fay) as King Uther’s adopted ward, and Guinevere as Morgana’s handmaiden (and Arthur’s love interest). Also, John Hurt voices a giant talking dragon. Merlin imagines Camelot as a kingdom where magic is brutally repressed by the paranoid Uther, forcing Merlin and his kind to hide their gifts for the sake of their lives. At the same time, Camelot is infested by magical creatures and forces, setting the stage for the conflict of magic and Uther that dominates this series. The theme of destiny is prominent in this show, and Merlin’s struggling to come to terms with his destiny, to aid Arthur to fulfil his great destiny, hangs heavily over the story. Merlin is essentially a coming-of-age story, for both Merlin himself, as he faces challenges and grows into his destiny, and for Arthur, the destined Once and Future King.

As I said, I originally loved the show when I was 13, and, indeed, the show is very much tailored towards an adolescent demographic. As such, it may not be as appealing to adults at first glance, but one would be surprised if one has some patience with the show. A lot of the plotlines are, admittedly, fairly juvenile, but the low church storytelling contains many powerful and affecting moments which are a credit to the writers. And, every so often, Merlin hits upon a gleaming gem of a story that rank among any of the best highbrow drama. Often Merlin conducts, and does successfully so, a fine balancing act, maintaining the discussion of mature and relevant themes at the same time as making those themes, and the show in general, palatable and interesting for a younger audience. The whole theme of the repression of magic can be interpreted as an analogy for prejudice and discrimination in our time. Merlin at one point spoke a line, something to the effect of, “I just want Arthur to accept me for who I am”, which was quite obviously a comment on bigotry against LGBT individuals. It’s also hard not to see Morgana’s slow descent into evil as an analogy for the ideological or religious self-radicalisation of some who are “outsiders” in one way or another in modern Western society. Furthermore, Merlin deals with hard philosophical themes, especially in its presentation of predestination as a reality of life. Merlin also deals with themes of love, honour, status, custom, loyalty and justice, and, I think, constitutes a robust and comprehensive moral education for its adolescent audience.

One of the great things about Merlin is that it’s very consistent. Of the three seasons I’ve seen thus far, there’s scarcely a bad story. For a concept that seems to have quite limited horizons in regards to the possible stories that can be told, almost all episodes are fairly solid and well worth the 40 minutes of your time they take away. Even the “filler” episodes, by which I mean episodes that don’t advance the overall series arc in any meaningful way (and there are a lot of these), are generally very robust and enjoyable.

What is not consistent, however, is the acting. Given that this series features prominently a number of young actors in its cast, unrefined acting is to be expected, but, on the other hand, one would also expect better from a flagship BBC drama series. Colin Morgan as Merlin and Bradley James as Prince Arthur are the better of the young actors here. At this stage in their acting careers, they are both impressive actors, and the chemistry they have together onscreen is a joy to watch; they really bring the complex relationship between the young Merlin and Arthur to sparkling life. However, Angel Coulby and Katie McGrath as Guinevere and Morgana, respectively, I’m afraid to say, are cringe-inducing, McGrath especially. Everything about their acting is overstated. McGrath makes her character completely unconvincing, with her obvious facial expressions and inflections, causing the viewer to wonder why no one else at court suspects her, or at least forms the impression that Morgana is a bit… weird. McGrath’s overstated acting, unfortunately, requires the viewer to suspend disbelief, something we shouldn’t have to do. Morgana is something of an unconvincing character all-round, in any case; her character arc is executed poorly — she seems to go from being a sweet, if curious, young lady in the royal household, to an evil witch hell-bent on destroying Camelot, remarkably quickly. In any case, the young actors all are easily outshined by the old. Richard Wilson (AKA Victor Meldrew) is exceptional as Gaius, Merlin’s mentor, while Anthony Head plays very well the troubled Shakespearean king in Uther Pendragon.

Merlin is a highly addicting substance. It has everything that makes good drama: an intriguing concept, endearing and well-developed characters, consistently engaging plots, and strong series and character arcs that are relentlessly progressed. Although the greater part of its episodes are one-off and essentially self-contained, Merlin is a series that is best viewed as a long-form story, starting from the beginning. Nevertheless, some of its best episodes (that I’ve seen) include A Remedy to Cure All Ills, The Beginning of the End, The Moment of Truth, The Labyrinth of Gedref, To Kill the King, The Once and Future Queen, The Witchfinder, The Sins of the Father, The Fires of Idirsholas, The Crystal Cave, The Sorcerer’s Shadow, The Coming of Arthur.