This episode is a very strange one because I do believe I liked it, and it told some interesting concepts is a very tight manner.
We begin on the leisure planet of “˜Midnight.’ It’s an isolated location because the planet is found in orbit of an extonic star which emits a radiation type that prevents any form of life as we know it from existing outside of sheltered habitat. Also, there’s no kind of atmosphere so that prevents the whole breathing process quite handily.
It’s here that Perfect Ten chooses to take a side trip to a locale known as a Sapphire Waterfall, apparently it does exactly that, and Donna chooses to remain in the more luxurious sauna area of the resort. So the Doctor is alone for this episode with no companion by his side… and actually, this is a brilliant.
It takes about 10-15 minutes of set up before we start to see the real pay off and the direction that this story is taking. Even then once the main plot development kicks in, it takes a further 15 odd minutes before we really see how Donna, or a companion not being around, can adversely affect the Doctor’s relationships.
Those first 15 minutes are, unfortunately, your expected run of the mill, average action. Onboard this little tourist ship, which strikes perhaps too familiarly with our current modern world from headphones to free juices etc, the Doctor ends up shutting down the rather annoying entertainment system, which forces the other passengers to talk with each other. We’re then introduced to short cuts of scenes where the Doctor gets to know the couple with the rebellious son aboard, the professor who has seen this particular sight 14 times and his young assistant, a lone traveller by name of Sky Silvestry, and the guide for the tour known only as the Hostess. These cuts annoy me as they are introduced via fades to black, followed by white text stating how it is known “100 klicks later”¦” as they travel to their destination.
These cuts were completely unnecessary, slowed down the episode and only confounded my exasperation with exactly what the heck was supposed to be happening here. Exactly at what point will get into the real meat of this story”¦
When we do though, it’s all steam ahead.
You see, Russell T. Davies gets characters. He can write in a manner that finds the essential truth of a character, of a human being. And I like that because we are left with 8 people for the majority of the episode, trapped in one small space, so all they can do is talk and it becomes what they say and how they say it.
Cut off from the rest of the world as the ship becomes stranded in the middle of their trip across planet, the characters are left with nothing to but fret about their situation. And as much as the Doctor likes to be the voice of authority, the one everyone listens to simply because he’s clever, without a companion around to back him up, that insistent behaviour can only come off as insulting. They don’t know him from Tom, Dick, or Harry. To them, he’s just another passenger, as confused and perplexed about what is happening as anyone else. He doesn’t help the situation by insisting that they all listen to him because he’s clever when things get particularly tense, indeed that attribute almost proves to be his undoing as it alienates him from them. He doesn’t have quite the stamp he needs when people are scared.
Russell T. Davies seems to have borrowed a few ideas from Steven Moffatt because he utilises two ideas that I would imagine will strike a chord with many people. First, there is the ominous knocking sound that echoes throughout the small passenger cabin. It’s just a few knocks at first, but it’s regular knocks. And then when someone taps back those taps are then repeated in time. How many times have you heard a noise that just made you jump because you’re not sure who made it or how?
And then secondly Russell did something that completely and utterly disorientated my viewing experience but kept me glued to the edge of my seat, and it was brilliantly simple.
Sky Silvestry is invaded by some form of life from outside the ship but it is a creature with apparently no understanding of our language. So it starts to learn it, by repeating everything any character says.
And I mean everything.
It’s annoying as kid when someone starts copying you, repeating everything you say, but now imagine that it doesn’t stop. It just carries on. And it doesn’t matter what you say or do, the person just keeps on copying everything word for word and never offering anything new.
The pace quickens here and I can actually see Russell in my minds eye as he rushes to write everything that pours from his imagination. The characters panic is confounded as they do not understand what’s happening, they don’t want to be there, there’s no clear authority figure and all the while this poor woman sits in the corner and just repeats. This is further compounded by the tight direction of the camera angles as it focuses on peoples face, flicks quickly from person to person as they all talk over and under each other.
The tension is further ramped up as Sky, or the creature possessing her, manages to up her game by then saying everything at the exact same time the characters are saying it. For almost 20 minutes the actress speaks in perfect unison with every character, and it’s just a very simple way to unnerve as you hear an odd echo of the person currently speaking.
As it goes, this tight focus on the small group forces some very interesting answers about our humanity. Perhaps too quickly some of the group comes to the conclusion that in order to preserve their lives (the cabin crew having just been killed in some odd, never properly explained slicing of the ship in half) they should throw Silvestry out the airlock. Obviously the Doctor isn’t about to stand for that kind of behaviour, and he implores them all to just stop and think about what they are suggesting ““ murder.
I think perhaps the episode jumps to this possibility too quickly, but that by no means isn’t something I couldn’t have seen the episode reaching if it had been allowed a longer running time. And there’s no denying that it works; the Doctor implores them, and suggests that they’re humans and they should be better than that. Unfortunately that only gives away the idea that he isn’t human himself which gives them all something else to panic about instead.
The episode does do several flip rounds as we see characters from different angles ““ content, happy, humoured, worried, scared, panicked, terrified, confused. Perfect Ten makes a nice connection with the young assistant to the professor for example, who in the throes of panic advocates throwing Sky out of the airlock, and then later on when the Doctor is incapacitated, she argues against a similar course of action. She’s still scared of course, but she’s now more used to it and able to think more clearly.
In a similar vein, the seemingly nice old professor who takes pleasure in informing all that he is an expert on the Sapphire Falls in a prideful manner, takes a darker role when he implores at his assistant to shut up and stop thinking she’s an expert at mechanics and forms of life as he panics and frets about what is happening.
The Hostess who starts off the episode prickly and put off by the Doctor’s prattle, then slides into that uncomfortable role of reassuring others when not entirely assured yourself, before settling into panic and being the first to suggest they remove the potential problem, Sky, through the airlock. That aggressive action is understandable because after the deaths of the pilot and mechanic, indeed her own near death, she is possibly the most emotionally fragile. But by the end of the episode, it’s her character that makes a sacrifice for all in a spur of the moment decision that finally shows her in the role she is there to play.
So, Russell gets the characters.
And that’s what this episode is about. Character.
If you’re looking for a rip, roaring science fiction adventure, you won’t find that here. The creature is never truly explained although there is some vague suggestion that it in part created the hostile atmosphere aboard the ship through some form of telepathy, and there is a very nicely put line from the Doctor in response to the professor’s assurances that no form of life can exist in the extonic rays: “I’m glad you have that definition of life, Professor. But maybe the universe has a few other ideas”¦”
It’s a fairly age old concept I believe as well. Lock your characters in a room, and see what happens.
We did. And I liked the whole packaging. Good, solid performances from all involved. David Tennant provides another excellent performance as Perfect Ten, running the whole gambit of aloof, to scared, to paralysed, possessed, regretful, and resentful”¦ And indeed a note to Lesley Sharp who played Sky Silvestry and the possessed Sky. We only meet the real Sky for a brief time in the episode, and she is not an unlike-able character, and her take over is rather sudden and worrying. For the remainder of the episode as possessed Sky, she has few lines of original dialogue, repeating, echoing and finally preceding characters’ own lines and it is only in those final few minutes that we realise the creature who possesses her is speaking of its own accord”¦ Given little to do but repeat and stare blankly ahead may seem like a thankless role, but she undoubtedly brings something believable to the role.
So, yes. The whole thing is a solid entry into the season. Not spectacular. Not weak. It had good ideas, and good execution.
I began this season by saying that Russell T. Davies got concepts right, if not the execution. I’m thankful to say that other than a bit of an awkward start, once things got going, they really got going.
I can only hope that this is a good sign of things to come as these last 4 episodes have all been written by Russell himself and as I understand it, big things are happening. This story was not about big things, it was about a small space and few characters. I’m really hoping he’s going to knock these next few episodes out of the park, and this is a good start.
I’m saying 3 Rose Tyler’s-appearing-on vidscreens-unexpectedly out of 5 this week.