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I'm not a fan of monster movies, but I can tell you how to plot one. It should go something like this:
Act I, Introduction: Establishes characters, setting, situation
Act II, Problem: Establishes the central problem
Act III, Complication: Bring in a twist, a new development so the situation doesn't begin to stagnate
Act IV, Defeat: Protagonist(s) try to resolve the situation and fail. There should probably also be another twist/development in here, too
Act V, Resolution: Protagonist(s) try to resolve the situation and either succeed or fail again if it's that kind of movie
We can quibble about details, but that's the basic structure. Here's what “Midnight” does:
Act I, Introduction: The Doctor and Guest-Stars-of-the-Week are trapped in a disabled land rover hours from any help.
Act II, Problem: The mysterious force which disabled the rover somehow enters the vehicle and infects Mrs. Sylvestry, causing her to sit in a corner whispering ominously
Act III, ... Problem: Mrs. Sylvestry sits in a corner whispering ominously
Act IV, Problem: She sits in a corner whispering ominously
Act V, four minutes of Problem with Mrs. Sylvestry whispering ominously, two minutes of her getting up and speaking weirdly while the Doctor is reduced to whispering helplessly and one minute of Resolution in which Mrs. Sylvestry is killed and the Doctor saved in the process.
There's no progression from the beginning of Act II until the end of Act V. Mrs. Sylvestry just sits around whispering—which quickly goes from mildly creepy to amazingly dull—and the other people in the rover stand around getting paranoid while the Doctor tries ineffectually to figure out what's going on.
There are some developments, but they're minuscule and uninteresting. When Mrs. Sylvestry finally stands up and paralyzes the Doctor, it's at best a half-baked development, nowhere near good enough to justify 35+ minutes of holding pattern.
“Midnight” has been hailed as Deconstruction. Fair enough, Tropes Are Not Good, after all. However, the climax hinges upon the all-time Doctor Who get-out-of-plot-free cliché (Heroic Sacrifice Ex Machina) played straight.
This episode sucks.
Interesting. I thought it was one of the better episodes.
You neglect to mention how very tense it is, and how the real sense of menace in the episode comes from the rapidity at which ordinary, amiable human beings can turn into potential killers when in a life-and-death situation. But then, I suppose pyschological horror is simply liable to fall flat for some viewers.
Out of curiosity, how did you feel about "The Impossible Planet", which I thought was similar in some ways?
"I suppose pyschological horror is simply liable to fall flat for some viewers."
I suppose so, and I admit psychological horror is not particularly to my taste, but I suspect I would like a psychological horror if done well enough - to me, the amiable people becoming increasingly deadly felt more like marking time.
It's been years since I saw "Midnight," and even longer since I saw "The Impossible Planet." As I recall, I thought it was all right (in that episode, stuff actually happened), but the characterization was pretty forgettable.
Midnight is a very strange episode. The first time I saw it I absolutely hated it (I had to force myself to stay awake), after I found loads of people raving about how awesome it was I went back and watched it again.
The second time... yeah I can sort of see it, the last few minutes (from when the creature hones in on the Doctor) was quite scary if you could see it in the right way. It's more about how actual normal people work and what would probably happen more than it's about the Doctor. But I will agree it takes far too long and the characterisation I could really see there was that they were all normal people (I do somewhat remember the Professor being a lot more arrogant and a bit self-righteous later on). It's like taking the generic bystander who always runs away from the monster or asks the really stupid questions (the woman with the cocktail in the Lazarus experiment springs to mind) and making them the only characters. In other words forgettable but more realistic.
I suppose that's true of the whole episode when you first see it you are bored to tears, when you rewatch it has some brilliant moments and a really clever concept without any real distractions. But that's half the problem, it drags because there just isn't enough to really fill out the story. So brilliant in part, boring in whole.
I really love this episode. The very first time I watched it, I was literally on the edge of my seat. I'm just that type of person, I really love psychological horror. The fear here is not what is happening, but what could happen. The creature really doesn't do anything to physically hurt any of them. The genius comes with what the creature might do to them. They all fear for what is going to happen. Everyone is an average person, there are none of the Doctor's companions, and even the Doctor is put out of commission for a bit at the end. That's the beauty of it. What would normal people do in a situation like this? They end up almost throwing the Doctor out the airlock because they're scared. They throw the blame around because they're scared. It's entirely realistic. This really is what would happen. Sure it was solved by a Heroic Sacrifice, but the episode couldn't go on forever. Even so, I thought it was brilliant. They never tell us what the creature was either, something that Doctor Who normally does: explain what's going on. That, I thought, was brilliant.
Are Doctor Who fans chronically inflicted with the urge to misuse the phrase Deus Ex Machina?
Because this isn't the first time it's happened.
The thing about Doctor Who is the resolutions often feel pretty sketchy and unearned. It's very technobabble in and technobabble out, the charm comes from what happens in the middle. But it means that Doctor Who fans are very likely to throw around that DEM phrase :D
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I feel that the Troper complaint starts with a false premise: that all horror stories must follow a certain rule of plotting to remain suspenseful/horrifying. That's an argument that places storytelling into a constricting narrative box. It would be like saying that all comedy-romances must have a wacky misunderstanding in the middle of the story to be true comedy-romances or all westerns must have a shootout at some point to be a true western.
Midnight, whatever its faults, was never intending to tell the type of story with the type of plotting described. The tension comes not from twists or new plot elements (which, btw, I would also argue aren't necessary to tell great stories either), but from an analysis of what people in stressful, scary situations do to each other. The people are as terrifying as the creature amongst them. This is coupled with the tension of *not knowing*. Neither the audience nor the people in the cab know what will happen if they let the creature live. The creature may be reacting to the fear and paranoia around it or may be using the fear to destroy the people in the cab. We will never know anything besides the fact that it had the power to incapacitate the Doctor — a rare feat indeed.
So, rather than saying "It sucks," perhaps the proper reaction is "it didn't work for me...but I understand why it would work for someone else."
The first episode of Doctor Who I ever watched was Midnight.
It convinced me.
I'd say Midnight is easily one of the better episodes, and this is coming from a guy who generally dislikes Doctor Who. It doesn't give you what you normally expect from a DW episode; there is no running around, no technobabble quick fixes, and no David Tennant contorting his face for the sake of "serious drama". (Incidentally, Blink lacks all of those too). I think that's a good thing.
What you get instead is an intimate, character led piece that eshews action and emphasises tension. It's less about a super alien having exciting adventures, and more about what ordinary people do when put in danger.
Thanks everybody for your comments and perspective. Apologies for the late response, but I've been busy with studies.
Scardoll: "Are Doctor Who fans chronically inflicted with the urge to misuse the phrase Deus ex Machina?"
Yes, my bad, it wasn't Deus ex Machina. The phenomenon I was trying to pin down is the show's habit of basically just throwing in a great big "instant resolution" button for one of the characters to press (usually dying along the way, for one-off characters). But you're right, that's not quite the same thing.
@weatherwax: You're right that "Midnight" didn't work for me. A lot of well-written stuff doesn't work for me. A lot of badly-written stuff does work for me; Dan Brown's "Robert Langdon" books come to mind. You could argue that the latter sucks, and you'd probably be right. My problem with "Midnight" is not that it doesn't work for me, but that it also sucks.
I'm afraid my review was hampered in that I only had so many characters, so some of the explanation cut short. I brought up the monster movie formula, not because I feel that's the only way it could have worked as an episode, but because I thought it would help to illustrate why it doesn't work.
The key to my criticism of "Midnight" is actually in the review title, not the formula, and it's the reason why (unlike a bunch of other stuff which doesn't work for me, personally) I honestly don't see why it works for some people. I perceive that it does, and I've heard all the arguments (and their good ones) but I keep coming back to "yes, but nothing happens. You could cut out ~2/3 of this episode's running time, and barely notice there was anything missing. That's atrocious television.
You're free to argue that it doesn't suck, of course, just as you're welcome to argue that stuff I consider underrated does suck (the Star Wars prequels being probably one of the easiest targets), but I stand by what I say.
Well to make the counter argument to that then: Something happens. Everybody in that room is irrevocably changed after what happened there. Their humanity was broken down before their eyes and they let fear and suspicion drive them to the point where they nearly killed an innocent man who was doing nothing more than trying to help them. You don't get up from that brush yourself off and say 'nothing happened'.
Compared to most TV or even most Doctor Who, where people run around a bit, string out some sexual tension, catch a few explosions which don't even singe their clothes and then everything is reset for the next episode/sequel. That's when nothing happens. A monster of the week appears, some people are frightened for a bit, some adrenaline rushes through your blood but by the end of it neither the people involved or the people watching have changed an iota. Measuring 'stuff happening' in terms of action and places and events is a very natural measure, but I don't think it's the best measure.
"You could cut out ~2/3 of this episode's running time, and barely notice there was anything missing. That's atrocious television. "
If we do measure 'stuff happening' by the degree that you could take out and not notice something was missing then you're removing all the speeches from To Kill a Mockingbird, absolutely everything from 12AngryMen, most of Frost/Nixon. There are a lot of great films where nothing happened, to the extent that here's a couple of lists of 'Great Films Where Nothing Happened'.
And the same is true of TV.
As long as characters are going on a journey, it doesn't really matter if it's lots of big events or one small event that put them there
I think we're probably going to have to agree to disagree about this episode.
However, since you've put forward a good, cogent argument, I'm going to go ahead and share my thoughts in response.
People go through (what should be) life altering experiences all the time on Doctor Who: most commonly, they see other people killed, sometimes their friends and loved ones. Occasionally, you'll have episodes where we see humanity broken down (I'm thinking in particular of series 6's "The Rebel Flesh"/"The Almost People," which I also found heavy-handed and badly plotted, but it at least had a plot).
Yes, things happen in "Midnight": a little happens at the beginning of the episode, and a little more at the end, but for a good 30+ minutes in between, what happens in the story is absolutely feck-all.
I'm hampered by never having actually seen any of the movies on either of those lists, or "Frost/Nixon" or "To Kill a Mockingbird." And I've only seen parts "12 Angry Men" once, a couple years ago. However, by my standards, I would say that stuff does happen in "12 Angry Men.'' Sure, it's just twelve guys in a room talking, but through their talking, things change (most obviously, the jurors' votes); we gain new insight into the events of the murder, as well as the characters of the jurors. I genuinely feel like I've missed something for not having watched the movie all the way through (and I definitely noticed that I'd missed stuff at the time).
Whereas in "Midnight," it's the same scene repeated ad nauseaum, with the only difference being that with each reiteration, the intensity is cranked up a notch. I haven't seen "Haruhi Suzumiya," but I imagine watching "Midnight" from the first few minutes after Mrs. Sylvestry is possessed until the part where the Doctor is paralyzed as analogous to the Endless Eight in microcosm. Everything in the episode is at a complete standstill for over half an hour; there is zero progression (whereas there's plenty of progression in "12 Angry Men").
Mrs. Sylvestry talks in a cryptic and slightly creepy way; the Doctor tries unsuccessfully to figure out what's going on; and the other humans are paranoid and lashing out in their fear. Rinse and repeat. And repeat. If you ask me, it isn't even all that interesting the first time around. The first repetition is entirely superfluous, and the repetitions take up the majority of the episode.
I agree that it doesn't matter whether it's a lot of big events or one small event that puts characters on a journey (or, indeed, happens along the way); but the journey itself - no matter how subtle and understated - still ought to consist of more than a lot of pointless farting around.
But there IS progression. It's just the progression of the side characters. They go from scared and cowering in the corner to cautiously curious, then to a building nervousness. All the while the Doctor tries telling them what to do, and acts like he's superior to them all. This only serves to make them more nervous, as they really don't know anything about him. They start to realize that he might know more about what's going on then he's telling them. Then they start to wonder if they'll be affected by the same thing as Mrs. Sylvestry. They begin to realize that there might be only one way to stop it, by shoving it out the airlock. The Doctor berates them for jumping to this idea, disgusted by this behavior. This fuels their resentment. They start to wonder if maybe he's in cahoots with whatever is taking over Mrs. Sylvestry, which would explain why he seems to know more about what's going on than they do. This starts them thinking that maybe they should throw him out to, in order to protect themselves. Then Sky begins mimicking only the Doctor, which leaves them to worried to actually attempt anything at first, but then they start to gather their 'courage'. They're only stopped by the few who still aren't willing to kill. Then Sky recovers, and the Doctor becomes the mimicker. This is when they finally decide to throw him out. There's the progression. It's not really plot progression, but character progression. It's a character piece about what regular people might do when trapped in a bad situation with the Doctor. It may or may not be a deconstruction, but it's definitely unique among Doctor Who episodes, and that makes it enjoyable to me.
Okay, you like the episode, nothing wrong with that.
I suppose you have something of a point in terms of progression - though where the guest cast winds up could be predicted a parsec away from the first few minutes after Mrs. Sylvestry is possessed, so I stand behind my "you could cut out 2/3 of this story and not feel like you'd missed anything" statement. I still aver that it is a badly and boringly told character piece, but I don't begrudge you for feeling differently, and will happily debate the story's merits (or lack thereof) with you, or not, whatever your preference.
This episode had so much potential, and ended so pathetically. And no, it didn't progress at all. It's a giant Idiot Plot too. And yes, the "instant sacrifice out of nowhere" is way overused (speaking of The Almost People, where I knew way before the end that they were going to find flimsy excuses to kill off one of each human-ganger pair) in Doctor who and Midnight is one of the worst examples of that. She didn't even TRY to push Skye/Entity out and keep herself alive. She basically did the same thing Foon did in Voyage of the Damned, but Foon had an established reason for losing her will to live.
Midnight is my favourite episode. I love the creature; I love its creepiness, how it almost manages to defeat the Doctor and the fact that we never get to learn just what the hell it is. I love the Humans Are the Real Monsters done right for once (no, Russell, blowing up Sycorax/Daleks is not a Moral Event Horizon). I love how David Tennant manages to show pure terror when his character is paralyzed, just from his eyes. I love the Madness Mantra " It's gone. It's gone, it's gone, it's gone, it's gone... " and I love the Recurring Gag " Don't do that. Just don't " played for drama instead of laughs.
Oh well, everyone is entitled to their own opinion.
\"Wah wah wah why isn\'t this structure traditional like a monster movie?!\"
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