This post contains spoilers.
Presumably in celebratory anticipation of the fact that the first lady Doctor is coming to our screens this autumn, the BBC has made all 146 new Who episodes available free on iPlayer.
You guys, that’s three whole series, plus Christmas specials, of David Tennant doing what he does best.
So I want to do something a little bit different this evening, and talk about a couple of new Who episodes I’ve rewatched recently: Steven Moffat’s Blink, and Russell T. Davies’ Midnight. Because I think putting them side-by-side will help me tease out some of the differences between these two writers-and-showrunners, and elucidate why I prefer Davies’ work to Moffat’s.
Blink‘s one of the most famous new Who episodes – maybe the most famous – while Midnight tends, I think, to be overlooked. Everyone remembers the Weeping Angels; hardly anyone remembers that the Tenth Doctor nearly got killed by a bunch of scared, ordinary humans.
Let’s start with Blink, then: a classic haunted house story. A woman called Sally Sparrow (played, astonishingly, by the now internationally famous Carey Mulligan), and her friend Kathy Nightingale go to a creepy old house to take photographs. There’s a knock at the door: a young man bringing a message for Sally, from his grandmother, who died twenty years ago. Her name, he reveals, was Kathy Nightingale. And Sally’s friend has disappeared. Later on, the Doctor tells Sally that she was sent into the past by the Weeping Angels, creatures who can only move when nothing’s looking at them. The rest of the time, they’re statues.
Midnight, meanwhile, is a classic bottle episode. The Doctor and Donna are visiting the titular Midnight, a diamond planet bathed in lethal xtonic light. The Doctor decides to take a shuttle to a beauty spot four hours from the spa where he’s left Donna – but the shuttle breaks down an hour from help, leaving its seven passengers and three staff stranded on a toxic and supposedly barren planet. And that’s when something outside starts knocking.
There are some obvious points of similarity here: both episodes are horror stories; they’re both relatively low-budget; both of them are designed to fit around the filming commitments of the show’s stars. (Blink features the Doctor and Martha for all of about five minutes, while Donna only appears in two short scenes in Midnight.) They both fill a specific Whovian ecological niche.
But they exploit that niche in quite different ways, and that’s what I’m interested in. Moffat, ever a lover of puzzles and schemes and metafiction, turns to Gothic excess and the peculiarly Victorian device of unfolding mysteries through texts – Kathy’s letter, the DVD Easter egg through which the Doctor warns Sally of the Weeping Angels, the scrawled warning on the wall of the haunted house. Moffat externalises (externalises what, I’ll get into in a moment). Davies, by contrast, turns inward: a claustrophobic shuttle, the mounting panic of its passengers, the horror of encountering something that may not be there at all. This, too, is a kind of Gothic: it is Gothic in the way that it refuses to explain its central mystery (was there a monster or not? if there was, what kind of monster was it? what did it want with the humans on the shuttle? and what will it do now, with Midnight evacuated?), in the way it operates through gaps and suggestions and things left half-said.
So what are these episodes grappling with? What demons are they trying to purge through their use of the uncanny and the unseen?
With Blink, I think, the answer is relatively straightforward: this is an episode that indexes our fear of a past we can’t quite see, except in frozen moments recorded in a letter or on film; frozen moments terrifyingly mimicked by the angels’ seemingly inexplicable stop-motion movement. The episode is solved by making the past legible, by joining up the textual fragments – drawing a line from the Doctor losing his TARDIS in 1968 to Sally Sparrow handing him everything he’ll need to know to get it back in 2007. (It’s interesting that Sally herself doesn’t seem to have a past. She doesn’t have a job or a family. She is obsessed with old places, though, and it seems suggestive in this context that the episode ends with a specific nod to the future: when she hands the folder to the Doctor, she takes the hand of Kathy’s brother Larry. Having exorcised the demons of the past, she’s ready to move on to a future with Larry.)
Midnight, though, doesn’t bother with elaborate metaphors. Its stripped-back aesthetic – no special-effects monster, no McGuffins – means we’ve only got one thing to concentrate on: the humans on the shuttle and their rapidly amplifying panic. The horror here comes as much from what these people – normal, pleasant people for the most part, people who generally think themselves decent – are capable of as it does from the possibly-possessed Skye Silvestry (played by the always electric Lesley Sharp).
And, after all, is she possessed? As one of the passengers points out, she’s the most terrified of them all when the shuttle breaks down; she’s recently broken up with her long-term girlfriend. Could her actions be the result of hysteria? Could those knocks have been only rocks falling, after all?
I don’t think this is an interpretation that the episode supports, actually, but the very fact that there’s room for it is an indication that Davies isn’t really interested in the supernatural whys and wherefores of his set-up. He’s interested in human reactions to what we decide is Other, and therefore dangerous – which makes it a pretty interesting episode to watch at this moment in human history.
It’s pretty noticeable that Midnight is generally a lot more inclusive than Blink: Davies’ future is one in which a shuttle hostess’ standard greeting, one she repeats under pressure, is “Ladies, gentlemen and variations thereupon”; it’s one in which no-one raises an eyebrow at a woman having recently been in a relationship with another woman (although, I am slightly side-eyeing Davies’ decision to make this one queer character the victim of the episode). I also enjoyed the way bombastic Professor Hobbes’ repeated denigrations of his talented assistant Dee Dee were quite clearly gendered and racialised; we’re invited to see his behaviour as selfish, sexist and racist, and that works interestingly with the way the possessed Skye is othered. Blink, on the other hand, is full of manipulative men preying on women in vulnerable situations: the on-duty police officer who asks Sally for her number (we’re expected to find this cute); the 1920s farm labourer following Kathy across the fields after she’s asked him not to (she ends up marrying him); and Larry, who we see at the end of Blink apparently trying to guilt-trip Sally into a relationship (as we’ve seen, he turns out to represent her future). The fact that Moffat clearly sees nothing wrong with any of this is of a piece with his later work on Doctor Who, and as such is not especially surprising. The fact that fandom has collectively chosen to erase this fact (Blink is often trotted out as compensation for all Moffat’s Whovian crimes, “he may be ragingly sexist, but at least he wrote Blink”) is pretty troubling.
On this subject: let’s think, finally, about who the Doctor is in these two episodes. Because in Blink, the Doctor is, basically, a manipulative arsehole, manoeuvring a terrified Sally like a chess piece, keeping vital information from her. He doesn’t tell her, for example, that he’s set the TARDIS to leave her behind when it dematerialises towards the end of the episode; sure, he knows the Angels will be immobilised, but she doesn’t, and neither does Larry, and if the Angels are scary on our screens can you only imagine what they’d be like in real life? And what about the people he sends forwards in time to warn Sally? They have to get to her the hard way, without time travel, waiting all their lives just to get a message to her – and all, ultimately, so the Doctor can get his TARDIS back. Why can’t he transport these lost travellers back to their own time?
In other words, the Doctor treats people like puzzles, or pawns, things to be moved around for his own benefit. Which is also, I think, how Moffat treats his characters: think of the Impossible Girl, the Girl Who Waited; they’re puzzles for the Doctor to solve, not people in their own right. They’re bits of plot.
Whereas Davies’ Doctor in Midnight is interested in everyone as a person. He spends time chatting to each of his fellow passengers and finding out their stories (apart from, notably, the hostess, who remains pointedly unnamed). He’s even interested in what the monster wants, and in how he can help it. Sure, he’s not perfect – “I’m clever!” he says, desperately, as his fellow passengers begin turning on him – but look at how the very structure of the episode interests us in each of these characters, and encourages us to see them as the Doctor does, as complex people. The biggest tragedy in Midnight is for someone to have their voice coopted by someone – or something – else.
And, again, I think that focus is reflected in the rest of Davies’ work for Doctor Who: it sees people as complex, baggy, not always thoroughly good and not always thoroughly bad. I’m not, of course, saying that Davies-era Who was always a masterpiece of subtle characterisation, because it wasn’t. It was a monster-of-the-week science fiction show, sometimes glorious, sometimes silly. But it had as its founding ethos the idea that everyone deserves respect as themselves, as unique and interesting and human – which sometimes means cowardly and weak and stupid, and sometimes means being capable of great sacrifice. And it was that which made Davies’ universe bigger and wilder and more wonderful than all the wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey-ness Steven Moffat ever came up with.