Wednesday 20 March 2024

REVIEW: The Black Archive - Midnight by Philip Purser-Hallard

Obverse Books' Black Archive range is something of a marvel. I wouldn't have thought it was possible to find a book's worth of material to say about each and every Doctor Who story, but here we are, at the 69th volume. Philip Purser-Hallard (The Pendragon Protocol, The Vanishing Man, Of the City of the Saved...) delivers his fourth entry in the series with Midnight, analysing the 2008 episode widely considered one of modern Who's finest hours (or at least, one of its finest 43 minutes). It's even more impressive to create an engaging full-length piece on a single episode, although that this is even possible shows the depth of many of Doctor Who's 21st century episodes. Midnight itself is an episode that is crying out for a dissection like this, so it's surprising it's taken so long for the range to reach it.

In spite of episode's simple storyline and production, a consequence of the need to produce an episode cheaply and quickly before season four's big finale, it's a narrative filled with questions and room for exploration. Purser-Hallard delves into the traditions of the script, both televisual and theatrical, drawing fascinating parallels with productions both within the series (such as The Edge of Destruction) and without (Arthur Miller's The Crucible). Purser-Hallard analyses the social commentary within the episode, delving into each character's background, taking them apart to show remarkable depth for what, at first glance, may seem like sketched-in characters. He notes that the script's author, Russell T. Davies, picks out easily recognisable archetypes to populate his story, but that this adds depth and complexity without the need to spell everything about the characters out. Some of the analysis of the character names seems to be taking things a little far, though, seeing parallels that unlikely to be deliberate. Similarly, the seemingly counter-intuitive name for the planet and story, Midnight, was probably chosen for no deeper reason than it sounded cool.

Purser-Hallard takes a very writerly perspective on the episode, viewing it in context with the traditions of storytelling. As well as more contemporary forms of story, he adroitly links Midnight, with its nameless horror that steals the very voice of the protagonist, to fairytales and folklore. Even then, he brings it bang up to date by comparing it with the most recent Doctor Who episode, The Church on Ruby Road, with its own take on fairytale monsters. From a fan perspective, some of the most interesting parts of the book deal with the fiction itself. After all, with the possible exception of Listen, Midnight features the most obscure and unknowable monster of any Doctor Who story, simply asking for an essay discussing just who or what it is. Equally intriguing is the later section dealing with the Doctor's character in this episode, one which takes him to task for his many flaws; again, Purser-Hallard's essay reflects the story itself while also looking at it through the lens of the most recent Doctor Who episodes, in which David Tennant returned as an older, more refined version of his Doctor.

As effective as the main essays are, the part that was most informative for me was the appendix, which details the three stage productions of Midnight. This was news to me, and it was fascinating to read the differences between the productions in their approaches to performance and casting, backed up by interviews with some of the creatives involved. Altogether, a very strong entry to the Black Archive, giving the reader plenty to think about next time they watch this acclaimed episode.

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