I’m back from holiday, so what’s the first thing I’m going to post about? Doctor Who. Damn straight.
“Boarding today: a group of ordinary people embarking on an ordinary trip on an ordinary day. A bright sunny day like any other, on which the last journey any of these passengers expect to make is to the inner recesses of their own soul. But this particular excursion is about to take a detour… through The Twilight Zone”.
Or something like that.
I went into this episode expecting a fairly hum-drum ‘bottle’ show using a minimum of sets and effects work. That’s more or less what we get, but in many ways it works. Actually in one way it works: it’s quite scary.
The early scenes establishing the deeply stereotypical passengers in classic disaster movie fashion aren’t nearly as witty or interesting as the script supposes, ‘hilarious’ captions and all. The pace immediately drags. I know it’s necessary to make us care about the characters, but frankly things do not look promising.
However once things (inevitably) go wrong I’ll admit to being pleasantly surprised. The basic structure of the story is strongly reminiscent of a classic Twilight Zone episode — notably Richard Matheson’s ‘Nightmare at 20000 Feet’ (starring William Shatner) — or M.R.James ghost story transposed to outer space. It’s a straight-up haunting-cum-morality-play delivered largely through dialogue and character in a single enclosed set. It’s therefore treading a very well-worn furrow, and as such it succeeds or fails on how well it evokes the requisite sense of dread. Quite unexpectedly it does this very well.
The scene in the cockpit in which the co-pilot briefly sees a dark shape running across the sunlit landscape towards the ship creates a real thrill of unease; all the more so because it’s described but never seen by the viewers. The hammering on the outside of the hull is hackneyed but works. Then the real meat of the episode: the quietly ‘wrong’ body language of the possessed woman; the unusual device of her repeating dialogue and its gradual progression; is very effective.
It’s rare to see the Doctor genuinely out of his depth and it’s this that creates the sense of threat. The Doctor begins by doing his usual trick of taking charge, but the episode then undermines our expectations by having the crew gradually turn their suspicions on him, and then completely inverts our expectations by having the Doctor outwitted and rendered helpless. David Tennant does a fanstasic job of selling the scene in which the ‘alien’ robs the Doctor of his language and will. That he seems so utterly shaken by the experience, even when speaking to Donna about it later, leaves a sense of having encountered something powerful. If this were actually a Twilight Zone episode there’d be a suggestion that this was in fact The Devil or something similar, and the script here leaves it open to us to make a similar inference. I particularly like the fact that the Doctor is able to offer no explanation for what he’s encountered, and doesn’t even reply when asked if it’s still out there. This is far more effective than talking about aliens from before time as in ‘The Satan Pit’.
The script’s weakness is that it spends too long spinning out the obvious. The actual bickering and paranoia is slightly overdone and not quite inventive enough. The characters turn too quickly from reasoning human beings to afraid, to baying for blood. The alien is exacerbating the situation, of course, but even so it seems unrealistic for even the most sympathetic of characters to be swept up so completely by paranoia. Much of the running time revolves around fruitless circular argument, and I’m not sure that the dialogue is interesting enough for the episode to have much rewatch value.
Nonetheless, even though there’s not quite enough here to sustain a full 45 minute episode I must admit that it managed to chill me a couple of times. On a sunny Saturday evening that’s no mean feat.