Doctor Who Review; ‘The Chimes of Midnight’
AKA “why the audio stories are totally the best thing ever, you guys”.
So up until recently, I’ve been binging on the less well-known side of Doctor Who lore. I mean apart from the comics. And the novels. I’d often heard great things about the Big Finish produced audio stories. And by great things, I mean that they essentially make the televised stuff look like complete garbage. I don’t agree with that sentiment at all, but if every audio story were as good as this one that may actually be debatable. It helps that over a year ago, Steven Moffat’s short ‘Night Of The Doctor’ made all of the audio stories a definite part of the Televised continuity, so now’s as good a time as any to get aquatinted. And what a better way to start than the work of Robert Shearman, who’s often considered one of the best.
It’s Christmas Eve, 1906. A scullery maid by the name of Edith is in the holiday spirit, but she seems to be the only one. The other servants, Mr. Shaughnessy, Mrs. Baddeley, Mary, and Frederick, are all preoccupied with one of two things: preparing a feast for those upstairs, and passive-aggressively reminding Edith how worthless and stupid she is.
The Doctor arrives at the manor, along with his companion Charley, but as soon as they do the entire building seems frozen in time. Occasionally, it will unfreeze for whatever they’re interacting with before snapping back again.
Things finally start rolling again when a scream rings out, and The Doctor, Charlie, and servants converge to find Edith dead. No one is sure how it happened or who done it, so the Doctor sets about investigating. Predictably, more people start dropping like flies as the night goes on, and once the clock strikes midnight things get infinitely more complicated.
This story is a very intriguing one. It very quickly stops being about a murder mystery, and what seem at first like disjointed plot points all come together by the end. It’s got an intentionally disorienting atmosphere about it. For more reasons than one the dialogue is very repetitive, and it bothers The Doctor and Charlie just as much as it does the listener. It brings to mind ‘The Real Inspector Hound’, as a mystery that seems to be in an infinite loop, with only the main characters learning anything from each go-round.
If I had to say the story had one big problem, it’s that how the whole conflict is explained and resolved. I wouldn’t say that it’s too absurd to be taken seriously, so much as it is too abstract to be totally grounded in. What the root of the problem comes down to is gotten across in a way that I think is too elaborate for it’s own good. What could have been gotten across is maybe two or three minutes instead bleeds over into this extended monologue which, while not at all badly written, leaves the issue of What and Why really muddled. Though if I’m honest, this weirdness is just as much a merit as it is a flaw. I’ve always felt that (for admittedly understandable reasons) televised Doctor Who has never really gone as far as it could with its ability to portray literally ANY kind of sci-fi concept it wants. Because they aren’t shackled by that little thing called an effects budget, Big Finish can take full advantage of their ability to pick an idea and run with it. And so we get stories like this, that while a tad confusing, more than make up for it by for once giving me something I feel like I’ve never seen before.
Naysayers of Doctor Who’s current format have often said individual stories could stand to be told over a longer period, to allow for better pacing. While I don’t disagree, if there’s one essential element I think the televised series could adopt from the Audios it’s more tone than it is pacing. For me, Doctor Who is often at it’s worst when it tries to commit too heavily to melodrama. The audio stories, by contrast, manage to keep a sense of fun 90% of the time, even though their subject matter is almost always pitch black in comparison to the televised stuff.
‘The Chimes Of Midnight’ is about death, grief, self-loathing, classism, and futility…and yet it’s probably home to some of the funniest lines in the whole of Doctor Who. My favorite scene is probably the one where one of the servants is run over by his own car and his peers all have delightfully daft responses, from dramatically mourning his loss while forgetting what type of car he even owned, to declaring that the death was “clearly a suicide”. The Doctor’s response to the latter comment I particularly love.
Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor was always one of my preferred ones, even when all I had to judge him on was roughly an hour of screen time in an ultimately lackluster TV Movie. In retrospect, he was like an amalgam of the Tenth Doctor’s dashing romanticism and the Eleventh’s childlike enthusiasm. Both of these traits are steadily tempered and broken throughout his tenure, but this early version of Eight is just the right mix of ditz and genius. Here he has to play straight man, as the house servants are all odd and vague even by his standards. I love how toward the end of the story, McGann manages to convincingly portray the Doctor as getting increasingly panicked without going overboard with it; he manages to keep his wit and sarcasm even as he convinces one of the servants to strangle him to death.
Charley is a character I’m perpetually torn on; she’s fun when she and The Doctor are palling around, and I think India Fischer has a rather unique and appealing voice, but as her storyline throughout the series gets more and more focus I find that it takes things in a really convoluted and melodramatic direction. Here though, her arc is used very effectively. She’s a wannabe explorer who The Doctor saved from dying in a crashing aircraft, unaware that he was causing a universe-ending paradox by doing so. That paradox plays a large part in this story, and in that way the story is really about Charley.
The supporting cast, consisting of Louise Rolfe, Lennox Greaves, Sue Wallace, Robert Curbishley, and Juliet Warner are all pretty memorable, being just the right mix of human, creepy, and funny. Their dynamic is played up like a ‘Downton Abbey’-esque drama, performed by workers who aren’t all there in the head.
Because there’s literally nothing to see hear, the most I can talk about in this section is the music. The score Big Finish uses takes some getting used to after the pure pomp of Murray Gold’s stuff, being much more low-key by comparison. With that said it does help the atmosphere a lot, and especially big moments are built to with a lot of tension in the sound.
Were it not for it’s being rooted in a previously established storyline, I’d say ‘The Chimes of Midnight’ was a perfect place to begin the Eighth Doctor’s adventures. It’s masterfully written, as entertaining and thought-provoking as it is terrifying, and it’s an example of the character at his best.
Regardless of the fact that it might take one or two rewinds to really make sense of what happens in the conclusion, it’s still a tightly paced and well thought out plot that accomplishes a lot. In a perfect world, I think this would be one of the high standards for every Doctor Who thing ever.