THE CHIMES OF MIDNIGHT
When I was about 6, Doctor Who was scary. I didn’t watch it behind the sofa, because then I wouldn’t have been able to see the screen, but I do remember being terrified of the Virus, Kroll and the Stones of Blood. But, watching those stories now, they aren’t remotely frightening. We all like to think that Doctor Who has the ability to send shivers down spines, but you’re unlikely to find any stories that do that in your DVD collection.
And that’s why I love The Chimes Of Midnight. Because it scared me. I can’t tell you how much it scared me because there are certain words which aren’t allowed in this magazine, but suffice it to say, it was a lot. It was Doctor Who as I remembered it. Doctor Who as wish it was.
What makes it so frightening is the way the script defers the answers. Ghost stories are only effective because we don’t know how ghosts work, the moment you explain that ghosts are ‘psychic projections’ then they stop being frightening.
Episode one is an consummate exercise in creating and sustaining a mood; we venture out of the TARDIS into complete darkness and gradually divine our surroundings. One by one, we are presented with mysteries; mysteries the Doctor doesn’t know the answer to. The story itself doesn’t even begin until episode two.
And even then, the mysteries are piled on. Who is behind the murders? Why do the servants react so oddly to being killed? We are faced, again and again with the unknowable. The story plays on a basic human fear – our fear of the irrational, of being unable to predict or understand why people are behaving the way they are. What at first seems to be amiable and familiar is revealed to be inhuman and automatic. Even the Doctor cannot provide reassurance, because he is in the dark with the rest of us, and he is frightened too.
There are two very good reasons why Rob Shearman leaves it so late with the explanations. Firstly, because he knows that the best way to unsettle an audience is to confound them. And secondly, because he was making the story up as he went along and hadn’t decided what was going on until half-way through part three. I remember reading an early draft of the script where I was convinced he would reveal the villain to be the plum pudding!
But his approach to writing greatly impressed me. I am in complete awe of someone who can sit down, with no idea where a story is going, and create something which is perfectly structured and cohesive. Obviously he’s had a lot of practice.
Indeed, Chimes draws on his background in theatre. Like The Holy Terror, the story unfolds within an ‘theatrical’ space. Language is heightened and ritualistic – the cook’s over-use of ‘veritable’, the parroting of ‘Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas…’. There is the subversion of stereotype and cliché; in Chimes, the Upstairs Downstairs hierarchy of servants, the whodunit where the only clue is the shiftiness of the eyes. There is the reiteration of platitudes to make the insincere seem sinister; a device Shearman has employed since his breakthrough play Easy Laughter, a play which has informed much of his Doctor Who work. I strongly recommend you check it out if you get the chance.
I should also mention the humour. Shearman’s writing is extremely funny; whilst Chimes is most ‘upbeat’ Doctor Who, there is nevertheless an undercurrent of black humour. Shearman’s work is life-affirming, but only through confronting our reactions to death, to violence and cruelty. One of the finest moments for me is the ‘suicide’ of the chauffeur; it is at once absurd, hilarious and chilling. You laugh, but you laugh uneasily.
The conventions of Doctor Who require a rationale for this shift away from the traditional ‘realistic’ mode, and possibly the only weakness of the play is that it’s ‘time paradox’ explanation, whilst effective dramatically and thematically appropriate, is unsatisfying in terms of providing that tidy pseudo-scientific answer.
And yes, it’s a bit like an episode of that old ITV show, Sapphire and Steel.
The audio is still available on CD and download and can be ordered here.