Doctor Who, “Midnight,” and the voices that get listened to.

I’ve seen “Midnight” twice now, and although I adored it story-telling-wise, there’s some subtext that’s still bothering me. (SPOILERS AHEAD!) I read a blog post a month ago about how having everyone at the end go “what was the hostess’ name, again?” was a terrible way to “honor” her sacrifice, since it made her a symbol instead of a person. (I wish I could find that post!) While I was trying to find it again, I came across this one, which is even more interesting, in some ways.

Bottom line? I think RTD was trying to illustrate that people in service occupations have a unique perspective on events and humanity, and that it’s important to remember that they are people and their opinions count. But it’s unsettling that “people in service occupations” apparently translates to “black women” for RTD — especially after the third series.

And so now I want to think out loud on the topic of whose voices get heard, and why. This was an episode all about voices, and the power they can have. The creature first copies, then synchronizes with, then steals the voices it finds within the train. It zeroes in on Sky Sylvestry as the most susceptible in the beginning, and then as it learns and gets stronger it recognizes the Doctor’s voice as the strongest in the room, and takes it.

The Doctor’s voice was the most influential, but it wasn’t the only correct one (at least, not at first). Dee Dee, the Professor’s assistant, frequently has important points to make (like, say, the fact that they’re NOT running out of air), but unless the Doctor shouts everyone into silence first, no one will listen to her. In fact, they do a lot of hushing her. The very first time we meet her, she introduces herself to the Doctor and the Professor just says, “don’t bother the man!” despite the fact that he had just introduced himself all of ten seconds earlier. Dee Dee knew that it meant nothing for the engines to be “stabilized” but everyone ignored her in favor of the “slight delay” theory. She knew right away that the creature hadn’t moved from Sky to the Doctor, and she said it several times, but no one even acknowledged her enough to hush her until the fifth time she’d shouted it. Her voice is not listened to.

The hostess is more self-silencing. Because of her job she tries not to give any input, other than the “please return to your seats!” kind, and she doesn’t really push it. That is, until she says what everyone’s thinking and says “we should throw her out!” But when she changes her mind again later, everyone has decided again that they don’t want to listen her. At one point a character says something like, “What does she know? She’s just the hostess!” Her voice is only very, very selectively listened to, and it’s more complicated (but more on that later).

And then there’s Jehtro. Right from the beginning I liked him (and kind of disliked his parents) because he’d make snarky, insightful comments, and they’d immediately tell him to be quiet. It was a more straightforward case of silencing, like with Dee Dee. Except then he stopped protesting, so much. It seemed clear to me that he agreed with Dee Dee about the creature, that he also thought it was stealing the Doctor’s voice, but all he would say was “I don’t know.”

Now the question of why. Why is Dee Dee so resolutely ignored and belittled? Well, she’s just some student. She’s just some woman. She’s just some black person. She’s just some professor’s assistant. And she’s just been hearing these things most of her life. She speaks quietly and with hesitation because she already knows that her voice does not have power. I think it’s very much the same with the hostess. She’s been given responsibility over the group, but “hostess” is not a position that comes with much authority. Her pleas to get people to sit down, her attempts to convince everyone that nothing’s wrong, were superficial and short-lived because, like Dee Dee, she already knows that no one is listening.

Why is the hostess listened to one moment, but ignored the next? Everyone seemed thrilled with her when her suggestion was to throw Sky out of the car, but when she starts arguing against chucking the Doctor, she’s invisible again. She has to chuck herself and Sky out instead to get them to stop. I would argue that this is not because her voice was any more or less powerful earlier in the day, but instead that she (like Dee Dee) was always subject to the cooperation of the others when she attempted to be heard. When she was saying what everyone wanted to hear, they were all glad to agree with her, but when she started challenging their preferred world view they withdrew their approval and without their voices supporting her own, she was silenced. She wasn’t powerless, but she had to act, and act desperately, to have influence. I think it’s no coincidence that she and Dee Dee were black, female, and in positions of service.

However, Jethro is notably not a woman of color in a service role. He is “just a kid,” and outside the norm in ways that earn him no respect from the adults. But he is choosing to exclude himself from the privileged group, and he can’t quite do it– he is still at a luxury palace with his wealthy, white, kyriarchy-approved parents. And when all the shit starts going down and people are getting murdered, he kind of wants to be in that privileged group again, and he swallows his voice. I think he probably could have chosen instead to make himself heard. His voice has more of society’s support, and if he’d sided with Dee Dee the two of them might have been able to convince the others. Plus, unlike Dee Dee, he wasn’t at much risk of being chucked out the window for disagreeing– his parents were unlikely to forget themselves, and their connection to him, that completely. Indeed, I think he should have spoken, and spoken loudly. It could have saved lives!

But this is an episode about, among other things, the way people fall apart in the face of the unknown. He was afraid. They were all afraid. He, and everyone else, should have behaved better, but people get a little crazy when they’re afraid. And since I’m feeling generous (Chrismas spirit!) I’m going to err on the side of optimism and say that the episode was also about the danger of devaluing voices that deserve to be heard. I think one can make the case that the text criticizes the dismissal of Dee Dee and the hostess. Of course, one could also make the argument that the text does no such thing, that we’re not even supposed to notice the unfortunate narratives about gender and race. After all, the Doctor gets his voice back at the end of the episode, but Dee Dee hasn’t changed, and the hostess’ voice is lost forever.

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4 Responses to Doctor Who, “Midnight,” and the voices that get listened to.

  1. llencelyn says:

    This was a good post! I don’t watch Doctor Who, but I am a sci-fi fan and it is ambiguous subtexts like these that have largely driven me away from television and movies. I just can’t convince myself that the writers were trying to make a statement.

    (Arrived via Shakesville.)

  2. eloriane says:

    If this had been written by Russel T. Davies, I’d say it was totally unintentional. I think he starts out writing in interesting characters who are female, or people of color, or even fat (!), to be all inclusive, and then when he gets to the part of the plot where it’s time for people to start dying, he looks at all his characters and picks the women, or the people of color, or the fat folks, to die first, without any idea what it’s going to look like. It’s like he’s not aware that it’s not “good” diversity if he kills them all off.

    Steven Moffat, however, who wrote this episode, is actually a good writer. This isn’t one of his better episodes, but he’s generally not as hamhanded or melodramatic as RTD. I’d find it completely plausible that he’s intentionally putting this message in for us, in an attempt to subtly criticize it.

    …WAIT. I LIE. According to Wikipedia, RTD wrote this episode after all; Moffat did the library episodes. DAMN. That means I can’t even pretend it was intentional. It’s just RTD, totally oblivious, again. 😦

    • Crowfoot says:

      It’s like he’s not aware that it’s not “good” diversity if he kills them all off.

      yeah exactly. I see that he appears to be trying, but he still really doesn’t get it. Despite his obtuseness, I really liked what you wrote here and I think that it still applies, it’s just that Russell is oblivious to the fact that he’s saying it. Perhaps because of the nature of the story-line, his tendency to kill off and/or silence the women, people of colour, lesbians, fat folk etc etc really illustrates how the voices of these groups are marginalized and silenced. It’s like he made this great statement about marginalization and silencing simply because he’s actively doing it himself. *sigh* oh Russell.

  3. Quercki M. Singer says:

    I find the topic of “who gets listened to” fascinating, because often I am unheard. Sometimes I will speak up for another’s right to be heard. I was envious of the voice of command in Dune.

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