Monday, 28 September 2015

Main Range 029. The Chimes of Midnight by Robert Shearman (February 2002)

Like the best of Big Finish, listening to The Chimes of Midnight is a claustrophobic, sensory experience. The characters are in pitch black or near-darkness, like us, the audience: as we are reminded by the Doctor, sight is only one of our five senses. We must question the world and what we can or cannot trust, whether that’s the literal plane of the world we see visually, or whether that’s the received wisdom we’ve heard all our life long that we are nothing or nobody simply because of the role we play and the function we perform. As such this work is dense in metaphor, symbolism, rich in imagery and layers upon layers worthy of analysis.


I’ll be noticeably referencing Robert Shearman’s first work, The Holy Terror, rather a lot here. This isn’t to do The Chimes of Midnight a disservice; there is method in my madness. It’s always interesting to look at what a writer does in their different pieces and examine the patterns, but not always this rewarding: Shearman has quite clearly told a story with some similar tricks and similar themes, with startlingly effective (and surprisingly unpredictable) results. I don’t feel The Mutant Phase is worth comparing to The Sirens of Time, and neither would Nick Briggs, no doubt. But these two plays have a thematic unity that makes comparison an irresistible part of the discussion.

Far from feeling flat, this story is almost better for coming second, pulling similar tricks and maintaining a similar streak of black humour but in a very different world – because there’s a class reading to this, an awareness of a concrete world of the material and the social, that wasn’t to be found to anywhere near the same extent in The Holy Terror. The characters are authentic and well-drawn, and the world Baddeley, Shaughnessy, Mary, Edith and Frederick inhabit is a wholly living, breathing, believable one (OK, yes, I’ve never been in a time loop either, but you know what I mean. It’s more real than the crazed world of Pepin VII). This is probably the key difference with The Holy Terror; that story saw bizarre, surreal rituals happening to bizarre, surreal people; here it is not the people who are bizarre, merely their situation and fate. A good example of this critique is the following: “there is nothing better than this! Do you hear me? This is it! Me driving a car around, you helping her ladyship with her clothes, it’s the best we’re ever going to get. We’re nothing, Mary. Do you hear me? We’re nobody!” not to mention all the lines reminding people of their station, that Edith is nothing and nobody, etc., recur frequently – innocently enough at first, it’s the kind of thing one’d expect to find in a period drama, but eventually taking on a more sinister and even existential sheen. It is the context they inhabit that oppresses them, the story around them, even the very genre in which they reside, a nebulous notion here made as manifest as possible in terms of the house feeding off the feeble existence of the servants, their lives going round in endless circles as indeed they would even outside of a time loop.

What’s even better is that this story, this genre, is very cleverly tailored to this particular duo: as I’ve mentioned recently when discussing The Stones of Venice, the Eighth Doctor of all the Doctors fits pretty well into the aristocratic mould, and Charley with her “Edwardian adventuress” background is similarly suited to a story that in part examines hierarchy and social structure. In a way that he couldn’t really do with Frobisher in The Holy Terror, Shearman can make this story about Charley. She belongs here. Edwardiana (whether that’s a word or not) is her context and her genre. This is definitively a Charley story, like Father’s Day is a Rose story or The Curse of Fenric is an Ace story. She gets a great deal of emotional back-story, seen through the prism of Edith’s smallness; we learn of her past kindness, her past empathy, her humanity. Her scenes with Edith in Part Four are properly moving, a tale of a small and humiliated life made desperate by the removal of its only purpose.

The Eighth Doctor’s joy at the experience of being in a mystery and the “giddy thrill of our ignorance” is a great way to launch him into things. I’m really enjoying Paul McGann’s take on the character. He is careful and controlled role as man of deduction here, taking on the mantle of detective however aware he is that it’s a “role to play”, gives him some wonderful material to work with and McGann does so with relish. He’s properly open with Charley for the first time about much he loves having her around, claiming: “Charley, without you I would just be a lonely old man, rattling around in a TARDIS with no one to talk to, my life going round and round without meaning, my life going round in circles… and you need me! Without me you would never tread upon the beaches of alien worlds or marvel at the eclipse of new suns and the birth of new stars. You have seen the universe, Charley, and you have made a difference to it!” Theirs is a relationship that in all its open frankness feels more like the new series than the classic.

The sinister opening, with its light jingle accompanying the sounds of a clock vigorously ticking away, really sets the mood for this one: so much can be accomplished with the mere sound of a ticking clock, with the rigorous, nasty insistence of a knife being sharpened. Barnaby Edwards and Andy Hardwick do a phenomenal job on the atmosphere, all creaking doors and floorboards, the beating of the heart and the echoey Christmas carol; they’re ably complemented as ever by Russell Stone on subtle piano duties, the stirring sound of foreboding violins, and subdued voices overlaid over one another: a fantastic soundscape. Predictably (not that this is a bad thing) Shearman uses sound enormously well, not just in terms of setting his story in an enclosed environment, but rather the significance that sounds have, of voices criss-crossing the time loop, of the oft-repeated carol, of Baddeley’s knife slicing the potatoes. The repetition of these sounds signals information with economy and adeptness.

The story is reasonably tightly plotted, the drip-feed of information well timed: the writing in the dust then the revelation, Mrs Baddeley preparing the turkey then the Doctor and Charley finding the kitchen. Shearman knows when we’re going to be surprised by revelations and when we’re going to expect them, and he toys with that. Just as The Holy Terror played around with Jacobean tragedy, the riff here is on Christie-esque murder mystery, and quite openly so (Charley herself makes the link): characters have set and predestined roles within a hierarchical household, be it chauffeur, butler, cook or scullery maid (or indeed amateur sleuths or inspectors) – this is even lampshaded by Shaughnessy’s lack of knowledge of the other figures in the house save from their set social positions. So what we have is an endlessly repeating Christie mystery, which is enormously significant.

Edith encouraging Charley to die, to accept the fact that is her death, bears a strong resemblance to the conclusion of The Holy Terror. But the endings are different. This one is more distinctly Doctor Whoish, probably, powerful as the other was. The optimism here is life-affirming and it doesn’t feel mawkish or maudlin in the least; as Rob Matthews over at the DWRG observes in his fantastic and much-recommended review of the story, it’s more worthwhile a victory in part because of the sheer quantity of macabre-ness we’ve experienced to get there. Or is it?

David Foster Wallace once said, “Every love story is a ghost story.” This could even be rephrased that every story is in some sense a ghost story. We have here the concept of a haunting, a literal wound in a geographical space, a memory in the fabric of the house that can’t ever, ever stop. History must stand still, must not be allowed to continue. The death of death, weirdly enough, given the number of deaths we are witness to. Stories cannot end or begin, only replay: “Some people have theories about ghosts, that a house itself absorbs the history of the actions within it, and that an event traumatic enough can actually be preserved for posterity… Can you imagine what would happen if a house was given nothing but traumatic events? If it was stuck in a time loop going backwards and forwards forever, each time playing the same trauma, each time playing the same brutal act of violence… what would that do to a house?... It’s storing up all the energy of that violence, it’s feasting on it, and every time it replays a death it becomes more and more sentient.”

And yet despite narrative’s paralysis, there is a story: the endlessly repeating cycle of gory, sick and twisted deaths, a parody of a murder mystery. And this is the story’s cleverest trick, and one which goes some way to redeeming the otherwise slightly fumbled, confused ending. Because it’s a murder mystery which plays on repeat. It’s a murder mystery we as listeners have illicitly revelled in. The sicker the humour, the more we like it. You might think I’m reading too much into this, but the self-awareness is all there in the text itself: murders as tableaux complete with the killer signing his name at the bottom; horror as art, blood as sweet-tasting preserve. We feed ourselves on such things, we stare at horror stories like paintings and gorge our brains on them like jam. Even Shearman's trademark black humour achieves the same effect: we laugh at these people midway through their horrific situation, then catch ourselves doing so, somewhat uncomfortably.

The story might end positively for the characters, but if we go back and think about the fact we savour an endless cycle of death upon death upon death in our fiction, it ends rather unnervingly for us. We are like Edward Grove, feasting on traumas both real and imaginary; they lend colour and shape and structure to people’s lives. And what would happen if people were given nothing but traumatic events, each time playing the same brutal act of violence? What would that do, then?

Other thoughts:
I’m a little bit in love with the (alleged) working title for this story, The Holly Terror.
“I love the dark, don’t you?”/ “Well, within reason. You can have too much of a good thing.”
“I’ve been too methodical recently, I think, setting co-ordinates and things, actually deciding where we want to go. I’ve been getting far too safe and predictable these last few incarnations. You know, I once travelled for centuries without any idea where I was going next.”
It seems like custard is a taste the Doctor held long before becoming his eleventh incarnation!
I love that Edith doesn’t know all the words to Hark the Herald Angels Sing! – a very deft bit of characterisation. She likes the tunes from her childhood, perhaps, without ever really having thought about the meaning of the words.
“That’s me is it, sir? That’s me in the dust?” – nice echo of the book of Genesis: man is made out of dust alone, to dust we will return, and given their propinquity thereto it is ‘servants’ who are best reminded of this. And the dust spreading back over Charley’s name, then it reappearing later, is a beautiful supernatural moment.
 “It’s the people upstairs who make the decisions that affect the world. It’s the people upstairs who make a difference… [they] would have used up their lives for their own ends, just as I do. But I do it a little more honestly, perhaps.”
“What worries me, Charley, is that they’re all around us… that we’re the ones who’ve gone missing somehow.”
“Don’t you say God’s name to me, Frederick, not with his birthday coming up and all.”
The fire in the gate, frozen in time, the cracker repairing itself, the staff not knowing the time, the joke in the cracker… even the little throwaway things are very sinister.
“We’re not being allowed to make any impression here.”/ “Yes, that’s right. Time itself not letting us in.”
Trying to get through to Edith opens Charley up to the relentless ticking of the clock and the babble of insults and derogatory comments ever made to Edith across her life. The moment Charley and Edith interact reminds me of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia: past and future, impossibly, intersect in fiction where they cannot in reality.
Edith’s prediction of her death is a fantastically creepy moment.
“There are some mysteries best left unsolved.”
It’s a nice and knowing in-joke that Shaughnessy the butler believes the Doctor to be the Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard BEFORE he makes any excuses, taking the Doctor quite by surprise. More self-awareness. Everyone knows this is a story, and that’s the writer’s ammunition.
“Well, Edith was a very stupid girl, Doctor. She may not have known it was impossible when she did it.”
The plum pudding motif is the most successful confectionery-based one in Doctor Who (which is not, as it sounds, damning with faint praise – this works even better than the infamous soufflé!). It also forms the sickest gag yet, and thus is sure to win me over – Mrs Baddeley’s demise, the plump cook smothered in her own dessert, threepenny coins laid on her eyes as a mark of death. The sticky sound effect used is deliciously revolting.
In a manner reminiscent of Harold Pinter’s Dumb Waiter (in which two men continue to receive orders from the unknown master upstairs) the servants know nothing of who they serve.
“Only in service do we derive any meaning or purpose. We serve. That is our function, that is our only function.”
The moment when Charley regresses into a child with one mouthful of Mrs Baddeley’s plum pudding is very reminiscent of Ghost Light, isn’t it?
“It wouldn’t be a good mystery if the killer came right out and told you, would it?”
“If only every murder could be determined by the shiftiness of the culprit’s eyes!” – the long-running shifty eyes joke (yet how creepy a joke) is great, particularly when Mary thinks it’s Edith who murdered herself.
A lovely non sequitur: “I don’t know what year it is. I’m just paid to drive the car.”
“Please find out who killed me soon. I’m so tired of dying.” Brrr.
“This is dreadful news. To lose another member of staff over Christmas is bad enough; to lose the plum pudding is even worse!”
“There are rules to this sort of mystery, Charley. It wouldn’t be fair if the murderer turned out to be someone we hadn’t even suspected… It all feels like some sort of elaborate game to me.” Each murder entirely fitting of the victim, Edith drowning amid her pots and pans, Baddeley stuffed with her own pudding, etc. Rather like the film Seven. Shudder.
“There are so many clues we can’t see what’s going on.”
The Doctor “can concentrate on millions of things at once.”
“Time has taken fright and it’s running away!” – the increasing pace hurtling towards the Part Two cliff-hanger, time counting away, “I am nothing. I am nobody!” – is utterly nightmarish.
 “I can stab you hard with my knitting needle. [My master] was most particular about what I can do with my knitting needle, sir.” – never said more cheerfully!
“We know who did the murder.”/ “Who?”/ “Us.”
“Oh, Freddie, to be killed by your own Chrysler! Or Bentley, whichever it was!”
“It’s quite clear that Frederick brought the car into the house, ran himself over with it, and put it back outside again before he finally expired.”/ “Most unfortunate.”
“A murder mystery with murders themselves as the red herring.”
“Whoever heard of the butler doing it?”
“The only witness to all that has been going on here is the house itself. Edward Grove is the killer and we are standing within his belly.”
“You are not nothing! You are worth more than a heap of architecture!”
“You’re servants with no one to serve. Your master has no rights over you. Acknowledge it, and set yourselves free!”
Charley as the daughter of the house is a stroke of genius, another horrific twist of the knife.
 “I was wrong to think we could escape the house. Instead we’ve taken the house with us.” The TARDIS within the scullery containing a TARDIS containing a scullery and on and on and on: “We’re looking at infinity, Charley, infinite time and space, reduced to the dimensions of a few rooms in a cold Edwardian house on Christmas Eve… We’re arrived in the TARDIS. We haven’t yet arrived at all. We’re in the process of arriving. [The people in the house] have never died before, and at the same time they’ve been dying every hour as the clock chimes forever. Because there is no time here, you understand? This is the past, this is the present, this is the future, looping around, as it always has been, looping around, since the beginning of time.”
“What a pity I can’t talk cement,” says the Doctor of communicating with the house.
“Time moves quicker for the likes of us.”
“Tea always tastes better when it’s made by free will, doesn’t it?”
“None of it matters because nothing you do can have the slightest consequence, each action you take wiped out without the slightest effect. So what is the point of your life at all? What will you do with it?” – just to be alive is enough.
“They all merge into one…all the bullying butlers, all the chauffeurs, the cooks… just as to all them I was only the scullery maid. Just the scullery maid.”
Edith here is the key figure around which everything crystallises just as Eugene Tacitus was last time round. But the paradox is dealt with so much more interestingly, so much more maturely, and with so much more heart, than the one that plays out in Colditz: there are real repercussions for the Doctor and Charley.
Edward Grove is once again characterised as a kind of nightmare child just like The Holy Terror’s menace: killing as immaturity, as a kind of sick childish glee. The Doctor and Charley are its parents, after a fashion. And so are we, if all audiences “engender” the stories that spring up for their entertainment.
“You talk of blood in your veins, you talk of breathing, of feeling, but you have no veins. You have nothing to feel with. You’re intelligent, you’re emotional, and you’re dangerous too, very probably, but it’s – not – life!” If this is true of the house, is this not true of masters in the real world who rule over their servants? Are they alive, if their lives depend on the endless circularity of others’ servitude?
“Whatever the consequences, we chose life.”
To be thought of with fondness, that is to be alive. “However bad it might be, however lonely it might get, I choose to live.”
“It’s her life or mine.”/ “Exactly.” Badass, Doctor.
“Edith, remember: you are not nothing. You are not nobody. You are Edith Thompson. Be proud of that.” And she hums the carol and the music swells around her, safe in the knowledge that she is Edith. She is somebody.
There’s a nice unfinished feel to the very ending. The story arc will go on, as the ending uncomfortably reminds us – Charley was still meant to die, and this will no doubt still come to a head…

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