The Chimes of Midnight is the second audio drama from Big Finish Productions which formed part of a “season” of six stories featuring the 8th Doctor. It stars Paul McGann as the Doctor and India Fisher as Charley, and is a huge step up from the previous installment, Invaders from Mars. Spoilers ahead.
The script is written by Robert Shearman, whose Big Finish work includes The Holy Terror and The Maltese Penguin, but who is best known for Dalek, from the first season of the revival series, back in 2005. It’s a taut script with good direction, created completely in the vein of The Twilight Zone, or even Sapphire and Steel. Basically, the TARDIS takes the Doctor and Charley to an English house on Christmas Eve in 1906. There, they discover a group of servants busying themselves with their duties, with no thoughts of anything but to be of use to their masters. But quickly, the Doctor realizes something is amiss. Nobody can tell them anything about who their masters are; certain events and conversations keep repeating; and bizarre, grotesque murders keep happening on the hour while the clock chimes.
The surreal quality of their environment is exacerbated by everyone’s reactions to the murders: they believe the Doctor is an inspector from Scotland Yard, or perhaps a famous amateur sleuth, and are happy for him to investigate, but all assume the deaths are probably suicides even if they involve such unlikely events as someone being suffocated with a plunger to the face or being run over by a car inside the house. And then when midnight hits, the entire situation resets itself!
The enemy eventually emerges to be a force created by the time paradox of having Charley, who was meant to die in a disaster decades later, return alive to a house where a younger version of family cook is working as a servant…a woman who took her own life when she learned of Charley’s death. So…did she die, or didn’t she? And did the servant have any reason to kill herself, or not? It doesn’t quite logical sense, the story is told with a strong sense of atmosphere and tension that we easily accept its outrageous ideas.
The danger with this story, where the plot happens in a series of cyclical loops with new information only very gradually being revealed, is that it will be tedious and wear out its welcome. But Shearman avoids that by crafting a script that is taut and cohesive. The thematic consistency of using life-long servants as the characters who are trapped in an endless time loop is a strong idea, and gives the Doctor the opportunity to make all sorts of powerful moral arguments that suit him well–eg,these men and women, who essentially have no lives of their own, are still more alive than a monstrous force who only became sentient because of a time paradox. The story is full of macabre humor, clever dialogue and sharp characterization, and features a plot that heavily incorporates the Doctor and his relationship with Charley. Never before has the Doctor’s decision to save his companion’s life been shown to have such surprising consequences.
It’s a winner of a story for me.