The bottle episode

Spoilers ahead…just in case you haven’t seen all of season 4 of Doctor Who!!!

So, the first thing I will admit here is that I am totally a fan of the modern reboot of Doctor Who. So much so in fact that I watched the entire modern series, beginning with the ninth Doctor before the new season started again with the eleventh Doctor on September 1st, 2012. I’ve tried going all the way back to the beginning and each time failed or fallen asleep out of boredom. Perhaps eventually I will try again, beginning with an episode from the seventies or eighties, we’ll see.

I asked an American friend recently if he watched the show and he said unfortunately no, he didn’t. When I asked him why, especially since the modern reboot is really well done, by many people’s standards, he said, “It is just too British” which I thought was hilarious, but I could see his point. One of the reasons my husband and I watch the show is because we have an easier time generally accessing British television here than American. Never mind that we actually watch more television overall than we ever did when we lived in the U.S.

British television seems to becoming ever more popular with American audiences with the general success of Doctor Who as well as the critical acclaim of the series, “Downton Abbey“, which by the way recently (season 3, episode 3) had me laughing out loud because of Shirley McLaine’s quick-witted American responses to the common stiff British upper lip zingers.

One episode that really struck me was the bottle episode from season (series in British parlance) four, titled “Midnight” or story number 196, episode 10. First I should probably explain what a bottle episode is. It is when the cast of a show or the characters are only use one set for the entire episode. If you’ve seen Breaking Bad‘s “Fly“, or Community‘s “Creative Calligraphy” (we are big fans of both shows in this house), or even if you remember the episode of Friends, “The one where no one is ready” (from season 3, episode 2) you might understand. The point of the bottle episode is to save money with a simplified set, and few to no guest stars or special effects so that the budget can be used on a more elaborate set, guest or special effect(s) later on in the series. It can be incredibly successful to advance characters and storyline, as in the cases above, or it can crash and burn. Often though, critics and fans alike generally praise bottle episodes as they allow for the writers and actors to really push their crafts.

As blogger and writer Alec Nevala-Lee explains very well in “The Bottle Test“:

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I’d argue that the ability to deliver a great bottle episode is a measure of a show’s quality. Only a show with supreme confidence in its cast, its premise, the technical qualities of its writing and direction, and a willingness to embrace constraint and simplicity can pull off an episode like this. And if we apply this hypothetical test to an actual show, the resulting thought experiment tells us a lot about the series in question. […]

Which only demonstrates that part of the appeal of the bottle episode is that it’s really an allegory for the act of making television itself. Any television series, after all, really amounts to a bottle episode being played out in real life over the course of many seasons: it involves a group of actors, writers, and other professionals thrown together on a few standing sets, often without a lot of advance preparation, so that it’s anyone’s guess what will come next.

So, back to the Doctor Who episode. In this episode, the Doctor and Donna, played by Catherine Tate – who I never expected to be as good as she was in the role of companion Donna Noble – take a break on a crytalline resort planet. In spite of the Doctors persistence for Donna to join him on an tour to a Sapphire waterfall, she remains lounging by the pool at the resort. What follows is the Doctor being stuck in a shuttle, the Crusader 50, for a very long, four-hour round trip journey with six other people. Initially the hostess overloads the passengers with audio-visual stimulation until the Doctor cleverly deactivates all of the devices leaving the people to talk to one another. If you follow the show you will know that the Doctor loves humans, finding them ever so interesting. So, he is more than happy to chat with his traveling companions on this trip. Of his six companions he speaks with a university professor who has been to the waterfall six times already, his female assistant and a vacationing family of three with a teenage son who seems begrudgingly dragged on this trip by his parents, aren’t they all. A final traveling companion on the shuttle is a lone woman, Sky Silvestry, who seems to be attempting to leave behind a bad break up or traumatic personal event and start anew with this vacation.

At first all is well in the little shuttle. The audience learns very early on that because the planet Midnight orbits a star, it is covered in X-tonic radiation, which apparently means that prolonged exposure, of more than a minute or so to its light/radiation can kill, or rather, reduce any living thing to dust. So, the shudders on the shuttle’s windows are all closed creating a small space for all the travelers to be stuck in for hours on end. How familiar that even in the future we will likely be confined to small spaces when traveling long distances. Some things never change.

Shortly after the happy chit chat ends, the shuttle runs into mechanical difficulties and is forced to stop in the middle of its trek to the waterfall. Halfway between the resort and the waterfall the travelers learn that the shuttle has traveled a new route to the waterfall that was deemed safe, but also was previously unexplored. While the Doctor is in the cockpit speaking with the drivers he convinces them to open their shutter to take a quick glance at the beautiful but barren landscape, while looking out one of the men thinks he sees something move off in the distance. Next thing we know, something is outside the vehicle tapping on the metal and scaring all travelers inside. In spite of the fact that nothing can apparently live in galvanic radiated environment, anxiety increases when the passengers find out the two drivers have been ripped directly from their cockpit leaving the travelers and the hostess to fend for themselves while they wait for the service shuttle to arrive and save them.

Now, this is where I think things become really interesting and terrifying and why this is my favorite Doctor Who episode yet!

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