This story in a nutshell: One shuttle. Eight passengers. One entity.
Mockney Dude: The story that convinced me that David Tennant was not only one of the finest actors to play the part of the Doctor, but when he is on form, the finest actor. All the criticisms that can be levelled at the tenth Doctor are here; he’s slightly goonish to begin with, he speaks with a remarkable amount of unearned authority, he patronises those who think differently rather than teaching them, he has a catchphrase for every occasion. What Russell T. Davies does that is so clever is strips him of all of those escape mechanisms throughout the course of the episode until all that is left is a man laid bare and terrified as the situation has blown completely out of his control. It’s a remarkable thing to do to the Doctor, to any Doctor, and there isn’t a single instance where all of a Time Lord’s quirks have been torn away quite so cruelly before and he has been left with no options but to hang on for his life. Tennant rises to the challenge magnificently and The Waters of Mars aside, this is easily my favourite performance of his throughout his entire run.
The Doctor says something very telling when trying to convince Donna to come with him to the sapphire waterfall (A sapphire waterfall? That sounds amazing. I would be there in a shot…and pay the price) – it isn’t as fun without somebody to experience it with. He’s seen it all, done it all, and travels with humans because it is like discovering the universe anew each time. We get to experience the Doctor’s clever cleverness in the cockpit with the pilots, talking ten to the dozen and knowing everything. That only serves to give a slap round the face when the unknown entity invades the craft – something he knows nothing about. Something he cannot lecture everybody on or judge or outfox. He’s as much in the dark as everybody else and it is amazing how frightening that is. When the Doctor doesn’t know how to cope with something, be scared. There is a moment in Midnight where the Doctor learns a very valuable lesson about pushing people too far. We’ve seen him tell people to shut up before and point out that he is the cleverest person in the room and it has always been met with stolid silence. Not this time. These people are really scared and they take great insult to his arrogance and attempt to take control. It’s rare for him to misjudge a situation quite this badly and he nearly pays the ultimate price for his self-importance. I really like that because it is addressing a flaw in the character that Davies is clearly very aware of and it proves to be the tipping point for an episode that is already balancing precariously on a cliff edge. The tension has been wound up to such a degree at this point that they are capable of anything and the Doctor is just a guy in a suit in their way. If they have to murder him to get to her then that’s just another obstacle to see to because their minds are already made up. He has to answer for himself – what is his name, who was he talking to before he got on board, why does he seem to be enjoying the danger of this situation so much? Suddenly Tennant is pitching his performance at a level we have never seen before; panicked, frightened, unsure. Where he was leading these people, approaching them…now he’s backing away. And then the terror in the Doctor’s eyes when he is trapped in one position, forced to repeat Sky’s words, unable to think of a why out of this situation in his usual manner…Tennant is extraordinary. This is the only adventure where the Doctor needs his assistant to put his arms around him after the experience, to not say a word and just hold him. To be fair I had a similar reaction.
Tempestuous Temp: The downside to having an episode so saturated with Catherine Tate like Turn Left is that there is also an episode where she barely features. It’s never a nice state of affairs when Tate is sidelined but the reasoning is sound and the rewards (Turn Left is a phenomenal performance piece) are numerous. Donna would rather sunbathe than head off in a poxy little tin can with the Doctor for a few hours and for once her instincts are bang on the nail.
Murderous Bunch: One of the few stories where the guest cast are so vital to the story that they deserve a section all of their own. If there was ever a story that revealed so efficiently what Davies brought to Doctor Who with regards to vivid characterisation and realistic dialogue, Midnight would be my prime candidate. Few things frighten me in life like a crowd that has turned nasty, a protest turning into a riot and Davies shows with consummate skill how a bunch amiable holiday makers can be transformed into paranoid, murderous individuals with the right stimulus. The very subtle way that the panic grows feels natural and unforced, the notion that they are in danger increasing with each new suggestion of how bad the situation is having a snowball effect.
I’ve had plenty of journeys on planes where the stewardess as been as clipped and as ‘I’m only doing this to pay the rent’ as this example is. Don’t get me wrong she is clearly good at her job and polite enough but she says each line as though she is slightly better than this that mirrors a sort of person I’m sure we all know. She cracks terrible jokes to her passengers and straightens her uniform after doing the minimal of work as though she has just performed something truly amazing. She tries her hardest to keep her passengers under control but it soon becomes obvious that she doesn’t like confrontation and isn’t up to the task. When the shit hits the fan and she completely loses control it is the stewardess that puts the idea out there to eject Sky from the shuttle rather than listen to her anymore. She makes a compelling case for why this should be the case but the Doctor knows that if they do this there is no going back from the point they have murdered. This is the point where the decide who they are. Subverting all expectations, the stewardess is the one who saves the day by sacrificing herself. The awful realisation that they didn’t even know her name is wonderfully grim touch.
David Troughton is always a delight to see on the telly in whatever role he turns up in (for something gentle and rather gorgeous check out his turn as Carol’s lover in Sky One’s The Café) and as a double coup it’s a delight to have somebody who has played a major role in the classic series (King Peladon) returning in a different guise in the new series. Technically the Professor undergoes more of a transformation than anybody; from kindly, slightly patronising educator to a vicious, impatient, angry old man who is furious that he should have to spend his time with students who are so beneath him intellectually he can barely contain himself. Hobbs thinks he knows everything and doesn’t take kindly to being told otherwise, especially by a young slip of a man like that Doctor. The Professor is ready to rant and rave but when it comes to living up to his end of the bargain he cannot willingly throw a man to his death.
Lindsey Coulson’s Val just terrifies me. There’s no other word for it. Apparently under the thumb of her husband, she shows that she has an iron steel underneath all that amiability and is perfectly capable of manipulating her powerful husband to her will and setting him on whoever she chooses. With some subtle digs at his manhood, he is like putty in her hands. I’m sure under normal circumstances Val would be cracking company but she is the last person you want around in a crisis, the sort of person that suspects the worst and injects that fear into others. Who bends them to her will be shouting the loudest and being the most persistently hysterical.
Jethro has perhaps the most interesting journey because I thought I had him pegged from the start. How many times have we seen this sort of petulant, disinterested teen on TV? When the shit hits the fan he proves perfectly capable of spotting intelligent detail and aiding the Doctor in calming down the others. It feels like Davies is making a point that children aren’t as useless as some adults like to think they are…until it comes to his choice of whether to save the Doctor or not and he chooses to have him ejected like everybody else. It’s probably the ultimate moment of betrayal because the Doctor (like the audience) thought he had him sussed out and for him to turn his back on him so cowardly is quite a shock. It’s telling that Jethro is bored to death until they break down, finally something that he can tell his mates about when he gets back.
Polishing off a riveting ensemble is the irreplaceable Lesley Sharp as Sky Silvestry, the least exposed of the group and the most fascinating. Sky doesn’t want to join in with the revelries with the other passengers because she is still getting over her recent split with her ex girlfriend but if you approach her individually she will strike up a conversation and open out that way. We all know people like that too, ones who are uncomfortable in crowds but much happier one on one. Terrible under pressure, she lays into the stewardess for not having all the answers then near enough has an emotional meltdown as the knocking continues, thinking that her ex-girlfriend has sent this nasty after her. Sharp is more terrifying in these scenes than any monster on Doctor Who could ever be. As she was screaming ‘It’s coming for me!’ I had goosebumps.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘She needed her own space, as they say. A whole galaxy. I reckon that’s enough space, don’t you?’ ‘I had a friend who went to a different universe’ – Exposing a lot about Sky, a beautifully invisible gay reference and a reminder of Rose who is due back next week. Davies can sure pack a lot of detail into very natural dialogue.
‘What if it’s not outside anymore. What if it’s inside?’
‘It’ll be you next…’
- My partner often complains that Doctor Who doesn’t visit alien worlds often enough for his liking but I think even he would be happy enough with the stunning visual at the top end of this episode of the pleasure palace glistening in the sapphire gleam of Midnight’s surface. I love the Centreparcs style dome that juts from the top, since that’s where we know Donna is, catching the moonlight rays and topping up her (non existent tan). It’s a beautiful effects sequence in a season that is full of memorable planetary surfaces (The Ood Sphere, Mezzanine, The Library Planet) and a nice taste of something wide open and stylish before we are locked away in the functional confines of the Crusader for the rest of the episode.
- The early scenes are delightfully warm and witty to lull the audience into a false sense of security, the Doctor and the passengers all having a riot in each others company as they head across the surface of Midnight. Davies shows us snippets of much longer conversations, economically hopping forward through the journey and suggesting how well things are going between everybody. This might seem like filler material at first but without these glimpses into the party atmosphere on the Crusader he couldn’t highlight them so dramatically against the tense and foreboding atmosphere once the shuttle is invaded and panic sets in.
- This is back in the day when the arc plots weren’t rammed down our throats at the expense of the standalone stories so there is a lovely scene about the lost moon of Poosh and a blink and you’ll miss it glimpse of Rose on a screen after the shuttle has crashed. Subtle moments that help to make up the bigger picture but don’t get in the way of the story Davies is trying to tell. He really had this down to a fine art at this stage.
- Music has always been an important part of Doctor Who for helping to create an atmosphere and help to keep the action moving. Murray Gold had been scoring the show for four years at this point and you would think that he would be starting to get a little stale and yet I find the majority of his work for season four are amongst his best soundtracks. Midnight relies on its score more than most because it is one of the few stimulus that are allowed into the Crusader 50. Early scenes are peppy and energetic, suggesting the quick passing off time between the passengers on the shuttle and Gold adds a mysterious but fun edge to Hobbs’ lecture. Once the episode dives headlong into conceptual horror Gold has rarely been better, keeping the audience on a knife edge of tension and allowing them no relief.
- For once Davies shows astonishing restraint, never once allowing us to see the creature but suggesting that we have by cutting away from it approaches the craft. The fact that it is unknowable to the last second is what makes it such an effective nasty. Subtle, simple stages that encourage reactions from the crowd; the knocking, then responsive knocking, Sky’s paranoia and possession, the repetition, the synced dialogue and racing ahead once the creature has trapped the Doctor.
- Troughton shoots inside the shuttle in so many interesting ways, you can tell she has put a lot of thought into how to make a claustrophobic tale set in one location as visually interesting as possible. I particularly like the shots down from above that encapsulate all the characters, looking down on them like lambs to the slaughter. The torchlight’s pick out Sky from the darkness are a disorienting effect and as she turns to face the camera it is clear that something has happened to her which is all down to Sharp’s still, intense performance. The look in her eyes suggests unseen horrors within.
- 17 minutes into the story and the stewardess opens the door to reveal that the pilot and mechanic (and the cockpit) have been lost. It’s not just a salient plot point that they cannot escape, it is also Davies setting up his solution at the climax.
- If the success of a Doctor Who monster is being able to mimic it in the playground on Monday morning then the effect of repeating phrases is a moment of genius on Davies’ part. The near impossible task of making all those repeated phrases knocking back and forth disorienting, fluidic and understandable was a mammoth task but they effort has yielded some unique rewards. There hasn’t been anything on television quite like this before and you cannot say that about a lot of Doctor Who. The creature is learning, copying, absorbing…it is taking in every detail of our species. When the dialogue starts syncing up it is done almost invisibly to make the evolution effortless, its not until Jethro points it out that you are even aware. DeeDee cleverly states a poem, something the creature cannot possibly know to test whether it is inside all of their heads in some way.
- I’m glad we don’t just cut away from the characters at the end but get to see them once their lives are no longer in danger. Mute, appalled with themselves and reflecting on what their actions say about their characters, I wish I could get inside all of their heads at this point. Except Val, who is utterly unapologetic for her part in this but at least has the decency to look ashamed.
- We don’t know what it was, whether it’s still out there or whether it will strike again. All the scarier.
The Bad: Can you imagine going on a journey and having all those various examples of entertainment thrown at you at once. It’s enough to make your claustrophia in that tiny cabin ten times worse. Music blaring from speakers, weird effects climbing the walls and a cartoon projected on the far canvas…it’s horribly distracting and Sky’s reaction pretty much sums up my own.
The Shallow Bit: A gothed up, pre-Merlin Colin Morgan looks positively edible as Jethro.
Result: The best writing, the best direction and the best acting that television has to offer, it really doesn’t get much better than this. Given that the stunning Library two parter came before this and the manifest of treats available from Turn Left and The Stolen Earth come after this, you think that Midnight would suffer since it is such a scaled back and subtle adventure. Not a bit of it. In fact it gets my vote as the best episode of season four (it’s a toughie because so much of it is so good). What’s that I hear you say? Russell T. Davies has turned Doctor Who into a shallow soap opera with no space for scares? Stick that in your pipe and smoke it! Alice Troughton cut her teeth on a much inferior script earlier in the season but now she has something really challenging to get her teeth into and she does a fantastic job at wringing every last ounce of tension out of this piece until the audience as left as traumatised by the events as the passengers. They are such simple ideas and yet they are so effective, that’s why this is so chilling. Banging on the ceiling and walls, the darkness hiding nasties, the game of repeating phrases, the horror behind the eyes…Davies doesn’t need money to frighten his audience when the simple act of locking frightened people in a confined space and scaring them to death does the job better than practically any Doctor Who story. How the story shifts from the horror of the entity to the horror of the passengers reaction provoked a real sense of dread in me, unknown aliens are frightening enough but unrestrained paranoia is a whole new level of psychological horror that the show rarely feels compelled to explore. This is the only story where the people that the Doctor is trying save are so frightened that they turn on him and try to kill him. Not people who are under any influence, just normal, frightened people. That’s terrifying. The simplest of ideas, so effectively executed and the most complex characterisation, Midnight surprises throughout and tightens its grip around your throat until you are gasping for air at the climax. I remember watching this on transmission and being scared to death and blown away by it’s breadth of characterisation. It was worth the cast almost losing their minds being cooped up in one set for days on end because the performances it provoked are tangible. David Tennant is exceptional and Lesley Sharp gives the guest performance in the new series (to date) but there isn’t a weak link, they’re all fantastic. It is one of the few Doctor Who episodes that captures me in exactly the same way every time that I watch it. Astonishingly good television, let alone peerless Doctor Who: 10/10