Midnight is the 10th episode of Season Four of the Doctor Who revival, starring David Tennant. Catherine Tate as Donna Noble has only a short cameo in this “companion-lite” story.
Story: The Doctor goes on a shuttle tour of the planet Midnight, a uninhabitable world with poisonous sunlight. The shuttle inexplicably breaks down, and impossibly something pounds on the outside of the ship. The shuttle is thrown about, killing some of the crew. One passenger, Mrs. Sky Silvestry, panics excessively and as a result is somehow possessed by whatever was outside. Through Sky, the creature at first repeats what everyone else says, and then inexplicably speaks at the same time as everyone else. Overwhelmed by fear, the group plans to kill Mrs. Silvestry. When the Doctor objects to this, the group begins to contemplate killing him as well. Eventually, Sky only copies the Doctor and actually “overtakes him,” speaking first. Mrs. Silvestry acts as if she has been set free by the creature, and that it’s gone into the Doctor instead. In reality, the creature is still in Mrs. Silvestry and has stolen the Doctor’s voice and free will. Sky incites the group into killing the Doctor, which they are about to do until the shuttle’s Hostess realizes the truth. She throws Sky out into the poison atmosphere, sacrificing herself in the process, and setting the Doctor free.
Midnight is one of the best episodes of the overall excellent fourth season of Doctor Who, and is perhaps my favorite script from show-runner Russell T. Davies. It’s an unusual episode in several respects – the confined setting, the menace that’s never really explained, and an overall sense of the Doctor’s helplessness at the situation – but all of these things work in the story’s favour.
I’m not always the biggest fan of Davies’ writing in Doctor Who (although I acknowledge the guy’s importance to the history and the future of the show). His take on the series often features a number of elements that I don’t enjoy – human culture being shown to excessively loud and gaudy, the Doctor is overwhelmingly smug, and the audience is often positioned to look down mockingly or laughingly at unpleasant characters just before or as they are killed. But in Midnight, these elements are either minimized or are used to better effect – the Doctor quietly turns off cacophony of noise from the in-flight entertainment with the sonic screwdriver, the Doctor’s smugness gets him into deeper trouble that he is not able to talk his way out of, and although there are “mock-worthy” characters (the Professor, and the married couple), it is somewhat justified by the nature of the menace they face, and they don’t necessarily end up being victims (at least not victims of death).
The script almost reads like Davies set himself a challenge – to write an effective adventure in which takes place in a confined space with a limited set of characters (a la Hitchcock’s Lifeboat and others), keeping the threat largely off-screen and offering little or no explanation for what is going on but still making it terrifying. And in every important way, he succeeds. The story is excellently structured – beginning with supposedly simple and innocent circumstances, and then relentlessly notching up the tension as the characters become increasingly overwhelmed by fear and driven to irrational action. One of the best aspects of the story is the way the Doctor himself becomes more and more helpless in the situation, with his greatest strength – his ability to get people to listen to him and do what he tells them – completely stripped away.
There is a clear turning point, in fact, in which the Doctor realizes this, and David Tennant sells it well. His normal capacity to engender trust has failed him, with all of his exhortations toward wisdom and restraint proving fruitless. His normal behavior patterns – barging into situations and nosing around, poking into wiring and so on – all get turned against him. And his attempts to draw out the best in people utterly fail, as even the “more sensible” characters begin to turn against him and contemplate killing him because they think it will save him. The Doctor’s vulnerability in these circumstances makes the threat very compelling.
The episode is what might be called a “Companion-Lite” episode, as Donna only makes a token appearance at the beginning and the end. This was necessary for production reasons (in order to free up time in the actor’s schedules to film the Christmas episodes, apparently), but is also crucial to the story. If the Doctor had even one reliable ally to support him, than things would have played out differently – it’s his isolation along numerous lines that makes it work.
• There are a number of fun bits of dialogue, including when the Doctor tells Donna what he is up to that day:
The Doctor: Taking a big space truck with a bunch of strangers across a diamond planet called Midnight? What could possibly go wrong?
• And later, when he first assesses his health after the shuttle accident:
The Doctor: Arms legs neck head nose. I’m fine.
• But my favorite is an extended exchange he has with the other passengers which really shows that his normal way of dealing with people is not going to work in this situation:
The Doctor: Because I’m clever!
Professor Hobbes: I see. Well, that makes things clear.
Val Kane: And what are we then, idiots?
The Doctor: That’s not what I meant.
Dee Dee: Well if you’re clever, than what are we?
The dialog alone really doesn’t convey the intensity of the scene, which is also sold by a brilliant combination of the acting, the direction, the lighting, and the music.
In fact, the real power of the script is not in the dialog specifically, but in the conceit of having Mrs. Silvestry relentlessly repeating everyone. It’s a simple concept but incredibly creepy and disturbing. And as the situation progresses to the point where she singles out the Doctor and then actually overtakes him, setting the rest of the passengers into depths of terror and irrationality – well, we have rarely felt that the Doctor was more truly in mortal danger, which makes for great drama.
A final clever touch to the story is the use of several of the 10th Doctor’s catchphrases in ways that add more to the story than normal. Of course, it’s use of flowery language such as “Allons-y” that allows the Hostess to recognize at the end what’s really going on. But even more cleverly, the final moments of the story feature another recurring bit, where the Companion attempts to adopt a local accent, only to be told to stop by the Doctor. In this case, it happens when Donna repeats the Doctor’s statement, “Molte bene.” His request that she not do that quickly turns into a request for her not to repeat him, thus revealing the Doctor’s heaviness over what he has just gone through
Things to watch out for (Warning: includes vague hints of things to come):
In the season of specials that followed this series, there was a foreboding promise that he would “knock four times,” heralding the death of this incarnation of the Doctor. It’s not connected, but the idea of four knocks is used here as well, while the Midnight Entity (as I like to refer to it) is still outside.
Making Sense of it all (Warning: Blatant spoilers for the rest of the series): Rose Tyler has a quick cameo in this story, as a face on a screen crying out for the Doctor’s attention (and failing to get it). This is the last of three such brief cameos. She will return in a major role for the rest of the series, where we will learn that these appearances were attempts by Rose to break through the walls of the parallel universe, looking for help because of the danger her world is facing. Or something.
Last Word: A very different type of story, filled with Nightmare Fuel. Not the way you want to see every episode of Doctor Who go down, but fantastic in this instance