The ghost train ride that is the second half of Doctor Who’s fourth season continues to chug along at a steady pace with “Midnight”, penned by showrunner Russell T. Davies. “Midnight” and “Turn Left” are quite an interesting pair of episodes written by Russell that juxtapose each other. By now, you’re aware that the show occasionally does ‘Doctor-lite’ episodes like “Love And Monsters” and “Blink“, that barely feature the main characters to make things easier on the regular cast’s filming schedule. With Series 4, Russell decided to diverge from the usual formula, divide things up and write a Doctor-lite episode and a companion-lite episode, so David and Catherine could take center stage in their own adventures, with “Midnight” being Ten’s solo adventure.
“Midnight” is a bottle episode, a TV practice dating back decades that’s designed to be a low-budget story by only having one or two locations (Doctor Who previously tried it’s hand at a bottle episode with “The Edge Of Destruction” back in 1964), and funnily enough, “Midnight” still wound up being quite an expensive production, because of how many complicated takes had to be done to sync up all the actors’ voices. It takes some pretty sharp writing to keep the audience’s attention and engage them with an episode that’s set almost entirely in one room, and “Midnight” turned out to be one of Russell T. Davies’ best scripts. As a slow-burning character study, it dives into some pretty deep psychological horror that can hit a bit too close to home for the viewers: shining a full, ugly, unrelenting light on how mob mentality can corrupt the most seemingly ordinary people and drive them to kill in a terrifyingly short amount of time, with just the right circumstances. Notably, “Midnight” is also the last small-scale adventure we’ll be having in Series 4, before Rose Tyler returns to the series to usher in the big, world-ending finale.
Donna has decided to spend some leisure time lounging in a futuristic spa (and after the traumatic experience she had in the Library in the last episode, I’d say she could use some relaxation), so the Tenth Doctor is flying solo this week. Ten is a very outgoing, extroverted guy who loves to socialize and make new friends while he’s sight-seeing, so on his trip across the planet, it doesn’t take him long to strike up a rapport with his fellow travelers. And once his voyage starts to go wrong, he makes his usual promise to keep them all safe from harm, before things start to go south. Ten has some pretty good people skills, when he’s not putting his foot in his mouth, but in this episode, the Doctor’s usual methods of handling a crisis and keeping order completely and utterly fail him, and in some cases, even backfire on him.
The Doctor elects himself leader of the survival efforts, assuming he’s the best man for the job since he’s the smartest one in the room, but the other passengers quickly decide that they do not want him calling the shots for them. Ten has a haughty, sanctimonious streak in him (we’ve seen it a few times this season in stories like “The Sontaran Stratagem” and “The Doctor’s Daughter“), and the other passengers do not appreciate him instantly assuming moral authority over them, when as far as they know, he’s just some dude. Ten loves a good mystery, and despite the incredibly high amount of danger they’re in, he can’t hide his fascination with the monster of the week, which the others find appalling as they grow steadily irrational. Eventually, they realize they don’t actually know anything about the Doctor, and he stands apart from all of them as someone who’s not human, someone who’s an outsider. The Doctor is basically walking on hot coals with the humans in this episode, losing patience with them as his situation grows worse and worse, until he’s completely lost control for once by the last act, leading to one of the worst experiences of Ten’s life.
I feel like “Midnight” is an episode that really benefits from its placement in the season, coming right off the heels of “Forest Of The Dead“, because while these two stories have a pretty similar set-up, their outcomes are the complete antithesis of each other. In the previous episode, the Doctor and River encouraged a group of people to trust him to face down unknowable monsters that were out to kill them all. And despite all the loss and heartbreak they suffered, the Doctor did come through for them in the end, doing what he does best, ending that story on a hopeful note. Here, there’s no optimism to be found: the Doctor’s attempts to help fail miserably, the humans actually turn on him and try to get rid of him themselves, the monster gains the upper hand, and the Doctor is left completely and utterly broken by his ordeal.
After “Forest Of The Dead” lulled you into a false sense of security when it comes to how competent and reliable the Doctor is, seeing him fail and be totally overwhelmed here, by the villain of the week and the very same people he was trying to help, is quite a jarring and effective shock. After all the fearsome enemies he’s bested, it’s a rather terrifying dose of reality to see that all it really takes to potentially end the Doctor for good is to trap him in a room full of angry, terrified, murderous people who can overpower him. And this adventure certainly left quite an impact on the Doc and his view of humanity. Three seasons down the line, Eleven claims that he would rather deal with Daleks than a mob full of scared, desperate, unpredictable people – so make of that remark what you will. Since the Doctor undergoes mental torture that’s easily on par with what he experienced in “42“, David Tennant gets to once again demonstrate how great of a facial actor he is when the monster takes Ten’s voice. While his tone stays flat and restrained as he’s forced to repeat his lines, Ten’s shell-shocked eyes look terrified, crying out for help, during the entire climax.
Like in “Voyage Of The Damned“, Russell gives us a pretty large and diverse group of personalities in the supporting cast of “Midnight”. There’s the Hostess, an employee on the tour bus who always tries to do her job with a fake, cheery smile, but is really concealing a lot of inner darkness. Professor Hobbes, a blustering know-it all who’s very stuck in his ways, something a man of science should never be. He often talks down to his assistant Dee-Dee, who’s implied to be smarter and more attentive than him, and truthfully he considers her to be a nuisance – so a lot of his true colors come out, revealing quite a nasty streak to him, when things get heated later on. There’s the nagging wife Val, her brutish, hotheaded husband Biff, and their rebellious, emo son Jethro (played by a very recognizable Colin Morgan), who’s not on good terms with them. Lastly, there’s the introverted lesbian, Sky, who, unlike the others, prefers to keep to herself. She seems to have a great deal of anxiety, freaking out the most when things go south, and has apparently just left an abusive relationship before she’s attacked by the monster and possessed.
The main theme of “Midnight” is fear, and how it easily brings out the worst in people. Once the monster strands the Doctor and his fellow passengers out in the middle of nowhere, having already killed several people, they feed off each other’s paranoia and desperation, and despite the Doctor’s best efforts to keep everyone calm, all they do is gang up on him with suspicion over and over again. Cool heads do not prevail when everyone is an irrational mess, whipping themselves up into a frenzy, until eventually mass hysteria reigns unchallenged and mob mentality starts to set in. It’s the Hostess, the last person you’d expect, who keeps escalating things past the point of no return. The creature possessing Sky killed her co-workers, and she hates it for that, so she suggests that they all toss it out of the airlock – kill it before it kills them – killing Sky as well as a consequence.
The RTD era of Doctor Who has never shied away from exploring the uglier side of human nature – in fact, I love the cynical undercurrent that runs through Russell’s best episodes – and “Midnight” makes it clear that it takes far less than the Doctor would like to believe for humans to devolve into savage, tribalistic animals. Over the course of this episode, the passengers go completely insane, and the terrifying thing is how quickly it happens. At one point, the Doctor scolds them all and asks them if they’re really capable of killing Sky to save themselves, and then he discovers that oh yes, they very much are – and that is the point when the Doctor starts to get scared, as he realizes he greatly overestimated the moral character of these people and he’s also trapped in a confined space with them. Since the Doc keeps getting in their way, they simply decide to get rid of him too.
Eventually, the monster does exactly what the Doctor warned them it would do, try to become one of them, but they’re too lost in their own madness to see it, and they let themselves be played as it spurs on their hatred and fear and tells them what they want to hear. Biff and Val in particular are baying for blood by the climax, and they even drag their teenage son into their murder attempt. Eventually, they start turning on each other – any dissenting voices that go against the collective are threatened and silenced as things reach a fever pitch – and a few of them do realize things have gone way too far, but none of them try to stop it. Eventually, the Hostess realizes the creature is playing them, so two toxic ladies are sucked out into a toxic planet when she gets rid of it herself. My only regret is that the rest of those crazy-ass people weren’t sucked out into space with them. Instead, for the rest of their lives, they’ll have to live with the knowledge that they’re 100% capable of murdering people in cold blood like feral, deranged monsters – so those are gonna be some fun memories.
All the trouble and terror in the episode is kicked off by the Doctor’s tour bus having to venture off the beaten path, taking a detour into uncharted territory (and considering the violent hijacking that follows, the circumstances that made them have to change their route seem very suspect). The episode’s setting, the planet Midnight, is a toxic, barren world roasted by solar radiation with a hostile atmosphere. It’s meant to be a planet devoid of life where nothing could survive, and yet that assumption is proven to be completely wrong. Like the Weeping Angels and the Vashta Nerada, the creature in this episode taps into an innate fear of the unknown – the less the viewers know about it, the creepier it is, but from what we see, it’s very clearly a predator.
It comes out the wilderness, targets the tourist shuttle, plays games with the passengers to instill fear into them (and it does a very good job of that), it picks out the best host – the one drawing the most attention to herself as she’s crying and screaming out with fear – before it strands them in the middle of nowhere and possesses Sky. For the rest of the hour, Sky has these blank, glassy, dead eyes (courtesy of some fine acting by Lesley Sharp, essentially playing a zombie), making it clear the creature emptied her out and climbed inside, and she moves in a very inhuman way – like a fish or an eel, rather than a person. The monster mimics them to learn about their species and learn about their language, and as the Doctor correctly guesses, it does not have good intentions for doing so. First it talks in sync with them, then it talks before them, and then, with enough exposure, it latches onto their minds and forms a telepathic link with them, so it can take control of their bodies.
The back and forth scenes of the passengers talking and the monster repeating are very gripping and creepy, and they took a hell of a lot of effort from the cast and crew to get right, resulting in this episode having a higher number of takes than usual. The Midnight creature is cold and unknowable, but it’s also intelligent: it sees the humans turning on the Doctor and quickly decides to use that to its advantage. It singles out the Doctor and throws fuel onto the fire, making him a target of the mob so it can worm its way into the humans’ ranks and trick them into taking it back to civilization, where it can find even more prey – and since the humans in this episode are pretty terrible people, they made it quite easy for it.
Like “The Satan Pit“, this episode has an open-ending, even after the monster is dispatched, and “Midnight” is all the better for that ambiguity. Despite the Hostess giving up her life to stop it, we still don’t know if she actually killed that creature, since it’s already adapted to live in Midnight’s hostile atmosphere. In all likelihood, it’s probably still out there, waiting for its next chance to get off-world; and unless it’s the only one of its kind, there should be plenty more like it roaming around the planet’s surface – so that’s some lovely food for thought. After his close encounter with the Vashta Nerada in the Library, “Midnight” is also the second episode in a row after “Forest Of The Dead” where the Doctor freely admits the villain is too powerful to be beaten, even by him, so he simply advises the humans to abandon the planet, declare it unsafe, and leave the monster of the week to its own devices indefinitely for their own good, and I like that trend. As I mentioned in “Planet Of The Ood“, the Doctor can sometimes feel a bit too invincible in this show, so I like when he’s put in a more vulnerable position or when he doesn’t always have a long-lasting solution to the problem other than just getting as far away as possible.
“Midnight” is directed by Alice Throughton, who really takes her directing game to a whole other level from “The Doctor’s Daughter”. It’s not easy to create a suspenseful atmosphere and maintain a tense, uneasy feeling of claustrophobia throughout a low-budget episode that only has one or two locations, but Alice manages to do that with a lot of carefully chosen shots of the passengers, designed to make the audience feel as uncomfortable as possible (in particular, that shot of Biff lowering his hands around the Doctor’s neck always gives me a bit of a chill, because for a few moments, it legitimately looks like the man is going to strangle him). “Midnight” has some of the best work we’ve seen from the show’s editors since Series 3, with plenty of rapidly changing cuts and close-ups that bombard the audience and threaten to overwhelm them, really putting you into the characters’ mindsets as things spiral further and further out of control throughout the hour.
As a money-saving episode, CGI from the Mill is used very sparingly, mainly for a few establishing shots of the planet’s surface, so the small number of pristine environments that we get a glimpse of throughout the episode are all created pretty well. Murray Gold’s score for “Midnight” definitely stands apart as something unique from the rest of his work for Series 4. Like most of his music in “Planet Of The Ood”, “Midnight’s” score doesn’t rely on any pre-existing melodies and is comprised entirely of new material. The title theme of the episode is filled with itchy, deeply unsettling strings, clinking piano keys, and finally rumbling horns to symbolize the passengers’ growing madness. The main theme is used extensively throughout the episode, rarely ever far away, to really underline the constricting claustrophobia inside the tour bus, along with the subtle creepiness of “Davros“.
After twelve years, “Midnight” is still one of Doctor Who’s spookiest episodes, and an excellent example of how a great story can be told with a limited amount of resources, with a little creativity and a lot of talent.
* “Nah, I’m taking a big space truck with a bunch of strangers across a diamond planet called Midnight? What could possibly go wrong?” Doctor, you sweet summer child.
* “Four hours of fun time. Enjoy!” Lady, that cascade of noise was a full-on assault on their eardrums, not to mention maximum cringe.
* “We’ve got four hours of this? Four hours of just sitting here?” “Tell you what. We’ll have to talk to each other instead!” Be careful what you wish for, Ten. They’ll be doing plenty of talking alright – mainly talking about getting rid of you.
* “Oho, we’ve broken down! In the middle of nowhere” You’re a very morbid lad, Jethro.
* “Did you see that? That ridge. There was like a shadow, just for a second. Like something shifting. Something sort of dark, like it was running” “Running which way?” “Towards us” Oh dear.
* “It’s coming for me! It’s coming for me! It’s coming for me! It’s coming for me! IT’S COMING FOR ME!” Well, she’s not wrong there.
* Rose has another cameo here, like the one in “The Poison Sky”. Except now, her message has appeared several centuries into the future. Does this mean Rose is somehow broadcasting it across all of time and space, like the Pandorica? I know Torchwood has plenty of resources, but since when are they that powerful?
* “That noise from outside. It’s stopped. But what if it’s not outside anymore? What if it’s inside? It was heading for her” Spooky.
* “We must not look at goblin men, we must not buy their fruits. Who knows upon what soil they fed their hungry, thirsty roots?”
* “No, I’ve got to stay back, because if she’s copying us, then maybe the final stage is becoming us. I don’t want her becoming me, or things could get a whole lot worse”.
* “I say we throw her out!” Oh, wow.
* “This is where you decide. You decide who you are. Could you actually murder her? Any of you? Really? Or are you better than that?” “I’d do it!” “So would I!” And from this point onwards, Ten was basically trying in vain to save a sinking ship.
* “Do you mean we throw him out as well?!” “If we have to” Hot damn, the Hostess is in top-tier treachery mode in the second half of this episode – I both love it and I hate it.
* “But how did you know what to do?!” “BECAUSE I’M CLEVER!” Luke Rattigan approves of your outburst, Doctor.
* “It’s inside his head. It killed the driver, and the mechanic, and now it wants us. He’s waited so long in the dark and the cold and the diamonds, until you came. Bodies so hot with blood and pain“.
* “I think you should be quiet, Dee. And that’s an order! You’re making a fool of yourself, pretending you’re an expert in mechanics and hydraulics, when I can tell you, you are nothing more than average at best. Now shut up!” Damn, bitch, you’ve been thinking that for a while, haven’t you?
* “I said it was her” Val, shut the fuck up, you two-faced coward. The Hostess was the main instigator of all of this, and I still have more respect for her than you, because at least she put her money where her mouth was when it counted. Despite constantly screaming for the Doctor to be thrown out, I noticed Val didn’t get her own hands dirty during the murder attempt. Instead, she just stood to the side, letting the men do it. I wonder why.
* “Molto bene” “No, don’t do that. Don’t. Just don’t” Ouch. Poor Ten.