In addition to overseeing the seasonal story arcs, Russell T Davies writes more scripts for Doctor Who than anyone else, and he does it every year. He has mostly provided crowd-pleasing tales, but he’s occasionally gone off the beaten path and given us something deeper to chew on, such as “Love & Monsters” and “Boom Town.” I once wrote that Davies could “pen an entire episode with just the Doctor and Rose sitting in the TARDIS talking to each other, and it’d be one of the highlights of a given Doctor Who season.” With “Midnight” he comes as close to that supposition as could probably be hoped for at this point. It may well be his finest Who achievement yet. “Midnight” sees Davies throwing caution to the wind and showing uncomfortable truths about the Doctor, as well as about humanity. “Midnight” isn’t necessarily a complex story, but it is a daring and disturbing one that for perhaps the first time in the new series is aimed squarely at adults, and doesn’t bother to take younger viewers into account—although maybe it acknowledges that kids are growing up along with the series and maybe they’re ready for more challenging fare.
The plot is surprisingly simple and the story is rooted in concept and character. It begins with the Doctor (David Tennant) and Donna (Catherine Tate) taking a much-needed holiday on the planet Midnight, a world made of crystals. Midnight’s surface is lethal to known life due to the Xtonic radiation that emanates from its sun. Nevertheless, a resort has been built on it so that travelers can partake in its visual splendor (perhaps it is set in the same part of the universe as the Tom Baker tale “The Leisure Hive?”). It is a gorgeous scenario and a great use of CGI to create a genuinely alien world. Donna decides to relax at the spa while the Doctor goes on a shuttle trip to see a Sapphire Waterfall.
Also onboard the shuttle are the Canes—Biff (Daniel Ryan), Val (Lindsey Coulson), and their son Jethro (Colin Morgan). Based on Jethro’s attitude and look, it appears youth is just as disaffected in the future as it is today. Professor Hobbes (David Troughton, son of Doctor Who #2, Patrick) and his assistant Dee Dee (Ayesha Antoine) are also along for the ride, and apparently this is Hobbes’ fourteenth trip to see the waterfall, and he considers himself something of an expert on this part of the galaxy, although that may not be entirely the case. The last sightseer is Sky Silvestry (played by the always wonderful Lesley Sharp), a lonely woman who recently split from her girlfriend. There’s also a hostess (Rakie Ayola), a driver (Tony Bluto) and mechanic (Duane Henry).
Aside from taking a detour, the four-hour trip begins normally, and thanks to the sonic screwdriver (ahem…), the shuttle’s entertainment system conveniently shuts down so everyone is forced to converse. But suddenly it comes to a halt. The Doctor checks with Driver Joe and Mechanic Claude and urges them to briefly open the shutters to have a quick peek outside. It’s a glorious sight to behold, but Claude insists that he sees something, perhaps a shadow ... and then he doesn’t. As the shutters close, he sees it again—but we don’t, nor does the Doctor or Joe. Claude insists that it was there and thinks it was headed for them. In any case, a rescue team is on the way. Everyone simply needs to sit tight and not panic.
The Doctor returns to the others when suddenly there’s a banging outside. Is something trying to get in? Hobbes insists nothing could possibly exist on the surface, but the Doctor isn’t so sure. When Biff knocks three times against the door, whatever it is knocks back three times as a response. At this point, panic isn’t just on the menu, it’s the main course. The knocking continues as the hostess fails to calm the passengers. Sky reacts the worst, terrified that something is coming to get her; she almost seems to know what the others can only guess about. She insists, “It’s coming for me!” The door dents inward, the lights go out, sparks fly everywhere, and the shuttle violently rocks back and forth ... and then just as suddenly there is a quiet calm. The Doctor checks to see if everyone is alright, and behind him the TV screen pops on and for a brief moment Rose appears, much as she did on the TARDIS screen in “The Poison Sky.” It’s a noteworthy moment, because it tells us that she’s capable of trying to reach the Doctor in times and places other than present-day Earth.
The hostess hands out flashlights to everyone and goes to check on Joe and Claude. Upon opening the door, the Xtonic light fills the cabin. The section has been removed entirely and the driver and mechanic have been reduced to dust. Sky sits at the front, crouched down in her seat, head buried in her hands. The Doctor attempts to talk to her, but she seems to be gripped by some form of paralysis. She can move her head, which she does, and her eyes, although physically unchanged, have an insane, possessed look about them. I would imagine that Sharp was cast in the role of Sky based solely on her eyes, as what she does with them is nothing short of acting perfection. She looks into the Doctor and mimics his head movements, and then she eerily begins repeating his every word. And then she repeats everyone’s words. When the Doctor throws down the square root of pi and she repeats it along with him verbatim, it seems confirmed that she’s not merely regurgitating. But if not, then what is she doing? The other passengers are alarmed to say the least, and with good reason (although Jethro finds it almost amusing, as any teenager might when confronted with the unexplained). In the midst of a cacophony of voices and repetition, the lights come back on. The hostess says the rescue party should arrive in about 60 minutes.
Hobbes begins talking out of his ass once again, but Jethro notices a change: Sky isn’t repeating his words. On cue, she begins speaking along with Hobbes, and likewise with everyone else. The first stage of Sky’s possession could be perceived as a cheap gimmick, but with this second stage the horror of the story kicks into overdrive. The Doctor suggests the best course of action would be for everyone to just be quiet, yet he unwisely doesn’t take his own advice, and continues trying to reach Sky, assuming she’s even still in there. The Doctor wonders what the next stage will be, although based on the look on his face, he may already know. He deduces, “The more we talk, the more she learns.” Has the Doctor, who loves the sound of his own voice, finally met an enemy that thrives on his Achilles heel? (Most of his enemies wish he’d just shut the fuck up.) Despite his advice, the others cannot stop discussing the bizarre happenings. Hobbes still insists, beyond all reason, that Sky’s merely sick. Jethro supposes that she was the intended target because she was more frightened than everyone else—that “it” latched onto her fear. The Doctor says straight up that he believes the next stage will consist of her actually becoming them. The hostess boldly announces, “We should throw her out!,” which is maybe the most sensible idea yet, but it’s easier said than done. “Said” being the key; the proposition leads to more discourse and arguing, which is of course the worst thing to do.
The Doctor: “Now listen, all of you. For all we know that’s a brand new lifeform over there and if it’s come inside to discover us, then what’s it found? This little bunch of humans. What do you amount to? Murder? Cause 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?”
The Hostess: “I’d do it.”
Biff: “So would I.”
Val: “And me.”
Dee Dee: “I think we should.”
Before long the Doctor becomes as much of an enemy as the unknown force inhabiting Sky. The passengers’ survival instincts kick in hardcore, and the Doctor’s talk becomes as repetitive as Sky’s haunting vocals. They begin to question his presence and wonder why he’s trying to protect this force. It’s a fascinating spin on the typical Who formula. Normally the Doctor can stride into the direst of situations, no matter how huge they are, and assert his intelligence and expertise. Davies reduces him to a level far more believable than what’s usually seen on the show. What are this man’s qualifications? Why should anyone listen to him? His rantings amount to protecting an unknown entity threatening everyone else’s survival. It’s entirely possible that the Doctor is just plain wrong at this point in the story. Is Davies showing us how much the character has changed? Has he gone soft? After his regeneration, the Tenth Doctor proclaimed, “No second chances. I’m that sort of man,” but that’s not the man shown here. His pomposity certainly remains, and his continued assertions that he’s clever would grate on anyone, as well as cultivate distrust. But this is not to say the Doctor is the only one in the wrong. The other characters in this tale run the gamut of deplorable behavior. A huge part of “Midnight’s” strength is that everyone is flawed. Sometimes people are good, sometimes they are bad. Sometimes they do the right thing, and sometimes they do not. It’s difficult to admire anyone in this story as they all frequently display the worst sides of humanity. A huge part of Davies’ vision of Doctor Who is a celebration of humanity’s diversity, but with “Midnight” he seems to question, “What exactly is so great about us?” The question begs to be asked given the mission of the series. When push comes to shove, we can be selfish to the point of being unreasonable and irrational. We are not Time Lords. We don’t have the cushion of regeneration when faced with death.
The third and final stage of Sky’s possession kicks in when she fixates on the Doctor, and speaks along only with him, which leads to the inevitable: Sky’s words start coming before the Doctor’s, and it seems as if he’s copying her. But he’s not, and we know this because we know the Doctor and his words in a way these humans cannot. The force has learned a great deal in a short amount of time, and it understands that the Doctor is its biggest threat, and so it uses him against the others. Sky is released from her paralysis and the Doctor falls into the state. He cannot move, he may not even be able to think. He can only regurgitate her words. The others understandably believe the force has moved from Sky into the Doctor. Since he’s already earned their animosity, and since they’ve already agreed to toss Sky outside, the solution is simple: The Doctor must be tossed out of the shuttle. Dee Dee first notices the reality, but she’s only one voice of many—but one voice can be powerful. Her assertion that only the presentation has changed, and that Sky is still the threat leads to a heated argument that leads to the force thinking it has perhaps won.
Sky & The Doctor: “That’s how he does it. He makes you fight. Creeps into your head. And whispers. Listen. Just listen. That’s him. Inside.”
Biff makes the decision to throw the Doctor out. He grabs the paralyzed Time Lord as Sky eggs him on. Biff calls for Hobbes’ help. They drag the Doctor towards death as Sky cackles, but the pivotal moment occurs when she utters two meaningless foreign phrases the Doctor had used earlier: “Allons-y!” and “Molto bene.” Somehow, in some way it isn’t Sky, but the Doctor breaking through in the only way he knows how. The hostess snaps and sees what’s happening. Amongst all the inhumanity, she makes the ultimate sacrifice and drags Sky with her outside the shuttle, to both of their ends. The Doctor regains himself, albeit beaten down and breathless, saying over and over, “It’s gone.” Everyone appears broken. There are no shouts of relief, and no cries of joy. Davies does not let us off easy. He punctuates the scene by having Val hollowly say, “I said it was her.” The Doctor knows the truth and so does she, but now is hardly the time for more argument. Now it’s time for silence. A title card comes up saying “20 minutes later,” and it’s reasonable to assume that nothing’s been said during that time period. The rescue ship is docking. A weary Doctor asks, “The hostess? What was her name?” Hobbes, for the first time admits, “I don’t know.”
The scene fades and comes back up on the Doctor and Donna. He’s presumably told her everything and when she asks him what “it” was, he admits he has no idea. She cannot imagine him without a voice. He replies, “Molto bene.” She repeats it, as any friend might. His face goes grim and he spins a phrase familiar to anyone who’s followed the show:
The Doctor: “No don’t do that…...don’t…....don’t.”
When I started writing, I thought this would be shorter than usual because the events in “Midnight” wouldn’t make for a lengthy recap. Thing is, I didn’t even cover it in-depth as much as it could’ve been. Every season of Doctor Who offers up an episode or two so daring and different you just know they’re calculated to be the risky installments. Davies hasn’t gone this far out there since “Love & Monsters,” a story that divided viewer opinion. I maintained that it was a standout of the second season, and “Midnight” is the same for the fourth. I’ve trashed certain Davies scripts and praised others, but what’s amazing about the guy is his versatility at writing for this series. This is the same guy who wrote the vacuous “Voyage of the Damned.” He’s a showrunner and understands what keeps audiences tuning in, but he also knows good drama and that Doctor Who must challenge the faithful from time to time. I recently said that I looked forward to Davies’ contributions to Steven Moffat’s upcoming era, but he’s since openly stated that he has no intentions of writing for the series once he’s left his showrunner position. Say it ain’t so, Russell. Say it ain’t so. Yes, Moffat will do just fine without you—but there’s no way you’d be a detriment, and you’ve got plenty more to say within the confines of Doctor Who.
Davies alone is not wholly responsible for the freakish beauty of “Midnight.” Director Alice Troughton (who’s unrelated to David or Patrick) does an impeccable job of conveying the madness and paranoia of the script. The performances across the board are also ideal. David Troughton’s presence is a delight to old school fans, and not just because he’s the Second Doctor’s son; David also guest starred on classic Who several times, most notably as King Peladon in the Jon Pertwee story “The Curse of Peladon.” His inflection, style and face are so reminiscent of Patrick. No doubt his father would’ve been bowled over by his presence in this episode. I’ve seen “Midnight” four or five times now, and with each viewing his work seems more special. (He came onboard days before shooting, when the original actor cast as Hobbes, Sam Kelly, had to bow out due to an accident.) Lesley Sharp’s another standout. She’s been a Davies player before (Bob and Rose, The Second Coming), and seems to know how pivotal she is to the proceedings. The woman is damn creepy when lensed from a distance.
I’ve written much about this great actor and that great performance throughout the Season Four recaps, but I’ve really failed to give David Tennant his proper due as of late, mostly because he’s become so at ease with the Doctor that the quality of his work seems a given. “Midnight” couldn’t possibly work without his deeper understanding of the Doctor, resulting from the gradual development of the character on his watch. Tennant is perfect here, and the concept is so different for Doctor Who that we may never see him give another performance like this on the show again. He’s by turns relaxed, social, manipulative, boastful, disturbed, frightened, and finally helpless and without power. (Admittedly none of those words convey the real complexity of what he achieves in these 45 minutes.) Many people wonder when David Tennant will leave the series. Based on “Midnight,” let’s hope he’s onboard for years to come.
NEXT WEEK: The return of Rose Tyler (finally) and not too much Doctor (Donna’s the star for those of you who missed her this week). “Turn Left” kicks off the final stretch of Season Four.
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: Check out the commentary track on “Arc of Infinity.” It features Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Janet Fielding and Sarah Sutton. The story itself is kinda lame, but the commentary is one of the best ever recorded.