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Doctor Who: Midnight (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Midnight originally aired in 2008.

And you be careful, all right?

Nah. Taking a big space truck with a bunch of strangers across a diamond planet called Midnight? What could possibly go wrong?

– Donna and the Doctor tempt fate

Midnight was the fiftieth episode of the revived Doctor Who to enter production. It had been intended to air as the fiftieth episode of the new series, but plotting similarities between Forest of the Dead and Turn Left forced Davies to shift the broadcast order of the episodes. As a result, we end up with the longest consecutive streak of Davies-written episodes in the history the show, stretching from Midnight through to The End of Time, Part II. In essence, although it’s not really intended as part of the over all arc, Davies’ swan song begins here.

And it’s the best episode that Davies has ever written. It might be the best episode of the fourth season. It might even compete for the best episode of show produced by Davies.

So it’s pretty great.

The long dark midnight of the soul...

The long dark midnight of the soul…

There are a lot of ways that Midnight works. Most obviously, it’s just really well-constructed science-fiction. I’m not talking about the clever elements of the teleplay, like the mysterious monster or the stealing of the Doctor’s voice. It’s a beautiful allegory about what happens if you put a bunch of people in the wrong place with the wrong circumstances. It has a much light touch (and more intimate scale) than Planet of the Ood, but it boils down the same basic idea: people suck.

Midnight feels like an episode of The Twilight Zone. Indeed, it feels like a very specific episode of The Twilight Zone. Davies owes a conscious debt here to The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street, an episode about how the residents of suburbia respond to the idea of extra-terrestrial invaders. Needless to say, things turn very ugly very fast. Midnight borrows the premise, with the Doctor trapped in a confined space under siege from a sinister and ominous force; but the real threat is locked in luxury space minibus with him. The real threat is the other passengers.

The harsh light of day...

The harsh light of day…

Doctor Who is, broadly speaking, an optimistic show. It’s a show about how wonderful people can be, and how people are really just people across the whole of time and space. The Doctor keeps travelling because it gives him the opportunity to meet new and exciting people and to have fun with them. Davies has been reinforcing this idea, and it’s remarkable how often his Doctor Who celebrates and embraces diversity – there’s a wonderful sense of openness and tolerance in his portrayal of humanity across the cosmos.

At the same time, there’s also just a hint of cynicism. In The Last of the Time Lords, the Master revealed that humanity would ultimately becomes savage and violent and insane when confronted with the end of everything. Take away the light and the heat and the stars themselves, and people act no better than psychopaths. Davies never really allowed the Doctor to process the implications of that reveal, instead allowing him to sink into a dark depression that last months.

Let's be honest, if you want to defeat the Tenth Doctor, letting him talk himself into trouble isn't a bad plan...

Let’s be honest, if you want to defeat the Tenth Doctor, letting him talk himself into trouble isn’t a bad plan…

Midnight continues that trend, by locking the Doctor in a tight space with a bunch of terrified and frightened people. The real monster is who we are in the dark. “For all we know that’s a brand new life form over there,” the Doctor tells them. “And if it’s come inside to discover us, than what’s it found? This little bunch of humans. What do you amount to, murder? Because 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?”

It’s pretty dark and cynical, but it also cuts to the heart of Doctor Who. It is a show about a man who travels through time and space demolishing corrupt institutions and societies so that strong institutions might be erected over the rubble. He protects the weak from those who would take advantage of them. He topples corrupt governments. He challenges obstructive bureaucrats. He champions the wonder of individual accomplishment, often inspiring others by his very presence.

Shedding some light on the matter...

Shedding some light on the matter…

Doctor Who is sceptical of society. It’s sceptical of what happens when you put a bunch of people together and ask them to decide how to run things. It prefers to put its faith in people – in individuals. When the people on the shuttle begin to organise and make rash decisions, it’s interesting to note that the two minority women with lower social standing – the anonymous hostess and the student Dee Dee – are the two who are smart enough to figure out what is going on while the nuclear family and the university professor are planning to throw the Doctor overboard.

Midnight really plays to Davies’ strengths as a writer. Davies has an incredible knack for developing and establishing character with a minimum amount of space.It’s one of the major differences between his approach to Doctor Who and that of his successor. Moffat can write great characters, but he’s less capable of grounding the show in modern sensibilities. Most characters in a Moffat script speak like characters in a Doctor Who episode. In contrast, Davies tends to ensure that his characters at least sound like real people.

Shining examples...

Shining examples…

(It’s worth noting that Davies is more efficient than grateful. In Smith & Jones, for example, he is able to efficiently define Martha’s character and family dynamic over the space of a scene, albeit by using several clunky narrative devices. However, Davies has a tendency to create stunningly “real” supporting characters. While Moffat does good work with Amy and Rory and Clara, none of his supporting characters feel as grounded as Jackie or Wilf or even Francine.)

So we get to know the other people travelling on the shuttle quite quickly. The hostess is over-worked and under-paid, another of those noble working-class characters that Davies loves so much, the poor stiffs being exploited and over-looked.She has no time for the Doctor’s antics, seeming exhausted and exasperated. Naturally, she winds up the hero of the piece, sacrificing herself to save the Doctor and the crew and the world. And she’s completely anonymous. (Not unlike the Doctor himself.)

The Doctor is actually adapting to filling the companion role quite well...

The Doctor is actually adapting to filling the companion role quite well…

It’s implied that Professor Hobbes has some masculinity issues. When the creature begins to manipulate the group, it plays to his ego. “Professor?” Sky pleads. “Get me away from him?” Hobbes also serves as a counter-point to the Doctor. He’s dismissive of his researcher, who admits she spends most of her time “fetching and carrying.” When she starts to talk to the Doctor, he’s dismissive, “Don’t bother the man.” When things become heated, he’s a bit more blunt, “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.”

The nuclear family are also pretty efficiently (and beautifully cynically) characterised. Very white and very middle class, Biff and Val are presented as incredibly cynical people, while Jethro is portrayed as staunch individualist who doesn’t even have his own voice. Val dominates the group in an incredibly insidious fashion. She’s the one who advocates throwing Sky overboard the moment that she acts strange, and who welcomes Sky back as soon as the woman begins behaving normally. “It’s all right. I’ve got you. There you are, my love. It’s gone. Everything’s all right now. “

Talk about leaving him speechless...

Talk about leaving him speechless…

Val pokes and prods Jethro and Biff into towing her line. Biff seems to do very little beyond responding to perceived threats against his masculinity. “Could you actually take hold of someone and throw them out of that door?” the Doctor asks. Biff – sharing a name with the bully from Back to the Future – responds, “Calling me a coward?” Later on, Val needles Biff into throwing the Doctor overboard. “Don’t just talk about it,” she complains. “You’re useless. Do something.” Biff vows, “I will. You watch me. I’m going to throw him out.”

It’s Val who constructs a narrative to explain what happened, allowing her to dump the perceived freak overboard and to preserve the integrity of the group. She bullies Jethro into following her lead. “It went from her, to him. You saw it, didn’t you?” The best Jethro can manage is, “I don’t know.” Val bluntly responds, “Oh, don’t be stupid, Jethro. Of course you did.” It’s not a very flattering portrayal of the conventional middle-class family, with Davies suggesting that something very mean is lurking just below the surface.

A character spotlight...

A character spotlight…

Even Sky herself is defined relatively cleanly and efficiently by Davies, in a minimum amount of space. That said, there are some unfortunate connotations of how Davies chooses to present Sky. She’s a woman who has just got out of a same-sex relationship, which is great – more diversity is always a good thing, and it adds layers of social commentary into the fact that Sky is the person victimised by the nuclear family lead by Val.

Talking about traveling on her own, Sky reflects on her circumstances. “No, I’m still getting used to it,” she tells the Doctor. “I’ve found myself single rather recently, not by choice.” She elaborates, “She needed her own space, as they say. A different galaxy, in fact. I reckon that’s enough space, don’t you?” It’s a nice way of underscoring Davies’ recurring theme that “people are people all over”, taking a common dating cliché and inserting it into the strange workings of science-fiction.

The last bus to nowhere...

The last bus to nowhere…

However, things turn a bit unpleasant when the ship comes under attack. Sky is immediately terrified – more terrified than anybody else on the ship. She seems afraid that there’s something coming particularly for her. “She said she’d get me,” Sky babbles. It’s a line that immediately undercuts Sky’s story to the Doctor, one suggesting that perhaps the break-up wasn’t as pleasant as Sky suggested. It immediately evokes unfortunate stereotypes about psychotic lesbians, a storytelling device so popular that it has its own TV Tropes page.

To be fair, it’s a reading that can be easily written off (who is to say the “she” Sky refers to is her ex-girlfriend, even if it’s the only context we have), but it doesn’t help that the revived Doctor Who has a history of this sort of thing. For example, Torchwood devoted an entire episode to this particular trope, Greeks Bearing Gifts, which may as well have been called “psycho lesbians from space.”

A trip to remember...

A trip to remember…

Still, that minor issue aside, you can see how Midnight plays to Davies’ strengths as a writer. It’s an entire episode built around characters talking to one another; even the monster of the episode is defined by its voice. Davies excels at locking a bunch of characters in a room together and having them bounce off one another. So it’s no surprise that Midnight works as well as it does.

It helps that Midnight also shrewdly avoids Davies’ weaknesses. The episode steers clear of the techno-babble and plot logic that Davies has difficulty with, instead accepting that the audience doesn’t need an explanation for what happened. We’re smart enough to get the gist of what happened, and mystery is far scarier than answers ever could be. The dangling plot threads and the lack of a clear resolution become part of the episode’s charm.

Cabin pressure...

Cabin pressure…

So Midnight works well as a piece of high-concept character drama. However, it’s also an exceptional piece of Doctor Who, because it makes some pretty clever and daring criticisms of the Doctor as a character. Davies never shied away from voicing criticism of the character, and for suggesting that he’s far from perfect. The climax of the first season is built around the idea that the Daleks can defeat the Doctor simply by being patient and by waiting while the Doctor fast forwards through the boring bits of history.

The Last of the Time Lords was pretty scathing in its portrayal of the Doctor, willing to excuse the Master from facing any consequences of his mass murder because the Doctor felt lonely. The fourth season has been quite heavily underscoring this. Voyage of the Damned pretty much amounts to a story of how the Doctor manages to save a couple of people while lots of others die. The Fires of Pompeii explores how the Doctor sometimes misses the smaller elements. Planet of the Ood is about the Doctor fixing a wrong he was too “busy” to fix last time.

Voicing concern...

Voicing concern…

And Midnight is a story about how weird the Doctor is. He’s a man who arrives out of nowhere and just takes control of the situation. When the tide of the conversation begins to turn against the Doctor, the evidence is fairly damning. A lot of those anxieties are decidedly middle class. People are afraid of him because they don’t know where he came from or who he is or what he does. “I’m just traveling,” he tells Val. “I’m a traveler, that’s all.” Val immediately cuts across him, “Like an immigrant?”

However, some of the criticisms are perfectly valid. The Doctor doesn’t do himself any favours. “The thing is though, Doctor, you’ve been loving this,” Jethro accuses at one point. “No, but ever since all the trouble started, you’ve been loving it.” Hobbes agrees, “It has to be said, you do seem to have a certain glee.” Given that there are lives at stake, the Doctor’s reaction does seem a little strange and unnerving.

Managing his people skills...

Managing his people skills…

(It’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time that the show has called him up on this. This season, Agatha Christie grounds him in The Unicorn and the Wasp. Davies himself had Queen Victoria give the Doctor a stern talking-to at the end of Tooth and Claw, in what was also a perfectly valid criticism. It calls attention to a weird paradox that the Davies era notices about Doctor Who. It’s a show about horror and death, but it’s also meant to be fun and exciting.)

Indeed, the Doctor’s people skills aren’t ideal. The Doctor (like the show itself) is strongly individualist. He believes in his own understanding of the cosmos, and tends to assert that viewpoint. He leads, and the others tend to follow. Even when they don’t literally follow, they tend to follow his train of thought. Given the way the show works, the narrative logic of Doctor Who relies on at least some of the ensemble going along with his logic and following his leadership.

The Doctor really tripped up here...

The Doctor really tripped up here…

In Midnight, that logic is subverted, brutally. This crowd refuse to be led or manipulated by the Doctor. “But how did you know what to do?” Biff demands at one point. “Because I’m clever!” the Doctor interjects. “I see,” Hobbes sarcastically responds. “Well, that makes things clear.” More to the point, Biff asks, “And what are we, then? Idiots?” While the Doctor tries to back pedal frantically, recognising the turn the conversation takes, Dee Dee asks, “If you’re clever, then what are we?”

Ever the voice of middle-class anxiety, Val sneers, “You’ve been looking down on us from the moment we walked in.” There’s an argument to be made that the Doctor here is a victim of anti-intellectualism – that he really does know best and that he really is cleverer, and that the episode would go a lot better if everybody listened to him. However, the complaints from the other passengers are at least a little valid – the Doctor has no idea what he’s doing.

Looks like the Doctor needs a doctor...

Looks like the Doctor needs a doctor…

When concerns are raised about what will happen when the creature is brought back, the Doctor insists there’s no risk to the wider community. “No, because when we get back to the base, I’ll be there to contain it.” Val interjects, “You haven’t done much so far.” Biff backs her up, “You’re just standing in the back with the rest of us.” Given that the episode ends with the hostess just throwing the monster overboard, it’s hard to claim that the Doctor was entirely in the right here. Though it’s not too hard to be “less wrong” than the angry mob threatening to throw the incapacitated lead character out of the ship.

In a way, then Midnight is really a compelling argument for the necessity and efficiency of the companion in a sort of a “this is what happens when the Doctor wanders off on his own.” As such, an it’s an effective companion piece to The Waters of Mars and marks the beginning of the end of Tennant’s time in the lead role. It’s almost nice that Midnight was shuffled around in the schedule, so that it kicks of this final run of Davies-penned episodes.

Lighten up...

Lighten up…

It’s also worth noting that this is the show’s first “companion-lite” episode. The second and third season each featured an episode where the Doctor and the companion were largely absent, due to the scheduling realities of British television. Both Love and Monsters and Blink were episodes filmed with minimal involvement from both credited lead actors. For the fourth season, however, it’s worth noting that the structure was changed. The Doctor and the companion were not treated as a single entity, with the season having a “Doctor-lite” episode.

Instead, the fourth season was structured so that there was a “Doctor-lite” episode and a “companion-lite” episode. It cleverly showcases that both are essential to the functioning of the show, and that the absence of either is disastrous. In keeping with the trend of the season, as demonstrated in The Fires of Pompeii, Midnight offers an example of how the small things tend to trip the Doctor up – how the companion exists to help him deal with the more intimate elements. In Turn Left, the absence of the Doctor leads to the destruction of reality itself. (Of course, that absence is also due to the lack of the companion.)

Resting uneasy...

Resting uneasy…

Midnight is absolutely stunningly produced. It’s one of the lower-costing episodes of the season, but it looks absolutely lovely. Alice Troughton provides an episode that washes away the memory the failure of The Doctor’s Daughter, managing a lot better with the more intimate moments and exchanges – the claustrophobic atmosphere and the sense of discomfort around the whole thing. Troughton manages to make a show about people talking seem absolutely terrifying.

Lesley Sharp also does some great work in the role of Sky and the monster. It’s hard to imagine how difficult that synching must have been. The script itself is rather ambiguous on what exactly has taken root inside Sky, but Sharp is able to convey a lot very efficiently. Given that she spends most of the episode repeating lines spoken by the rest of the cast, she does a wonder job conveying menace and uncertainty.

Talking it out...

Talking it out…

Midnight is one of the best episodes of the show since it returned to screen, and a fitting way for Davies to begin his final run of episodes.

You might be interested in our other reviews from David Tennant’s third season of Doctor Who:

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4 Responses

  1. thanks for the review bro keep it up

  2. I watch this episode at least once a year and EVERY TIME it still just drops my jaw to the floor. Lower budget, AND PHENOMENAL. One of THE BEST episodes of all time. I’d even go as far as to say THE BEST.

    I’d love to see the 12th Doctor (Capaldi) have an episode like this; low budget but not low quality. Of course, maybe that’s impossible without Davies. After all, Moffat wants to make every episode exploding with action, and sometimes that’s just not necessary. Alas.

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