Doctor Who has one of the toughest remits on British television. For over four decades (on and off) it has remained the children’s show that grown ups love. That’s a broad church to spread the word to and each episode must be finely balanced to have enough run around with scary monsters and wacky Doctor stuff to keep the kids transfixed, while having the knowing winks and drama to keep the adults watching. And week in, week out, Doctor Who manages to walk that precarious knife-edge with aplomb.
And then we get to Midnight and the return of Russell T Davies to scribing duties for the final four episodes of his last full season as Doctor Who’s showrunner. Perhaps quite rightly, just this once, he has thought “Bugger the kids, I’m writing something for the adults.”
The Doctor and Donna are taking a break on the crystalline pleasure planet Midnight, a world that orbits so close to a sun that nothing can survive unprotected on the surface. As Donna treats herself to a spa day (translation: goes off to film next week’s Turn Left with Dame Billie of Piper), the Doctor heads off on a four-hour trip to see the Sapphire Waterfall. Aboard the cruiser is a wide-ranging group - bolshy wife, her not so bolshy hubby, their teenage son, a professor and his young assistant. And then there’s Sky Silvestri (the always elegant and brilliant Lesley Sharp). Sky’s a businesswoman, a bit quieter than everybody else having just come out of a relationship and feeling a bit detached. Looking after everybody is the spiky but mannered hostess, who clearly would love to be anywhere but looking after this bunch of idiots.
Naturally things go wrong fairly quickly as the shuttle is rerouted and comes to a halt on the surface of the planet… and that’s when things get really creepy. There’s something out on the surface of Midnight - but that’s impossible, as nothing can survive out there. So what’s that knocking on the hull of the shuttle?
It’s very hard to convey just what is so special about Midnight - the mechanics of the alien threat that eventually penetrates the craft and inhabits Sky’s body aren’t really important here. As she starts to repeat the words of everybody on board, and subsequently starts saying the passengers’ words before they’ve uttered them, it’s definitely terrifying. If it can copy and mimic words in such a way, how long would it be before this creature - whatever it may be - could actually become us?
And that’s the Doctor’s worry as he takes charge and tries to reason with the increasingly panicked and stressed tour party - what if it became him? And here’s one of the central points of the episode - the Doctor without Donna (or any companion) ceases to be human - he might be worried, but he also wants to protect this new life form from the mistrustful and increasingly aggressive humans on board. But by doing this, is he just putting them in more danger? Should they, as the hostess suggests, chuck the possessed Sky out of the airlock? As Russell T Davies himself says on the corresponding episode of Doctor Who Confidential, that’s exactly what they should have done.
What this episode evolves into is a display of the lowest facets of base human nature. How when we’re scared, when we’re stressed, we react with anger and suspicion and generally make a show of ourselves. And that counts equally for the Doctor, who without anybody to check him descends into being a smug, insufferable eejit. It’s a brave move to showcase your hero in this way, but one that works, and gives us one of David Tennant’s finest performances to date.
There’s no point praising the production values of Midnight, or gushing over the amazing CGI or prosthetics work. There isn’t any. This is Doctor Who bereft of the usual bells and whistles, stripped bare to allow the disciplines of acting, directing and writing to breathe like never before in the last four series.
It’s impossible to single out any member of the accomplished cast - all work together with the precision of a theatre ensemble, performing some pretty heavyweight and technically difficult sequences of dialogue. In fact, Midnight would work well as a theatre piece, taking place as it does on a single set. It almost feels like Davies is preparing for a return to a strand of character drama more firmly rooted in reality, and this is an impressive halfway house to that end. In a similar vein, The Second Coming with its fantastical elements, could be seen as Davies’s halfway house on the route to Doctor Who. But then, as a human being, I’m always seeing patterns in things that aren’t there…
There is so much to like in what must have been a hard sell to the mainstream audience, and it’s pleasing to see that the ratings and Appreciation Index held up well. Where I felt let down by the Doctor’s knowledge of the Vashta Nerada in Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, the fact he has no idea what this creature is makes it so much more terrifying. And by episodes end, still having no idea what the creature was feels right and proper - despite being a smug, clever git throughout, the Doctor doesn’t know everything. Good!
Midnight is a talky, clever psychological horror story set in one room that leaves you with more questions than answers - but at its climax those questions don’t leave you feeling cheated. With three episodes to go, Davies has contributed his finest script from four years of Doctor Who. I wonder if he’ll better it in the next three weeks? I do hope so!