Images courtesy the BBC.
Midnight is a wonderful surprise, that little bonus track that helps make the album really special. The tale received very little promotion, and sits in the “lite” slot where budgetary and scheduling concerns pull the TARDIS crew from the screen for most of the episode’s running length (see Love and Monsters and Blink). Moreover, it’s an episode that debuts immediately after Stephen Moffat’s much anticipated two parter.
And Russell T. Davies defies expectations. He gives us 42 minutes of compelling television with a handful of characters and one major set. He produces a solid, pared down script that provides just enough for the actors and the director to work wonders with. And, most surprisingly of all, he out-creeps Stephen Moffat. Indeed, one would wonder if a bit of a rivalry has started up between the two. Midnight feels like it was written with an eye towards showing Stephen Moffat how it’s done.
Midnight is the best script that Russell T. Davies has written for the series so far, and it is currently the odds on favourite for the title of best episode of the season.
A detailed, spoilery review can be found after the break.
The Doctor and Donna visit the planet Midnight, a harsh, beautiful, diamond-studded rock bathed in the deadly technobabble radiation of its star. No life could exist here without protection. No life, do you understand? This rock is completely, utterly lifeless. This planet is ex-life.
Heh. No it isn’t. It’s only sleeping.
Arriving at a pleasure dome lowered out of orbit by a tourism company taking advantage of the stunning landscape, Donna decides to sunbathe by a pool, protected by fifteen feet of shielded glass. Meanwhile, the Doctor goes all touristy, eagerly hopping on board an expedition to see the sapphire falls dropping off a distant diamond glacier. The expedition shuttle takes four hours to get to the locale, and has to travel on the planet’s surface completely shielded.
As the Doctor settles in with his fellow passengers for the journey, the shuttle’s air stewardess (played by Rakie Ayola) makes her announcements. As they are about to proceed through airless, radiation-bathed space, in the extremely unlikely event of a water landing, put your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye, that sort of thing. She then proceeds to overload the passengers with video distractions, possibly while she intends to settle off in the back somewhere and read a good book. But the Doctor’s having none of the cacophony and, to the relief of the other passengers, turns off the shuttle’s entertainment system. However will the passengers occupy the next four hours, the stewardess (and some of the previously relieved passengers) wonders? Well, says the Doctor, they’ll just have to do it the old fashioned way: by chatting with each other.
What follows is a brilliant series of lighthearted montages that allows Russell T. Davies to introduce us to all the supporting characters without boring the audience with needed exposition. We meet the Cane family, mom and dad Val and Biff, with surly teenage son Jethro in tow. We meet Professor Hobbes (played by Patrick “the Second Doctor” Troughton’s son, David) and his youthful assistant Dee Dee Blasco (Ayesha Antoine). And most importantly we meet Sky Silvestry (played by Lesley Sharp), a middle-aged woman recovering from a failed romance, off on a trip on her own to try and find herself.
With the introductions complete, now we can move into the action. Fortunately just before the Doctor decides to lead the other passengers in a karaoke singalong (okay, not really, but if I know David Tennant’s Doctor, he was thinking about it), the shuttle grinds to a halt. The passengers all start to get nervous realizing that they’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by vacuum and radiation. Worse, the stewardess is looking very, very nervous, and when they’re nervous, you should be too. It’s some kind of a law.
The Doctor uses his psychic paper to barge his way onto the cockpit and meets the flight crew (Driver Joe and Mechanic Claude). They don’t know what’s going on either, but they’ve put out a distress signal and a rescue ship will be along in an hour. Well, that’s a relief. So the Doctor decides to have a look out the window and encourages the crew to break several flight regulations and lift the shields on the cockpit windows. As the flight crew is likely unionized, they decide to do what he says, and the three look out at the stunning landscape for the minute or so before the radiation levels hit danger and they close the shields.
But this being Doctor Who, it isn’t long before the screaming starts. “What’s that?” shouts Mechanic Claude, pointing at the horizon as the shields come down. There’s something moving. The Doctor and Joe (and the rest of the audience) strain to see what Claude is seeing, but it’s all frustratingly indistinct. The Doctor returns to his seat and tries to calm down the passengers, but then something knocks against the hull. And when the passengers knock back, it responds.
Midnight saves the budget in many ways. It is, essentially, a bottle show. Except for a few locations and a couple of matte paintings, the story takes place inside the cramped shuttle cabin. This is a challenge for any writer, but Russell T. Davies rises to the occasion, creating a claustrophobic, psychological thriller about the paranoia of humans under pressure. The story also saves on special effects. Except for some camera tricks and a few sparks when the shuttle gets rocked about, there aren’t any. The monster for this story, when something comes through and possesses Sky Silvestry, is all in the acting skill of Lesley Sharp.
Director Alice Troughton redeems herself here. Unlike The Doctor’s Daughter, Midnight is pitch perfect in its tone. Russell T. Davies’ tight script gives the director only the most basic building blocks in order to craft an atmosphere of terror, and she rises to the occasion. She then turns around and hands the bulk of the labour to David Tennant and Lesley Sharp, and she extracts superlative performances out of them.
In particular, the reveal of the possessed Silvestry is a masterwork, with her hands over her face and her face turned away from the camera, Sky then does a slow turn, and the audience, fresh from Stephen Moffat’s frights, are expecting something grotesque. It’s a relief to see that, physically, Silvestry hasn’t turned into a monster. But that relief lasts for precisely two seconds when we get a good look at her eyes and see that she’s gone completely insane. And that’s all the actress’ doing here. Lesley Sharp, by her acting ability, comes across in her natural make-up as frightening as, if not more than, anything under pounds of latex.
What follows, as the Doctor and the passengers struggle with the mystery of this presence in front of them while the countdown to the rescue ship proceeds much too slowly, is a remarkable descent into madness. As Silvestry repeats everything (and I mean everything) that everybody says within earshot, at the same time as people say it, the old schoolyard prank of repeating everything your friends say gets old fast, and then gets scary. Like Moffat, Davies is dealing with some primal fears, here, turning an innocent childhood prank into something deeply sinister. No wonder social cohesion on the shuttle quickly breaks down.
And I have to wonder: how did they do this? Most of this work could not have been done with special effects. This effect is just the actors (especially Tennant and Sharp) being at the top of their game, probably after having rehearsed the hell out of it. As I said to Erin, “the blooper reel on this one is probably long and very boring.”
There were no outright shocking moments that have marked Moffat’s episodes. Instead, Davies lets the paranoia build and build, as the frightened humans proceed to live down to expectations, until… The best moment of the episode is another Davies trademark — a selfless act by one human that takes the audience’s breath away. The moment, which I’ll not spoil, recalls Astra’s sacrifice in Voyage of the Damned and reminds the audience that, in Davies’ world at least, sometimes the most anonymous individuals can be capable of considerable humanity.
Some viewers might be frustrated by how little gets answered at the end of the story. Who was the entity and what did it want? Did it pull the shuttle off course or did it just get lucky? What did it grab from the Doctor and why did it try to kill him off afterward? But the issues these questions address aren’t what the story is about. This is a story about how easily humans descend into paranoia, how hard it is to stand against that, but also how some humans may yet surprise us. In that respect, Davies delivered everything that the episode demanded. The unanswered questions are simply extra stuff to speculate on during our spare time.
Midnight, truly, was an episode that played to all of Davies’ strengths and pushed them further. It is a triumph, made all the stronger for its unassuming approach.
- Is it my imagination or, in anticipation of Rose’s return, did this episode bring in actors that recalled other characters from Rose’s time aboard the show? Mechanic Claude (Duane Henry) reminded me a lot of Mikey in his voice, and Sky Silvestry reminded me a lot of Jackie Tyler.
- Quick question: is the pop signer among the video choices presented by the stewardess a clip from Eurovision? Because Doctor Who fans and writers never get tired of making fun of the program that pre-empts them year after year.
- One other note about the quality of Alice Troughton’s direction here. Did anybody else notice that when Silvestry appears to come out of her possession and stands among the other passengers, a light is trained right on her head, almost like a halo? A nice touch!