Number Eight: ‘Midnight’ (2008)
This morning: there’s a waterfall made of sapphires, but you’ll never get to see it. There’s a marooned shuttle in the middle of nowhere, in the thick of a lethal radiated atmosphere. And then the knocking begins…
My children are ambivalent towards ‘Midnight’, largely because they like to know what the Doctor’s fighting against. An invisible entity that paralyses spacecraft, possesses at will, evolves swiftly and kills without thought? Fine, but where are the tentacles? The absence of anything tangible is, of course, the best thing about it: a creature that is unnamed, unseen and about which we still know precisely nothing – save its apparent malevolence – when the credits have rolled. When no information is provided, the mind will fill in the blanks, and all too often, what we visualise is dark and monstrous. (Myself, I’m still thinking about giant invisible chickens.)
Despite my enthusiasm for Donna, I’m glad she’s not here for this one. It is a story that purposely isolates the Doctor, and the absence of a companion works in its favour. The episode is mostly a one-set affair: a small, self-contained shuttle that the cast are not allowed to leave, because the outside will kill them, which is all well and good until something finds its way in. There is a strong sense of claustrophobia that echoes Night of the Living Dead, although thematically there are nods to Alien and, in particular, a Next Generation episode called ‘Darmok’, in which a simple language barrier almost start a war. It’s the sort of story that could only would have worked with Picard; I suspect Kirk would have just blasted the crap out of them and put his shirt back on.
The whole point of the Living Dead films, of course – particularly the first and third – was that there would inevitably come a point where the terrifying horrors banging on the door would play second fiddle to the monsters inside. In other words, the occupants of the house / underground base / whatever swiftly became their own worst enemy, with infighting and betrayal a far worse prospect, in many ways, than having your flesh ripped. It’s a common scenario. Watching a crisis worsen when people start fighting among themselves holds a kind of universal appeal, and it is perhaps easier to relate to this than it is to a zombie infestation. There’s a scene near the end of Aliens where a sweating, barely alive Sigourney Weaver confronts the treacherous Burke, who has just tried to have her impregnated with a xenomorphic embryo. “I don’t know which species is worse,” she says. “You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.”
The fact that ‘Midnight’ echoes these themes is in itself unremarkable, but that this results in such a catastrophic loss of control for the central character is the episode’s key strength. Classic Who had a certain sense of formula about it, in that stories would routinely see the Doctor and his companion(s) land somewhere just as a body turns up, become falsely accused of murder / subterfuge / industrial espionage and then imprisoned. If Davies introduced the psychic paper as a counterpoint, we had surely, by this stage, gone too far the other way, and the ability of Tennant in particular to swan into any situation and command the attention of the entire room was becoming irritating. ‘Midnight’ strips this away to its core by having a group of passengers who ask all the questions we’ve been secretly hoping would be asked all these years and refuse to accept the answers they’re given, not only mistrusting the Doctor but actively planning his assassination just a couple of minutes from the end. It’s theorised that the alien’s influence extends beyond its possession of Mrs Silvestry, and that it is somehow able to affect mood and plant suggestions. Personally, I choose to believe that’s not really the case.
Because ultimately, as a concept, ‘Midnight’ speaks to all of us – and that’s what makes its placement within a Whovian context so striking. The simple setting, strong sense of character development and dialogue-heavy script (more on that in a moment, but suffice to say that this episode may contain more talking than any other episode of Doctor Who in the show’s history) mean that it would be ideally suited for a stage adaptation: indeed, I’m told that they’ve actually done this, removing all references to the Doctor and allowing it to stand alone as a tale of intrigue, suspicion and paranoia. Nonetheless, portraying it as a Tenth Doctor story – particularly a relatively late one, when Tennant is well into his stride – is a clever stunt. The following year, the Doctor would crash-land on a desert planet with a bunch of Londoners, and spend the rest of the episode inexplicably trying to get back home to meet Lee Evans. ‘Planet of the Dead’, whatever Russell T Davies tells you about it being “the last time the Doctor gets to have any fun”, is not exactly Tennant’s finest hour. But watch it back to back with this one, if you can bear it. You’ll see what I mean.
There is a lot of chatter. But there’s more to it than that: dialogue ceases to be a way of communicating information and becomes a writer’s plaything, a tool to be exploited. It’s standard practice in literary circles, but it’s a rare joy when it happens in the likes of Who. The whole episode is about the creature learning language, and Davies does this by having characters repeat lines and then say them in absolute synchronicity, in a series of exchanges that annoyed many but which I found quite dazzling.
There is strong support from the likes of Colin Morgan, as the sulky but intelligent Jethro (his look of despair as the Doctor is about to be thrown out is quite wonderful), as well as David Troughton as Professor Hobbes and Lindsey Coulson as the thoroughly unlikeable Val. Special mention also goes to Lesley Sharp, who is frankly a revelation – fragile and damaged for reasons unknown, and then utterly consumed by evil, with the facial tics and head movements perhaps the only thing even more breathtaking than her capacity for dialogue. But it’s Tennant’s story – and the exhausted, quite ‘different’ Doctor who emerges at the end of the episode, greeting Donna with a silent embrace, is unexpectedly moving. The humility doesn’t last, of course. But while it does, it’s wonderful.
Cameron’s Episode: ‘Human Nature‘