midnightThe Doctor has coped with some extraordinary things over the years. At times he has defeated the deadliest of enemies with such panache as to make it seem easy. But every once in a while he gets into a situation that spirals away from him, that makes him appear to be almost powerless. It is an uncomfortable reflection on ourselves that this is one such occasion, and the cause of his defeat is the dark side of human nature. And this episode is a defeat for the Doctor: at his worst moment he is paralysed, shaking with fear, and being dragged to his death by ordinary human beings, with no way to save himself. Only the heroic self-sacrifice of one of those humans saves his life, and that action lifts the story from the sad indictment of humanity that it could have been, to something far more hopeful. The hostess, the very person who first suggested murder, saves the Doctor; this is significant because it shows us that humans who are capable of moral corruption are equally capable of redemption.

Russell T Davies’s specialities were generally light-hearted, comedy scripts and blockbuster finales. This is a first for him, and the episode that finally silenced most of the few critics of his work that remained at the time, as he proved himself capable of writing scary (and cheap!) episodes every bit as well as Steven Moffat, if not better.

Midnight is a bit like an episode of The Twilight Zone: a formless monster that we never get to see, but the effects of which are very frightening. Those familiar with the original version of The Twilight Zone will recognise the similarity with the episode The Monsters are due on Maple Street, in which a group of ordinary folk believe that aliens are among them and descend into paranoia and violence.

The most frightening thing about this episode is how much the Doctor loses control of the situation, and not just in the sense that we are used to (e.g. being locked up, ignored).  What is so striking is that all the usual Doctorish tricks that are always shown to work are completely subverted:

Could you actually murder her? Any of you? Really? Or are you better than that?

A brilliant little speech.  We’ve seen these kinds of moments in Doctor Who a hundred times before, and we know what this moment signifies.  This is a big Doctorish speech that will make an impact, win people over, bring out the best in people.  So when the response comes from the hostess, it is a huge shock to the viewers and to the Doctor himself:

I’d do it.

…and at that moment we know we are dealing with a different kind of threat, and it’s not going to follow any of the dramatic conventions we have learnt over the previous 45 years of Doctor Who.  All bets are off.

Like The Monsters are due on Maple Street, Midnight offers us a cross-section of human characters. Professor Hobbes (a triumphant return to Doctor Who for David Troughton, son of Second Doctor actor Patrick) is a rational man who makes a mistake that is common amongst scientists – elevating his logic to a level at which it almost becomes a faith, and refusing to believe that anything outside of his sphere of certain knowledge could exist. When his comfortable, ordered universe breaks down, he crumbles with it, turning into a confused wreck who is compelled to help in the attempted murder of the Doctor by bully-boy Biff. Dee Dee is the student who idolises her teacher, but is overshadowed by his ego. She has some good ideas but is rarely listened to, but during the course of the episode she learns how to assert herself and retains more of a moral compass than most. Val and Biff are the worst example of humanity, nasty and self-centred. Val is a character who is truly without redemption, as demonstrated by her comment ‘I said it was her.’ When everyone else is emotionally drained and racked with guilt, she retains her obstinacy and bitterness. Then there is Jethro, who is a sensible, moral character. He is bullied into submission by his parents and his betrayal is the one that disappoints the Doctor the most.

The standard of acting throughout this episode is really quite extraordinary. Just consider for a moment the demand placed on the actors: a third of the episode in a single scene, huge chunks of simultaneous dialogue, claustrophobic conditions. David Tennant and Lesley Sharp recite the square root of pi in perfect unison – astonishing. David Tennant is exceptional here: the look on his face when he blurts out ‘because I’m clever’ and his shivering, helpless terror when the Doctor is possessed are the stand-out moments of the episode. This illustrates how important it is to get a talented actor to play the Doctor. You might think that some kind of natural eccentricity is more important than ability, but I think this episode proves the opposite. You can act the eccentricity, but the eccentricity won’t give you the ability to produce stuff like this. Tennant is one of the most talented men ever to play the Doctor, and this is the result: a magnificent 45 minutes of sublime, gripping drama.  This might just be the moment that Doctor Who reached its pinnacle.   RP

The view from across the pond:

When you’re a kid, you try to mimic people, thinking it’s cute, or funny.
When you’re a kid, you try to mimic people, thinking it’s cute, or funny.
Yeah, like that!
Yeah, like that!
But it gets annoying real quick!
But it gets annoying real quick!
Stop that!
Stop that!
Wait, how did you…?
Wait how did you… ?
Well you can’t do that if I just keep talking.
Well you can’t do that if I just keep talking.

…And that subtle change is crucial to Russell T. Davis’ stunning psychological horror episode, Midnight.  If you don’t know the episode, that subtle trick above might slip you by.  So imagine being stuck on a life raft with limited provisions.  Now imagine you have to vote off one of your fellow survivors for all of the others to stay alive.  Now put that life raft on a dangerously inhospitable planet and put an enemy in the life raft with you.  Knowing the enemy, who do you vote off?  Let’s up the ante: what if you don’t know the enemy?  What if the enemy has the gift of gab and makes you question who should be left onboard and who should be tossed overboard?  The lifeform that inhabits Skye Silvestre will mimic everyone, saying their thoughts before they do, leading everyone to question what’s right and what’s wrong.  This is exactly what Roger was talking about in his Sunday article (Doctor Who and Horror) regarding psychological horror and why it’s far more effective than gore and jump-scares.  Gore makes you cringe, squirm, maybe even feel sick to the stomach, but you’d sooner forget it than repeat it (even though, to be fair, movie execs seem to go for a continual run of them, but it seems to ever diminishing returns!)  Psychological horror, by contrast, doesn’t have to show you a single corpse or a drop of blood.  In fact, as I talked about in my Saturday article (Horrific Influences), it was the stuff that got in your head that made F.E.A.R. (the 2005 video game) so impressive and memorable 12 years later, not the blood and viscera of 2004’s Doom 3.  It’s what made The Changeling (1980; starring George C. Scott) so impressively scary: it got in your head.   And when you do that right, you market that as a repeatable, successful formula because it can be slightly different every time.  And repeatability, as Skye might tell you, is a formula for success.  It’s also something Doctor Who is notorious for: taking established ideas and making them its own.  Repeatability with clever alterations!   Molto Bene!

If you don’t like thinking sci-fi and prefer mindless jump scares, by all means, skip this one.  There’s nothing wrong with that; it sounds like a criticism but it’s not – some people like unwinding for an hour without having to think, I get it!  You work hard; you’re entitled to it!  We all choose to tune into the sitcoms from time to time!  But if you want to see an incredibly acted, well thought-out episode that keeps you on the edge of your seat, Midnight is one of the best pieces of Russell T. Davies’ impressive list of stories.  It’s not light viewing, it’s not funny, and it’s not easy.  There’s no gore, no jump scares, not even a monster!  Well, at least not one that looks any different from us!   But it is brilliant and it strikes all the right notes. It also gives the Doctor a run for his money.  As much as I’d like to say more about it, to do so would do it an injustice.  It’s a prime example of psychological horror done right!  Enjoy it…

…And that subtle change is crucial to Russell T. Davis’ stunning psychological horror episode, Midnight. If you don’t know the episode, that subtle trick above might slip you by…


Read next in the Junkyard… Turn Left

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on junkyard.blog. Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com. Editor of frontiersmenhistorian.info
This entry was posted in Doctor Who, Entertainment, Reviews, Science Fiction, Television, Tenth Doctor and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Midnight

  1. Mike Loschiavo says:

    Roger, thanks for covering something that I should have done more justice to: the acting talents of the cast. For anyone giving this a view for the first time, consider that when watching (or when done watching so you can stay in the moment) – the acting is first rate and to pull off scenes of mimicry throughout the episode must have been an enormous challenge. Again, kudos to the team that put this one together. This one is “must see viewing”!


    Liked by 1 person

    • scifimike70 says:

      Good acting from the cast, certainly in some specific cases for Dr. Who, does indeed earn a must-see-viewing rating. After all Horror At 37,000 Feet had William Shatner (giving his all as usual), Buddy Essen, Chuck Connors, Paul Winfield and Tammy Grimes who was a gem as Mrs. Pinder. Not just big names for their times but experienced actors who clearly knew how an otherwise lacking story could still work with the availably best performances.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Mike Basil says:

    Midnight reminded me of an early 70s TV horror movie called Horror At 37,000 Feet which made a similar point on how isolation, as with most horror stories of this nature, can inevitably bring out the worst in us. It worked with Night Of The Living Dead, John Carpenter’s The Thing, Cube and most recently Coherence and Circle. So seeing Dr. Who take its chances with humanity’s dark side as a homage to relative horror stories may have seemed like the pinnacle of what the classic series first achieved with Dr. Who & The Silurians. I haven’t watched Midnight again since its debut. But for a most pivotal story in the modern Dr. Who, it encourages my reminiscence with such horror classics and certainly nearing Halloween. Thanks for your timely review.

    Liked by 1 person

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