Doctor Who - Midnight
Here's a thing - I'm not sure if it's the almost constant negative opinions coming from various corners the ‘net or the fact that I've grown to be quite wary of some of his less admirable traits, but I'm always really, really nervous about upcoming RTDOBE episodes. I've been burned by them before. New Earth actually made me want to destroy man kind, Tooth & Claw tricked me into giving it 4 Stars and Partners in Crime should’ve ended up with RTD being arrested. However, in the past, I've reviewed Rose, Doomsday and Gridlock and gave all of them 5 Shiny Red Stars. If I'd reviewed Utopia I'd have done the same. That fact that he can produce those shining examples of brilliance and then turn around and shit something like Partners in Crime onto our chests is one of the most disconcerting things about New Who. The man fucking terrifies me with his wild, flailing inconsistency sometimes.
Most of the time, though (and it’s usually towards the end of a series) I’m completely knocked on my considerable arse by how excellent he is. Midnight is one of those times.
Whenever I think back to the episode, all I get is this big long list in my head of everything this episode does right. It's rare that an episode is as spotless at this one - and it’s by no means my favourite ever - but it's just so superbly conceived and executed I'm having trouble finding fault. Anyway, let's stop being so general about this and get stuck in, shall we?
After two years of being able to pinpoint the 'bottle' episode (read 'cheap one that they do when Tennant and his lady are off filming some epic or other’) it seems this series will feature a slightly different tack. Midnight features some pretty hefty cost cutting (beautiful alien landscapes excepted – The Mill really are very good at those, aren’t they?) and the absence of one of the main characters. Only this time it's not the Doctor, it's Donna as Tate was off filming Turn Left at the time, which in turn seems to be the Doctor-light episode but without such pointed cost cutting, thus splitting the responsibilities in quite a creative and satisfying way. Anyway, as a result we get this hugely claustrophobic and experimental (for New Who, at least) episode. Most of it takes place in the tiniest set imaginable and the ‘monster’ is entirely unseen. The whole thing relies on the characters in the bus, the writing and the acting. Nothing in this episode can be saved by some Scorpion Gatiss jumping around or little blobs of fat being "CUTE" and "FUNNY" - this is all bare bones and completely exposed as a result. There's no hiding from inadequacy. It's balls to the wall time.
In a way, this feels like the bravest episode since Rose - which was a completely new beast to modern UK TV and as such quite a sizable risk - but Midnight is probably the biggest format change they've had since, even more so than Love & Monsters and Blink. At least with those two you had running away, monsters and, crucially, happy endings. In Midnight you have a completely unseen and unexplained monster, a bus full of cunts, the Doctor being utterly screwed and the most jarring ending to an episode I can remember. It's *completely* against the grain and yet it manages to be quite, quite brilliant.
It works because it succeeds at everything sets out to accomplish, despite it being so different. RTD's usual clan of easily recognisable stereotypes, pop culture references and thinly veiled satire of modern life are present and correct at the start, but things take such a drastic turn for the grim it can be forgiven as all that nonsense serves a purpose – for once these stereotypes are there because it’s actually important to the story that we try to identify with these characters. One minute they're all sharing stories and laughing like twats, the next the kindly professor is treating his young assistant worse than he clearly ever has and the rest of them are all for killing anything and everything they don't understand - namely the newly possessed Sky Silvestry and The Doctor. It's left unclear whether the creature was the one to spark all this discontent from the beginning or whether it fed off the malice which then lead to it obviously directly manipulating them at the end of the episode, but I think it's pretty clear that the start of the unrest was purely down a darker side to human nature that New Who doesn't normally dwell on. It's a huge cliché to have an 'ahh, but man was the real monster, do you see?' conclusion to a story like this, but in Midnight it wasn't rammed down your throat. No one's really sure whether the monster was genuinely malevolent from the outset or friendly but driven to malevolence from the overriding feelings of the people in the bus - for example, it’s implied it latched on to Sky as she had the most extreme reaction of the group, but what if that extreme reaction was positive? Would that’ve changed the nature of the beast? Who knows how it would’ve ended up manifesting itself at the end.
The main set piece in the episode is a section where the possessed Sky starts repeating everything she can hear. Eventually she’s able to sync up with everyone’s speech and, finally, she manages to turn the tables on the Doctor with him ending up repeating her. Putting it like that doesn’t really do the effectiveness of this section of the episode any justice, but it really is brilliant. It starts off as being quite annoying with Sky just repeating everything and the occupants of the bus starting to freak out, but when she starts speaking at exactly the same time as everyone it all reaches new highs of pure creepiness. The scene that follows has every line of dialogue with Sky speaking in the background, and it even started to send ME mad, never mind the people on the bus. The scene where the Doctor has the tables turned on him and ends up frozen and repeating everything Sky says is perfectly executed and absolutely terrifying. The idea was excellent, the playing was fucking brilliant and the finished product ranks as one of my all time favourite scenes in New Who. Once again a simple and almost childish concept has been used to such great effect. It’s *incredibly* annoying to have someone repeating your every word – and it annoying to watch at first – but to expand it to the lengths that this episode took it in was superb.
So far I’ve only made passing comments about the quality of the acting in this episode, so I'll expand on that a little more now. Everyone was very good apart from Lesley Sharp who was brilliant (she scared the shit out of me when she was possessed *brr*), David Troughton who was also brilliant (and so spookily like his father) and David Tennant who absolutely and positively gave one of the performances of his life. You may remember back in series 3, there was an episode where The Doctor was trapped in a remote location, separated from his companion, surrounded by suspicious types who didn’t really trust him and, to top it all off, was possessed by a mysterious and completely invisible life form which looked like it would kill him. That episode was 42 by Chris Chibnal, and it was such massive rancid donkey testicles it makes me genuinely cry to even think about it. I remember thinking "Tennant was really excellent in that episode, but the whole concept of The Doctor being utterly powerless and petrified was totally wasted by that worthless hack". Thankfully, Midnight has come along and completely removed the need to ever see the episode again as it’s done everything that episode set out to do in just one section, and about a million times better. When The Doctor is frozen solid, obviously possessed in some way, with this mask of terror plastered across his lovely face it was one of the most effective and well acted moments the show has ever done. The situation had been slowly getting away from him for the whole episode, and it all built brilliantly to that moment.
The episode does finish really jarringly and abruptly, but in a way that feels appropriate to the tone of the episode. Nothing is explained about the creature or the planet and The Doctor ends up turning his usually jokey "No, don't do that. Really, don't do that" catchphrase into something really, really horrible after Donna (either trying to make a weak joke, or by accident) mimics him. And then it ends! Long may the mystery behind what happened on the planet Midnight in that one lost transporter be maintained.