Doctor Who – Midnight

Now that Doctor Who is thoroughly established as a vital part of the TV landscape[1], the programme makers are feeling nicely secure. Secure enough to play games with the format, to make the occasional episode that doesn’t conform to the formula and generally try to stretch the cast and indeed the audience. Sometimes this works better than other times, in terms of audience appreciation if nothing else. In 2006, Love & Monsters, a “Doctor-Lite” episode annoyed a proportion of the noisier elements of the fanbase[2], though I enjoyed it. Saturday’s episode was also somewhat experimental, but in a rather different way, and I thought it was quite superb.

The Doctor and Donna are visiting the planet Midnight, a place of suitably spectacular natural wonders. The whole place is made of diamond, the sunlight is “extonic”, which roughly translated from doubletalk means it’ll destroy any form of life in seconds, and there’s this incredible sapphire waterfall. You can take a bus trip to the waterfall, and the Doctor wants to go, but Donna doesn’t fancy four hours there and four hours back, and she’d much rather stay in the health spa. And so the Doctor takes the trip without her, and finds himself on a luxurious “space truck” with the traditional motley bunch of fellow travellers.

Once he’s sabotaged the very annoying entertainment system, everyone relaxes and begins to enjoy the trip. Well, a woman called Sky Sylvestry doesn’t seem too happy, but the Doctor has a chat with her…

And then, of course, it all goes horribly wrong. The truck stops. The driver and engineer can’t find a fault, but it won’t go. Help will arrive in not too long, so there’s nothing to worry about. Except maybe that impossible moving figure that the engineer spotted in the few seconds they risked opening the front screen…

And then something starts banging on the outside of the truck. Panic ensues. Sky shouts that it’s coming for her, the lights go out as everyone rolls around in the finest Star Trek (or Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, remember that?) manner, sparks fly, seats are ripped up, and as the Doctor tries to calm everyone down, we see a momentary flash of Rose Tyler’s face on a screen behind him. Oh, and the front of the truck is gone. The driver and engineer have been killed by exposure to the extonic light.

So far, so normal. But there’s no invading monster to be seen. No obvious threat, but Sky’s behaving oddly. She can’t seem to move. She starts repeating everything that everyone else says. And as time passes, the gap between speech and echo gets shorter. Then she starts talking in sync with people, which is quite impossible and really weird.

The passengers get really upset about this, and manage to convince themselves that they have to get rid of Sky – throw her out of the truck – kill her. Naturally, the Doctor isn’t having any of that and tries to talk them out of it, but this time, none of his words are any use at all. Nobody’s paying attention, except maybe they think he’s got something to do with it.

The suspicions of the rest of the passengers are raised further when Sky stops repeating what they’re saying, and only echoes the Doctor’s speech. Then gets ahead of him. Now it’s the Doctor who can’t move, and he’s doing the really weird repeating thing. And now Sky’s not repeating, the passengers think she’s OK and “it” has gone into the Doctor, and well, maybe they should throw him out.

Which is really interesting. The Doctor (especially this Doctor) achieves so much by just talking that now he’s unable to move, and unable to speak other than to repeat what Sky’s saying, he’s utterly helpless, completely alone and visibly terrified. He looks even more terrified when the passengers start to drag him towards the door. He’s saved in the nick of time when the hostess realises that Sky (or whatever is occupying her) has stolen the Doctor’s voice and does the heroic sacrifice thing and drags her to the door. They’re both pulled out in the emergency exit thingy and destroyed in the powerful radiation of the sun.

The Doctor is left on the floor, overwhelmed by what he’s gone through. Rescue comes soon after, and he’s reunited with Donna, who speaks for us all when she says

I can’t imagine you without a voice

And that was that. Not a lot of action, lots of talking, no companion to bounce off, and the Doctor stripped of his greatest power – his ability to dominate a situation and persuade people that they’re better than they think they are. Russell T Davies, who wrote the episode, stated that it was a deliberate counter to Voyage of the Damned, which was pretty much a traditional disaster movie in which people pulled together heroically. In this story, we got the flip side of that, with people falling apart and turning very nasty when scared.

What was the “thing”? We’ll probably never know, but it wasn’t the monster of the piece. That role was filled by the human passengers. This turned out to be an impressive psychological thriller, and quite different from any Doctor Who story I can remember. Good stuff, and quite a departure for the soon-to-depart RTD.

[1] Does TV have a landscape? I sometimes have trouble with my metaphors…
[2] And noisy fans can be really annoying