This is probably my favourite episode of Doctor Who because it’s everything that the show shouldn’t be: the majority of it is set in one location, there is no visible monster and the Doctor is almost powerless. Why then is it my favourite? Because it’s a brilliant cast, very clever idea, top script and an unforgettable central performance from David Tennant.
What the show has always done that allows it to make its 50th Anniversary this weekend is change – and by changing everything you expect from an episode, it makes it scarier and challenges you as the audience to see how on earth the Doctor can escape this time. The premise is simple, the Doctor and Donna – played by the fabulous Catherine Tate (more about her next time) – land on a planet that is uninhabitable to any living creature and they are inside for the whole episode. Donna elects to stay in the Spa for the day while our intrepid hero heads off on a jaunt across the planet to see the sights. As he says “Taking a bus full of strangers across a diamond planet called ‘Midnight’, what could possibly go wrong?”
From there it’s a simple story of the vehicle breaking down, it getting attacked, a passenger gets possessed and the Doctor loses all his powers. Apart from that little happens. And that’s the key to this episode – it’s all character driven and Russell T Davies script moves along at a great pace and the claustrophobic cabin becomes a prison for these different characters to all have to get on with each other. There’s a mum, dad and son combination, a single business woman, a professor and his assistant, the Hostess and of course the Doctor. The drama comes when something living on the planet that can’t be lived on, attacks the vehicle and takes over one of the characters.
Where the real fear of the episode kicks in is when this monster starts repeating everything that is said by those in the cabin, then it speaks at the same time as them. Like “Blink” it is based on the simple childhood idea of copying and mimicking other people, repeating back the words to the person that said them. At first it’s silly, but as it progresses it becomes creepy and as Davies points out in the “Confidential” episode for Midnight there is something scary about someone effectively taking your voice.
The cast is a great collection of character actors from Lindsay Coulson and Daniel Ryan as the Mum and Dad to the always excellent Lesley Sharp as Sky Sylvestry. Then there a couple of great nods to the history of the show as David Troughton plays the Professor who knows everything about the planet – he is Patrick Troughton’s (The Second Doctor) real life son. The episode is directed by Patrick’s Daughter Alice. It also harks back to the days of the First and Second incarnations as the story is told predominantly in real time as the original episodes often were. It’s that “real time” angle combined with everything else that makes this such a powerful and scary episode. I’m sure there are those who love the chases and the CGI monsters, but I always maintain that there is nothing scarier than the idea of fear and to evoke it just through speech and language is a real skill.
David Tennant is a great actor and in this he really pulls out all the stops and you really find yourself worried for his character in a way you aren’t always. We all know that the Doctor always wins, but here there is a real possibility he won’t make it out alive and not for the usual reasons. There are fantastic layers to the script too about society, mob rule, immigration, the fear of intelligent people, family dynamics and the contrast between the young mind open to possibilities and the older mind that has a blinkered view of life.
I know many will not include this episode in their top ten, but for me it’s a great piece of drama and television, the fact it’s a Doctor who episode is a bonus.
Here’s a great fan made trailer for the episode to encourage you to revisit it.
Next Time: Journey’s End