I love a good submarine episode–a story where people are bottled up in a small space. The great early X-Files episode “Ice” and The West Wing‘s “17 People” are similar to this week’s Doctor Who entry, “Midnight”, in that trapped people are forced by an external entity to eat their own paranoia and turn on one another. Good times!
Writer Russell T Davies makes clear parallels to a society willing to give up freedom for security by having the terrified Crusader passengers turn on the people least like them. More interesting, however, is the way he bottles the Doctor up and turns his own pattern for modern-day Doctor Who on its ear, inverting everything we’ve seen for the past four years. For starters, the Doctor and his companion actually make it to where they intended to go–and it’s a holiday. He’s not lonely, for a change–he knows Donna will be there, waiting for a dinner that will require a bib. All of that happiness alone should tell us that everything is inside out on planet Midnight.
There are bigger inversions coming, however. So much of Doctor Who, at least in the Davies era, is about people around the Doctor finding the ability to sacrifice for something greater than themselves. It’s a considerable shock, then, when this entire bunch goes feral, and does it immediately after the Doctor has delivered the kind of pro-human speech that usually inspires people to greatness. Humans aren’t adorable and strong, here–they’re cruel and xenophobic and thick and selfish. Even DeeDee, the best of the bunch, explains the way to throw people out of the craft, and the nameless hostess who sacrifices herself to save the Doctor in the end was the first to suggest murder as a possible solution.
And the truly scary part is that she may have been right all along. The Doctor’s typical insistence that there might be something of Sky left to save very nearly leads to his demise. Astounding performances from Lesley Sharp and David Tennant mimicking each other’s speech demonstrate this by not being perfect mirror images: we see terror and resistance in Tennant’s, indicating there’s something left of the Doctor fighting against the cold and the dark, but Sharp’s curious, animalistic, and, finally, assured take seems to indicate that Sky has left the building long before the Doctor is willing to give up on her. River Song claimed in “Forest of the Dead” that all the skies of all the worlds might go dark if the Doctor accepted that everyone dies, but if he had accepted Sky’s death and allowed her body to be tossed, would he ever have had his voice stolen? He might be just plain wrong, from the very beginning to the very end, a terrifying circumstance we don’t often see.
Every characteristic of the Doctor is turned on itself here. Davies and others in the Who camp note that the Doctor isn’t a superhero–he defeats enemies with his cleverness, not his ability to bend steel. When he describes his own cleverness here, however, it only serves to make his fellow passengers more willing to destroy him. His blithe, never-questioned pseudonym is instantly ripped to shreds, its falseness used to convict him. This most hyperverbal and hyperkinetic of Doctors has his voice and his will stolen. Curiosity gets the Doctor in trouble all the time, but it usually digs him out of that trouble, too; here, he cajoles the driver into exposing them to danger just to see something no one has seen before and creates suspicion by admitting he’s fascinated by what’s going on. He’s even drawn back into poking at Sky when he won’t let anyone else near her, both because his ego has been pricked and because he’s yet to work out what’s going on with her. All of this staring up from the abyss instead of down into it is deeply unsettling, making the bottled up, prosthetic-free, psychological horror of “Midnight” one of the new series’ best outings. If you can keep from getting the bone-deep shivers when Sky starts speaking before the Doctor does, or when the Doctor is copying the orders of his own demise, you’re made of tougher stuff than I am. Kudos all around for Sharp, Tennant, new-to-Who director Alice Troughton (who also directed “The Doctor’s Daughter“, so…nice comeback), and the lighting and sound departments who pulled off this tricky beast.
In the end, “Midnight” makes the case that both the show reboot and Donna have been making all along: the Doctor needs someone with him. He needs, as the quoted Christina Rossetti wrote, a friend
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands.
This makes the last lines of the episode, after Donna and the Doctor have been reunited, all the more haunting, as Donna’s “molto bene” (apparently Time Lord code for “all’s well that ends short of a holocaust”) evokes a protest from the Doctor that brings back fun memories of begging Rose not to try her hand at a Scottish accent or of telling Donna not to try on her posh at a garden party, but with every drop of light and playfulness drained from it. It’s dark and cold on Midnight, indeed.
(In other news, I wonder where that Lost Moon of Poosh is? And did I just hear him say “the Medusa Cascade”? The clues may not be subtle this year, but they’re fun.)