When I was in First Year of Senior School (that’s the 8th Grade for American readers I believe) I spent ages working on a story for English class. It went on for a while, and I thought it was a clever idea. Don’t ask me what it was though, because I can’t remember.
The point is, with the deadline for submission looming, I gave up on it; it just wasn’t working.
Instead, I wrote a different story that seemed less exciting, but fulfilled the criteria it needed to.
And I got an A for it.
That’s a bit like Midnight.
Written as a last-minute replacement for a story where the Doctor takes part in an episode of Most Haunted: Live, Midnight seems safer, cleaner and easier. On paper it probably didn’t seem like Russell T. Davies’s most exciting work.
But it actually turns out to be probably the finest story he’s ever written.
Doctor Who – Midnight Review: What’s This One About?
A bus tour to see The Sapphire Waterfall goes wrong when an alien consciousness enters the vehicle and makes Carol Jackson demand the Doctor’s death.
Thoughts – Simple But Very Effective
What I love about Midnight is the simplicity.
It has a small cast, it mainly takes place in one claustrophobic, enclosed room, it has no visible monster and it barely uses special effects.
And yet it’s amazing.
Because it’s all about the writing, characterisation and acting,
What happens in Midnight is a story that can be told in any setting. What’s the threat? Something unseen banging on the doors?
It takes a normal, if irritating thing – that being someone copying exactly what you say and repeating it back at you – and turns it into something genuinely disconcerting and then altogether menacing.
From there, it becomes a tense moral and psychological drama about the way people react to fear. In this case, it’s a group of travellers who got on with each other on a superficial level being confronted by what appears to be a threat to their lives.
And how do they react to it? By turning vicious and threatening to kill one of their number – the Doctor – who they believe to be behind it all.
Alien menace aside, you could imagine this being the sort of thing someone like Hitchcock would have done an amazing job on. To a large degree, Midnight resembles one of my favourite movies of all time, 12 Angry Men (though I know that’s not a Hitchcock film, in case you misunderstand me)
Could all modern Doctor Who stories have worked back when that was made? No, of course not, but this could. As I say, it’s a story that can be told in any setting.
And that also means it could also work well in the theatre.
I’m not sure if there’s a higher compliment I could pay the writing of this one. And no, I don’t mean that because I think theatre is a more worthy art (indeed, I subscribe to the Patrick Troughton belief that theatre is just actors shouting in the evening) but rather because to make Midnight work, you don’t need anything but a room and a set of actors with the ability to carry it off.
And boy, the actors here carry it off with aplomb
Perhaps the greatest strength of Midnight is the work of the players, to use an old fashioned term.
Everyone does the job they are supposed to. Though credit must be given to writing 7 different and relatable characters, it’s the actors who pull it off.
David Troughton is thoroughly believable as the know-it-all Professor type who can’t cope out of his comfort zone.
Lindsey Coulson meanwhile is perfectly cast – and I say that without hyperbole – as Val. She plays the aggressive, lash out first/think about it later character so well that it’s almost frightening. No, scratch that, it is frightening. The venom with which she turns on the Doctor is worse than any Dalek or Cyberman.
Rakia Ayola does a fine job of playing the sort of hostess you’ll see on any plane. You know the type; a fixed, false smile covering a very thin layer of contempt for the passengers on board.
Then there’s Lesley Sharp as Sky Sylvestry.
Man, she’s amazing. Not only does it take some talent to be able to speak people’s lines back to them as smoothly as she does (which makes it all the more creepy), it’s the look on her face. Wonderful.
But best of all is David Tennant.
Tennant’s very best acting as the Doctor – for me – comes in the last 25 minutes of The End of Time, but this is a clear second on that list.
He’s superb here. He manages to squeeze every little bit about what makes the 10th Doctor the 10th Doctor into one episode.
The best bit is where Sky steals his voice and he repeats everything she says rather than the other way around. The fear in his eyes tells the story. I don’t think it’s possible to do that bit better.
Indeed, everyone does that bit superbly.
- Though one of the key features of Midnight is its simplicity, it cannot be argued that the CGI used for scenery outside the bus is brilliant. It probably looks as good as it does because it’s only an image; the actors don’t actually go out into it.
- What the hell is Rose doing on that screen? Talk about a stupid thing to write. Her appearing on the TARDIS scanner makes little enough sense, but on a bus? Come on. Has she just been standing screaming into the two way monitor since The Poison Sky?
- I get what they were going for – i.e. the mayhem of all these forms of entertainment on offer on the bus compared to the civility of conversation – but it still looks a bit daft seeing all these things being played at once.
- And if kids in 2013 are probably too far gone to appreciate a Betty Boop cartoon, surely the people of whenever in the future this is will be too.
- The owners of Betty Boop must be willing to accept minimal royalty rights.
- Random Fact #1: This is the first story since Genesis of the Daleks not to include the TARDIS
- Random Fact #2: I understand this is also the only Doctor Who story where the threat is never explained/revealed/seen.
- Random Fact #3: This is also the first story since the Deadly Assassin without a companion, although Donna does of course appear in bookending scenes.
- Put a wig on David Troughton and you could have a Second Doctor story.
- You knew it was coming, but the bit where Sky finally starts talking ahead of The Doctor is such a strong dramatic moment.
- The final scene – where the Doctor doesn’t see the funny side of Donna repeating what he said – is the perfect way to end it.
- I watched this last night at about 1am when I knew I had to get to sleep for a 6am start. But did I fall asleep? Did I buggery. This kept me wide awake and fully attentive throughout. There are very few stories that manage that at 1am.
- DWM Mighty 200 Ranking: #43
Doctor Who – Midnight Review: Final Thoughts
Let me say it again; Midnight is as good as it is because of the simplicity, the acting, the characterisation and the writing.
It doesn’t have much in the way of special effects and that’s because it doesn’t need it.
It plays on basic human psychology and turns it into possibly the most tense 45 minutes of Doctor Who there’s ever been.
I’d also say that for adult viewers – and maybe kids too, though I don’t have any to ask – this is more than likely one of the scariest Doctor Who stories ever. Why? Because the people on the bus are everyday people. The real threat – even above whatever possessed Sky – is the baying mob. The Doctor can deal with as many exotic enemies that want to destroy the universe as the writers can throw at him, but he was helpless against 6 normal people on a bus who were all willing to kill him.
Under different circumstances, that could potentially happen to anyone in real life.
So we believe in it more.
And that makes it more effective.
He probably didn’t realise it whilst writing it, but this is – as I say – probably the finest 45 minutes of Doctor Who RTD ever wrote.
It’ll be ranked a lot higher than #43 on my list.