21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: Midnight

The summer of 2008 – happy days for Russell T Davies. Or should that be Lord Russell Of Daviestown OBE, given that in mid-June it was announced that he would be joining the august ranks of Tim Henman and Bill Oddie by being appointed to the order of the British empire.

Following the news, the cynics were out in force, given that at the time, Rusty's last written contribution was Partners In Crime, a story that's not regarded with the warmest welcome from fans (although I still like it). The day after the announcement of the OBE, Davies' next writing assignment was due to be broadcast. Would this be another New Earth fiasco?

As luck would have it, Davies, over the course of the next two weeks, would produce two of the best NuWho episodes in the shape of Midnight and Turn Left. Interestingly, they are the Lite stories of this season after the production team finally found a way to lessen the workloads of the two leads. The first story would largely follow the mishaps of the Doctor, while the following would largely concentrate on Donna. Both are interesting polar examples. While Turn Left looks at how the Doctor's a badly missed force for good, Midnight takes the opposite tack by making him the target of an alien invader and a small mob of terrorised passengers aboard a travel liner shuttle.

Midnight is a relatively unique story in Doctor Who's long and rich tapestry in that the action is largely confined to one place and one time. It takes the form of what's regarded in some quarters as the Bottle Episode. Basically, in various sitcoms, events are played out in a lone setting with minimal characters, minimum sets, and of course, minimum budget. It's the perfect way of balancing costs – if you've spent buckets of money on designs, actors and sandwiches, then the Bottle Episode is the TV producer's lifeline. Doctor Who once had a stab at this back in the foggy mists of yore with an odd two-parter called The Edge Of Destruction. The action was confined to the TARDIS, as it hurtled to its doom because of a loose spring. Factor in Barbara screeching at a melted clock, and Susan going all Norman Bates with a pair of scissors, and it doesn't quite hit the heights.

Midnight, on the other hand, nails the Bottle Episode in a big way, and makes the most of its potential. It achieves a high drama quotient with only one setting, a handful of actors and a healthy dollop of claustrophobic terror to achieve its maximum impact.

Claustrophobia. That's what Midnight's all about. It was inevitable in the first place. A confined space and a group of squabbling people is a marriage that's made in hell – just think of trips on public transport, with the smells and the noise and the annoying little habits of people who aren't averse to picking their nose or chewing gum noisily or discussing the latest episode of EastEnders at the top of their voice into a mobile phone that has the ring-tone of Macarena. There's a ready-made setting for a terrifying Doctor Who, and in fact, it's debatable as to what the real evil in this story is: A being that invades meek 'n' mild Sky Silvestry? Or the evil that men and women do?

So who's checked in to sample the delights of the planet Midnight? Well apart from Sky (who's initially quite a shy, retiring sort who looks like she's on her way to audition for The Apprentice), we have pompous old academic Professor Hobbes and his swotty assistant Dee Dee, the type who would probably leave an apple on the teacher's desk. Then there's the Cane family, a dysfunctional bunch comprising dad Biff (who resembles Bluto from the Popeye cartoons), mum Val (whose party trick is to habitually pull sour faces in moments of crisis) and eye-rolling teenage son Jethro (who looks strangely like that Merlin guy from the BBC1 show).

And don't forget the dedicated staff, the nameless Hostess (whose super-cool efficiency could put out a bonfire with just one breath), and the two truck drivers Claude and Joe – well, mechanic and driver if you want to get technical. Initially, they all seem like reasonably OK types after the Doctor's insisted that they all forget the in-house entertainment and chinwag amongst themselves. The Doctor's become the sort of attention-seeker who thinks that it's a jolly wheeze to get everyone to sing along on the train – when in fact most people just want to chill out and not have to put up with forced socialising.

Despite this initially amiable meet 'n' greet, as soon as the shuttle hits trouble, the passengers don't turn out to be quite as friendly as they first appeared. An unseen force from outside the ship decides to go all Pink Windmill by knocking at the door. But rather than repeat “There's somebody at the door!” in a campy whisper, the passengers naturally start panicking and arguing amongst themselves. The crisis only gets worse. Not only are Claude and Joe vaporised after the cabin's reduced to nothing, but meek old Sky is now behaving rather oddly, eyes darting around like a cornered mouse, and proceeding to repeat everything that the Doctor says, like a parrot learning to talk for the first time. Or Adric in Logopolis.

Unfortunately this isn't a tighter ship, and the entropy's increasing by the millionth of a second, since the possessed Sky not only learns to adapt to the Doctor's speech, but starts to talk at exactly the same time, and then pre-empts what the Doctor's going to say. Modern Doctor Who has a habit of taking innocent childlike games and habits and turning them into something more sinister. Remember when you were a kid and you'd mimic everything that the other person said until they tutted in weary resignation at best or throttled you at worst. It's a childlike game that's given the Doctor Who spin to become something very scary indeed. In the real world, this means bucket-loads of dialogue to learn for both David Tennant and Lesley Sharp (playing Sky), who not only have to remember the reams of lines, but say them in a precise, pitch-perfect manner. The tension ramps up slowly until Sky has the upper hand, taking over the Doctor and leaving him as a helpless puppet at the mercy of his by-now vengeful fellow passengers.

The whole concept's a simple one, but at the same time it's very effective, and is possibly one of the most chilling ideas in Doctor Who. It helps that both Tennant and Sharp are absolutely on the ball. Lesley Sharp first – one of Davies' commonly used actresses (she's the lead in Bob And Rose) and a fine one at that. As Sky, she's superb, portraying one of the most sinister aliens in the history of Doctor Who. There's something genuinely alien in her sudden, sharp movements and expressions as the new visitor learns to adapt and take in her new surroundings. In the hands of a lesser actress, this could have gone the way of Let's Pretend, but Sharp injects a jerky, off-kilter realism into her performance, and the way she acts in total synchronicity with Tennant is a marvel to behold. A superb bit of acting, and an inspired bit of guest casting.

Tennant shows that he's no slacker either. Having shown just what he can do with the right script in the previous season, he goes on to deliver yet another blistering performance in Midnight. It's interesting – The Doctor actors always seem to be at their best in stories where the Time Lord's worst character traits are dramatically turned against them. Think of Jon Pertwee in Planet Of The Spiders as his Doctor finally acknowledges that his know-it-all character is responsible for the spider invasion from Metebelis 3. Or think of Colin Baker's Doctor in Mindwarp, as he's forced to witness his brash abrasiveness causing the apparent death of poor old Peri.

Ditto David Tennant in Midnight. The Tenth Doctor's worst aspects are brutally turned against him. His smug cockiness. His glib wisecracks. His superior attitude. He takes it upon himself to be the leader of the passengers and attempts to solve the problem of the alien invader, but in fact achieves absolutely nothing. “I'm sorry, but you're a Doctor of what exactly?” splutters Hobbes, as he starts to doubt the credentials of a man who seems suspiciously clued up as to what's going on – even adding that “You do seem to have a certain glee”. Val chips in naturally by growling “You've been looking down on us from the moment we walked in.” The passengers view the Doctor as some of the Tenth incarnation's detractors would regard him – as a shouty but insubstantial clot. That's a brave bit of writing, but what's even better about this is Tennant's performance. It's totally on the button, taking the Doctor into some very dark waters indeed. Like Lesley Sharp, his synchronised dialogue is performed to perfection, as are the chilling scenes in which he's taken over by the Sky alien.

This is as dark as Doctor Who gets. The Doctor always seems to dread being taken over and losing his identity – think of the recent 42, for example. But unlike all the screaming and shouting that takes place there, this is even more alarming. The Doctor's reduced to a wide-eyed ventriloquist's dummy, blankly repeating Sky's phrases (and even his own – have “Molto Bene!” and “Allons-Y!” ever sounded so eerie?) with just a suggestion of pant-wetting hysteria under the surface. It's all in the eyes – that helpless terror is there for all to see, thanks to some top-class facial acting from Tennant. The Doctor's rarely been as helpless before, and the scenes in which the passengers attempt to throw him off the ship are very unsettling. Even after events have been returned to normal, the Doctor's shattered by what's just happened. One of the greatest Tennant performances in Doctor Who, and probably one of the greatest performances in Doctor Who, period.

For a Doctor who always seems to love the human race, this incarnation is left with a cold slap in the face by the story's conclusion. It's also interesting that while Davies is often quick to champion the resilience and decency of humans, some of his stories take a cynically different tack. Following the revelation of the Toclafane's identity in Last Of The Time Lords, Davies takes this harsh reality of humanity one step further in Midnight, by showing what happens when they get scared and panic en masse. The results are brutal, with the passengers refusing to listen or think – by the story's conclusion, they are even prepared to advocate murder without any regard of the consequences.

For an old cynic like me, this story is gold dust, and what's great about the characters in Midnight is that they are quite a multi-faceted bunch. The initial character expectations aren't really met, and that's the secret of any good story. Take Professor Hobbes – initially he's a stuffy academic whose pomposity knows no bounds. Now the average viewer expectation is to say “Ah! But he'll be on the side of the Doctor because he's clever and swotty and can empathise with the Doctor's concerns!” In fact, he does nothing of the sort, and instead shows himself up to be no more than a bag of hot air – all academic supposition and zero empathy with the problem at hand. He starts on at his assistant Dee Dee when she starts to make sound points about the cause of the invasion, basically as a smokescreen for the fact that he knows very well that he can't offer any insightful clue as to how to deal with the problem. Mind you, it's possible that he'll learn from the experience since at the story's conclusion, he seems just as shaken as the Doctor, almost on the verge of tears as he realises what he's nearly done – a good man who can't deal with the real world, basically. Welcome back David Troughton, who turns in another outstanding guest performance hot on the heels of Peladon and Private Moor – another strong example of this actor's versatile range.

Even more terrifying are the Canes, in particular, vengeful Val. Val showcases the worst sort of human being – the judgemental bully. You know the sort – the one who is quick to assume the worst of people and who takes it upon herself to act as some sort of crusading vigilante without even thinking about the true facts. Biff is just as bad, but for all the opposite reasons. It's clear as to who wears the trousers in the Cane household, and it sure ain't Biff, a man so spineless and brain-dead, he'd probably let you sell him his own watch for £9000. Biff randomly goes along with whatever his wife says while trying to do so in a big and tough voice. “Well, you can help her,” he whimpers when asked to deal with Sky. “I'm not going near!”

Again, the expectations are reversed with the Canes – we think that Biff is going to be the decisive family member, when in fact he's blindly acting under the influence of his wife. Even Jethro, the bored teen confounds expectations by shunning all that teenage excitement and hunger for action by being even more cowardly than his father. At the end of the day, Jethro just wants out. More fabulous acting here – Lindsey Coulson could play this sort of part in her sleep (see Carol Jackson from EastEnders as proof) but there's no denying that she does it very well. Daniel Ryan adds solid support as the cowardly Biff, as does Colin Morgan who's gone on to greater acclaim with Merlin and Humans.

And don't forget the Hostess, a woman who overcomes her detached passenger care training to ultimately save the day. At the beginning, there's no indication that the Hostess will prove to be the story's salvation. She's purely there to serve the drinks and deal with the customers' whims. But maybe it's that detachment that allows her to see the problem from the outside looking in. Look at her in the background of the argument scenes – she's constantly weighing up what to do, sizing up the situation and quietly working out a best course of action. At the end of the day, she's the unsung heroine, the woman without a name. That's a mystery that's left hanging in the air after a shell-shocked Doctor is left to muse on her identity in the aftermath of the skirmish. A thoughtful performance from Holby City actress Rakie Ayola, who delivers a sensitive, clever turn as a woman who's forced to think outside the box and overcome her usual routine to help defeat the intruder.

Even with such a small amount of sets and practically one long half-hour scene, Midnight is Doctor Who at its most compelling. The action barrels along, and while it could conceivably work on the stage, the fantastic direction from Alice Troughton makes this story rock like a daddy on the small screen. She pushes the boat out with some exemplary direction that pushes the tension button to the top level. Just the small things like the quick cuts between characters, the film-noir camera swoops and the moody lighting. They all make you forget that this is a story that doesn't hang on big blockbuster effects or monsters. It's done with the minimum of resources, and effectively proves that as long as you have the right story, right actors and right director, that's all that matters. Even Murray Gold's creepy, piano-driven cues add to the mounting tension.

Davies and Doctor Who were enjoying good times in the summer of 2008. The fourth new season was reeling off a string of modern classics, and all to some seriously impressive rating figures – despite the warm weather outside. With stories like Midnight, Doctor Who proved that it could still keep the kids away from the ice cream vans and barbecues – even with just the basic essentials.

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