If you were being generous, you’d suggest that Midnight – only the second episode of this series of Doctor Who to be penned by Russell T Davies – took some time to get going. In fact, for a good ten minutes – and it wasn’t helped by the drab trailer last week – it was looking like something of a washout.
This was the Donna-lite episode, with Catherine Tate’s character used to bookend an adventure that saw the Doctor take a leisure cruise, leaving her behind to relax. Also bookending the main body of the episode were some superb visuals, as good as anything we’ve seen since the series returned to our screens.
The main thrust of Midnight though was the aforementioned tourist trip, and this at first seemed a very bad idea (not least because they only had a leisure cruise episode back at Christmas, and some of us still remember, not too fondly, Delta And The Bannermen). With just a handful of passengers on board, and a cheap looking set, there was no sense of everyone being anywhere other than in a Cardiff-based studio.
There was no better example of this than the cockpit of the vessel they were in, which looked like something Red Dwarf would have rejected a decade ago. Factor in that there was no feeling of claustrophobia (with plenty of wide shots showing up the unimpressive set), and that the characters were – quite literally in one case – out of a soap opera, and the episode was, by the time the banging noises started on the outer hull on the vessel, looking like a bit of a disaster.
And then it got good. Really good.
It did it too in a way that Russell T Davies’ episodes rarely get commended for: for subtlely building up the tension and intrigue, one step at a time. Because just when you thought this was a bog standard aliens attacking a stranded ship tale, Davies switched tack, choosing instead a less obvious villain who possessed one of the passengers. And then, ultimately, possessed the Doctor.
Furthermore, said villain was then made genuinely unnerving through something as simple as copying what other characters were saying, and then later uttering their words in unison with them. Heck, even Murray turned the music down for a bit while all this was going on, as a Doctor Who episode simply stuck a group of people in a room and had them uttering dialogue for a good half hour of it. No gimmicks, no gags: just good writing, good performances, and a restrained Tennant in particularly fine form anchoring it all.
The supporting characters here, it should also be noted, weren’t particularly likeable (and, well, on the whole weren’t really that good either), but that was half the point. For they were as much the villain here as the creation that we never actually saw. Granted, it’s not an original trick, but this was done really well, aided by direction that gradually tightened in on its subjects, and editing that helped build the tempo. It might not have been claustrophobic at the start, but it sure turned things round for the second half of the episode.
What’s more, it was surprising just how under the skin the mechanic of simply having someone repeating dialogue could be. You can forget your Slitheens, your Ood and your Sontarans: usually, it’s the simple things that really work, and that was certainly the case here.
It helped too that you felt that the Doctor, for once, was as powerless and frightened as the rest of them, and in fact it wasn’t even he who came anywhere close to being the saviour of everyone this time round. Midnight certainly rode roughshod over many of the series’ conventions.
And nowhere was that more evident than with the ending. Because here was an episode that, surprisingly, benefitted from not actually explaining, well, anything really. There was a price to pay, because as a result Midnight didn’t feel like a rounded or complete story, but then maybe it isn’t. There’s certainly a thread here for RTD to pick up in his final three episodes of the series.
As it stood, it was unsettling that by the time the credits rolled, the Doctor didn’t know what he had faced, and hadn’t managed to overcome it, with whatever it was clearly still out there. Heck, he didn’t even know its name. It’s all but sure, you suspect, that he’ll meet the ramifications of Midnight again in the future, and given his clear fear of what he was facing, that’s something to look forward to. Thus, while it was initially annoying that the theme tune kicked in before we were given any real clue as to what had happened, in retrospect it was quite refreshing not to have everything spoon-fed and tied up.
It wasn’t a perfect episode. A few bits fell flat, the opening was terribly weak, and it at times looked like it had been put together with the leftovers from the BBC’s prop cupboard. But, by the end, it didn’t really matter. For by containing the bulk of his episode to a single room, and letting the dialogue do the work, Russell T Davies delivered one of his best ever Doctor Who scripts. The decision to have the Doctor facing all of this by himself too also paid dividends (the theme of solitude, once more, is bubbling away there under the surface), and it bodes well for the three RTD episodes coming up to take us to the end of the series.
Talking of that, you’ll, no doubt, have noticed Rose screaming away briefly in the background too. We’ve not had her dropped in for a few weeks now, but she’s back for real in next week’s Turn Left, which is the now-traditional Doctor-lite episode of the series. The trailer didn’t give away much, short of the previously seen shot of Bernard Cribbins noting that the stars are going out. But given that this is the point in the series where we got Utopia last year, it’s fair to say that next week, things really start to get serious…
Read Martin Anderson’s take on last week’s Doctor Who right here.