“Midnight:” Doctor Who with an Accusatory Twist
December 2, 2022
[Spoilers for Doctor Who series four ahead.]
“What could possibly go wrong?” The Doctor quips with a signature smirk at the beginning of one of my all-time favorite episodes of Doctor Who. Of course, everything will go wrong (such is the nature of the entire show), but this episode is delightfully unusual in how.
Doctor Who tends to be on the nose. It’s certainly not aiming for subtlety in its many adventures across time and space, with morals easily legible across episodes, seasons and even the show as a whole. The Doctor, a time-traveling alien with a penchant for heroism, can comfortably be expected to have some cheesy line about the value of every life on Earth—or whichever alien planet he happens to be visiting. Equally likely, this dramatic proclamation will be followed with the Doctor pointing his sonic screwdriver at something, leading to sparks, explosions and the ultimate demise of his enemy.
Episodes that buck this trend, while rare, are infinitely refreshing, and “Midnight” is a prime example. In the episode, the Doctor joins a small group of tourists on a shuttle trip across a planet known for its diamond surface and lethal radiation. Halfway to their destination, the shuttle mysteriously breaks down, and soon after, an eerie knocking begins from the supposedly deadly surface outside the craft. The Doctor struggles to soothe his fellow passengers’ panic as discord breaks out—only a taste of the chaos to come. As the mysterious threat appears to possess a woman within the shuttle, the Doctor tries desperately to dissuade them from increasingly drastic measures.
The episode hinges on a moment of dramatic tension in which the passengers nearly throw the Doctor, paralyzed but fully conscious, out of the shuttle to his death. David Tennant gives a characteristically spectacular performance as the Doctor, with close shots highlighting his eyes wide with fear. At the last second, the hostess of the shuttle sacrifices herself to save him, realizing the true danger mere moments before the point of no return. At the end of the episode, though, there’s a haunted look in his eyes: he looks deeply shaken. Is he surprised by the speed at which mob thinking reaches lethal proportions? Does the malleability of human morals in the absence of his typical rousing speeches on the good inside us all shock him?
At one point, the Doctor asks the group a question, with typical sincere urgency, that captures the essence of many Doctor Who episodes:
“What do you amount to? Murder? Because this is where you decide. You decide who you are.”
Except, where most episodes use this as the turning point, the passengers in “Midnight” don’t back down. At the end of the episode, the passengers are spread across the shuttle’s seats, separated physically from the other passengers as they grapple with the horrifying realization of how far they will go in moments of crisis.
“The hostess—what was her name?” The Doctor asks as the group awaits help.
After a beat of silence, melancholy mu- sic swells as it becomes clear that no one knows. Rescue arrives, the Doctor is reunited with his traveling companion and the episode ends. There’s no redemption for the passengers. It’s possible that I’m just a cynic, but I enjoy this departure from the usual saccharine messaging. The theme is not only grave, but thrillingly unexpected in its direct attack on the audience. Of course, many episodes deal with darker themes, and some even have remarkably similar concepts to “Midnight” (“The Beast Below” with Matt Smith and Karen Gillan comes to mind) but the suspenseful tension and the absence of his usual travel partner creates an unusual focus on the actions of the other passengers, who, of course, are a thinly veiled stand-in for the audience. “Midnight” is unsettling in how it challenges the Doctor’s usually implacable faith in humanity. The episode is an alarming cautionary tale, reaching through the screen to issue the viewer an uncomfortable challenge—what would you do?
This piece was originally published in Inkwell’s Kitchen Sink Issue.