‘That’s how he does it. He makes you fight. Creeps into your head. And whispers.’ I’ve seen it suggested that this is RTD out-Moffatting Moffat. It’s certainly as creepy as any of Moffat’s episodes with exactly the same kind of easily-imitated baddie, but it’s clearly inspired by RTD’s own particular fears. Moffat’s monsters are often technology gone wrong (nanogenes, clockwork men, sentient Libraries executing their functions in their own peculiar way); RTD’s is humans surrendering to their worst instincts. Here, in the Crusader 50, with nowhere to run, the Doctor is trapped with a terrified group of people and there’s no clever last-minute twist to save them.
At the top of the episode the Doctor’s at his most swaggering, boarding the bus accompanied by jaunty music, chatting up the hostess, sabotaging the annoying entertainment system, and swanning into the cabin to show off his clever spot of a reassuring white lie. What follows gradually unravels this bravado, as he first fails to save the driver and mechanic, then fails to convince his terrified fellow passengers to follow his lead, and then loses his own voice to the Sky monster.
Robbed of his greatest asset, his gob, the Doctor’s reduced to a dribbling, haunted shell, repeating Sky’s malicious lies as the passengers manoeuvre him towards the airlock. It’s the hostess, who realises Sky’s French phrases are stolen from the Doctor, that saves his life and presumably prevents the thing in the dark from infecting everyone on the planet. Even the Master failed to render him quite this helpless.
This is all supremely effective. It’s pretty much all set in one room, completely reliant on the performances (and Murray Gold’s music, which goes from uncharacteristically jolly to increasingly ominous). Lesley Sharp as Sky, the monster, and the monster posing as Sky has to make this work, and she’s excellent – going from nervy solo traveller to watchful thing, to pure malignance, vocally and physically selling the transformation. Tennant is great as well, particularly as he’s increasingly back-footed until he loses all his fellow travellers. Sometimes he doesn’t just need someone to stop him, he needs someone to connect him to the ordinary people whose lives he crashes into. Without Donna, he’s just a bit too clever, a bit too arrogant, a bit too different, and very vulnerable when frightened people are looking for a scapegoat. The final scene, repurposing the ‘No, don’t to that’ joke into a haunting last line, is perfect. Oh, and the Doctor is the first one to knock four times.
It’s been criticised as ‘too much of a writing exercise’, but this is exactly the kind of challenge experienced showrunners tend to set themselves – Moffat does the same in Heaven Sent – to tackle the kind of nightmare brief they might once have given to another writer. Midnight is a superb, scary, sinister masterpiece that proves – perhaps even to RTD himself – that he can still do it.
Next Time: Turn Left