It has been almost 11 years since the fourth series Doctor Who episode Midnight (2008) aired, and to this day, it remains one of my favorite Doctor Who episodes. It’s not just because David Tennant was still The Doctor at that time; it’s because it has some important elements that make it a fantastic horror story.
Doctor Who does horror? That doesn’t seem like too far of a reach; the show definitely flirts with scary elements, but, a lot of the time, it will default into more family-friendly territory. Think about the most recent series’ episode “The Tsuranga Conundrum” (2018) and how creepy that was until we saw how adorable the Pting was. Once the creep factor picks up in Midnight, however, it doesn’t really let you go until the end.
For a refresher of what happened in Midnight: The Doctor boards a shuttle to take a tour on a planet made entirely out of diamonds to go see a sapphire waterfall. The shuttle has to take an alternate route. Halfway through the four-hour trip, the shuttle breaks down, and something assaults the ship by banging on the outside. The lights go out, the ship violently rocks, and the passengers suddenly discover one of them is possessed by…something.
The possessed woman repeats back everything everyone says to the point where she is saying their words at the exact same time that they do. This, naturally, makes everyone freak out. They want to toss her from the ship, but The Doctor won’t have it. They soon turn on him, thinking he’s involved somehow. Once they begin to turn on him, the entity seizes The Doctor and almost convinces the passengers to toss him out, but, in the nick of time, they find a way to get rid of it.
The episode starts out innocuous enough: banter between The Doctor and Donna, and The Doctor is his normal giddy self on a new adventure with plenty of jokes about the wonderful experience of traveling with complete strangers. However, that is where the episode starts to poke at your deepest and darkest fears.
While getting ready to depart, the Hostess of the shuttle locks down the windows and doors and lets the passengers know of the absolute peril that awaits them if they touch the wrong thing. The sound of the window shields slamming shut is unnerving and almost makes it feel more like a prison than a tour.
The warnings about travel are similar to the ones that play in your head just before taking off; you might have traveled this way before…but you’ve heard the stories. What if an accident does happen to you? The cherry on top is the in-flight entertainment that produces a cacophony that overloads the senses and disorients any sort of situational awareness you might be holding on to. Mercifully, The Doctor solves that pretty quick with his sonic.
With no entertainment, the passengers are forced to talk to each other. Sky Silvestry (Lesley Sharp) is a lonely, shy woman getting over a recent breakup. The Canes (Daniel Ryan and Lindsey Coulson) have dragged their reluctant son (Colin Morgan) on a family vacation. Professor Hobbes (David Troughton) is visiting the waterfall for the fourteenth time and is accompanied by his assistant Dee Dee Blasco (Ayesha Antoine).
Hobbes has been studying the planet for quite some time and believes that the planet’s atmosphere is hostile to any form of life. Which tees up the perfect question…are you sure about that?
When the shuttle breaks down, The Doctor visits the cockpit, where the mechanic trainee (Duane Henry) swears he sees a dark, shadowy form approaching. Soon after The Doctor goes back to the main cabin area, the shuttle is assaulted by knocks and bangs. The passengers are unnerved, and Sky is paranoid that whatever it is out there is after her. The lights go out, and when the emergency flashlights come on, Sky is in the fetal position for a few moments. And then she starts copying everyone.
That’s where the episode gets really creepy. This tiny space that was supposed to shield them from outside elements now traps them with an unknown entity. Contained space horror is one of my favorite types of horror — think Gerald’s Game (2017), Devil (2010), and, to some extent, Alien (1979). Midnight is almost the epitome of contained space horror.
The copied phrases are annoying at first, but the ability that the mysterious entity displays of how fast and how well it can mimic everyone is unnerving. Couple that with Sharp’s brilliant acting: her wide eyes in the flashlight-lit darkness and her sinister glare as the passengers are trying to figure out what’s going on. Even though she’s saying the same lines as everyone else, it makes it that much scarier when she’s saying them. Who knew that a copycat could be so frightening?
Meanwhile, the other passengers let their fight-or-flight response take over. The Hostess is the first one to say the inevitable: “Let’s throw her out.” The Doctor believes that Sky is still in there and doesn’t leave room for that kind of discussion, but everyone is against him. It seems barbaric, but honestly what would you do if you were in this situation? Would your survival instincts overrule your humanity?
The passengers turn on The Doctor, accusing him of wanting all this to happen. He is morbidly curious, and they are turned off by how clever he thinks he is and how he refers to them as humans, while setting himself up as some kind of superior being. This allows the possessing entity to evolve and steal The Doctor’s voice; now he’s the one repeating phrases. The passengers think that The Doctor is now possessed. At the last moment, the Hostess realizes Sky is still possessed, and she sacrifices herself to throw Sky out of the shuttle. The other passengers then realize they never knew the Hostess’s name.
As evidenced here, there are so many elements that make this a good horror story: fear of travel and the unfamiliar, possession, contained spaces, malevolent beings that force you to choose between barbarism and morality, and a tragic ending when they realize the Hostess left without establishing a true identity. At the end, it plays on an especially relevant fear of losing one’s voice and being incapacitated while you watch everyone around you make the wrong decision. Imagine if this episode had been made with the Thirteenth Doctor and the alien possesses a male body — there’s a lot of commentary there in light of the #MeToo situation.
But you know what my favorite part about this episode is? We have no idea what the possessing entity was!
We’re so used to seeing The Doctor overcome the odds and find an explanation behind everything. You can see this by how cocky (he would say “clever”) he is about the whole situation. When he returns to Donna, he is shook. So many questions are unanswered. What was that thing? Where did it come from? Most hauntingly: Was Sky still savable? We have no idea, and I love that. Some of my favorite horror stories leave us without a neat conclusion, and Midnight is no exception.
You might not be looking for horror stories when you watch Doctor Who, but when you come across Midnight, you encounter a horror story that far surpasses so many other horror stories out there. Russell T Davies added all the right horror building-blocks in this episode. It forces you to ask these philosophical questions about yourselves while still wondering if it could happen again.