Now I know what you’re thinking. No episode of new Doctor Who is scarier than The Empty Child, with that little gas mask zombie kid, and the horrific moment when Richard Wilson grows a gas mask onto his face right in front of us. Or maybe you are one of the people so traumatised by Blink and the stone angels that you still can’t walk past a statue without double checking on its motives. They’re both brilliant, true jump scare masterpieces of episodes.
But I’d still argue that the scariest episode of new Doctor Who is actually Midnight, the tenth episode of series four, which comes after a big, expensive two-parter and just before they started to ramp up for the massive finale. It is an unassuming slot for quite an unassuming episode.
The Doctor and Donna have travelled to the holiday resort planet of Midnight and Donna is determined to chill out for once. She’s barely in the episode at all, aside from a few moments at the start and the end. Instead the Doctor heads off on a tour with a bunch of strangers, and when their vehicle breaks down in the middle of the uninhabited planet, it’s pretty strange that something should be knocking on the outside. As everyone starts to speculate about what could be making the noise, one woman, Sky Silvestry begins to scream that ‘it’ has come for her. Following the mysterious deaths of the driver and the engineer, something does seem to possess Sky, and makes her behave very strangely, repeating what everyone is saying. As the strangers begin to panic and discuss the possibility of throwing her out into the deadly sunlight, whatever has got into the cabin becomes stronger and steals the Doctor’s voice.
Midnight is a very simple episode. A small cast spends the majority of the run time inside the cabin of the vehicle. It’s a classic bottle episode, and it also makes it extremely claustrophobic, especially as the characters try to get as far away from Sky as they can. When the lights start to play up too, it all feels very classically scary, with a classically scary monster. Lesley Sharp plays Sky with deceptive stillness; she barely moves for most of the middle act, but there is a distinctly predatory way in which she is still, as though at any moment she might leap forwards and go for the throat of the nearest person.
But what makes Midnight so genuinely frightening is the way in which firstly, we are forced to watch the Doctor lose control of the situation and himself, and also how we must confront the behaviour of the passengers – and therefore ourselves.
The Doctor is always in charge. Even when he doesn’t seem like he is, he usually is the one who has control over whatever situation he is in, and eventually most people come round to his way of thinking. Midnight shows us, for the first time, how tenuous that control is. It also highlights an interesting thing; without his companion to mediate, the Doctor is weird. He really is.
On his own, he’s a very intelligent person with very little filter and no small amount of hubris. David Tennant’s Doctor, near the end of his run here, was probably more socially aware than Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor, and definitely more so than Peter Capaldi’s Twelve, but he was also very sure of himself. He knows he’s the smartest person in any room, and when that position is threatened, he doesn’t do a very good job of explaining himself. Shouting ‘Because I’m clever’ when confronted with a group of quite understandably frightened people isn’t going to persuade them that they should trust you.
He loses control of the group because of that hubris. He is right, admittedly; the fact that they are contemplating murdering Sky is horrifying. But he doesn’t help himself, or Sky, by digging his heels in. He then physically loses control as whatever is possessing Sky grows in strength and literally steals his voice. David Tennant, of course, sells it brilliantly, as he does most things. Viewers are bound to be disturbed by seeing the Doctor, unable to use his voice, frozen and helpless with tears of fear in his eyes, stuck listening to the creature convince his fellow passengers that he’s the one who has to die.
And then there are the other passengers, normal humans, who have been thrown together into a possible situation. The debate that rages between them is fluid and ever changing, as they try to confront their own fear and the fact that each one of them believes the other passengers would be willing to kill. Dee Dee (Ayesha Antoine) and Jethro (Colin Morgan) are the youngest passengers but the most level-headed; up until the final moments, neither of them wants to hurt anyone, and argue against it. Professor Hobbes (David Troughton) is an expert on Midnight and tries to be objective, but soon gets swept along by Val (Lindsey Coulson) and Biff (Daniel Ryan) who are advocating hard for the murder. The nameless Hostess (Rakie Ayola) who in the end saves them all by ejecting herself and Sky from the vehicle is trying to protect her charges and will do whatever is necessary to do that. Her motives at least seem less personal than Val and Biff’s.
The way that the group comes together and disintegrates is a frightening thing. They are all just very human in their actions and their decisions. In a way, you can hardly blame them for the decision they come to, which is to eject the Doctor, when Sky convinces them that he is the true danger. The Doctor has been acting strangely, and he’s lied to them more than once in a short acquaintance. Murder seems like an overreaction, except the driver and the mechanic have been killed already, and they’ve all watched Sky seemingly come back from the brink.
At its heart, horror is about losing control of yourself and the world around you. Whether that is because of a monster or because of something in your own mind, the fear and revulsion that define the genre come about when the people living in it no longer have their own agency. Midnight plays on all of that; not only is there a monster which traps them and literally steals their voices, the people also have to deal with each other, and the sheer fact that you can’t truly know a person, or how they think, until it is too late. Jethro is horrified at how easily Val and Biff, his parents, are convinced to kill someone. Dee Dee is shocked that Professor Hobbes, her mentor, should lose his objectivity so quickly.
If horror can be defined by humans, and the lengths we would go to in order to preserve our own agency, then Midnight is indeed the scariest episode of new Doctor Who.
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