Tony Fyler plays the Repeating Game.
Tony Fyler plays the Repeating Game.
Broadcast 14th June 2008
When we think of stories that take a children’s game and turn it into something terrifying, we immediately think of Steven Moffat – his Empty Child was based on the game of ‘touch,’ and famously, the Weeping Angels were based on a game that has many names, including ‘Statues.’ But before Moffat took the big chair, Russell T Davies, took a look at the ‘Repeating Game’ which has driven generations of siblings and parents to the point of kiddicide, and turned it into one of the biggest, most beautiful, scary diamonds of 21st century Who.
Midnight has a simple premise – so simple the Doctor actually uses it to sum up the adventure he’s about to have, heading into the credits: “Taking a big space-truck with a bunch of strangers across a diamond planet called Midnight? What could possibly go wrong?”
In the first instance, just as there has been a tradition in modern Who to include a Christmas Special episode, meaning there needs to be a ‘Doctor-Light’ episode, so there also needs to be a ‘Companion-Light’ story too, so that filming can be double-banked. By the simple expedient of Donna Noble preferring to lie by the pool than schlepp about the place in a bus ‘like a school trip,’ Davies gives us the Doctor off on his own, when, especially in the case of Donna, he’s grown to realise he needs someone with him to stop him overreacting to situations, to help him heal from emotional wounds both old and relatively new.
Nevertheless, off he goes, alone with a bunch of strangers.
A diamond fall means the ‘big space-truck’ is on a diverted route, which leads it into the absolute unknown, giving us an element of both terror and wonder. As is mentioned in the episode, no-one has ever seen the place they’re going. The Doctor, alone with strangers, in the utterly unknown.
Anyone starting to feel the hairs on the back of their neck prickle yet?
The trip to the unknown region leads the Crusader 50 to break down in the middle of nowhere.
When something which can’t be there – when something that’s alive and powerful on a world bathed in extonic sun, meaning it can’t possibly be alive and powerful – rips the front of the bus off, killing Driver Joe and Engineer Clyde, and then begins to stalk around the helpless metal box, banging on the walls in a way which is anything but random, the danger of their position comes pounding home to the passengers. They’re separated from an entirely hostile environment by just the metal walls of their bus. And Something wants to get in. Something which can’t be there, and yet is. Something intelligent, reasoning – and malignant.
Imagine going in a submersible to look at a coral reef, only to have your driver and your engine ripped out by an intelligent shark, that wants to get in. That’s the first sweaty terror that Midnight offers – being alone with strangers in that inimical environment when the unexpected and hostile happens, when a nameless, powerful Something wants to get you. That sudden full appreciation of the fragility of human life, the stupidity of our sense of superiority over our environment – that’ll get your pulse racing and your adrenaline flowing any time you dare to watch Midnight and the Something starts knocking.
When the Something finally finds its way in, the second terror lays its tendrils cold and clammy on your neck – the Something is an insidious force that ‘possesses’ a victim, and begins by mimicking those around it, then matching them, and then, eventually, anticipating them, stealing their voice for itself, taking it and twisting it to say what it wants to say, not what they want to say. It’s a surreal concept, but it’s the surreality that makes it scary – the Something seems to obey no rules of physics or biology, it just is what it is, and does what it does.
But the Something is just that – an insidious voice, a director of events. For it to work, you have to have division, suspicion and cliques. And that is the really scary monster in Midnight – the human being. Before the Something even arrives, before Driver Joe and Engineer Clyde meet their extonic fate, a tiny lie, designed to keep everybody calm, has the opposite effect when it’s discovered, and the whispering begins – if they’ve not just stopped to stabilise the engines, then what’s really wrong? What aren’t they being told? Why aren’t they being told it? Who’s hiding what? Why? Shouldn’t they be told? Are we going to die out here?!
The questions start small, but quickly, they build into bigger, darker queries, and rupturings of a trust built up between strangers. When the Something takes over the seemingly neurotic Sky Silvestry, played by Davies favourite Lesley Sharp with a creepy line in staring and a growing sense of self-possession, most of the human passengers are in favour of leaving it the hell alone until help arrives. But the Doctor can never leave something new alone, never resist the chance to understand, to learn, to maybe make a friend of a creature that’s never had any. By putting himself forward and acting on his own authority, the Doctor separates himself from the group – the most dangerous thing to do in the situation – and puts himself in danger both from the Something, which creepily begins to repeat his words and even gestures, and from his fellow passengers, despite having bonded with them on the journey out to the middle of nowhere.
It's a miniature version of Lord of the Flies, tense, sweaty and increasingly scary not only because of the advancing power and influence of the Something, Sharp becoming more and more intense and powerful as the situation destabilises, but also because of the shifting dynamics of power and suspicion, the increasing insanity of fear leading the otherwise reasonable passengers to the point of throwing the Doctor out into the extonic landscape.
Ultimately, Midnight is so many things, layered on top of each other, it’s almost impossible to imagine it’s a single episode of Who. Clammy version of the Lord of the Flies, allegory of the political process, where perfectly reasonable people can be shepherded and driven by fear to victimise the different, exploration of the Tenth Doctor’s particular strengths and, more specifically, his flaws, creepy aural horror story of some great unknowable creature taking possession of the innocent but flawed. Midnight is a diamond – a story in which the power of sound, and an unusual script and production method (the cast weren’t told where the bangs would come from, for instance, giving their shock and surprise a realism that’s palpable) and cut within an inch of its life, to achieve something as close to perfection as any of the greats of the Classic series.
There’s never a bad day to watch Midnight. Just don’t watch it just before you go to sleep. The Otherness of the threat, the tension of other people, and the rising panic leading to the reveal of the real emotional fragility of human beings and what they can be made to do might be too much for your nerves.