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Isolation, Othering, and Mob Mentality in Doctor Who’s ‘Midnight’

As Doctor Who episodes go, Series 4’s ‘Midnight’ stands out as one of the more harrowing ones. Directed by Alice Troughton, and written by Russell T Davies (the showrunner at the time) himself, the self-contained episode follows the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) on a rather lonesome adventure. He and companion Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) arrive on Midnight, a planet turned into a leisure resort for inter-galactic tourists. Unable to convince Donna to leave the indulgence of the local spa, the Doctor takes a shuttle bus tour of the planet on his own.

Six passengers, aside from the Doctor, participate in the bus tour: Professor Hobbes and Dee Dee Blasco (some kind of science academic and his assistant), Val, Biff, and Jethro Cane (middle-aged parents and their goth son), and Sky Silvestry (a quiet businesswoman). The Hostess attends to them all throughout the trip as well. Since Midnight orbits an X-tonic star that has fused the planet’s surface into diamonds, and has no air, the doors and shutters must remain closed for the majority of the trip. Technically, no living being should be able to survive out in the open.

It’s not long before the bus breaks down, and Driver Joe and Mechanic Claude as well as the Doctor haven’t a clue what’s gone wrong. They send out a distress signal, but Claude spots a shadow before the shield comes down. Soon after, an unknown entity begins knocking on the side of the bus. It possesses Sky, who becomes immobile. The front of the bus gets sliced off in the ruckus, killing Joe and Claude. Via Sky, the entity begins repeating speech off every single person on board, gradually catching up until she’s speaking in tandem with them.

Tensions in the group rise as they turn against one another and essentially agree to murder Sky if push comes to shove. But the entity has a different idea. It latches onto the Doctor by repeating only his words, then stealing his voice entirely and rendering him immobile like Sky was at first. The passengers decide to throw the Doctor out, but the Hostess realises the entity is still possessing Sky, not him. She grabs Sky and releases the air lock, pulling them both into the lethal radiation. The Doctor is released from the entity’s grasp, and with the danger gone, the passengers await the arrival of the rescue team. Once he’s back at the resort, the Doctor reunites with Donna, and is visibly disturbed by the events he endured.

The planet Midnight in all its glory - sparkling diamond towers, with a space centre in the foreground
The planet Midnight in all its glory.

‘Midnight’ is considered one of the scariest episodes of Doctor Who, for damn good reason. Rather than visual horror in the form of heavily prosthetic or CGI’d monsters that the show usually gears towards, this episode is more of a psychological horror, emphasising what cruelty and brutality humans can perpetrate when pushed to the extreme. The entity itself is never seen in its true form, which already plays off fear of the unknown, but more importantly, it merely orchestrates the violence committed by the humans themselves. Themes of mob mentality, isolation, and ‘othering’ are prevalent throughout the narrative, dialogue, and direction to evoke further fear.

Isolation

When speculating about the planet, Professor Hobbes says:

“We look upon this world through glass. Safe inside our metal box. […] And here we are now, crossing Midnight, but never touching it…”

Immediately, the characters are isolated from the outer world by being restricted to a single, closed-off location. There are only eight people in the main cabin for the majority of the story who are total strangers to one another, with the exception of the family of three and Professor and his assistant who are in smaller support bubbles of sorts, but these quickly get broken down. With it being a companion-lite episode, even the Doctor doesn’t have his usual pillar of support with him—let’s be real, if Donna was on the bus, she’d have shut people up so fast the episode would have been half as long! It’s no coincidence that Sky, the only other lone traveller on the bus, is targeted by the entity. Close-ups of each individual talking throughout the episode also emphasise this separation, and the claustrophobic feeling given.

When the entity begins knocking on the bus, Sky gets into the worst state of panic of all of the passengers. She isolates herself from the group physically by moving to the opposite side of the cabin, and convinces herself that she is the target before she’s even possessed, repeating the words “It’s coming for me!”. In moments of anxiety, it’s extremely easy to feel alone in our struggles and isolate ourselves from those here to help. This feeling is being highlighted with Sky’s panic, and isolating herself creates a vulnerability that allows the entity to get inside her.

After her possession, Sky remains physically separate from the others, who hide behind the seats and shine torches in her face. This treatment of her further sets her apart as a ‘thing’, an ‘other’ to be feared. In contrast, the Doctor approaches Sky, purposely referring to her by name, and crouches down to her level to participate in a conversation with her. His dialogue and body language represent an attempt to relate to her, making her feel seen and on the same level as the rest of them. He rejects othering people, whether they be human or alien.

The Doctor converses with a possessed Sky while the other passengers hide behind seats, shining torches at her.
The Doctor converses with a possessed Sky.

Realising the entity must be learning from them by repeating their words, the Doctor backs off, insisting the group moves to the other side of the bus again and refrain from even looking at Sky. It’s assumed that an intentional isolation of the entity will impede its power; by engaging with it, they are feeding it. Dee Dee quotes a Christina Rossetti poem, ‘Goblin Market’, in relation to this:

“We must not look at goblin men,

We must not buy their fruits:

Who knows upon what soil they fed

Their hungry thirsty roots?”

Equating Sky with a ‘goblin’ further others her. This time, Professor Hobbes rejects this sentiment, claiming that “She’s not a goblin, or a monster, she’s just a very sick woman”. He encourages the others to have some empathy with her by focusing on the human form rather than the alien inside. “Sick” refers to Sky’s anxiety, which Jethro suggests is what the entity needed, and “why it got in”. It is fuelled by fear, and fear is exacerbated by isolation.

Sky isn’t the only character that is othered by the group, as the Doctor soon finds himself a target of this too. He implies that their situation will get worse if the entity takes on his form, because he’s “special” and “clever”. Even though he literally is, being a Time Lord and all, the Doctor doesn’t exactly help his case here by isolating himself intellectually from the other passengers. Naturally, they assume he must think they’re “idiots” if he speaks of himself so highly, and thus the contempt against him ignites. Biff says “You’re just standing at the back with the rest of us”, highlighting the Doctor’s unfamiliar sense of vulnerability.

He’s used to having superior knowledge or tools at his disposal to help get himself out of any trouble, but this time is different. In fact, ‘Midnight’ is the first episode where the TARDIS is completely absent since a Fourth Doctor story in 1975. Without a deus ex machina to save the day, the Doctor really is just as useless as the rest of them. But because of his attitude, the others start to question his integrity and detail the ways in which he’s different from them, even going so far as to assume he’s working with Sky.

Once he’s threatened with being thrown out too, the Doctor takes a step back and attempts to rectify the argument by saying to them, “I know you’re scared, so am I […] we have all got to calm down”. Relating to the passengers on an emotional level and grouping them together with collective pronouns diminishes his status as the ‘other’. However, instead of accepting him back, the group are too fired up to stop threatening him. The Doctor reverts back to anger, saying “you all need me”; the return to singular pronouns separates him again.

Shortly after this, the entity selects the Doctor to latch onto. This could be because he’s “the cleverest voice in the room” as he claims, but most likely it’s because he’s the one most isolated next to Sky as a result of being attacked by the rest of the group. The Doctor then physically isolates himself from them by going back to Sky, crouching at eye-level with her again. This is the final nail in the coffin for him, as the entity uses the opportunity to steal his voice and movement so he can no longer defend himself.

The Doctor crouches in the foreground, rendered immobile, while the other passengers stand in the background with their backs to him.
The passengers turn their backs on the Doctor as he is rendered immobile.

Assuming the entity has “transferred” into the Doctor is easy for the group, since their negative feelings towards him at this point have peaked. As shown in the image above, they literally turn their backs on him. His separation is complete, and he now has no chance of escaping. They choose the one person in the bus who is most different from them, and decide to kill him. Dee Dee and the Hostess are wiser than that, however, as they realise the Doctor is not their enemy, but the still-possessed Sky. Ironically, the way in which the other group members isolate Dee Dee and the Hostess by not listening to their protests actually allows the Hostess to gun for Sky, since their attention is directed elsewhere.

While they wait for the rescue crew to arrive, each character is sat silently and separated from one another. The original support bubbles have burst, as we see Dee Dee sat away from Professor Hobbes, and the Cane family all in different areas of the bus. The Doctor is slouched in the aisle, physically at a lower level to the others. Despite surviving together, they are all emotionally isolated from one another due to their divisive behaviour.

Every passenger on the bus sits in separate areas, the Doctor slouched in the aisle.
Every passenger is isolated on the bus.

Mob Mentality

Even before the entity arrives, we see how quickly anxieties rise and escalate out of control; after the bus first breaks down, Professor Hobbes asks about air, which Val overhears and assumes they’re running out of air. This misinterpretation catches on rapidly, and everyone starts panicking, talking over one another and raising their voices. As soon as the Doctor quietens them all enough for Dee Dee to explain that the air is on a circular filter so they aren’t in danger, everyone calms down again. It’s an early example of how fear becomes contagious within the group.

The trigger for full-blown mob mentality in more serious circumstances is the Hostess’ suggestion of “throwing out” Sky when she’s possessed by the entity. A wave of violence ripples through the group, as each character chimes in with agreement and rejects the Doctor’s pacifist protestations. Even Dee Dee, who has been kind and gentle up to this point, encourages the idea by mentioning that the airlock gives enough time to throw someone out, and that it would only kill the physical form (“only” being the operative word). Once the idea is planted, it grows and develops as a result of people’s fear and survival instinct. In his interventions, the Doctor says to them:

“This little bunch of humans, what d’you amount to? Murder? Cos this is where you decide. You decide who you are. Could you actually murder her? Any of you? Really? Or are you better than that?”

After a long, reflective silence, the Hostess says “I’d do it”. Again, this sparks a snowball of emphatic agreements from every other passenger except Professor Hobbes and Jethro, the latter of which is met with his mother’s response of “he’s just a boy”. Despite condoning murder, the group gets whipped up into a forceful frenzy, and any disagreement is invalidated for unnecessary reasons, such as Jethro’s age. 

Shortly after this, the pile-on of doubting the Doctor also begins to similar effect, starting with Professor Hobbes asking “you’re a doctor of what, exactly?”. This causes all the other characters, even Jethro this time, to bring up evidence for the Doctor’s lack of authenticity. Among this tirade of aggression against him, he makes reference to being a “traveller”, to which Val says “like an immigrant?”. Specifically nodding to anti-immigrant violence is a great commentary on the sort of racist mob mentality that is pervasive in Britain.

However, Val is the only character who makes a comment relating to immigrants, even in the heat of a mob, therefore it’s asserted that racism is down to individual responsibility, a vital differentiation to make. Although blanket ideals are highlighted in the episode, it’s important to also acknowledge that not every single passenger shares the same view at all times; as mentioned with Professor Hobbes and Jethro, particular characters disagree with the majority at various points, so personal autonomy isn’t ignored by the narrative. Each individual is still accountable for their own actions, regardless of the dangerous sentiments that the mob may whip up.

The Doctor looks agitated in a close up, while an unfocused Sky crouches in the background.
The Doctor defends himself, Sky ominously mimicking his speech behind him.

The Doctor himself is not immune to the negativity of the mob, however. When he is being targeted by the group, he starts yelling due to his frustration (understandably). It’s only when Biff and the Hostess suggest throwing him out too that the Doctor realises he needs to back off and attempt to stifle the high-running emotions at play. Unfortunately, the mob has become too powerful at this point, and their hostility towards the Doctor doesn’t quell until Sky and the entity have been killed.

In opposition to the Doctor’s genuine empathy and relatability, the entity uses manipulation to appeal to the mob. When Sky can move again, the entity speaks through her with phrases like “help me” and “get me away from him”. Using vulnerability, she gets the passengers to protect her. The majority of them buy into this because it fits their narrative of the Doctor being evil and bad—they constantly crave an enemy to point the finger at to make things easier for themselves. Val and Biff act as dog whistles (politically, this again reflects anti-immigrant or racist tactics) by saying “you saw it, didn’t you?” and “everyone saw it, everyone”. This use of collective language forces each person to take responsibility for the group, which is how mobs or manipulative people back others into a corner so they feel as though they have to keep participating. In for a penny, in for a pound.

As Sky (pretending not to be possessed) says about the Doctor (who she’s claiming is possessed): “That’s how he does it, he makes you fight”. Obviously the entity is referring to its own tactics here, admitting that it is manipulating them to fight, and feeding off of this fear, anger, and hate. It’s also notable that Sky stands to the side and doesn’t physically help to carry the Doctor out, instead repeating words of encouragement in a disturbingly upbeat voice. Dee Dee, the only one alongside the Hostess who objects to killing the Doctor, is powerless to the mob in this moment, as she looks visibly distressed and is literally backed against a wall.

Dee Dee looks severely distressed, holding her hands to the side of her head.
Dee Dee backed against the wall in distress.

Once the entity, along with Sky and the Hostess, is dead and the Doctor has been released, Val interrupts the silence by saying to the Doctor “I said it was her”. Now that the mob has dissolved, Val essentially being the leader of it, she strives to absolve herself of any personal responsibility. But we can see by the look in her eyes, and how quickly she looks away, that she doesn’t truly believe her own words. It’s ironic that she says this to the Doctor, since he was one of the few people who rejected the mob and made a point of highlighting their individual liability to be “better than that”.

Furthermore, the Doctor asks what the Hostess’ name was—as we see in his initial interactions with the possessed Sky (and generally with the other passengers), he always makes an effort to learn people’s names as a sign of respect. In regards to mob mentality, it also emphasises the individual and separates her from the rest, as she did the right thing. The other characters shake their heads and remain silent, Professor Hobbes being the only one to admit “I don’t know”. Anonymity is another aspect of mobs, as it curtails respect for the individuals they have harmed, and deflects accountability.

Essentially, the commentary on mob mentality in ‘Midnight’ is telling us the following message: groups are a safe haven when the focus is protecting and caring for each other, but when their sense of community is based on hate, fear, or anger, it becomes extremely dangerous. The isolated party is always at risk. Though easy to forget, it’s also very worrying that the time between the bus breaking down and the rescue team arriving is only one hour. Getting aggressive and deciding to murder a fellow passenger occurs in even less than this short space of time! It’s truly chilling.

As the Doctor says to Donna at the end, “Let this X-tonic planet keep on turning. In silence”. The way in which humans have turned a perilous planet into a leisure resort clearly shows that they were out of their depth, but so was the Doctor. Usually, the audience experiences the adventures in Doctor Who via the human companion, but the tables are turned in this episode, and we relate to the Doctor’s equal sense of vulnerability and newness to the situation. The fact that we never find out exactly what the entity was is especially terrifying too. ‘Midnight’ is a brilliantly executed yet harsh reminder of how these kinds of situations can bring out any pre-existing ugliness inside the human mind. 

Written by Robin Moon

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