Previously: A library full of murdery bits of dust, Donna was saved, and River sacrificed herself for her future with the Doctor.
Kirsti: You guys, I’m really excited to be recapping this episode for one simple reason – this is the first episode of Doctor Who that I ever saw. I’d had friends telling me for years and years that I’d love it, that I had to watch it, that it was amazing. And I’d always been pretty meh about it. But one Saturday night in 2010, I was home alone in Canberra and had nothing to do (because I’m cool like that), and when ABC News finished, Doctor Who started. And I was still pretty meh about it, but was too lazy to get up and put a DVD on, so I watched it. Conveniently, this is one of those episodes like Blink that requires no prior knowledge of the show, so it was basically the perfect starting point.
TL;DR version? This episode is fucking creepy and super great. But I may also be biased because nostalgia.
We start with a shot of a glittering city and some awful muzak playing in the background. Cut to Donna, lying by a pool in a fluffy robe. A bow tie clad man approaches with a ringing phone. She answers with “I said no!“. On the other end, a deliciously scruffy Doctor starts rambling about waterfalls made of sapphires and begging her to go with him on an organised tour that’s about to leave. Donna says it sounds like a school trip and no thank you please, she’ll stay with the fluffy robes and the sunbathing and the cocktails.
Marines: I love this. I don’t know, I just love that Donna seems more okay spending some time away from the Doctor than he seems to be spending time away from her.
The Doctor’s all “Ugh, FINE” and says he’ll be back for dinner and they basically bicker like an old married couple. She tells him to be careful, and he jinxes himself by saying “Taking a big space truck with a bunch of strangers across a diamond planet called Midnight? What could possibly go wrong?”
Good for you, Doctor.
DOO WEE OOO!
After the credits, the Doctor’s in his seat looking excited as the rest of the passengers board. The hostess hands him a bunch of complimentary crap for the trip, including headphones, a modem link, juice, slippers, and peanuts. He continues to be adorably excited and she has a serious case of “dear God, help me survive this trip” face.
Mari: Legit. I was so distracted by having Merlin in the background this whole episode.
K: Totally understandable.
The hostess tells everyone to buckle up and reminds them that if they need to evacuate, they’ll all die because Midnight has no air. Over the intercom, the driver informs them that they need to take a detour because of a rockfall, then they set off on their way.
As they head off, the hostess tells them about their entertainment for the next 4 hours: video clips of what looks like Eurovision songs from the mid-70s, a light based art installation, and Betty Boop cartoons. Simultaneously. Blonde Woman eyerolls and everyone else reaches for their complimentary earplugs. The Doctor sneakily pulls out his sonic and everyone sighs in relief when the system switches off.
The hostess apologises, and the Doctor grins that they’ll just have to talk to each other instead. Everyone else looks about as thrilled as I would.
Mari: I really appreciate that people want to be friendly, but if the people next to me on a plane basically ignore me? I’M IN HEAVEN.
K: Come to Australia, where it’s heavily frowned upon to engage in conversation with strangers on any form of public transportation, including planes.
98 kliks later, Blonde Woman is reading her book (same, girl) while everyone jokes and laughs. Merlin mouths along in “I’ve heard this a thousand times” as his dad tells an anecdote. 150 kliks later, the Doctor’s talking to Dee Dee about how she became Hobbes’ assistant. It involves the Lost Moon of Poosh, which I mention only because it’s relevant later in the season.
209 kliks later, they’re sitting down to their complimentary meal. The Doctor talks to Blonde Woman about how Donna stayed behind. She says that she’s recently single and that her partner needed so much space she fled to another galaxy. Womp. But also, wooooo canonically lesbian characters in children’s television! (M: I’m sure she’ll be perfectly safe this whole episode!) (K: TOTALLY.)
251 kliks later, Professor Hobbes is giving everyone a spiel about Midnight, complete with boring slides and graphs. He tells them that the history is fascinating because there’s nothing alive in the entire system because of the X-tonic sunlight it gets, so it literally has no history prior to the leisure palace being built. No living thing has ever set foot on the planet, not in all of eternity.
“But how do you know? I mean, if no one can go outside…” Merlin asks. His parents eyeroll. Just then, the shuttle stops. Everyone’s all “WTF?” because it’s too soon to be at the sapphire waterfall. The hostess rushes off to ask what’s going on, and Hobbes gets panicky because he’s been on this expedition 14 times. Merlin, meanwhile, gives us this gem which I never fail to laugh at:
The hostess returns, and tells them that it’s totally normal and the driver is just stabilising the engine. The Doctor pulls out his psychic paper, claims to be an engine expert, and heads to the cockpit. Inside, he finds the driver, Joe, and a trainee mechanic, Claude. He waves his psychic paper and claims to be from corporate insurance. He doesn’t fall for their “stabilising the engine” routine, because the engine readouts are fine.
Joe admits that they just stopped and he has no fucking clue why. He’s called for a rescue truck, but it won’t arrive for at least an hour. The Doctor persuades them to put up the shields for a second so they can see the view. They’re the first people ever to see it, because this is a new route the computer planned out to avoid the rockfall. It’s all big pillars of shiny poisonous diamonds, and it’s pretty fabulous. Then Claude freaks because he thinks he sees something running towards them. But the X-tonic light alarm goes off, and Joe closes the shields before Claude can be sure.
Joe orders the Doctor back to his seat and tells him not to say a word to the others. The Doctor reluctantly leaves and is promptly plagued with frantic questions about whether they’re going to die. He yells at everyone to STFU and has Dee Dee inform them that they can’t possibly run out of air. Of course, this means that everyone is heaving quiet sighs of relief when something bangs loudly on the outside of the vehicle.
Everyone freaks, but Hobbes and Dee Dee suggest that it could be the metal cooling or rocks falling. But the banging continues, from different parts of the vehicle, including the doors. Hobbes insists that it’s impossible for anything to be alive out there. AND YET. Merlin’s Dad knocks three times, and whatever’s outside knocks three times in response. This was about the point where I started hiding behind a cushion on my first watch. (M: I don’t like that knocking one bit.)
The hostess shrilly asks everyone to go back to their seats, but Blonde Woman isn’t having a bar of it. She starts yelling that someone needs to stop it and why won’t anyone tell her what it is. The banging moves to the roof and gets faster, and Blonde Woman backs away from the rest of them, shrieking that it’s coming for her. She backs up against the cockpit door and screams.
The hostess hands out torches and Merlin’s Mum fusses over him. But he’s more worried about Blonde Woman. She’s sitting on the floor, surrounded by the mangled remains of the first row of seats, her hands over her head. Merlin’s Mum freaks out, and the Doctor rushes over to Blonde Woman. He assures her that they’re all fine, and that the wall is intact, but she doesn’t move.
The hostess says that the intercom must be down because she can’t get onto the cockpit. She hits the button to open the door, and the cabin is flooded with X-tonic light. Everyone screams and panics, and an alarm sounds until the door shuts again. The cockpit is gone, ripped away. Womp. Bye, Joe and Claude…
Everyone freaks. The Doctor sonics some stuff and says that they’re all safe and that a rescue team is already on the way.
“Doctor, look at her…” Merlin says, pointing his torch at Blonde Woman. She still hasn’t moved. The Doctor asks for a medical kit, then crouches down beside her. The hostess informs him/us that her name is Mrs. Sky Silvestry. The Doctor softly calls her name and asks her to turn around. She doesn’t move. Merlin points out that the banging sound has stopped, and suggests that maybe it’s inside with them, seeing as how it was heading for Sky and all.
The music gets super tense as the Doctor calls her name again. Sky finally lowers her hands and turns around. Her movements are jerky and abrupt, with a weird sense of curiosity. Basically, it’s fucking terrifying and also oddly reminiscent of the velociraptors in Jurassic Park. The Doctor asks if she’s okay, and Sky parrots back everything he says. He asks her to stop, and she just keeps repeating him.
Mari: That game was always 100% annoying and now it’s creepy and annoying so I’m with the Doctor on the stopping thing.
Hobbes asks what she’s doing that, and she starts parroting him as well, then all the others. Everyone freaks out, which is totally legit because it’s terrifying and I was 100% hiding behind a pillow when I first watched this. The Doctor suspects it’s learning or absorbing information and tests her with this: “The square root of pi is 1.772453850905516027298167483341.” And Sky repeats it perfectly.
Suddenly, the lights come back on. Everyone calms down. Sky stops parroting. The hostess says that the rescue will be about an hour away. Hobbes suggests they all calm down and leave Sky alone because she’s clearly hysterical. Merlin points out that she’s gotten even creepier: now she’s not parroting people. She’s saying words at the exact same time they do. Everyone freaks some more. The Doctor suggests they all STFU, then crouches down in front of her.
He starts rattling off words, and Sky says them all at the exact same time, with the same intonation and the same pauses. Words she couldn’t possibly know, things only the Doctor could come out with: “Now then, Sky. Are you Sky? Is Sky still in there? Mrs Silvestry? You know exactly what I’m going to say. How are you doing that? Roast beef. Bananas. The Medusa Cascade. Bang! Rose Tyler, Martha Jones, Donna Noble, Tardis. Shamble bobble dibble dooble. Oh, Doctor, you’re so handsome. Yes, I am, thank you. A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O. First she repeats, then she catches up. What’s the next stage?”
Everyone panics some more over the concept of there being a next stage. The Doctor gets everyone to the back of the vehicle and says they just have to hold on for 50 minutes. He says they should say as little as possible because the more they say, the more Sky learns. Dee Dee quotes Christina Rossetti’s poem, Goblin Market. Hobbes insists that Sky’s not a goblin, she’s just a very sick woman. Merlin suggests that maybe it went for her because she was the most scared. (M: IDK what part of STFU these people are not understanding right now…) (K: SERIOUSLY)
Hobbes insists that nothing can live on the surface of Midnight, and the Doctor snaps “Professor, I’m glad you’ve got an absolute definition of life in the universe, but perhaps the universe has got ideas of its own, hmm?” He insists that it’s their job to help Sky but that he can’t do it because if she’s going to turn into one of them, it can’t be him. The others are all “What, because you’re a special snowflake”, and stupidly he’s all “Actually, yes.”
The hostess suggests that they throw Sky out of the vehicle, because maybe she’s not done with her super creepy murder spree yet. The Doctor snaps that no one is getting thrown out because they can’t open the doors. Dee Dee helpfully says that actually, they can. There’s a difference in pressure and it takes about 6 seconds for the difference to collapse. Which is plenty of time to throw someone out.
The Doctor is not well pleased by this announcement, because Sky could be a completely new lifeform and if her first impression of humans is BIG WITH THE MURDER, it won’t go down too well. Anyone who wants to throw Sky out has to go through him. This is met with hostility from the others, who jump on the “WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU TO BOSS US AROUND?” train. The hostess says he just turned up out of the blue and bought a last minute ticket. Merlin’s Mum says he hasn’t even told them his name.
They all agree that he seems far too gleeful about everything that’s happened. Also that he’s been acting kind of superior and acting like he’s not human. Merlin’s Dad wants to know how he knew what to do with the wiring, and the Doctor yells “BECAUSE I’M CLEVER!“.
Everyone jumps to the immediate conclusion that he’s calling them stupid. It’s a good thing Alexander Hamilton wasn’t on board this shuttle, that’s all I’m saying.
Mari: Also, this idea of the Doctor having too much fun in dire situations is a repeated one. The most recent one I can remember is with Agatha Christie, where we was basically like “yay murder!” and Agatha was having none of it.
K: VERY TRUE. He has a very strong tendency to get super excited about the adventure he’s about to have and forget that people have died in making that adventure happen.
The hostess suggests that maybe they should throw the Doctor out too, if it comes to that. He tells them that his name is John Smith, and they’re all “BITCH, PLEASE. No one is called that.” The Doctor insists that they’re going to need him if they want to get out of this alive, and Hobbes snaps that the Doctor’s been repeating himself more than Sky has.
Just then, Merlin points out that Sky’s stopped speaking along with them. Except that she’s hasn’t. She’s just stopped copying everyone but the Doctor. The Doctor walks towards Sky, who stares at him creepily. He asks why she’s doing this. Everyone else assumes that this is a sign that the two of them are together. The Doctor asks why Sky needs his voice in particular, the cleverest voice in the room, and literally all I can think of is exasperated Aaron Burr in Non-Stop:
“Listen to me. Whatever you want, if it’s life, or form, or consciousness, or voice, you don’t have to steal it. You can find it without hurting anyone. And I’ll help you. That’s a promise. So, what do you think?” the Doctor says. “Do we have a deal?” Sky replies. “Do we have a deal?” the Doctor parrots.
Everyone freaks when they realise Sky’s speaking first now. “Oh. Look at that, I’m ahead of you now,” she says. The Doctor repeats it, eyes wide with panic. Sky says she thinks it’s moved into the Doctor, that it’s letting her go. She apologises for scaring everyone, and says that it was so cold and she’s so glad she can move again. Everyone fusses over her as the Doctor keeps parroting, his eyes filling with tears.
Dee Dee’s not on board with the whole jumped-into-the-Doctor plan, and says they should stay away from Sky. Everyone else disagrees though, despite the fact that Sky is smiling creepily and may as well be twirling a villain moustache. Sky says that they should totally kill the Doctor on account of whatever’s in him killed the driver and the mechanic and now it’s coming for all of them.
Then she consults the Big Book of Villain Gloating, the Doctor parroting each sentence: “He’s waited so long. In the dark. And the cold. And the diamonds. Bodies so hot. With blood. And pain.” The Doctor is paralysed in the background, unable to do anything but copy Sky.
Hobbes yells at Dee Dee to shut up because she’s not an expert in anything, and he can tell she’s nothing more than average. Sky smirks. Dee Dee looks offended. Sky says this is how the Doctor does it – he makes people fight, creeps into their heads and whispers. The Doctor repeats her, terrified and eyes full of tears. Merlin’s Parents immediately believe Sky and start talking about throwing the Doctor out of the vehicle.
“Yes. Throw him out. Get rid of him. Now!” Sky says. The Doctor shakes in terror as he repeats her words. Merlin’s Dad grabs the Doctor and starts dragging him towards the door. The Doctor manages to hook his foot around a seat. Merlin’s Dad demands help from Hobbes, who insists that he can’t. Merlin’s Mum screams at them to do it. Merlin cries but ultimately steps in to help.
Sky continues to encourage them, ending her latest murder rant with “Molto bene. Allons-y.” She stares gleefully at the Doctor as he’s dragged towards the door. “That’s his voice!” the hostess says. She stares between Sky and the Doctor, then makes her decision. “She’s taken his voice!” she yells.
She rushes at Sky, grabs her around the waist, then slams down the emergency release on the door. Everyone screams in the X-tonic light. The hostess and Sky grapple for the six seconds until the pressure inside collapses, and they’re sucked out of the vehicle.
The door slams shut behind them. The Doctor collapses on the floor, suddenly free. “It’s gone. It’s gone,” he says over and over, reassuring himself as he gasps for breath. “I said it was her,” Merlin’s Mum says vindictively. The Doctor gives her “I FUCKING HATE YOU” face.
Twenty minutes later, everyone’s sitting silently, on their own. An announcement informs them that the rescue vehicle will arrive in three minutes. The Doctor stirs. “The hostess. What was her name?” he says. The tinkly orchestra tinkles as they realise that none of them knew.
Cut to the Leisure Palace. Donna silently walks towards the Doctor and wraps him up in a big sigh-of-relief hug. It’s possible I teared up a little. (M: Yep.)
Later, she asks him if he thinks whatever it was is still out there, and he’s silent in response. She says he should tell the powers that be, and he says they should build their damned Leisure Palace somewhere else and leave this planet forever.
Donna tries to lighten the situation by saying that she can’t imagine him without a voice. He gives her a lopsided smile, and says “Molto bene.” “Molto bene,” she replies. He fidgets uncomfortably, and asks her not to do that, clearly still terrified. Fade to black.
I freaking love this episode, you guys. It’s completely self contained, while also being total nightmare fuel. Sadly, it’s almost entirely Donna-less, and having Donna along would have completely defused basically every situation along the way, but OH WELL. David Tennant’s acting was flawless throughout, and Lesley Sharp who plays Sky was both relatable as a human character and FUCKING TERRIFYING as an unknown alien species. It’s also a truly astonishing episode from an acting and production perspective, because while they could add in a lot of Sky’s repeated lines in post-production (an amazing feat in itself), all the stuff with Ten and Sky on screen together had to be done in perfect unison. And it kind of blows my mind.
It’s an episode full of tension and fear – both ours and that of the characters – and it’s an episode where you never actually learn what the monster is, which makes it so much scarier. I mean, there are some episodes that are full of tension and fear. And then you SEE the monster, and it looks like it was made out of a couple of saggy balloons, some random “this will change your life!” gadgets from the prop master’s kitchen, and the contents of a fourteen year old’s make up drawer. Leaving it unknown? A million times scarier than anything the BBC costume department could come up with.
Mari: YES. I love that. Usually, even when the people feels are extra feelsy, the aliens can come in and make things still pretty damn cheesy. I love that this is an off-screen, unknown terror. I think it really highlights the terror of all the people on that train as well. We know that it’s whatever being that’s prodding them on, but it’s still got that air of, “people are crazy. They will turn on you and humans can be terrifying.” I think that is what really made this so much creepier to me.
K: In summary: 10/10, would recommend.
Next time on Doctor Who: Donna’s never met the Doctor and the world has gone to hell in a handbasket in S04 E11 – Turn Left.