“We must not look at goblin men. We must not buy their fruits. Who knows upon what soil they fed Their hungry, thirsty roots?“
This line from the Doctor Who episode Midnight (2008) is taken from Christina Rossetti’s well-known narrative poem Goblin Market, published in 1862. Like Midnight, Goblin Market is not for children, though they all know it anyway.
Various thematic threads from Goblin Market are invoked throughout the episode, as well as a whole host of other literary connotations and mystical images. I mean, just look at the names stated in the first act: “Winter Witch Canyon” and “the Multifaceted Coast”. If that’s not beauty in its purest form…
Ladies, gentlemen, and variations thereupon, please put on your headphones, fasten your seatbelts, and enjoy the journey. It’s going to be a long one.
Jane Campbell has a special name for this – ‘mirror-twinning’. I think that’s the lovely. The theory is, reflection creates a perfect copy of an image, but also reverses it. Look in a mirror at any time and you’ll see yourself, as you are right now, but the other way around. We don’t always notice this, but it’s always there.
Characters can be mirror-twinned. One character can reflect another. But they’re not just imitations – after all, what would be the point then? Instead, what we find is a duality; the characters who are mirrored are also opposites. The oldest example of this in the show is the Earth/Mondas mirror-twinning, where the Earth has a twin planet which is a dark, rotten version of its own. Davies adapted this approach for his laser screwdriver-wielding, paradox-loving Master, a mirror twin of the Doctor.
You can usually spot mirror-twinning in dialogue – words or phrases, repeated or echoed by different characters. Which means that Midnight is… something else entirely. Sky repeats, literally and precisely, every word spoken around her.
But it’s the Doctor who ends up being mirror-twinned the most – with, by my count, three different characters. First is Sky, as they sit together and converse; they’re both lonely travellers, and both glad when the entertainment system switches off and they can talk instead. This twinning plays of later, when by mirroring the Doctor, Sky is able to overcome him, and they directly switch places.
More unsettlingly, though, the Doctor is mirrored with Hobbes. Hobbes is a professor with a young companion, and Davies, seemingly inspired by Rob Shearman’s Deadline, is able to push all the right buttons and turn the Doctor Who story nasty. Hobbes, being a professor, is at an intellectual advantage; like the Doctor, he thinks he’s the most intelligent person in the room, and has his own rigid view of the universe. At one point he tells his companion to be quiet – the Doctor doesn’t want to hear her speak, surely. Hobbes soon finds himself shouting down at his companion and rejecting the strange and alien universe he first seemed to embrace.
He’s even played by a Troughton. We have the very blood of a classic Doctor in a character who silences his female companion and uses his privilege to seem clever. If that’s not bold, I don’t know what is.
The Doctor is even mirrored with Jethro, more subtly. Jethro is the only other character who seems to enjoy the disturbance, glad to have something exciting happen in his life, and is only distressed at the breakdown of the crusader’s passengers, not at the arrival of the Entity. But then, it’s only natural that Jethro and the Doctor would be mirror-twinned: the rebellion and rejection of authority stereotypical of the teenage years is what the Doctor’s about, really, so no wonder Holmes aimed the show at the intelligent fourteen year-old.
(Tangent: isn’t Colin Morgan adorable here? Moving on…)
And then there’s Donna’s pool – still water, the ultimate reflective surface. Intriguing, how Donna is garbed in a white bathrobe, embracing the Sun while the Doctor rejects it. Waste of time for him, really – he ends up stuck on a cruisader with a woman called Sky. Sky and Water, then, hmm. As above, so below?
This is my favourite bit:
HOBBES: Exactly. We look upon this world through glass, safe inside our metal box. Even the Leisure Palace was lowered down from orbit. And here we are now, crossing Midnight, but never touching it.
Midnight is a planet made of pure diamond.
In northern European tradition, the symbol of the diamond is identifiable as the Dagaz rune, Symbol of the Dawn. It represents enlightenment and truth, a connection between the mystical and mundane, and is closely linked to the cycle of rebirth. Nothing at all to do with the premise of Doctor Who, or anything.
In alchemical tradition, the diamond symbol is an amalgamation of the symbols for Earth, Fire, Air, and Water. That’s not the only alchemy here, either, but more on that later. (Remember, in light of this, that Midnight has no air. It’s a vacuum, literally as well as ethically.)
Yet all of it is out of reach – trapped behind glass, which is revealing enough already: humankind is able to reach out and even see perfect union and the prospect of truth, but never attain it; it is antithetical to our very natures. But that’s not it.
You see, glass is a reflective surface, too. You know what happens when you look through your window at midnight with a light on: you see your own face. So, to look at Midnight, the passengers of the crusader must also look into themselves. Considering the surface of midnight is where the Entity came from, is it not telling that all we can really see when we examine that surface are ourselves?
Even just scratching the surface, Goblin Market makes clear allusions to Genesis 3, meaning that Midnight must, too. Rossetti speaks of “the fruit forbidden” and explores themes of temptation and sexual awakening.
In Midnight, too, we see a fall: specifically, a waterfall. This is not quite a reflective surface – waterfalls are not still, but come crashing down, violently, at every moment. The waterfall represents a descent, and descent is what Midnight is all about in the end.
(As the descent begins, if you listen carefully, you can hear Jethro say “666”. I love that little bit – it’s very ambiguous. What does this tell us about Jethro? Perhaps it’s just curiosity – how far can he push Sky, will the words do anything? Or perhaps it’s something else.)
The Doctor is keen to emphasise the waterfall’s qualities: “Sapphire waterfall. It’s a waterfall, made of sapphires”.
The sapphire is a sacred gemstone, ‘the gem of gems’, and occurs as a symbol in almost every religion. It can represent wisdom, royalty, hope, faith, spiritual insight, power, and strength. (In Christianity it’s used in ecclesiastical rings, and was very popular with kings.) All good stuff, then – which is fitting, since the crusader never reaches the waterfall. The thing that the Doctor goes in search of, he never finds. They never finish their journey, falling short of perfection.
This is a recurring theme, now. Humanity cannot reach utopia, even when it is within sight.
One last little note on religion – and again, you’ve got to really pay attention to the language if you want to pick up on this – Hobbes says, when the entertainment system crashes: “Well, that’s a mercy”. It’s only a little line, but I like it, since Hobbes is ultimately the character with the poorest grasp of mercy, in the end.
Heart of Darkness
HOSTESS: I do apologise, ladies and gentlemen, and variations thereupon. We seem to had a failure of the Entertainment System.
“A failure of the entertainment system”. Oh dear, that doesn’t sound good. In fact, it sounds rather like Saturday nights gone wrong – which is really what that precious little bit of dialogue is invoking. Doctor Who suddenly fails to entertain, and a shadow falls over the fictitious world.
Let’s return to the diamond. Diamond has refractive qualities, which is fundamental to any alchemical understandings of it. Therefore, it also represents the spiritual journey to higher understanding; enlightened souls can refract their light, to guide the outer world to enlightenment. The quality of diamonds are the end goal for humankind, which makes it all the more frustrating that the crusader’s passengers can’t touch them.
There is a total count of 7 mentions of eyes, and that doesn’t include Sky’s repetitions. Some of them are very interesting – Val makes the Doctor and Sky’s mirror-twinning explicit, observing that “His eyes are the same as hers”. Eyes also act as a symbol of truth: talking to Sky, the Doctor says “I’d love that to be true, but your eyes, they’re saying something else”. He assumes that the mouth is lying, not the eyes. Val mentions eyes again, in the context of perspective: “I saw it with my own eyes”.
I mentioned in one of my essays on Downtime that the eyes act symbolically as a gateway to the soul, and that’s a concept Moffat later made explicit in the Angel two-parter. Considering this episode is so concerned with the human soul, and how it must fall short of perfection, I find it fascinating that Davies places such emphasis on the eye, and on the terror it instils, as if the human soul is, in fact, a rotten thing.
But hey, alchemists and spiritualists, let’s not get down, because this episode’s called Midnight, which is, of course, a unity of opposites. Midnight is a unitive hour, where night meets day and end meets beginning. To many spiritualists, this duality means that the barrier between the material and spirit worlds is at its weakest.
Lastly, like any good Davies script, Midnight is whole-heartedly grounded in the material, present-day world. The episode is, for starters, a rejection of capitalism, and entrenches itself in a world made up of repetitive, gruelling systems, trapped on autopilot. Hobbes says, terrified: “They don’t stop. Crusader vehicles never stop”. Which is quite telling, I think – a number of vehicles stop, for a number of reasons, but the planet Midnight never sits still. It’s no wonder the humans on the crusader are so terrified by the prospect of having to stop where they are, or even, god forbid, talk to each other.
The allusion to Goblin Market is even more apt for this interpretation, because it’s the popular line of thought among contemporary critics of the poem that Rossetti was warning the listener against the dangers of capitalism in the Victorian era. The whole thing takes place in a dark and ruthless agricultural market with deeply unsettling sexual undertones, after all.
The hostess saves the crusader through an act of self-sacrifice. Salvation had not been possible when each of the passengers were merely serving their own interests, in true capitalist fashion.
The people of midnight have no interest in other cultures, and prefer to keep out what they don’t understand, a powerful twist on the base-under-siege genre. Val says it herself: “She’s different. She’s something else. Do something. Make her stop.” The thing that unsettles Val the most is that Sky is “different”. It’s a fear of the unknown at its most repugnantly xenophobic, which is why you’ve got to appreciate Davies’ choice to make all the passengers human. Revealing, then, how the next person they turn on is the Doctor – the other “alien” on board.
Midnight should be a place of reflection, of contemplation. It should be a spiritual journey and a self-awakening. Instead, it’s just another money-making opportunity, a cheap tourist spot, a place for surface pleasures. No wonder when they finally do sit still, they don’t like what they see.
In the end it’s Donna who does sit still, contemplating the Sun in her angelic, white robes, and who offers the Doctor comfort rather than rejection, who listens rather than interrupts, who chooses regret over fear. And it’s Donna who mirror-twins the Doctor one last time – “molto bene”, she says, but the Doctor doesn’t like it. He’s looked at too many reflections of himself today – and he hasn’t liked what he’s seen.