15 Years Later, Doctor Who Returns to Its Scariest Idea
Doctor Who takes a cost-cutting trick and updates it for 2023.
Doctor Who’s second 60th-anniversary special, “Wild Blue Yonder,” was so extraordinary in how ordinary it was. Doctor Who specials, especially anniversary specials, usually go out of their way to pull off huge cameos and shocking twists to celebrate the occasion. “Wild Blue Yonder” took the exact opposite approach, celebrating not how big Doctor Who can get, but how small it can be.
It’s a tribute to an unfortunate reality of Doctor Who’s past: sometimes, the budget gets tight and smaller-scale episodes are needed. However, these “filler” episodes often became some of the most acclaimed — including one that clearly influenced this new special.
The 60th-anniversary specials bring the action back to Season 4, when the Doctor was played by David Tennant and was accompanied by Donna Noble, played by Catherine Tate. Their dynamic is famous within the Doctor Who fandom, so bringing them back for the specials was a no-brainer. But in 2008, they were separated for two episodes filmed at the same time for the sake of money: “Turn Left,” which became an alternate-history adventure centered on Donna, and “Midnight,” one of the scariest episodes of Doctor Who ever. The latter was the best example of Doctor Who on a shoestring budget: just 40 minutes of The Doctor and some strangers with an invisible monster among them.
In the book Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale, which contained the emails of (recently returned) showrunner Russell T. Davies to journalist Benjamin Cook, “Midnight” was meant to be a low-budget filler episode, something many TV nerds call a “bottle episode.” “It’s a show set in a box. That'll help our budgets right now,” he wrote.
The “box” turned out to be an space shuttle taking the Doctor to a sapphire waterfall on a planet with an extonic sun, meaning all living beings are obliterated. But something — an invisible monster — creeps on board and possesses quiet passenger Sky Silvestri (Lesley Sharp.) The remaining passengers have to decide what to do with her while whatever is possessing her slowly grows more powerful.
Invisible monsters to save money is par for the course for this series, but Davies replaced a physical monster with something much creepier. “She has no speech of her own; she just repeats everything. All the time. You know how it drives you mad when people repeat what you say? When kids do it? Imagine that not stopping,” Davies writes. Sky Silvestri repeats every character’s lines, and slowly starts overlapping until she’s saying words at the exact same time.
Davies equates the rest of the trip to a “balloon debate,” where each character has their own take on whether or not they should throw Sky out the plane. The Doctor, who has built his entire identity (or at least his latest identity) on being the fast-talking mastermind, finds Sky so fascinating he slowly gets pulled into a similar possession, taking away the one thing he knows he can always rely on: his voice.
The synchronization of the voices becomes the most haunting element of the episode, proving to be far scarier than any CGI monster could be. The difficulty of the filming, which basically required Lesley Sharp to learn the lines of everyone in the cast, only adds to this, making it a television feat as well as a Twilight-Zone-esque standalone story.
“Wild Blue Yonder” had no budget issues: after all, it’s a special anniversary episode. Massive green screen sets and body horror effects make it one of the most outwardly horrific episodes. But the story takes many notes from Midnight: the monsters are invisible, instead taking on the appearance of the Doctor and Donna and making them doubt the other’s true identity. They learn from the Doctor and Donna thinking, much like the monster in “Midnight” learns from speech.
Most importantly, we never really learn the identity of either monster. Some things defy the knowledge of even the Doctor. But while we may never know the name of the threat, the terror they evoke is unforgettable. An invisible, unknown monster isn’t just a great idea for a cost-cutting villain: it’s one of the best ideas for a villain ever.