Before I analyse, let me say this: that was absolutely spectacular.
I have to say that first simply because for the last 20 minutes I was absolutely riveted by the action on screen and I found myself near the point of crying out at the tv for Noble Donna to do what needed to be done.
This is the Doctor-lite story we are promised every year; the gruelling filming schedule for this series, which revolves almost entirely around David Tennant, is constructed in such a way that the man is given some time off, and instead, for one episode, he only makes fleeting appearances.
Previous versions of this Doctor-lite episode have resulted in strongly mixed reactions; but RTD’s masterstroke with this story is two-fold. In so many respects this story is entirely about the Doctor, or perhaps better put, the lack of him. And secondly it features Donna Noble as the main character.
Yes, I know Billie Piper returned as Rose Tyler, but she is a guest character here. This is Donna’s story. This is Catherine Tate’s episode.
It starts reasonably enough on some far-flung alien planet that bears more than a passing resemblance to China town across Earth. While the Doctor and Donna goof around, Donna finds herself agreeing to have her fortune told by a mysterious woman inside a tent, who then insists that as she determines the future, Donna describes her past. Specifically, how she came to meet a most “˜remarkable man’. Cue the flashbacks to “˜The Runaway Bride.’ Except it’s not that simple”¦ the woman forces Donna to look back further”¦ what was it that led her to that day under the Thames”¦ one moment, one choice.
Donna finds it. Before she started her temping job at HC Clements, her mother was trying to persuade to take a job closer to home and whilst driving into town, she had a choice. Turn left for HC Clements. Turn right for job close to home.
Turn left. Turn right.
We know which Donna chose and where it led her. This episode is about, quite literally, the road not taken.
From inside this tent a strange creature scuttles out and latches itself onto Donna’s back and in that moment, Donna chooses to go right.
As of this moment on, we are no longer with the Noble Donna we have followed for so long. This is the Donna from “˜The Runaway Bride’ that never met the Doctor, and never will.
She doesn’t join HC Clements and so on that fateful Christmas Eve when Perfect Ten first met Donna, instead, as Donna sits in the pub and watches a Christmas Star float overhead, when he goes after the Empress of the Racnoss, there is no one there to tell him to stop. To leave as the flooding continues.
And he dies.
From this moment on, every single thing spirals out of control. Remember the hospital being beamed to the moon with Martha and co inside? There’s no Doctor to save them this time and we’re told in no uncertain times that Martha dies. Heroically at least as a there’s a guest appearance from another trainee Doctor in that episode who tells how she gave the last oxygen tank to him. But run through that episode in your head. If the Doctor wasn’t there, then who is going to stop the MRI machine from exploding and killing everyone on Earth?
Step up please Ms. Sarah-Jane Smith.
Remember the Titanic almost crashing into Buckingham Palace? Sorry. Without the Doctor around, that’s inevitable.
Big explosion. London’s destroyed.
The Sontarans with the ATMOS devices? Good news! Torchwood step up! Name check Ianto, Gwen, Captain Jack”¦ they save the day. But they all die.
As Rose comments”¦ there’s no one left.
I have to wonder if RTD has indeed had all of this in the running for a long time, because what he does here is tie pretty much every single major event from “˜The Runaway Bride’ into one cohesive story. Or if this all can just be conveniently brushed into one story”¦
Quite frankly, it doesn’t matter. It’s just a brilliant way of telling us and indeed showing us how important the Doctor is. Remember those stories Martha told the whole world in that missing year of the Master’s reign? How the Doctor saved us so many times? This is one of those stories without him around”¦
Throughout all of this, as all of these events are mostly mentioned rather than experienced, we see the repercussions of these events through the eyes of one Donna Noble. With the Christmas Star and the emptying of the Thames, Donna loses her job because her employer cannot afford to keep her on. With the Titanic crashing into London, she and her family are saved because they won a raffle that gave them a weekend away. Having lost their home, they are forced to relocate to Leeds and move into a house already filled with other families”¦
On and on the story spirals downhill as the world literally falls apart. Donna and her family become, in essence, refugees in their own country; downtrodden, beat and without hope.
I can’t paint how bleak the picture really looks here in just words. The episode does a fine job of showing how bad things get on its own, even if most of it is through suggestion. We are only given a few glimpses into the life of Donna over what must be almost two years after the moment where she turned right.
But then, for us as the viewer, there is hope. Every now and again, Rose Tyler appears. Always around Donna. Always looking for Donna. Knowing Donna. Telling her to leave town when she has to. Rose Tyler is a harbinger of hope in this episode.
It’s not exactly the gung ho slam bam bang bang bang return most people were probably expecting; this is a much quiet return. She acts a guide of sorts. Donna is completely oblivious to how different her life is in this reality, how much less than it could be. It’s Rose who has to convince her of what needs to be done.
And most importantly that Noble Donna is the single most important woman in the entire multiverse.
Without her, the Doctor dies. If the Doctor dies, all the universes will die. These are the stakes.
Donna has to turn left.
I’m not going to pretend everything doesn’t reset back to the way it was in the end. Of course it does. This is an alternate reality story after all! It’s the repercussions of this story that have to matter and what it shows us about the characters.
This episode is in many ways a return to the Donna of old; the loud brassy young woman who didn’t think deeply about more than what the new flavour of Pringle was going to be. Here, in this new reality, she is forced to grow but in a new direction. It’s fun at first to see the old Donna shining through, how effortlessly Catherine Tate returns to her. But as hardship after hardship is thrown upon her and her family, Donna begins to soften, to tone down, to become more thoughtful and insightful, more fearful and confused.
Catherine Tate nails this. If there is anyone after this episode that claims that the woman cannot act, I challenge them to watch this episode. Watch the moment where Donna accepts her fate. Watch the moments just before Donna goes back in time to ensure she turns left. The moment when she finally sees what’s really on her back. The moment when she twigs exactly what might be about to happen to her newfound friends being taken to a “˜labour camp'”¦ and tell me she cannot act. Tell me you didn’t feel anything.
Rose Tyler. She’s back. But don’t go thinking this is the same old Rose. She seems to have adopted a somewhat Doctor-like nature here. She takes charge of UNIT in this alternate reality of Donna’s. She guides and mentors. She pushes. But the final twist here is that she wanted to get the Doctor back, but only towards the end does she realise that it’s more than just having the Doctor back. Both Donna and the Doctor are needed to face whatever is coming. They compliment each other. And then we’re given the real final twist; as Donna awaits her fate, to be sent back in time to ensure this reality never comes to pass, she cries out in happiness how she’s going to make the world better, to ensure she gets to travel with the Doctor and everything will be ok.
And Rose can’t smile. Almost can’t meet her eyes. And that’s when Donna’s jubilation turns into panic. And all Rose can say is “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
See, this version of Donna will never get to meet the Doctor. She’s only going to be a memory, because in order to make sure the universe is put to rights, this Donna ensures that her past self doesn’t turn right, by stepping in front of a oncoming van, getting hit, and causing a traffic jam that convinces past Donna to go left.
The alternate version of Donna dies as Rose tenderly steps over to her and whispers two words into her ear.
And with a snap, we’re back to the reality we’re used to. The fortuneteller cowers in fear at the power that resonates within Donna, and then the Doctor bounds into the room all smiles.
Together, they sit and work out what happened. Perfect Ten name drops the creature that caused of all this, earlier identified by Rose as some sort of temporal bug that feeds on alternate possibilities, as belonging to that of the Tricksters’ sort.
The Trickster is an enemy from the tv series “The Sarah Jane Adventures” that caused chaos by ensuring Sarah-Jane’s death as a child, and that meant the world was going to end, and while Sarah-Jane existed in limbo, he threatened to go after the Doctor in near glee at the thought of the kind of chaos it could cause”¦ I always thought he would be a good villain to transplant into the parent show!
In fact, I think it’s a damned shame this creature is what we got instead of the actual Trickster himself. There was a point halfway through the episode where I feared we were going to get a mental battle between Donna and temporal bug latched onto her back as both fight for dominance over Donna’s decisions. We were spared this, but in the end, the villain here is given no personality. The Tricksters’ appearance here would have been very welcome and given RTD a great opportunity to flesh out his origins, and it would have taken nothing away from the story being told.
In the end, this isn’t the most amazing 45 minutes of viewing. I’m a fan of the series. Unashamedly. I got the most out of this episode because I could follow every single mention, every single name being dropped, and because I wanted to see a good strong story being told.
The writing here is ok. It’s not brilliant. It’s a strong script, but there’s nothing particularly remarkable about it. In particular I don’t like how Rose is portrayed as almost omniscient here. Before, it’s always been suggested that Rose is simply travelling across universes, not through time, but she has distinct knowledge of future events in this alternate reality, and that suggests time travel. Which she then later claims she’s not even sure will work when they attempt to send Donna back through time!
There are some brilliant performances here. Bernard Cribbins as the grandfather and Jacqueline King as Donna’s mother in particular give some scene stealing turns. Whether it’s Wilf watching in horror as the Italian family they live with are sent away for not being of pure British descent, or Sylvia’s descent from meddling mother to a mere introverted and near silent shell of herself, we are constantly reminded of the humanity in the heart of these stories. The pain and loss that is being affected.
This episode isn’t just dark, at points it is just downright depressing. To call it an uneven mix would be unfair because the story it needs to tell is affecting. We need to be shown the stakes to believe in how big this upcoming story is going to be. The other season finales have attempted to tell similar stories, but quite frankly, I don’t think I’ve been this invested in a companion’s fate before. Somehow, this entire season has been one heck of a build up to the eventual doomed friendship between Perfect Ten and Noble Donna.
In some ways, this episode epitomizes that.
The first 20 minutes is set up as we get drawn into the action in an attempt to understand and absorb everything that’s coming at us, the second 20 minutes is the countdown to restoring and the pace is just beautifully set to make us want to see it happen, and the last 5 minutes it the set up for the next two episodes”¦
See, as Perfect Ten and Noble Donna chat though, she starts to recall facts about this world. Mostly though how there was this woman, a blonde haired woman. The Doctor insists on a name, but Donna never found that out”¦ she was just told two words:
While writing these last few episodes, RTD must have been in some kind of ultra fan boy mode, because the trailer promises quite simply the most chocker filled episode of nuWho yet.
I’m scared. I’m frightened. I’m exhilarated. I’m ready.
3 and a half Bad Wolfs out of 5.