Welcome to the “Ruediger-light” episode of this season’s Doctor Who recaps. In a case of life imitating art, Ross was unavailable to tackle this episode, and I was delighted to be asked to fill in for him. As a huge admirer of Catherine Tate’s work on this season I was avidly looking forward to this episode, and it did not disappoint.
Each year the rigors of the production schedule require the Doctor Who team to film two episodes simultaneously. Previously, this resulted in both the Doctor and his companion being largely absent from one episode (“Love & Monsters” in Season Two, “Blink” in Season Three). This year, showrunner Russell T Davies took a different approach, deciding to have separate “Donna-light” and “Doctor-light” episodes. So while David Tennant was spending a week-and-a-half confined to a single set in “Midnight,” Catherine Tate was out filming this sprawling epic, which takes its impetus from a simple question: What if Donna had never met the Doctor?
We open in a busy Chinese-inspired market alley on an alien planet (some brief but lovely CGI), with the Doctor (David Tennant) and Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) at leisure, enjoying the sights and sounds. Donna wanders off, and finds herself passing the booth of a fortune teller (Chipo Chung, who played Chantho in last year’s “Utopia”), who tries to entice her inside. (In a nice piece of subtle foreshadowing, Donna walks toward camera and turns left, away from the fortune teller; when the woman persuades her to come inside she has effectively turned right instead—the wrong decision.)
At first Donna’s not interested; when asked, “Don’t you want to know if you’re going to be happy?” she replies, “I’m happy right now, thanks.” The fortune teller is persistent, and eventually Donna agrees with a laugh. Once inside, though, things get serious. Donna finds herself telling of her past job as a temp at H.C. Clements (cue a quick flashback from “The Runaway Bride”) as the fortune teller probes her memory to discover how she met the “most remarkable” man in her thoughts. And all the while, something unseen chitters and scuttles around behind Donna in the background.
Donna zeroes in on a particular moment, six months before “The Runaway Bride.” We see her sitting in her car at a T-junction, arguing with her nagging mother Sylvia (Jacqueline King). Turning left will take her to H.C. Clements, and eventually to the Doctor. But Sylvia wants her to turn right, to visit a local business she knows which has a permanent job available for a secretary. She derides Donna’s desire to work at the “posh” city firm:
Sylvia: If you turn right, you’ll have a career, not just filling in.
Donna: You think I’m so useless!
Sylvia: Oh I know why you want a job with H.C. Clements, lady. Because you think you’ll meet a man, with lots of money, and your whole life will change. Well let me tell you, sweetheart, city executives don’t need temps, except for practice.
Donna (defiant): Yeah… well, they haven’t met me. (She turns left.)
Back in the fortune teller’s booth, the woman asks Donna, “What if you go right? What if you could still go right?” The chittering creature slowly climbs up Donna’s back as she is somehow frozen in the moment. The fortune teller urges Donna to “make the choice again ... turn right.” And suddenly we’re back in the car with Donna and Sylvia, but now the argument has a different conclusion:
Sylvia: Well let me tell you, sweetheart, city executives don’t need temps, except for practice.
Donna (giving in): Yeah… suppose you’re right. (She turns right.)
Fortune Teller: Turn right, and never meet that man. Turn right, and change the world!
And so the Sliding Doors choice is made, and the escalating chain of consequences begins, as we journey through a very different version of the last two seasons. The genius of this idea is that it allows Davies to keep Donna in the foreground while at the same time telling an epic story that packs the events of half a dozen episodes into one; we already know the necessary background information about all these threats without having to be told.
The Doctor is taken out of the picture straight away. In the new version of “The Runaway Bride,” the Doctor defeats the Racnoss plan but fails to escape from beneath the Thames. Donna sees a UNIT soldier supervising the loading of a covered body into an ambulance. (In a nice continuity touch, this soldier is played by Clive Standen, who was also in the Sontaran two-parter earlier this year.) The sonic screwdriver falls from the body’s hand onto the road.
Soldier: Just didn’t make it out in time. The Doctor is dead. Must have happened too fast for him to regenerate.
Without the Doctor, his former companions and friends have to take up the defense of Earth, and they do succeed—but at a high cost. In “Smith and Jones” it’s now a different Smith who saves the Earth. But this time there is only one survivor, Oliver Morgenstern (Ben Righton), who tells how Martha Jones, Sarah Jane Smith, and (for those who follow The Sarah Jane Adventures) Sarah’s son Luke and his young friends all perished on the moon.
Things go from bad to worse to catastrophic. (Although on the bright side, with the Doctor gone, the Master is left pottering around at the end of the universe, so the whole “Harold Saxon” thread of Season Three disappears.) The spaceship Titanic (“Voyage of the Damned”) falls on London and explodes, creating a massive refugee crisis as southern England is irradiated. The Adipose (“Partners in Crime”) devastate America and prevent it from coming to help. The Sontarans choke the world with their ATMOS devices (“The Sontaran Stratagem”) but are defeated by the Torchwood team (in a moment marred by Sci-Fi channel cuts)—Gwen Cooper and Ianto Jones are dead, and Captain Jack Harkness is taken off to the Sontaran homeworld.
Donna is, at first, oblivious to all this. Catherine Tate gets to give full rein to the shallow, loud, obnoxious Donna we met at the very start of “The Runaway Bride,” and by doing so demonstrates just how far the character has come since then. This Donna can blithely ignore the Royal Hope hospital being dragged off to the moon in favor of packing up her office supplies (“Hole punch ... having that. Stapler ... mine. Toy cactus ... you can have that, Beatrice—catch! Cliff, I’d leave you the mouse mat, but I’m worried you’d cut yourself”). Soon, however, the outside world forces her to take the blinkers off, as she and her family are evacuated to Leeds in the wake of the Titanic disaster. Then there’s the mysterious blonde stranger she keeps running into, who seems to be able to see something on her back…
After all the build-up to the return of Rose (Billie Piper) this year, it feels surprisingly low-key when she does finally show up. This is partly because the episode remains firmly focused on Donna, and also because Rose herself has changed since we last saw her. She seems much harder, more mature and self-confident. In fact, with her brushing aside of questions about her name, easy familiarity with dimension jumping and temporal technology, and propensity to say “Sorry ... I’m so sorry,” she has become rather reminiscent of the Doctor.
Rose is devastated to find the Doctor is dead, but after meeting Donna and realizing “this is wrong; this is so wrong,” she begins following her. Eventually she reveals that the Doctor died because Donna was not there at the key moment in “The Runaway Bride” where she made him leave after causing the genocide of the Racnoss. As Donna said at the end of that episode, “Sometimes I think you need someone to stop you.”
Rose tells Donna that she came to find the Doctor because “there’s something coming ... a darkness, from across the stars” in all universes, not just this one. Donna can’t understand what any of this has to do with her, and refuses when Rose asks her to come with her. Rose tells her that she will agree eventually, but that when she does she has to be certain—because “you’re gonna die…”
In Leeds, Donna and her family are billeted with a large Italian family led by Rocco Colasanto (Joseph Long). Wilf (Bernard Cribbins) soon makes friends with him, but Donna at first finds him annoying. As for Sylvia, she becomes more and more depressed and withdrawn, her nagging of Donna giving way to apathy and resignation.
As the crisis deepens, xenophobia takes hold in Britain, and foreigners like Rocco and his family are moved to “labour camps” (which may or may not signify something darker). As they are being loaded onto a truck, Rocco keeps a smiling face on for Donna’s benefit, but he and Wilf share an unspoken conversation full of pain. (Unfortunately, this sequence was also cut by the Sci-Fi channel; without it, Rocco loses his depth and ends up nothing more than an irritatingly jolly caricature.) Bernard Cribbins is outstanding here (“Labour camps ... that’s what they called ’em before. It’s happening again…”), and Catherine Tate perfectly captures Donna’s dawning realisation of what’s going on.
A really fine moment of direction from Graeme Harper shows the final breakdown of Sylvia’s relationship with her daughter. Sylvia is in the foreground staring into space, unblinking, as Donna comes in behind her. Donna remains an out-of-focus blur in the background:
Donna: I asked about jobs, with the army. They said I wasn’t qualified. (no response) You were right. You said I should have worked harder at school. (no response) Suppose I’ve always been a disappointment.
Sylvia (softly): Yeah.
In a lovely reflection of a scene in “Partners in Crime,” Donna leaves Sylvia and goes off to find her skywatching grandfather. In the earlier episode, Donna was full of hopes for the future and plans for finding the Doctor; here she has only regrets for her life’s failures. Then suddenly, Wilf notices something strange in the sky. For those who’ve read Arthur C. Clarke’s famous short story “The Nine Billion Names of God,” we see a perfect evocation of its memorable final line: “Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.” A cosmic signal of the end of everything; with her old life in ruins, Donna realises it’s time to go with Rose.
The story shifts into action mode, as Rose takes Donna to a warehouse where UNIT are experimenting with a darkened, dying TARDIS (salvaged from the Thames after the Doctor’s death). They’ve worked out enough of the technology to be able to construct a crude time machine, able to send Donna back to the original moment of the creature’s intervention and set it right. With the last vestiges of power from the TARDIS, Donna is transported back to a few minutes before the fateful moment. But she is half a mile away—too far to get to her earlier self in time. In a final twist, she realises the only way is to sacrifice herself, and steps out in front of a truck we saw go past in the opening scenes. As this Donna dies, a traffic jam builds up, preventing the earlier Donna from turning right. She turns left after all.
Back in the fortune teller’s booth, with the proper timeline restored, the creature falls off Donna’s back, dead. The fortune teller flees in terror, with a final portentous line: “You were so strong! What are you? What will you be? What will you BE?!” And the Doctor enters, innocently asking what’s going on, as Donna rushes to hug him in relief.
This episode is, first and foremost, a wonderful showcase for Catherine Tate. She’s in every scene, and demonstrates an incredible range, from broad comedy to moments of high drama and profound emotion. She and Billie Piper work very well together, and any actress who can make me forget about David Tennant for the length of an entire Doctor Who episode is a talent to be reckoned with.
The creature on Donna’s back is the only disappointing aspect of the whole episode. Basically a giant stag beetle, it’s mostly OK when all we see is a leg creeping into shot or a quick glimpse as Donna tries to see it in a mirror. But when it’s seen in its full “glory,” it’s comical rather than scary, looking more like a small backpack with a few spindly legs flopping about. The titular monsters in Jon Pertwee’s “Planet of the Spiders” nearly 35 years ago did a better job, frankly.
Finally, kudos to Russell T Davies for taking a multitude of threads from past stories and weaving them together so expertly you’d think it was all planned from the beginning. And he’s not finished yet…
Because, of course, the episode wasn’t quite over where I left it above. In the memorable epilogue, Donna’s tale of the strange blonde woman she met triggers a note of astonished recognition in the Doctor. In a brilliant piece of acting from David Tennant, a whole complex of emotions—hope for Rose’s return, fear at what it would mean—play across his face as the other shoe finally drops:
The Doctor: What was her name?
Donna: I don’t know.
The Doctor: Donna, what was her name?
Donna (slowly): But she told me ... to warn you. She said ... two words.
The Doctor (urgently): What two words? What were they? What did she say?
A long, long pause. And then…
Donna: Bad Wolf.
Bang! Murray Gold shifts into overdrive with the same adrenaline-pumping music used for the revelation of the Master last year, as the Doctor rushes out and sees BAD WOLF on the banners, the wall posters, everywhere—even on the TARDIS itself.
Donna: Doctor, what is it? What’s Bad Wolf?
The Doctor: It’s the end of the universe!
NEXT WEEK: Strap yourself in for one hell of a rollercoaster ride, as all the threads of the Russell T Davies Whoniverse come together for the first part of the grand finale: “The Stolen Earth.” Just try to avoid seeing the Sci-Fi promos for the episode—they give away a major spoiler.
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: Unfortunately “Planet of the Spiders” is not yet available on DVD, so I’ll go with another story featuring giant insects: “The Ark in Space,” starring Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen and Ian Marter.