Monday, 4 August 2014

Doctor Where?

Doctor Who
Turn Left
Series Four, Episode Eleven

Riddle me this: what would Doctor Who be like without the Doctor?  Literally, if the plots happened and he wasn't in them?  It's a mind-bending conundrum which could go in any number of directions...

Wait, what?  What do you mean, "I already know what Doctor Who would be like without the Doctor"?  Gosh, you must be some kind of telepathic mega-genius!  Wait, what?  What do you mean, "Each episode would just play out exactly as it was going to before the Doctor arrived, only instead of him preventing a thing, the thing would happen, obviously"?

Above: every episode ever, minus the Doctor.
When Donna's past is changed so that she never met the Doctor, it results in his death.  This leads to global disaster on a regular basis.  All of which is novel in a morbid parallel world kind of way, but it's still not exactly eye-opening to point out that, instead of the Doctor steering the Titanic away from Earth, no one steered it away so it crashed.  What did you expect it to do?  Of course there would be death and destruction if he wasn't here – that's why he's here!

It seems to me the point of stories like this, such as Buffy The Vampire Slayer's "The Wish" (which probably inspired it), isn't just to show us the world going to hell.  It's to examine how the characters change under different circumstances.  What would they become?  Would they still be friends, or even good people?  Just how much do they really need each other?  It's another way of examining familiar things.  That doesn't really happen here, apart from Donna's mum becoming extra venomous and unsupportive – and judging from the bafflingly acidic car scene at the beginning, she's already there.  Donna previously had the choice of not travelling with the Doctor, and we know she regretted it (that's why she came back in Partners In Crime), so it's hardly a newsflash that she's miserable without him.  This is really just about plot elements crashing and exploding instead of not doing that, with people either dying or being very sad about it.  We don't learn or explore much during any of it, let alone worry, because any sentient being knows the only place this plot can go is The Land Of Reset.

Still, Turn Left does make us appreciate the Doctor, although it really, really rubs it in.  When the Juddoon kidnap Martha's hospital, all but one of its occupants dies, including Martha, Sarah Jane and Sarah's friends.  Then the Titanic nukes the south of England.  (Although wasn't it supposed to wipe out the human race?)  Next, the Adipose kill 60 million Americans.  (Although they had no intention of doing that, and possibly only killed anyone because of the Doctor and Donna.)  And the Sontarans get wiped out, but they take Torchwood with them.  (So, every cloud?)  Eventually this means millions of English people displaced in the north, and – oh, why the hell not? – the army starts rounding up foreigners and sending them to labour camps.  What next?  Well, now that you mention it, the stars are going out.  (What, at the same time?  What about the speed of light?  Some of them must have "gone out" millions of years ago!)

By the end of the episode, yes, we get it, everything stinks, please bring him back now.  But Turn Left isn't just about how great the Doctor is and how screwed we are if he ever goes on holiday.  It's mainly about Donna, and how important she is to the Doctor – which, three companions in, may take some explaining.  We get some idea of his need for a companion in most episodes.  Take Midnight: flying solo, the Doctor was about as useful as a toilet roll raincoat.  But that doesn't speak to Donna, specifically.  This week, with a little help from Rose Tyler, UNIT and the TARDIS (aww), Donna saves the world.  However, just like those listed in the last paragraph, it requires 100% more getting killed than when the Doctor does it.  Which is a fairly broad way to underline how great he is, and it doesn't quite nail down The Donna Factor, if there is one.

On the plus side, no Doctor = no Master, and no Series 3 finale.
Leave it, Donna!  It's fine how it is!
There are lots of dark hints about how important she's going to be, but for now, the only way to make her previous self turn left (and meet the Doctor, etc.) is to throw herself in front of a lorry.  (Perhaps they could have worked out a better plan in advance, but sadly they're in too much of a hurry.  Still time for a coffee, though.)  Not to take anything away from her sacrifice, but couldn't anyone go back in time and do that?  It's not as if Donna is the only one who'd like to change the world.  Maybe it needs to be her specifically, and that's the only way to shake the time-beetle off her back?  They don't say, though.  Shrug.

Slightly muddled as Donna's journey may be, the whole episode revolves around Catherine Tate, and she doesn't disappoint.  She's reliably caustic and hilarious during her unemployment woes ("Well, isn't that wizard!"), gently childlike around Wilf (who's brilliant as ever), witheringly miserable around her horrible mum, and otherwise unstoppably argumentative.  She has a real tour de force moment at the end, as she is sent on her way and celebrates the fact that she won't have to die to save the world, then realises she will.  (Her "death" still doesn't amount to much, as we know they're going to rewrite the whole shebang anyway, thus erasing "this" Donna.)  Billie Piper plays the scene well, communicating this complicated piece of bad news with a look.

Of course, Rose is here as well, but she's not quite her usual self.  That's all to the good: she's more of a Doctor stand-in, all technobabble and not-telling-anyone-her-name, which is a neat (if again, broad) example of people stepping up when the Doctor is no longer around.  (It's not due to his death, however, so it doesn't really count as one of those Buffy, alternate-reality-character-developy things.)  I've no idea where her see-the-future abilities are coming from, but then, we don't know how she gets between universes all of a sudden either.  Maybe they'll explain it later.  (Audience laughter.)

Rose is mostly here to set up the finale, which is largely what this episode amounts to: a stock-take of prior Doctor Who events, plus the implication that it's all leading somewhere bigger and worse; Donna's a part of it, and she needs to get there.  Even Donna's "importance" is largely an advert for next week's episode.  But Russell T Davies knows how to build excitement, and the bludgeoning awfulness of the non-Doctor world, along with Donna's increasing need to do something about it, gives the episode a momentum separate from the finale stuff.  Despite the connections, Turn Left is its own story, hence its own review.  (You hear me, Utopia?)

It's all a bit obvious.  Well, it's all a lot obvious.  (Labour camps?)  But overall, it's like Wilf telling Donna she can't fix the world just by shouting at it.  She may not be able to fix the episode, either – but she can try.

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