We have had an interesting eleven years since Doctor Who came to a premature end with The Runaway Bride. Big Finish have of course gone from strength to strength, but we have also had the very successful range of New Tenth Doctor Adventures novels, with the Doctor picking Martha back up to resume their travels, and on television the 50th Anniversary charity special, The Ten Doctors, with all the surviving Doctors except Tom Baker and Christopher Eccleston (with David Tennant appearing only in an opening sequence, sat in a triangle while the other Doctors’ CGI heads whizzed around him). Finally we had a 2017 ill-fated Australian co-produced pilot episode, starring Eleventh Doctor Paul Hogan. And who could forget the protest charity single:
Bring the Doctor back!
Martha, Rose and Captain Jack!
We’re not going to wait!
Let’s not end with Catherine Tate!
OK, so luckily none of this happened, but on television we had Turn Left, which imagined a world where Doctor Who came to an end after The Runaway Bride. How would the world cope without the Doctor? We know how important the Doctor is. Without him things get very bad, very quickly, but that’s not quite what Turn Left is about. Instead it shows us how important his companions are. Those who travel in the TARDIS are a team, and the Doctor is as weak without his friends as his friends are without him. The episode hinges on one key moment in The Runaway Bride, when the Doctor would have died without the help of Donna. Devastated from the loss of Rose, he was out of control and needed somebody to bring him back from the brink.
It is fascinating to see Russell T. Davies’s concept of what would have happened without the Doctor. The Royal Hope Hospital is returned to Earth but with only one survivor, and the loss of Martha Jones, plus Sarah Jane and her friends. Torchwood prove themselves every bit as resourceful as the Doctor by burning off the Atmos gas, but again there is a cost. Gwen and Ianto are killed, and Jack (who cannot die) is taken off to Sontar. Of course we would like to think that other previous companions were working behind the scenes to deal with alien invasions, but it was of course the correct decision not to include anything like that, which would have confused the average viewer. Our imaginations (and maybe some Doctor Who fiction one day) can fill in the gaps there. In an important piece of foreshadowing, the wider world of Doctor Who and its spinoffs are embraced here, and that is much more important than looking deeper into the past at this stage.
Turn Left is a very emotional episode, and quite an adult one. It is not every episode of Doctor Who that features the death of the Doctor and several of his companions and the suicide of another – this is Doctor Who where none of the usual rules apply. And the slow death of the TARDIS is almost the saddest thing of all. There are some incredibly powerful moments: Jacqueline King is amazing as Sylvia: there is a moment where the camera focus remains on her face while Donna is talking, and you can tell that she has just given up. Another haunting moment comes when immigrants are being taken away to labour camps as old soldier Wilf fights back the tears: ‘it’s happening again.’ How brave for a family drama to tackle such powerful themes, shining a torch into the darkest corners of human nature. All of this exists in sharp contrast to Donna, who is back to being her pre- Partners in Crime version, without the character development from travelling with the Doctor. Thrown into a world of fascism and horror she is a square peg in a round hole, a comedy character with the comedy removed. She is a disappointment to her mother because she has not had the opportunity to become a better person, without the help of the Doctor. And yet she still manages to reach a point of being the hero, even without his influence, suggesting that there is something special about her, or perhaps she has a spark of brilliance that exists in most people.
This is an episode that relies on the quality of the acting to sell the drama. Catherine Tate, Jacqueline King and Bernard Cribbins are nothing short of perfect here. The same unfortunately cannot be said of Billie Piper, who makes a disappointing return to Doctor Who. There are three problems with her performance: firstly she seems to be struggling with a new set of teeth; secondly she mumbles all the time; and thirdly she doesn’t quite remember how to play Rose, with more of an impersonation of her original performance than a recreation of it. But the script is calling on her to be not-quite-Rose anyway. She is very far from the role she played when she was travelling with the Doctor, more akin to her Bad Wolf superbeing self, in that she is called upon to be the mysterious Doctorish figure who has all the answers, a kind of guardian angel to Donna. Her solution to the problem is a circle of mirrors, fitting squarely within the mythical world she now hails from. This links back to a tradition of Doctor Who using a magical version of science: the symbolic power of a mirror was also evoked in The Evil of the Daleks and Kinda.
But there is a problem with all this. There is an amazing human story buried here, where Donna chooses to sacrifice herself for a better world, seeing the horrors of fascist Britain in a post-Doctor world. But guardian angel, superbeing, dimension-crossing mythical Rose with her magic mirrors turns the story into something different, and instead Donna makes her sacrifice in response to something all epic and fantasy and magical: the stars going out. Note that this is something that is resolutely unscientific: due to the time taken for light to travel across space, even if the destruction of stars happened in the past the differences in the distances between us and them would create gaps of many years between us actually seeing those moments. And if they were being somehow erased from existence from all of eternity then there would be no moment of them “going out”. I love that kind of thing. It is absolutely right for Doctor Who to reject the boring constraints of what makes scientific sense. But to do so takes Doctor Who into the realms of magic (and frequently does). This is a fascinating clash with the human drama of fascist Britain, but ultimately the magic wins and the plot is skewed to a place that doesn’t grow out of Donna’s very human story. So for once a genre clash is to the detriment of the story, albeit within an episode that still manages to be one of the all-time greats. The Bad Wolf is back. RP
The view from across the pond:
Somewhere around 25 years ago, I was driving on a major road in Staten Island called Hylan Blvd. It had been snowing, there was terrible glare, and visibility was bad. My girlfriend of the time sat next to me, and my best friend was lying down on the backseat with a terrible earache. We were heading for his house. I could turn right on The Woods of Arden Rd or go a little further, and turn on Barclay. Barclay seemed to be a little more direct and would keep me on the main road longer. It was the wrong choice. By the time I saw the mound of ice piled into the road by the township, I was already on a sheet of it. The signs had been previously knocked over and covered by ice too. There was no way to avoid it. Thankfully the damage was minor in the grand scheme but to this day I deal with neck pain from that accident. I had often wondered if that right turn would have made a difference? I’d be a little wealthier, having no need to pay a chiropractor or the tow truck company or the car repair company, but I don’t think it would have affected that much in my life otherwise. I wonder what that parallel version of me got up to? Perhaps he had a bigger accident on The Woods of Arden and I actually got the better result? Let’s go with that!
Parallel universes are awe-inspiring and terrifying all at once. Technically every decision we make spawns a new one. Which is pretty theoretical and strange; there’d be so many alternate universes it would be impossible to count. Thinking about my own typing on this blog, every backspace and change represents an alternate world where I didn’t make a backspace or a change. That’s preposterous, right? Different combinations occur with every decision. Sometimes, like combining vinegar and baking soda, a combination occurs that could be catastrophic.
Ironically Donna Noble gets to find out about that when she is asked to choose which way to go: turn right or Turn Left? This episode offers a marvelous and inspired choice to help wrap up David Tennant’s fourth season as the Doctor. We rarely get the other side of events and since the show returned in 2005, we’ve been forced to look at the Doctor as the guy who creates a wave of destruction and then walks away. The fact is, while his involvement typically sees people die, Turn Left shows us that the alternative is far worse. Beyond a doubt, he is saving more people than not by being involved. Moreover, it’s pretty clear that having the Doctor alive means Davros won’t detonate the reality bomb and the universe continues past 2009 (in fact, we know it makes it to something like 100 Trillion) which could not have happened had the Doctor died! The universe is definitely a better place with the Doctor in it. (True of the TV show as well!)
But the big questions I have to ask are these: the Trickster (first introduced in The Sarah Jane Adventures in a similar style story, Whatever happened to Sarah Jane?) seems to be able to create parallel timelines with relative ease. Yet, when the Doctor is shot at Lake Silencio during The Impossible Astronaut, it seems to create a distorted timeline where pterodactyls exist alongside Winston Churchill. How does that work exactly? It seems like the Trickster is the one really tampering with things while the other is almost natural. And where are the “reapers” from Father’s Day to cauterize the wound? (Ironic really; Rose was present for two alternate time lines and there are different results for each. In one, she’s stuck in a bubble at a church with her father. In the other, all of the planet earth is devastated… Even Einstein and Hawking couldn’t put logic to this universe!)
The resolution is wonderful because it shows the indomitable human spirit that our Fourth Doctor loved so much. Rose sends Donna back to a point where she can make a difference and against the odds, she does. The scene is enhanced by some terrific music. Donna looks every bit the hero and, through the use of mirrors as a crude time travel device (thanks Daleks; the idea worked), she’s able to save the world and get that thing off her back! A truly incredible episode and it’s a Doctor-Lite one to boot!
The only lingering comment I have is this: when Petrus Dextrus said “There is something on your back”, am I the only one who thought the Eight Legs were returning? If I’m completely honest, I’m glad it wasn’t them. Parallel universes are scary enough without adding Spiders to the mix! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Journey’s End