Donna the Conscience

donnaCompanion Tropes 12

The Doctor is a hero, and sometimes a hero can be too busy fighting the monsters and being generally magnificent to stop and think about the moral implications of his actions.  He can start thinking he knows best about everything.  His moral compass can start to point in the wrong direction and he needs somebody to set him back on the right path and burst the bubble of his hubris.  This is a very common plot development in sci-fi and fantasy in particular, and the final couple of years of the Tenth Doctor era explored the theme in detail, as the Doctor headed towards the end of his life.  The character who sets the hubristic hero back on the right path can be termed the Conscience, and the Doctor’s Consience is a temp from Chiswick named Donna Noble.  Eventually she will be Donna Temple-Noble:

Donna: from the Latin domina, meaning “lady“.
Temple: from the Latin templum, which itself is derived from the prefix temp- meaning “stretched”, due to the cleared space on the altar.  Sharing the same root, and stretching away from us in both directions is tempus: “time“.  And of course Donna is a “temp”.
Noble: from the Latin nobilis: “high born”.  A noble is from the nobility, a lord.

Donna is a parallel character to the Doctor, and eventually that is quite literal.  Her surname, while an enjoyable pun, is misleading.  She isn’t “high born” like the Doctor, born into his life as a Time Lord.  She earns that right, and perhaps that gives her a perspective that the Doctor lacks.  We first encounter Donna in the Christmas Special The Runaway Bride.  This happens:

EMPRESS: No! No! My children! No! My children! My children!
DONNA: Doctor! You can stop now!

The Doctor, having just lost Rose, is wracked with grief and he doesn’t know when to stop.  He is like a warrior who has dealt his enemy a fatal blow but stands over the body delivering sword thrust after sword thrust to the corpse.  He needs Donna the Conscience to make him stop.  Eventually in Turn Left we discover the significance of this moment.  Had Donna not stepped in to stop him, the Doctor would have died along with his enemy.  At the end of The Runaway Bride, Donna realises that the Doctor on his own is a dangerous thing:

DONNA: Just promise me one thing. Find someone.
DOCTOR: I don’t need anyone.
DONNA: Yes, you do. Because sometimes, I think you need someone to stop you.

They are wise words, that will echo into the future of the series.  When the Doctor meets Donna again in Partners in Crime, she refers back to The Runaway Bride and notices an improvement in him, because he has not been travelling alone:

DONNA: What you going to do then? Blow them up?
DOCTOR: They’re just children. They can’t help where they come from.
DONNA: Oh, that makes a change from last time. That Martha must’ve done you good.

In a way it is part of the role of any companion to be the Conscience, and that goes right back to the Doctor trying to bash in a caveman’s head in the first ever Doctor Who story, but it is the character of Donna who really goes big with the theme.  Perhaps the best example is in The Fires of Pompeii.  The Doctor feels that his hands are tied by the course that history has to take.  He can’t save everyone this time.  It takes Donna the Conscience to make him realise that he doesn’t have to save everyone.  He can just save somebody.

DONNA: Just someone. Please. Not the whole town. Just save someone.

In Planet of the Ood the Doctor explains about the Ood to Donna.  While he seems to accept the society based on slavery as just the way things work, although discomforted by it, Donna is determined to dig a little deeper, refusing to accept that it can simply be the natural order of things, that the Ood can be happy as slaves:

DONNA: Yeah. What I mean is, are there any free Ood? Are there Ood running wild somewhere, like wildebeest.
OOD: All Ood are born to serve. Otherwise, we would die.
DONNA: But you can’t have started like that.

Then, when the Doctor uses the issue as an excuse to have a dig at human morality, which is little more than a straw man argument, Donna calls him out on it:

DONNA: A great big empire built on slavery.
DOCTOR: It’s not so different from your time.
DONNA: Oi. I haven’t got slaves.
DOCTOR: Who do you think made your clothes?
DONNA: Is that why you travel round with a human at your side? It’s not so you can show them the wonders of the universe, it’s so you can take cheap shots?
DOCTOR: Sorry.

There aren’t many companions who can burst the bubble of the Doctor’s know-it-all attitude like that, and receive an apology from him.  In The Sontaran Stratagem Donna questions the influence the Doctor has on his companions.  She is a little older than Rose or Martha, so perhaps she sees younger, more impressionable minds being set on the wrong path in life:

MARTHA: B section mobilised. E section, F section, on my command.
DONNA: Is that what you did to her? Turned her into a soldier?

In The Doctor’s Daughter, Donna is quick to identify another problem.  It has a similar root cause to The Runaway Bride: grief.  The Doctor’s grief in The Runaway Bride was making him go too far.  In The Doctor’s Daughter it is holding him back, stopping him from committing emotionally to his daughter.  She gets the Doctor to listen to her hearts, to recognise the connection between them, and later this happens:

DOCTOR: Donna, I’ve been a father before.
DONNA: What?
DOCTOR: I lost all that a long time ago, along with everything else.
DONNA: I’m sorry. I didn’t know. Why didn’t you tell me? You talk all the time, but you don’t say anything.
DOCTOR: I know. I’m just. When I look at her now, I can see them. The hole they left, all the pain that filled it. I just don’t know if I can face that every day.
DONNA: It won’t stay like that. She’ll help you. We both will.
DOCTOR: But when they died, that part of me died with them. It’ll never come back. Not now.
DONNA: I tell you something, Doctor. Something I’ve never told you before. I think you’re wrong.

That’s the function of the Conscience, to challenge the assumptions of the hero.  She also sees behind the mask, when the Doctor is hiding his true emotions at the end of Forest of the Dead:

DONNA: Are you all right?
DOCTOR: I’m always all right.
DONNA: Is all right special Time Lord code for really not all right at all?
DONNA: Because I’m all right, too.

Donna’s influence in the Doctor’s life has far-reaching consequences.  He remembers saving someone, and revisits the face of the man he saved when he becomes the Twelfth Doctor.  Then, he takes another opportunity to “save someone” in similar circumstances.  That someone is Ashildr.  The Doctor is lacking an effective Conscience at this point, misunderstanding the lesson Donna taught him.  He isn’t just saving someone.  He has started to play God.  That’s a problem he has, straight after Donna’s departure as well.  For a year of special episodes, the Tenth Doctor travels around without a companion, and without his Conscience he “goes too far”.  Without a Conscience a hero becomes a monster.  Maybe we all need somebody to set us on the right path from time to time.   RP

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in Companion Tropes, Doctor Who, Entertainment, Science Fiction, Television and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Donna the Conscience

  1. scifimike70 says:

    It may be my own flow of thinking, but after reading your take on how Donna in her feminine light and wisdom was a supportive balance for the Doctor, I’m somehow reminded now of Sapphire & Steel and their relationship for similar reasons. The obvious difference is that they’re both of the same species. Yet as opposed to how the Doctor and Romana were always mutually supportive, even if they quite often annoyed each other, Steel was the more unforgiving ‘bad cop’ half of the duo, motivating Sapphire with her delicate but fair feminine energy to show the guest characters (certainly the children in the first series) that their emotional needs were somehow being met.

    Female companions in Dr. Who, even if they mostly screamed and had to wear sexy attires like Leela or Peri, were always the feminine balance points for the male Doctors and we can always cherish them for that. Donna, thanks to the wonderful acting of Catherine Tate, quite agreeably took it to a whole new level which consequently made her farewell one of the most painful ones ever in Dr. Who. I will always love her for that.

    Thank you for including Donna, the Conscience, in the Junkyard’s Companion Tropes and thank you, Catherine ❤️🧡💛💚💙💜, for creating one of Dr. Who’s most cherished female TARDIS companions.

    Liked by 1 person

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