David is coming to New Who for the first time, having loved Classic Who as a kid. Tehani is a recent convert, and ploughed through Seasons 1 to 7 (so far) in just a few weeks after becoming addicted thanks to Matt Smith – she’s rewatching to keep up with David! Tansy is the expert in the team, with a history in Doctor Who fandom that goes WAY back, and a passion for Doctor Who that inspires us all.
We are working our way through New Who, using season openers and closers, and Hugo shortlisted episodes, and sometimes a couple of extra episodes we love as our blogging points. Just for fun!
“Turn Left” – Season four, episode twelve
The Doctor – David Tennant
Donna Noble – Catherine Tate
Rose Tyler – Billie Piper
So here we are at “Turn Left”, the only other Hugo nominated episode from this season, which I think is a bit sad because the Doctor/Donna season is one of my favourites. We just passed “Midnight”, which despite being Donna-lite, is really rather exceptional, I thought. Certainly one of the creepier episodes, with a good hard look at human nature (and, weirdly, it reminds me of how reality tv shows work, when they shove a bunch of strangers into a small space and see what happens). Lesley Sharp as Sky Silvestry is really quite marvellous, doing some incredible dialogue with Tennant. And of course we get a bonus fandom points with Colin Morgan (Merlin) as Jethro and David Troughton (yes, Patrick Troughton’s son!) as Professor Hobbes.
I think that “Midnight” was definitely worth a nomination, though possibly not at the expense of the two stories picked – what, we couldn’t get our usual three spots for the Hugo Ballot?? I also think it’s RTD writing at his best. It feels like that is the one where he is trying least hard to impress us all with showiness and grandeur, and the small scale of the production combined with bang-up performances and script was really very effective. Seeing Merlin with cool hair is quite personally distressing to me.
It’s definitely a strong ending to the season! Was RTD (Russell T Davies) still the showrunner at this point, or did he have more editorial constraints? “Midnight” was a wonderfully claustrophobic episode, with some excellent performances, though I thought that the speed with which they turned on Sky was a little convenient. I was a little in awe of Lesley Sharp’s performance, that dialogue must have been terribly difficult!
He was still the showrunner – and I’m glad he chose now to remind everyone that he is in fact a kick ass, world class scriptwriter. Sometimes.
As “Midnight” was Donna-lite, “Turn Left” is Doctor-lite, which I think is really interesting – the same as “Blink” made the Hugo-voters take notice, another fairly Tennant-less episode made the grade here (although unlike “Blink”, it didn’t get the gong that year, losing to Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog). But I wonder how much of the vote was for Catherine Tate’s fabulous portrayal of Donna, and how much was for the fact of Rose? I want to hope it was for Donna, but you never know.
I don’t think it’s necessarily the lack of Tennant that made this episode or indeed “Blink” particularly good, but the ones that Hugo nominators tend to notice are often those that break the mould or formula in some way.
Xena is the only other show I watched obsessively that had a similarly small ensemble (two main characters, rotating but no other regular support characters) and therefore had to do Protagonist-Lite episodes, both for Xena and Gabrielle. And while they often had brilliant material together, it was when one of them was gone that the scriptwriters really had to pull out all the stops because so much of their regular toolbox (and the reliable chemistry between the two actors) was missing. I could easily assemble a list of more than a dozen wonderful episodes of Xena which only featured one of the main leads, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that the episodes lacking the Doctor, the companion or both of them tend to be exceptional or at least very memorable.
I do think that it is very possible to tell a story entirely about the Doctor without showing him on screen, and that’s very much what we’re getting here. The story is absolutely a showcase for Catherine Tate, and one in the eye for anyone who thought she couldn’t cut it as a dramatic actress, but it’s also a story of a world without the Doctor, and what that might look like.
Catherine Tate is simply amazing in this. She is such a natural comedian that I think it can be easy to overlook her dramatic skills, but here she has a chance to show us what she is really made of, and hits it out of the park. The way that RTD explores her family dynamics provides some genuinely moving moments, and gives us a real insight into how her and her mother interact, in particular. Though, Bernard Cribbins is his usual excellent self!
Sylvia is marvellous in this – some great character growth for all of them. And I think it’s really essential to look at this family and see how they cope with horrible, life-changing circumstances without a bloke in his magic box – they’re not fine but they are surviving and all of them pull together. Wilf’s wartime spirit and Sylvia’s slow acceptance of their situation are both conveyed very well and most of all we see how resilient Donna is.
In this Doctor Who version of It’s a Wonderful Life, we get a convincing alternate world and see just how much impact the Doctor has in even that short period of time. I really liked how we see that there are people who still step up to try and save the world, but that the cost is so much higher without the Doctor there. But, as much as we see the importance of the Doctor, it’s even more fascinating to see how important Donna is. Right throughout Doctor Who the companions make much more difference than they realise, they aren’t just hangers on or a support act to the Doctor, and this is a great example of why.
Okay, so I know I’m not the best judge of this, but I DO listen when other people discuss this stuff – am I right in thinking that New Who does this FAR better than Classic Who did? The companions are almost always shown to be really important, whether they actively save the day, or are just the moral compass that is there with the Doctor. And I don’t think this was as evident in Classic Who.
While I am an active defender of the companions of Classic Who, it’s true that the narrative of the show rarely gave them the kind of agency we get in New Who – while there were companions who were allowed actual growth and change through their run, you often get the impression that when it happened it was half accidental and half down to the actor in question portraying that despite the scripts. Very few of them got a) consistent, detailed backstory, b) family and friends back home, c) a coherent story arc or d) a leaving story worthy of them, and certainly few of them got more than one or two of those elements.
Even Ace, who was the last proper companion of Classic Who and is often held up as a forerunner to Rose (in all but the romantic aspect) was not given the same ‘protagonist here, coming through’ central role that Billie Piper’s character and her successors had.
Having said all that, one of the best examples of character development and the companions driving the plot comes with Ian and Barbara at the very beginning of the show, so you could argue that New Who is building upon something that was an essential element of the original 1960’s Doctor Who. At least, I would argue that!
RTD’s era of the show certainly pushes the idea that being around the Doctor turns ordinary people into heroes, but “Turn Left” goes one better by showing they can do that without him, too.
I largely agree with Tansy’s argument here, however I think you can point to a number of examples of how being around the Doctor pushed some of the Classic Companions into far more heroic roles. Romana played a major part in many of her stories, though it could be argued that she developed more in the tie in novels, as did Sarah Jane who, as we know, went off to be the star of her own show. And of course, Adric died saving the Earth (I think he is a vastly underrated companion, and one of the reasons I was disappointed that they didn’t persevere with Adam Mitchell).
Funnily enough, when it comes to one of the characters given the most interesting backstory you can hardly claim that it was intended all along – I am sure that Turlough’s revelations were written on the fly! [Tansy wrote a great article about this.]
But, it was far from the deliberate writing of arcs that we saw in New Who, which probably has as much to do with the changing nature of television as Doctor Who itself. The fact that you have to search for those examples, and that they are far less involved than almost every companion in New Who backs up Tansy’s argument.
The big thing with Classic Who was the secondary character dying a noble death. It was pretty much a given, if you started to like one of the supporting acts or there was a complex, interesting character, their days were numbered and they would likely die in the last ditch effort to foil whatever end of the world event was in progress.
I much preferred this Rose. She has such a great sense of purpose, and helps set up the finale so very well. There is an ominous feel to her appearances, especially when she says “I am so sorry”, always a scary thing to hear in Doctor Who! And the scene at the end with the “Bad Wolf” stuff – spectacular!
I actually really like Rose’s return in this season too, especially in this episode. The fact that she is there instead of the Doctor to point the way for Donna is pretty exceptional, and I like how tough and competent she is now. She’s all grown up!
It’s also quite nice to see her being awesome even when the Doctor isn’t around – there’s a kind of double theme going on with the various returns of companions in this season, which is that 1) the companions do much of their “levelling up” after parting company with the Doctor and 2) he doesn’t always like what they turn into when he’s not around to influence them. In this case Rose doesn’t meet the Doctor at all, so we don’t have to deal with that second part of it.
I definitely liked Rose better in this than I did in her actual run. Possibly it’s actually due (in part at least) to an improvement in Billie Piper’s acting *ducks for cover* but I think it’s mostly because she’s a proactive player in the story, and I liked that.
That’s it, isn’t it? These are the companions who have left the nest and gone out on their own, who have grown up. And, like any parent, sometimes the Doctor struggles with the idea that they aren’t his “children” anymore!
What did we think about the back bug thing? I’m still not sure I completely understand how that one works – do I need to employ hand-wavery?
I loved the concept – not only did the creepy ‘something on your back’ remind me of the Spiders, my favourite Classic Who monster, but I think it’s also quite clever – basically a time parasite that also works as a fairy tale concept? So it allows/forces a person to make a different life choice back in their timeline, and feeds on the resulting energy, which makes it similar to the Weeping Angels, actually.
I found the parasite very creepy! I remember walking through a web in the dark once and not realising for quite awhile that I now had a passenger in the form of a massive orb spider on my back. So, a bit too close to home. *shudder*
It was probably a bit more effective when we only saw glimpses, but lots of monsters are like that. I do agree, the concept of a time parasite is quite clever. I’ve always enjoyed the idea of time having its own ecosystem and would love to see it explored a bit more. We had the Chronovores in Classic Who, and I am trying to think of a few more examples – I am sure there must be!
There were the Reapers in “Father’s Day” that turned up to ‘sterilise the wound in time’ – but my favourite example of this is the vortisaurs in Big Finish – like time pterodactyls that live in the time vortex! But I agree, this is a great idea that perhaps has a lot more potential to be re-used in the future. The Doctor may be ‘Time’s Champion’ but you can see how anyone with a greater understanding to time might see him as more of a vandal and saboteur…
Ooh, and Tansy, MARKETPLACE! That’s what I kept thinking of when the Verity! podcast team were discussing “The Rings of Akhaten” a few weeks ago! (sorry David, no other talking about things you haven’t seen yet!)
Yes, this is the closest thing we get to a space marketplace before that episode we’re not going to discuss – though as I recall it caused a few eyebrows to go up because of the racial stereotyping. On the one hand it’s quite nice to arrive on a planet which isn’t defaulting to white or Anglo culture, on the other hand it does feel a touch like wandering through a pantomime of Aladdin. (we totally went to a small town pantomime of Aladdin the Christmas before last and omg it was DEEPLY uncomfortable, I was squirming as I watched a bunch of white Aussie kids in yellowface making chop suey jokes and all I could think over and over again was “I am so glad the internet is not in this audience”.)
At least they did cast actual Asian actors. So there’s that. And the marketplace is a tiny, discrete bit of this episode, so you can (I think) enjoy the story regardless. The actual performance of Tennant and Tate wandering through the space market is pretty awesome, though it’s not my FAVOURITE market wandering scene in this season which is of course back in “The Fires of Pompeii”.
I am afraid I am going to put my name down in the unimpressed camp here. I remember when I watched it wondering if there was any sort of controversy over it, because I found it very stereotypical. Not so much the market itself, but the scenes inside the tent seemed very heavy handed to me. Not “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” bad, though, but hopefully we are setting a higher bar than that!
Yep sadly ‘slightly less racist than “The Talons of Weng-Chiang”’ is not something anyone would want on their CV.
Overall, though, I think RTD has delivered a stand out episode here, and one that sets us up for a stunning finale…
I think you’re right – loved the focus on Donna, really enjoyed Rose this time around, and yes, “stunning” (in all its connotations) is one word for what comes next…
We’ve already reviewed:
“Father’s Day”, S01E08
“The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances”, S01E09/10
“Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways”, S01E12/13
Season One Report Card – David, Tansy, Tehani
“The Christmas Invasion”, 2005 Christmas Special
“New Earth”, S02E01
“School Reunion”, S02E03
“The Girl in the Fireplace”, S02E04
“Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel”, S02E05/06
“Army of Ghosts/Doomsday”, S02E12/13
Season Two Report Card – David, Tansy, Tehani
“The Runaway Bride”, 2006 Christmas Special
“Smith and Jones”, S03E01
“The Shakespeare Code/Gridlock”, S03E02/E03
“Human Nature/The Family of Blood”, S03E08/E09
“Blink”, SO3E10 (with special guest reviewer Joanne Anderton)
“Utopia/The Sound of Drums/Last of the Timelords” S03E12/13/14
Classic Who Conversation podcast – Spearhead from Space (1970)
Season Three Report Card – David, Tansy, Tehani
Classic Who Conversation podcast – Genesis of the Daleks (1975)
“Partners in Crime”, S04E01 (with special guest reviewer Lynne M Thomas)
“The Sontaran Strategem/The Poison Sky”, S04E05/06
“Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead”, S04E09/10