|Production Code||Series Four Episode Eleven|
|Dates||June 21 2008|
With David Tennant,
Written by Russell T Davies Directed by Graeme Harper
Executive Producers: Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner.
|Synopsis: Donna once turned right when she could have turned left. Now we see what would have happened.|
What If? by Matthew Kresal 14/3/09
When this finally aired here in the US, a couple of months back I was expecting the Doctor Who equivalent to a "clip show". What I saw instead was a wonderful sort of "what if?" story. It might be the Doctor-light episode of series four, but it is actually better for being that.
Russell T Davies has managed to take elements from Series 3 & 4 and weave them into an alternate timeline story that doesn't feel pushed or forced upon an audience. From the events of Runaway Bride onwards, we get a glimpse into a world without our favorite Time Lord. It's a world where everything goes downhill to say the least and many of our favorite characters are left to pick up the pieces. In many respects it a story of consequences much like Boom Town (which occupied this episode slot back in series 1) yet Davies finds a way to show the consequences of the Doctor's actions from a different level all together.
Turn Left also gives Catherine Tate her best chance to show off her acting chops and she does beautifully in this episode. This Donna makes a journey from unassuming temp to a person willing to be the only one who can save the world. Tate's performance calls back not just the Donna of The Runaway Bride but the Donna of the early episodes of series 4 as well. In fact that, to me, is the single biggest highlight of this episode. In a single episode, Tate, Davies, and director Graeme Harper show the journey that Donna Noble has taken over series 4. Together with Billie Piper's Rose Tyler, Turn Left also allows us to see these two characters in a scene together adds a lot more depth to Tate's performance. Speaking of Billie Piper...
Considering the fact that Rose Tyler;s return was proclaimed on the front cover of Doctor Who magazine, I don't believe I am spoiling anything. The good news is that Billie Piper returns in top form to the role she left in Doomsday (though one could argue that her specter hung over series 3, especially in the flashback-laden Utopia but that is for another review all together). Davies could have chosen the easy way out in writing this episode and simply made it about the return of Rose Tyler but instead Davies creates a sense of mystery around Rose (nobody calls her by name in the entire episode which could be annoying to some I'm sure). It is the beginning of the "Davies round up" that would come in The Stolen Earth/Journey's End.
The "Davies round up" doesn't just start with Rose but also with the twist at the end of Turn Left. The moment Rose reappears one knows that something is up but it isn't until the last few minutes that what it is wrong becomes obvious. It was a shocker to say the least. The result is what seemed at first to have been a fascinating little one-off story has bigger implications to come.
Turn Left might be Doctor-light episode of series 4, but that's no reason to hate it. In fact, by being Doctor-light we get a chance to see two things we don't normally see: a "what if?" where we see a world without the Doctor and a companion making an amazing emotional journey. Bravo Catherine Tate and Russell T. Davies... well done.
"Yours insincerely" by Thomas Cookson 12/4/09
The question of whether or not the story arc approach is a good idea for Doctor Who has come up quite often. It was Babylon 5 that made TV dramas arc-driven and based on long-term planning. And ironically Babylon 5 was inspired partly by Frontier in Space.
Old Who rarely did story arcs. Season 8 was based around the Master and made for a rather shallow comic book run of stories with nothing particularly deep or any recurring themes. Season 16 did focus on a quest for the Key to Time, and spliced in recurring themes about the balance of light and dark forces and the abuse of power, but arguably ended on an anticlimax. Season 18 was perhaps the most successful of the story arcs in building to a grand finale that culminates all the recurring themes of the season of decay and change and the size and structure of the greater cosmos, but simultaneously it immediately set up a lot of the dead wood of the John Nathan-Turner era, so it lacks closure.
Season 23 had high ambitions to go somewhere existential that Doctor Who had never been before, and had a similar bell tolling mood to Logopolis. Not only does it adopt the same, past, present, future and redemption story of A Christmas Carol, but each of the stories has an existential point. The Mysterious Planet is about death and mortality. Mindwarp is about identity and the perversion of it. Terror of the Vervoids is about human nature. The Ultimate Foe is about questioning reality and confronting the Doctor with his own Mr. Hyde. But as was all too often the case, John Nathan-Turner and Eric Saward ended up botching the whole thing, turning it into an almighty mess. Although I couldn't quite concede that the ending is a cop-out. It always makes me smile when the Doctor is told that Peri is alive, and if the overall plot is nonsensical, then moving the action to the Matrix where the rules of reality break down was a shrewd move that the story just about gets away with.
The arcs of the novels had a proclivity for spiralling out of control and becoming a curse to the novels range. In terms of Big Finish, Paul McGann's seasons had a tendency to end in anticlimax (and it was usually Gary Russell's fault). The spin-off seasons like Dalek Empire, I Davros and Gallifrey to me are the best thing Big Finish have ever done, but many would take serious issue with their tendency to end on a cliffhanger that never gets resolved.
Onto New Who, I must say Series One was the most successful of the TV story arcs. Just like the Big Finish spin-offs, it managed to achieve an unprecedented consistency of continuity and real character development. Something the TV series had never achieved before. And it worked, because, despite the odd dud episode, the season as a whole was more than the sum of its parts. It was always fun to spot the recurring themes. Not just 'bad wolf', but themes of classism, the recurring image of pregnancy. As Lawrence Miles said, it basically did achieve the kind of all encompassing humanitarian view of history and where we've all come from and where we're going, just like classic BBC TV of the 70's.
Series Two was let down by greater stinkers, and an overall smug, self-involved and elitist overtone that eventually reached toxic levels. But again there were some well placed recurring themes that bore re-viewing. There was the recurring theme of cults like LInDA and the Ood's Legion of the Beast; oh, and the kung-fu werewolf worshippers. But there was particularly the theme of suffering an almighty emotional low following a high. The pitfalls of great things, reflected in Rose's alternative parents who are rich and yet inexplicably miserable, and carried through into Rose's departure, which itself is brought out by her insecure clinginess, her adrenaline-junkie recklessness and her failure to look before she leaps.
Series Three only really had a few highlights, namely Human Nature and Blink. Both of which honestly looked like they belonged to another series, rather than part of something greater. Series Three didn't really have a compelling arc and, to be honest, hearing the Doctor constantly moaning about Rose was enough to make me turn off from this pretentious rubbish. The insult that was Last of the Time Lords was nearly the final nail in the coffin.
And so we come to Turn Left, which is the opposite of Series One's duds like World War Three or The Long Game. It's not a poor story elevated by being part of a greater story arc, it's a fairly good story, ruined by being part of a greater story arc. At the time, it was a beautiful episode and actually showed Catherine Tate to be able to carry a whole story by herself. But two weeks later, much of this story was shown up to be a complete lie. Notice how I described the Doctor's moaning about Rose as pretentious. Which basically sums up the problem with New Who. The sycophantic opinion fascist fans can call me an emotion hater all they want, but New Who's emotional focus, like much of the rebooted series, just has no sincerity to it whatsoever.
Old Who had its problems and erratic moments but it was nearly always sincere in what it was about, even at its most naive, preachy or childish. I think Season 24 is the only season of Old Who that's horribly nasty and insincere. Season 11 is rather routine and cozy, and reflects a show that no longer feels the need to even try any more, but by its own low aspirations it's honest enough. The Eric Saward period was insincere in some ways. It was clear that the makers had no clue or feel for the past they were trying to evoke with fan-pleasing continuity and returning foes. If they were reliant on a self-proclaimed fan advisor to keep the continuity accurate, then they had no business giving any kisses to the past. And yet, for all that, there was the hints of something sincere in most of the stories' messages. Sure it was often botched by the interference of Eric Saward and JNT, rendering the message confused or tastelessly hypocritical, but beneath all that was usually something sincere. There were genuine concerns about the future, expressed in Warriors of the Deep, Vengeance on Varos, Revelation of the Daleks and The Mysterious Planet. The problem often was that Eric Saward was too sincere, in the sense that he felt the need to repeatedly point out the fact that a pacifist hero like the Doctor wouldn't last five minutes in real-world conflicts. A fact that was unwelcome in the truest sense of the word, because it destroys the whole concept of the show.
On the one hand, Lawrence Miles did single this story out as expressing real futurist concerns about failing social control and how we are only a crisis away from fascism. On the other hand, it sees the return of Rose. As I've repeatedly said, the return of Rose was simply a cynical move to get teenage girls to reach for their hankies at how beautiful it was that the Doctor and his love will be together again, like their favourite boyband being reunited after a long split. See what I mean? No sincerity. Just something to make teenager viewers feel that now they're reunited, all is right with the world again. Funny that, I remember Classic Who was about showing the young viewer that there's a lot that's not right with the world.
Oh yes, and the story again goes down the same route as the show's always done. The companion is the most important woman in the universe. More teenage fangirl pleasing. And we old-school fans should be glad about that. Our favourite show is now appealing largely to the fairer sex who would have been alienated by the "boys own" aspects of old Who. Hell, even I must admit that the New Series prompted me to look back at the Old Series' treatment of the female companion with shame. Particularly in regards to the constant Peri abuse. Then again, I think that's also down to having listened to the more feminist-leaning Big Finish audios like Gallifrey, Dalek Empire and Bernice Summerfield (although personally I found Benny a bit too emancipating).
But is New Who really that feminist? Certainly it always seemed to me that New Who had a very pessimistic view of women like Cassandra, Harriet Jones and Torchwood's Yvonne rising to a position of power and authority, only to bring about calamity and death. Not to mention the Doctor offering unconditional forgiveness to a wife-beating Master. Indeed the question has been asked whether it's really that feminist, if the female companion only becomes a figure of power because some man, the Doctor, inspires her and gives her god-like powers. Before the Doctor came along and taught them better, these women were just self-absorbed, beans-on-toast-eating couch potatoes. There to be boxed in with Russell's patronising image of the people in modern society.
The fact that Donna ended up chasing the Doctor is a clear sign of this. When it was announced that Catherine Tate was going to become a companion for Series 4, there was horror and disbelief from many quarters. The main issue that was brought up was that she was one of the companions who had turned the Doctor down out of moral outrage over his killing of the Racnoss. It would seem unrealistic for her to come back, and a cheapening of that rejection scene where she forces him to realise he's gone too far. Indeed, I thought that this would be addressed, but it never is. And, as a result, the story we see here is confirmation that Donna as a character would be a useless prole if it wasn't for the Doctor's intervention and empowerment of her. Well, until Rose empowers her.
In regards to Rose's return, the point has been made that Rose just wasn't gone long enough for her return to have any kind of impact. Even if the Doctor hadn't spent all of Series 3 moaning about her being gone, it was still too soon, and her highly signposted return just makes me shrug my shoulders at how utterly unmonumental her return is and how ridiculously pretentiously her return was treated.
However, Journey's End tries to make Rose's return seem like it has major importance for events to come, as she brings a message prophesying doom for all parallel universes. It reminds me of Steve Cassidy's point about how Russell has an obsession with unsustainable scale that he never treats with the respect it deserves. But here is the big one. Why does it even need to bring the question of parallel universes into it? Oh, of course, it makes a perfect excuse to bring Rose back, and her bloody family. I say excuse, because there is honestly no need for Rose to be in the season finale, nor does her warning the Doctor have much effect on his actions in the finale. Honestly, imagine Series 4 without Rose, or the Turn Left episode, and it's hardly any different.
Basically the season finale, Stolen Earth/Journey's End was a major insult. But it would have been far less of an insult if it wasn't for this story. This story only serves to introduce big players (i.e. Rose) who turn out to be gratuitous surplus to requirements, prophesying something that turns out to be a copout and worst of all, needlessly overcomplicates a plot that had enough holes in it already.
Basically, in this story, we see a universe where the Doctor died and Donna never met him. All his present day adventures of Series 3 & 4 play out with a far greater death toll because of the Doctor's absence. And, crucially, the events of the series finale happen without the Doctor to prevent them. The result is apparently a superweapon capable of destroying all matter in every parallel universe is fired. The stars in the night sky start going out. This in itself is an insult to any reasonably informed stargazer, because given the ammount of time for the light from those stars to reach us, if the stars were to start going out, it'd take thousands of years for us to even notice. But this story expects us to believe it will become apparent instantaneously.
No, but here's the real insult. We're talking about parallel universes, where every possibility is played out. So really the Doctor's actions to prevent this superweapon should be completely in vain. Even if he succeeds, there's a parallel universe out there where he failed and the superweapon was used which would still destroy all parallel universes. Which ultimately shows that it was a stupid plot idea, and needlessly so. Why couldn't it just have been a superweapon to destroy one universe? Now I could just about treat that as 'don't ask' territory, except that this story actually conclusively proves that there is a parallel universe where the Doctor failed and the superweapon was fired, and we are shown its effects. That parallel universe still exists, regardless of what the Doctor does in this universe, and its effects will likewise spread into all other universes. So in effect the Doctor should have achieved nothing. The only way around it seems to be what Russell does best, completely cheat the audience. Oh and of course the return of the 'Bad Wolf' phrase, except that we're never told how Rose got that message across a second time, as if the story completely forgets that it happened. Again a complete and utter cheat.
And it's a bit of a shame really, because it ends up cheapening some fairly good ideas and moments. Blink was a brilliant Doctor-lite episode, but the idea of instead doing one Doctor solo episode followed by a companion solo episode was quite a good idea. Even if Midnight copped out of any explanations at the end. The scene where Donna is told by Rose that she's going to die is one that stays with me vividly, burned into my mind's eye, even though only a fortnight later it's revealed to be another lie. Bernard Cribbins again is a warm presence who makes the usual soap-opera rubbish quite enjoyable. In fact, it does quite well to convey the plight of the family, displaced and crammed. It's not quite Threads, which it's trying to homage, but then again Threads is hard to beat. It's the one piece of TV that always makes me suspend my disbelief totally, so that by the end I actually have to look out my window to reassure myself that the world's still intact.
Oh and there's more soldier bashing. "In my day we'd have had you court martialled." I'm getting a bit tired of this. It's just picking on the easiest target now. Why not criticise ordinary people who carry guns? They've not been trained to use them responsibly.
Granted, the old series bashed the military, but that was mainly because Doctor Who writers like Malcolm Hulke were forced to do their national service despite their left-wing politics, so understandably they had a chip on their shoulder about the military, and at least they went after the leaders rather than the grunts. And of course there was Warriors of the Deep, but I like to think it's rightly reviled as being down to Eric Saward's mean-spiritedness ruining an otherwise intelligent story that actually got some good points in about the stupidity of nuclear stockpiling. This just feels like cool, right-on smugness, all attitude and no thought or heart. Come to think of it, what felt so wrong and twisted about Dalek Empire IV was that it seemed to the product of a writer who's unintentionally written something very pro-militaristic, then realised their mistake and quickly had to go against his own instincts to nastily contrive a critique of the military halfway through. Either way, I'm bored of it now.
The big, insincere, nasty lie is about Donna's 'death' which the finale predictably chickens out of. Amidst its excess killings, Dalek Empire managed to reckon with death as an inevitability and did so with dignity and catharsis. Whether it be Kalendorf's moment of mortality - "my time has passed, I'm already just part of history" - or Kaymee's dreams of saying goodbye to her father. Which is important because, in the main, Dalek Empire is death-laden and does present a rather ludicrous vision of humans willing to commit martyrdom en mass and whole legions of soldiers accepting zero-survival-rate missions without protest. But those moments of mortality shape the whole story into the idea that the Daleks represent the death that awaits us all, so we all have to become comfortable with that sometime. Otherwise, it'd just be another cold-blooded militaristic sci-fi series about intergalactic war that usually leaves me cold. However, the audio story, The Reaping rubbed me up the wrong way because its conjuring of death and grief seemed like crass emotional manipulation. It didn't draw out any closure of the issue, it just piled up more pointless deaths. Again, it felt insincere and nasty, just like this story.
Ultimately, though, the season finale - and the part this story plays in it - leaves me in no doubt that it was written out of contempt for the audience. Double-edged contempt at that, since it was written as if Russell thinks the audience are all vegetables who don't mind having their intelligence insulted and spat on. But, at the same time, anyone who is bothered by these plot holes is being treated like a sad, obsessive nitpicker.
Personally, I couldn't miss RTD's plot holes if I tried.
A Review by Graham Pilato 3/11/09
After a lot of build up, and a killer preview, this is very disappointing. The Rose/Donna interactions are awkward and the premise of a know-all, Rose-as-Doctor in this story doesn't work at all. What amounts to a clip show of sorts for New Who here, particularly the Donna and Christmas stories, ends up mostly as a bore. It's a foregone conclusion that all of this will resolve itself and it won't take much, just getting Donna to "turn left".
Fortunately, things do get better, once we leave the past behind, and start getting into Children of Men territory. Something horrible has happened to the world and Donna has to stop it. Unfortunately, though, even all of this is simply a total runaround retread of something that was done much more imaginatively and dramatically with Rose in the first season story Father's Day.
Things aren't so great to look at here. The new history is interesting to see unfold but, even moreso than previous Christmas specials, it seems to really point the finger at the hokey things that have gone on in the Doctor Who universe's Earth of the early 21st Century. One does suspect that such things should have changed the world's society a bit, given some new impressions to the people of the self-aware Earth, victim of so many alien attacks in so few years. Course, if this is the cool changes I was asking for in my Voyage of the Damned review, then I must say I'm disappointed, and not for the things we see here, rather that all of these so interesting things are dropped so heavily. Why do things have to go back to status quo? I mean, it's not a happy ending at all to see Donna return to what should be one when we are left feeling like the better stories are all left behind in the darker fantasy. What we needed here was to have this episode be the 10th Doctor's Inferno, or his Mirror, Mirror, (Star Trek) or his "Sliding Doors" or something. It's a grand opportunity to stick with a good one that matters, rather than a geekfest of gargantuan proportions when the Daleks are brought back in the cheesiest, silliest way possible next week.
Talking of looks, the bug is creepy until we actually see it clearly. Honestly, I think the spiders on people's backs from Planet of the Spiders in the classic series of Who were more frightening and believable than that thing. The shame of it is that Graeme Harper directed this and he should have known better than to show a cheap monster in its entirety like that.
The final moments are pretty exciting, and like the early moments of the story centered in a great looking alien bazaar, but the appearance of all the Bad Wolf stuff all over the TARDIS and the banners of the street make one think that something strange has happened to the Doctor's perspective rather than to the world itself. TARDIS telepathic circuits having a go? Methinks. And then the
Cloister Bell is tolling...
Ready for a massive fanwank session next week?
Primarily a disappointment for retreading old ground, this episode could easily be missed. Just go back and take a look at Father's Day again instead. Still, with yet another fun take on the "TARDIS discovery" scene, this has several redeeming moments. Enough to make it tough to really dismiss totally.
On The Other Hand by Mike Morris 22/7/10
Turn Left is, probably, the story that makes me say that Donna Noble is a companion who almost completely failed.
I should back up that statement. My problem with Donna isn't just that Catherine Tate's performance until halfway through the season is fundamentally poor. With hindsight I don't think too much of that is Tate's fault, as - until she made this story, after which her performances notably improve - she was probably as puzzled as anyone as to what the point of Donna's character was. Examine her evolution as a companion and this confusion is as clear as anything; she was originally introduced for a one-off Christmas special, as the Doctor's irascible foil in a screwball comedy, and the function of her character is clear; she's a loud, Heat-reading, common-or-garden citizen whom the Doctor thoroughly underestimates, and it's Donna who not only reveals the hurt and pain that he (and we) assumed she was too stupid to understand, but then stops him when his own dark side is on the point of taking over. Most importantly, it isn't that the Doctor sees something wonderful in her and brings it out... Donna surprises everybody, including him, and resolves to go forth and be magnificent at the end.
I don't think it entirely works in The Runaway Bride, simply because Catherine Tate's performance is too aggressive for Donna to ever be likeable, and when the Doctor's treating her like an idiot the audience isn't thinking "hey, that's a human being you're talking to," they're thinking "well she is an idiot, isn't she?"
(Note: I say "the audience isn't", but this term is largely interchangeable with "I'm not", but since I'm right about everything I think that's fair enough.)
Point being; she was originally a one-story character, and serious reinvention had to be carried to bring her back. The result is a softer version of the character, but one with no discernible brief, and whose central journey is unclear; she's defined by what she isn't - not submissive, not young, not in love with the Doctor - than who she is. Donna's hardly alone in this and you can level the same charge at Martha Jones, but still Partners in Crime gives the game away as to how the writing has failed the character. In the early sections, we're shown a brave and resourceful Donna investigating a suspicious-looking corporation because she thinks there's something funny goings-on. So far, so empowered; but it then transpires she's doing this because she thinks the Doctor might pop up, rather than actual concern for the story at hand. Having given us a glimpse of Donna the private investigator, we then discover that Donna's just longing to go for a day-trip with the Doc; ultimately this means she's the same old character in search of a man, albeit the two-hearted asexual variety.
It's almost impossible to see why the Doctor would show interest in her while belittling the rather resourceful journalist who's actually trying to do something constructive. Donna was supposed to be a closed-horizons, banal loudmouth who turned into the sort of woman who could save the world, but there actually aren't that many moments where she does anything of the sort; her furious outburst in Planet of the Ood ("they're born with their brains in their hands") is the only moment that leaps to mind. She becomes a better person, certainly, but in The Forest of the Dead we see her desire is still a husband and kids. When the Doctor asks Donna who makes her clothes in Planet of the Ood, she accuses him of taking cheap shots; but he's absolutely right, and she just doesn't want to be confronted with that reality.
Truth is, this isn't a woman with broadened horizons.
There's the thing about Turn Left. In a way, it isn't really a story at all, so much as an extended cliffhanger to The Stolen Earth coupled with a rescue mission on Donna's character. The most uncharitable way you could describe it would be as last-minute surgery on a companion who hasn't worked at all. And yet, the surgery is so successful that it's difficult to complain.
Turn Left is all about reinvention, and very well-done it is too. It falls back on the old sci-fi hokum of choices not made, but does it really well. The stories referenced are cleverly selected as some of the lighter efforts from the past, but showing their real effects completely redefines them. Voyage of the Damned was a fun romp, but here the Titanic really does crash with devastating fallout. Partners in Crime is revisited and its central flaw (the question of whether the Adipose were doing anything particularly terrible) is redefined; the process kills millions. Meanwhile, Torchwood, Martha and Sarah Jane are all killed off-screen, collateral in defending the earth.
The result is a Doctor Who that's as grim as anything that the programme's ever given us, fundamentally about the ease with which a society can tumble into fascism. It has people being carted off to concentration camps, probably the most stunning scene of the season, with Catherine Tate and Bernard Cribbins giving marvellous contrasting reactions. Tate is bigged-up for her performance in this story, and rightly so; she acquits herself well in heavyweight company and makes Donna a vital, believable character whose true strengths are revealed when the foundations of her life are whipped away. Still, even if Tate is Very Good, Cribbins is flat-out extraordinary. He's a man who sees exactly what's happening to the wider world, but know there's nothing he can do to stop it; his performance is saturated with a colossal, elegiac sadness and straight-up decency. He's utterly wonderful.
Still, it's Donna's story, and this is one that works. The finale may have cheated its audience, but this is the story where the Temp From Chiswick really does lay down her life to save the world. At the start of the story she's Old Donna, albeit a damn-sight better played than we saw in The Runaway Bride; she's likeable here, life and soul of the party when she goes to the pub, bitching amusingly about her colleagues when she's made redundant. Her mother tells her at one stage "I've given up on you", as awful a thing as any parent could utter; the response is that Donna ends up holding her family together through sheer strength of will. My favourite scene in Turn Left is where she responds to Wilfred's "You can't solve every problem just by shouting at it" with the retort "I can try"; at that point, Donna is almost a force of nature.
She's also bothered by a mysterious girl turning up at odd intervals and saying cryptic things. Billie Piper is in odd form here; she's clearly meant to be a surrogate Doctor, but is actually saddled with a slightly irritating role where she just appears, makes a couple of gnomic speeches, and then vanishes; simply explaining who she is would have made a lot more sense. Not only that, but Billie seems to have just visited the dentist and first time round I could barely understand a word she said. She's obviously playing "subdued", but a bit of diction would have been nice. Still, there's something gloriously effortless about the way she acts on screen, and Rose is a better foil for Donna than anyone would expect. The "It's a time machine" moment is the first time we see Rose smile, and there's a lovely triumphant feel to the whole scene.
There's that cliffhanger as well. First time round, it's the most extraordinary moment as the whole of reality seems to suddenly malfunction. Once you've seen The Stolen Earth, it's a completely illogical shock-tactic that's never properly explained, and ends up being the story's only really duff note. The foreshadowing in general is annoying, obviously; "What are you, what will you become?" asks our villain, and we hoped (wrongly) that the answer wasn't "a walking plot resolution created purely by chance".
As I say, the premise is a bit of a hoary old staple, but it's not really about the premise anyway. Turn Left is a character examination, combined with a tough foray into what-iffery and the darkness lurking in society. It's a wonderful piece of work. The result is that Donna Noble becomes a character who almost completely failed... but in the end, in spite of everything the team got wrong, in spite of an uneven performance by Catherine Tate, in spite of the fact that I find her flat-out ghastly for much of her tenure... she worked.
Turn Left may be badly let down by what comes after but, judged on its own merits, it plays a blinder and rivals Midnight as the story of the season.
What two words? What were they? What did she say? by Evan Weston 27/5/16
Turn Left is the high-concept "Doctor-lite" episode of Series 4, with Russell T. Davies returning to the writer's chair after Steven Moffat's brilliant Blink in Series 3. While Davies' last crack at this type of episode was the disastrous Love & Monsters, he fares a good deal better with Turn Left. A lot of this comes thanks to Catherine Tate's improvement from the beginning of the series to the end, along with a strong concept that allows Davies to have a little fun with his continuity. Turn Left is also an exceedingly dark episode, and this works overall.
We have to start with Tate, who has gotten demonstrably better since annoying the hell out of me in The Runaway Bride and Partners in Crime. Surprisingly, on the second go, she was never as out-and-out terrible on Doctor Who as I remembered, but she wasn't good until The Unicorn and the Wasp. Turn Left was Tate's third relatively strong performance in a row, and, while she doesn't quite match her work in Forest of the Dead, she's able to carry the episode with a good deal of restraint. Sure, there's some screaming at Rose and at anyone who annoys her, and yes, it's still immensely grating, but Tate manages to tone that down and live up to her star billing for once. It's a lovely thing.
The supporting cast is there to help her, and what a cast it is. Bernard Cribbins gets more screen time here than he has ever before on the show, and he's absolutely wonderful, as usual. Wilfred Mott is probably the most likable character in the history of Doctor Who, and that's not a statement I make lightly. But Cribbins injects what's already an exceedingly warm-hearted character with spirit and verve fitting of his personality, and Wilf shines every time he's on screen. His moment with the family being taken to the labor camp is touching and tearjerking. Big props also go to Jacqueline King in her first expanded performance as Donna's mother. Unlike Wilf, who is sometimes perhaps too perfect, Sylvia is a flawed woman, telling her daughter at one point that she's outright "given up" on her. King takes statements like that seriously, and together the Nobles are possibly the strongest family of any new Who companion.
We also have the return of the brilliant Billie Piper, who takes on a very different role from the one to which she is accustomed. Rose acts here as the source of expository knowledge in the script, and, while Davies weighs her down with way too much of that, Piper carries it off with the ease she's known for. Her scenes with Donna are the only points in the episode where Tate doesn't feel fit for the task at hand, only because Piper so outclasses her. Even better than Piper's work with the dialogue is her mute acting - just look at her face every time the Doctor is mentioned. David Tennant echoes that in his brief appearance at the end, showing a manic look in his eyes at the mere mention of a blonde woman. After all this time, they're still in love. While that might feel like fan service, the relationship at its peak was an all-time great television romance, and it's nice to see Davies respect that legacy.
Well, look at that. I've spent three paragraphs on the acting of the principal cast. Turn Left isn't just built on performances. The concept is an overdone staple in science fiction - if you made one small change to your past, what would happen in the future? - but, at first, Davies handles it well. The choice to kill the Doctor in The Runaway Bride is both truthful and fitting, as Rose - the loss of whom provides the reason he no longer feels like living - features prominently later in the episode, and Piper gives facial hints at her guilt in her first scene. Martha gets a stirring death, reminding you of just how crucial the events of Smith and Jones were.
Unfortunately, the consistency doesn't quite hold up after that. There's no reason for Sarah Jane Smith to have died in the aftermath of the hospital event - it only happens so Davies can kill her off. He sort of throws her away as well. It's also a bit of a stretch to assume the Torchwood team would have prevented the Sontaran threat. The knowledge it took to bring about that story's resolution was only possessed by the Doctor. We have a stupid America-is-fat joke thrown in with the Adipose, leaving a bad taste in my mouth for a solid five minutes. Aside from his love of the bombastic, Davies' worst flaw is his inability to keep his fringe politics out of his writing. He also manages to slip in something he himself would condemn - the treatment of Asians in this episode is brutal, with the evil fortune teller having no discernible motivation other than a mischievous streak and the hotel maid freaking out in a foreign language about Donna's back as if she'd seen the plague.
Really, in the end, it doesn't all hold together in terms of plot. It is never really explained how Rose managed that whole setup with the mirrors, but the biggest hole comes at the end, when Rose basically cops to knowing that all you had to do to get out of the fake world was die. Why not just shoot Donna and bring things back to normal? It's a ridiculous Davies ex Machina that really ends the main thrust of the episode on a low note. The performances mask the story for most of the way, but it falls into a lot of the traps other Series 4 stories have, and it's a shame that I have to knock so many points off for what appears to be quite a strong episode.
It feels that way, in my opinion, because it successfully conveys its dark and foreboding tone throughout. It's obviously hurt by the complete and total lack of stakes - there's no way this world ends up becoming reality, and it's mainly a thought exercise - but the experiences of the characters are so brutal that it ends up depressing nonetheless. Wilf's utter sadness is crushing, and the way people lose their will to live is genuinely disturbing at points. The idea that the British government would start sending minorities to work camps is a little inane, but that scene is tough to watch regardless. The Nobles are put through the wringer, and that's really the only way this episode was going to work. Kudos to the production department, and particularly to Murray Gold for an especially dark and haunting score, for making it happen.
Turn Left is really quite grim, but tonally the episode is one of the strongest in a long time, pushing the envelope of teatime television. The lovely performances of Cribbins, Piper, King and, yes, even Catherine Tate come along to make that a reality. And yeah, the concept is nearly toppled by what can really only be called a flat-out poor story, but there's more good than bad here. The story's ending basically personifies what Turn Left is about. Bad Wolf pops up everywhere, with the Doctor losing his mind over what it means. It makes absolutely no sense and there's zero follow-through in The Stolen Earth/Journey's End (dear God, please don't make me watch that), but it's a gripping moment that leaves you on the edge of your seat regardless. And for making us beg for more garbage, Davies certainly earns a gold star. If only we knew the horrors of what was coming next.