TARDIS File 04-11: Turn Left

TARDIS File 04-11: Turn Left

The Big Idea: Donna is given a chance to change a fateful decision and her actions radically alter the universe. Only a mysterious blond woman seems to be able to help.

What’s So Great…

  • Bad Wolf! What and ending! With those two words, suddenly the Doctor is clued into both Rose’s return and the imminent danger to the universe. Hearts were racing as David Tennant pulls back those red curtains and discovered the ubiquitous words written everywhere: on banners, signs and even the TARDIS itself. Heck, you could even read it backwards from the inside of the vessel.
  • Rose is back! After weeks of teasing and furtive glances, Billie Piper returns to the role of beloved companion Rose Tyler. While there are touches of the old Rose, her appearances still remain somewhat cryptic and she has definitely been changed from her experiences in the parallel world. We look forward to seeing more of her in the coming weeks.
  • Catherine Tate’s Donna! It’s beginning to sound redundant in these TARDIS files, but Tate’s portrayal in Turn Left is a tour de force. She effectively carries the episode and shows a fascinating alternative of Donna, one who never met the Doctor and is thrust into a nightmarish world where she is forced to face both her shortcomings and her lost potential. Marvel at the scenes where she realizes where the foreigners are being taken or her heartbreaking conversation with her mother.
  • The planet Shan-shen is an interesting concept. One wonders if these are Chinese colonists from Earth or if this culture is meant to have developed independently. Considering that most of it was shot in an alley, it certainly provides a colourful and intriguing backdrop.

Quick Bits of Trivia: The time beetle is part of the Trickster’s Brigade. It is implied that the Trickster is the same being that has featured in The Sarah Jane Adventures’ stories, Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane and The Temptation of Sarah Jane. Chipo Chung previously appeared in Doctor Who playing Chantho in the series 3 story Utopia. This was a story which writer Russell T Davies had in mind right from the outset of planning series four, even before it was confirmed Donna would be back: according to Russell T Davies’ new book The Writers Tale, the original companion for series four, Penny, was to make a decision at a turning during the season opener, only to have it revisited 11 episodes later. This was revised for Donna when Catherine Tate came back.

Things to Geek Out About…

  • Several past stories are revisited from the perspective of Donna’s parallel existence including The Runaway Bride (the Christmas star appears, as before but because Donna isn’t with the Doctor he dies); Smith and Jones (the character of Oliver Morgenstern returns in a news broadcast to inform viewers that Martha Jones died during the incident. We also learn that Sarah Jane Smith and her friends—from The Sarah Jane Adventures—all perished while while ultimately saving the day). Other stories include Voyage of the Damned (this time the spaceship Titanic crashes down into Buckingham Palace); Partners in Crime (the Adipose harvest their fat in America); and The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky (apparently Captain Jack will need to taken a crash course in Sontaran verb tenses).
  • The whole beetle on the back idea is quite creepy and feels like old-school Doctor Who (evoking memories of the classic 1974 Third Doctor finale, Planet of the Spiders, where various characters gave piggy-back rides to cheap plastic arachnids).
  • UNIT features in the stories climax—apparently anyone who can spout technobabble can elicit their services.
  • Donna enquires of Rose, “Were you and him…? ” The look on Rose’s face was priceless for any shipper fans out there.
  • Donna becomes the only companion to react twice to the TARDIS’ dimensionally transcendental nature.
  • Veena, Donna’s friend, has previously been referenced in Partners in Crime and The Sontaran Stratagem.

Not to Complain But… The whole Titanic plot point must have come out of left field for most CBC viewers who wouldn’t have seen the 2007 Christmas special Voyage of the Damned (as the network has yet to broadcast the special). Regrettably some really nice scenes didn’t make it into the story as it’s original BBC broadcast length of 50 minutes had to be trimmed to fit into the allowed timeslot.

All Things Considered… Double banked episodes (Doctor-lite, and sometimes companion-lite because the actors are busy shooting other episodes) are tricky beasts to manage. They can offer a chance for creativity and obvious off-beat format change (Love & Monsters), or brilliant storytelling slight-of-hand (Steven Moffat made us forget that the Doctor and Martha were largely absent from last year’s Blink). This year Davies proudly and confidently puts two large ostrich eggs in his basket by putting front and centre the strengths and talents of Catherine Tate’s surprisingly layered performance as Donna, and the building excitement of Billie Piper’s return to Doctor Who. While the latter offers a shot of adrenaline, it’s the former that really carries the piece.

Many were skeptical when it was announced last year the Catherine Tate would be reprising her role as bride-from-hell Donna from the 2006 Christmas special The Runaway Bride. While the character seemed to work in a one-off madcap special, how was she, and the broad comedy stylings of her portrayer, going to fare for 13 weeks. And then, wonder of wonders, Tate surprised us all (yes some were excited by her potential anyway, and some are still not impressed) by offering a textured, fully rounded portrayal.

And now, in Turn Left, she pretty much carries the entire episode on her shoulders and turns in an incredibly memorable performance. And to boot, she’s playing the character, more or less, from square one (not quite in Runaway Bride mode, but certainly a variation on a theme).

Our hearts ache for Donna and for the entire world, in the absence of the Doctor’s influence. When she tells Rose late in the story how tired she is, we really feel that sense of weariness. And Tate conveys it beautifully as scenes that span two years just sort of whip by in fan wankified glory. Most poignant were the scenes where Donna realizes where the “immigrants” are going, her final conversation with her near-catatonic mother, and when the beetle is exposed on her back.

It’s really nice to have Billie Piper back, even if her role is kept necessarily cryptic.

Something big is definitely in store for Donna in the coming weeks, and there have been multiple references of something bad to come. Is she slotted for a nasty end? Only time will tell.

Line of the Week: “She said…b ad wolf.”

Index of TARDIS Files

TARDIS File prepared by Scott Clarke

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