Image courtesy the BBC.
The Runaway Bride, the 60 minute Doctor Who Christmas special that debuted a week ago on BBC1, backtracks slightly from the conclusion of last season’s Doomsday. We open with what may be Russell T. Davies’ favourite shot in the series: a pan from the moon to the Earth with a dive in from satellite height to the action. It’s a beautiful shot, but it’s the fourth time we’ve seen it so far, prompting me to hear Russell T. Davies in the background saying “I spent a million pounds on this, and we’re going to get our money’s worth, dammit!”
We dive into a church and we see Donna (Catherine Tate) with her father, nervously waiting to walk down the aisle at her wedding. The organ music plays, the guests stand, and Donna starts walking. It’s a beautiful service, and the bride is glowing. No, really, she’s glowing — I mean, really glowing, with the same strange time vortex energy the Doctor swallowed back during his regeneration. Donna vanishes with a scream, and the energy swooshes away, making a beeline for the TARDIS and planting her in the console room where we reprise the last minutes of Doomsday and roll credits. For the first few minutes of the story, we have the delightful opportunity of seeing the Doctor out of his depth, as he tries desperately to understand how what just happened happened, while coping with a very angry young woman chasing him around the console, threatening to sue his backside off.
Catherine Tate’s Donna throws into sharp relief the lingering suspicion that Rose just wasn’t quite right for the tenth Doctor. It’s instructive to watch the second Doctor Who Christmas special and the first (The Christmas Invasion) and consider how much has happened in the stories in between. Erin says that Rose and the tenth Doctor click in The Christmas Invasion, just as Rose and the ninth Doctor clicked the season before, but that chemistry gets lost once we get to New Earth. I think she’s right. And Erin believes that this chemistry in The Christmas Invasion is the result of the two characters not knowing where each stands with the other. Unfortunately, this tension gets resolved pretty quickly, leaving the tenth Doctor and Rose an entire season to moon over each other like seventeen-year-olds in love, wilfully disregarding the consequences that threaten their relationship.
This is not really a complaint against either the writers, or David Tennant or Billie Piper. This feels deliberate. Queen Victoria yelled at them for their selfish attitude in Tooth and Claw, and The Girl in the Fireplace plays this season theme in microcosm, with the Doctor making the same mistake with Reinette that he does with Rose. The only problem is that the payoff, if one was intended, fizzles. Rose never gets a chance to age past the Doctor the same way Reinette does. Although the Doctor says “you can spend the rest of your life with me, but I can’t spend the rest of my life with you” in School Reunion, he doesn’t sound like he means it, and Rose never really experiences it.
But this still provides a useful counterpoint, between the tenth and ninth Doctors and between Donna and Rose. It shows that Russell T. Davies and David Tennant created a tenth Doctor that was markedly different from the ninth. The ninth Doctor needed Rose to draw him out and make him human. The tenth Doctor did not. And, when we get to The Runaway Bride, Davies’ writing and Tennant’s acting shows that the tenth Doctor is far deeper than the stories of the previous seasons would indicate. Rose’s departure tears open hidden depths that make the Doctor seem a lot older, a lot lonelier, and a little more frightening.
Catherine Tate is the best thing about The Runaway Bride. Her Donna is an anti-Rose that cuts through the Doctor’s manic behaviour with the clarity of a slap in the face (often literally). She can see that the tenth Doctor needs somebody who can hold him back. She’s not the one to do it, though. Anybody capable or willing to try and curb the Doctor’s impulses would, like Donna, bridle at the TARDIS lifestyle.
If you read my earlier review of the final two episodes of the second season of the revived Doctor Who, you’ll remember that I called producer Russell T. Davies the weakest writer on the staff. But if you read my earlier review, you’ll also notice that I added caveats. Russell T. Davies may not be the best plotter, but he knows how to reach the viewers emotionally. He has a good handle on characterization, he paces extremely well, is good at writing comedy, and is able to lend an emotional resonance to his stories. The Runaway Bride plays to his strengths.
The Christmas setting allows some of the silliness to come out. The first third of the story is a manic chase, as the Doctor scrambles to help Donna get to the church on time, in the face of interference from the Santa robots from last year’s Christmas special. Director Euros Lyn is to be credited for handling this with considerable verve. The scene where the Doctor, in his TARDIS, chases down a speeding taxi on a public motorway manages to walk the tight balance between cheesy and fun. The inclusion of the cheering kids was exactly the right call, as it kept the action light enough.
Indeed, director Euros Lyn and Russell Davies make a number of excellent calls throughout the story, inserting in key details that ensure the action is never too serious, but never too silly. Witness how, after we move into the basement of Donna’s company and the Doctor, Donna and her husband-to-be Lance is confronted with a long corridor to travel, the writers just happen to throw in Segways. It’s a Doctor Who cliche turned on its head, and Donna and the Doctor (and the audience) cannot help but laugh. Similarly, the spectacular failure of the Doctor’s rescue attempt on Donna is an absolutely delightful subversion of the Doctor’s heroism.
Once we move into the basement of Donna’s company, the action takes two steps into camp. Sarah Parish as the Empress of the Rachnoss (really, the Queen of the Spider People, which makes me wish that Kate Mulgrew had been available for the role) chews the scenery with the efficiency of a buzzsaw. Sure, they could have toned it down a bit, but it’s Christmas, and it balances the decision the Doctor has to make — to essentially commit genocide to protect the Earth. The moment when the Doctor finally speaks the name of his home planet shows us just how old and powerful he truly is. My only regret is that Rose never got to see this. If she had, how would she have reacted? But perhaps it took Donna to bring this element of the Doctor out.
The coda is wonderfully executed, summing up all of the points, and leaving the audience a little worried about David Tennant’s Doctor. Donna is right: this Doctor needs somebody, just as the ninth Doctor did, although to do different things. Until he finds that somebody, how lonely will he be?
I thought it was significant that, when tanks arrive to take out the Rachnoss ship, the radio chatter said “orders from Mr. Saxon.” Yup. Turns out this is the beginning of another season-spanning storyline that will be followed up in the coming year. Have a look at the newspaper the Absorbaloff is reading in Love and Monsters, with the headline “Government deadlock expected to last months” and “Mr. Saxon’s party at 60% in the polls”.
The orders suggest that Mr. Saxon has now replaced Harriet Jones as the prime minister of Britain. And if you will recall the first season’s World War Three, the ninth Doctor said that Harriet Jones was supposed to be a three term prime minister leading Britain into its new golden age. Did the tenth Doctor change history when he brought her down with just six words in The Christmas Invasion? And are his impulsive actions about to bite him in the backside? Stay tuned.
Following up on Cameron’s comment below, I didn’t get the impression that the Doctor had rendered the cab driverless on the motorway, but I did think that he took a considerable chance when he used the bank machine to create enough of a distraction to flee from the robot Santas. There’s no indication that they wouldn’t have fired into the crowd anyway. I mean, in The Christmas Invasion, crowds weren’t a deterrent, although to be fair to the Doctor, he hasn’t been given much time to think, and he wasn’t around when the Santas attacked a public square.