Doctor Who has been having a good run, lately. Turn Left marks the fifth episode in a row that I’d be proud to show off to non-fans. The sense we have, as Russell turns in his second top notch script in a row, is that the producers are at the top of their game. Indeed, a part of me is starting to worry how long they can keep it up. The two-part season finale beckons, and given how loaded up Russell has made it, one’s cynicism starts to look for an epic failure to occur.
But, then, Russell Davies has surprised us before, most recently with Midnight, so optimism outweighs cynicism… so far.
Turn Left is this year’s “Doctor-lite” episode of the season, where the stars sit things out for a week due to budgetary and scheduling concerns. This year, the production crew shook things up a bit, splitting up the “lite” duties between two episodes. Midnight was Donna-light, allowing David Tennant to carry the story. Turn Left is now Donna’s moment to shine, and writer Russell T. Davies makes the most of it.
I have a full, spoilery review after the break.
The Doctor and Donna are playing time tourists again, having fun visiting the Chinese-themed planet of Shan Shen. As the Doctor hangs back, Donna is accosted by a persistent fortune teller who offers to read Donna’s fortune for free. Donna obviously never got the memo about fortune tellers offering free fortune tellings being either (a) evil or (b) portents of doom, so she walks into the tent.
Inside, the fortune teller gets very personal in her questions about Donna’s life (I’ll avoid making a credit card company joke here, because Russell avoids it too) and focuses in on the one critical decision that led Donna through a series of events that brought her and the Doctor together in The Runaway Bride. How much would be different if, instead of turning left to go to the temporary job at the company where episode took place, she’d turned right instead for a more modest permanent job in a small photocopying place? Huh? How much? Oh, and please ignore that insect-like chittering behind you. Or the beetle that has just jumped on your back.
What follows is pretty much a staple of science fiction: the road not travelled gets travelled. We see how Donna’s life would have progressed if she’d never met the Doctor. And while this has been done before, Russell makes it fresh, not only by showing Donna’s new life, but giving us some interesting hints at how the Universe reacts to not having the Doctor save it.
Because, somehow, Donna saved the Doctor in The Runaway Bride. As Donna progresses in her new career, the “Christmas Star” roars overhead, and Donna is witness to its destruction. Running towards the carnage (I have to say, I had a bit of a problem seeing a pre-Runaway Bride Donna doing that), she makes it to the Thames and sees the Doctor’s dead body being carted away. Apparently, without her, he’d stayed too long and drowned.
The UNIT soldier on duty (Private Harris, making a welcome return from The Poison Sky. Look alive, Private… oh, sorry) speculates that the incident happened so quickly that the Doctor wasn’t able to prepare himself to regenerate. However, I wonder if something more isn’t at work, here. In The Runaway Bride, the Doctor was still very much in mourning from the forced departure of Rose. I’ve already commented on how changed the Doctor was afterward. Is it possible that the Doctor stayed behind a little too long as part of a death wish? Did Donna remind him that he had things to live for? Russell leaves that to our imagination, although I’m reminded of the scenes on Shan Shen: Donna and the Doctor are completely comfortable with each other, with none of that lovesick longing looks the Doctor shared with Rose. The Doctor and Donna are, well and truly, mates, and she may well prove to be more important to him than Rose or Martha ever were.
The progress of the world following the Doctor’s death makes interesting viewing out of this well-tread science fiction plotline. What I found especially interesting was how other companions ended up filling in for the Doctor as the events of season three and four proceed without him. It’s hinted that the cast of The Sarah Jane Adventures sacrifice themselves to prevent the destruction of half the Earth when Martha Jones’ hospital is pulled to the Moon by the Jadoon. Martha Jones doesn’t survive either. Am I alone at getting quite a chill at the thought of Maria and Clive dying in this one? They’re just kids! As episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures go, it would be such a downer.
Likewise, it takes Torchwood to stop The Sontaran Strategem, killing the remaining members of Jack’s troop, and trapping Jack on the Sontar homeworld (where I’m betting he is not enjoying his involuntary immortality. Strangely enough, I feel less horrified by this outcome, possibly because there is about a 50-50 chance that this is precisely how the show is going to end, and most of the characters of Torchwood have death wishes anyway, so they were probably secretly enjoying themselves in their final moments). This is all very interesting, because it really shows the Doctor and Donna belong to a universe that’s much larger than the walls of the TARDIS. Behind the Doctor are the people he has touched, who will themselves stand ready to save the world if called upon. It hints at an extension of the canon that fleshes out not only Turn Left but the entire show.
This sense is enhanced by Rose Tyler, who makes her enigmatic appearance here, tailing Donna through her new life, waiting for that one moment when Donna realizes that her new world is wrong, and that she needs to do something to get the old life back. Billie Piper is quite Doctor-ish in her role, here, helped by the fact that it’s never explained how she has been pulled out of her locked and bolted universe for this occasion (I’m reasonably confident an explanation will come in the next two episodes).
I’m left to wonder: which companion solved The Shakespeare Code? Who was around to sacrifice themselves to stop The Fires of Pompeii? There have been plenty of companions the Doctor has left on other worlds or in the past. Are they travelling around too?
But then, even the companions can’t be everywhere the Doctor is. As the failures multiply, as the replica Titanic crashes into Buckingham Palace and renders southern England uninhabitable, and as the Adipose invasion shifts to America and devastates that country, Donna’s world crumbles as England slips into poverty and ultimately dictatorship. Russell T. Davies and Graeme Harper do an excellent job showing this fall with a few well-drawn characters and effective visuals. Donna’s family is forced to bed down in Leeds with at least two other families. Donna’s mother (Jacqueline King) and grandfather Wilfred Mott (Bernard Cribbins) do an excellent job representing this descent into despair. Wilfred’s tearful reaction when immigrant Rocco and his family are finally hauled off to labour camps is among the episode’s most horrifying moments, even though the moment is essentially hearsay.
Finally, we’re given a glimpse of a future threat that the Doctor isn’t around to face, as the stars go out on a devastated world completely unable to fend off the next alien invasion. Rose stands ready as Donna finally decides to pull the trigger on this diseased timeline. But the fix can’t happen without sacrifice, and this brings the episode, which had previously been most interesting to see how the world around Donna was faring, back to Donna’s focus.
Catherine Tate and Billie Piper help a lot here. There is a genuine chemistry between the two that makes me believe that Donna would put her trust in Rose even though they haven’t really been introduced. I loved Donna’s reaction to seeing the inside of the TARDIS for the first time, again (it’s a reaction we never really received from The Runaway Bride). The reveal of the beetle is also a masterwork of Catherine Tate’s acting (poor Donna is terrified, but just manages to hold it together) and Billie Piper being grim and enigmatic.
Russell T. Davies’ writing holds up, here, and it’s worth comparing the hints of the episodes to come here from, say, the end of The Planet of the Ood. The line from the stricken fortune teller, “what will you become” is pretty obviously something we should take note of for later, and it’s pretty over the top, but it’s easily overlooked compared to the obvious inserts that were shoehorned into the earlier episodes. The final season-finale reveal is pretty blatant, but effectively done. The Doctor’s blast from the past is an effective launch into the action to come.
Turn Left is not an episode of new ideas. It is a well-worn, well loved plotline that is made fresh by Catherine Tate’s acting, and Russell T. Davies showing the Doctor’s true impact on the canon universe. Despite a nuked London and a lot of shooting, it’s a character-tale, and not just about Donna’s character, even though it’s Donna’s life-and-death decision that puts things right. And knowing what I know of the season finale, it’s a subtle but effective set-up of the conceit that will serve as the foundation of the next two episodes.
- Cameron brings something to my attention at the end of this episode. When alternate-Donna makes her final decision to save the real universe, take a look at which direction she steps, and take note of the title. Subtle move there, Davies!
- I had one unfortunate reaction to a line that wasn’t Russell Davies’ fault. When Donna and Rose had the exchange of “Something’s coming, Donna / What?! / The Darkness!”, one thing that came to mind: Donna should cast magic missle!
- One thing I didn’t expect was the lack of an explicit connection between this episode and the two to follow. I may have had visions of Utopia dancing in my head, but the arrival of Rose builds a connection that isn’t really followed up upon. But, there’s two episodes still to go to provide the explanation for all the connections.
- The off-hand mention of the Trickster recalls The Sarah Jane Adventure’s Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane, suggesting that they’re going further with this. Will the Trickster have a part to play in the season finale? I doubt it, because the finale looks crowded enough already. Maybe that’s material for one of the 2009 specials…