I’m glad to say that I was not one of those who were wary when it was announced Catherine Tate would rejoin the TARDIS for a full series as the new companion. While her character, Donna, had many shrewish moments in the 2006 Christmas Special, come the end of the episode Tate demonstrated insight and depth that I wanted to see more of.
Now, after a year with Freema Agyeman’s Martha at David Tennant’s side, we get to see what life could entail with Donna in her stead. If the first episode of this new series is any indication, the words ‘roller coaster’ spring to mind.
Head writer Russell T Davies is now a past master at the “companion introduction” episode. With Rose and Martha alike, he used the episode (and the female characters) as a way of also introducing the Doctor to new audiences. Now, though, we are all familiar with Tennant in the role, so there was a lot more space for characterisation, comedy and significantly more plot than in previous series openers.
In the time since we last saw Donna, at first it seems as if she’s turned into a copy of the Doctor, investigating mysterious happenings and sinister companies — a comparison reinforced in the deftly comic opening scenes, with the two leads’ investigations into the malevolent Adipose corporation mirroring one another (and, in a more understated way, Donna’s costume, smart suit and trench coat, echoing her mentor’s). Later, once they have reunited, she tells the Doctor that she was really only doing it in the hope of finding him — although I couldn’t help noticing that she’s really rather good at it.
Without wishing to disrespect misses Piper or Agyeman, it feels as if David Tennant finally has a partner who is approaching an equal, whether character-to-character, or as an actor. Tate is of course known for her comedic talents, and they are used to good effect here. She clearly has the dramatic acting chops to stand up to Tennant, though — and scenes such as those with Donna’s mother, Sylvia (Jacqueline King) more than make up for the occasional strident scene.
Sarah Lancashire puts in an effective turn as the week’s guest villain, although the set-up — alien woman poses as head of a corporation, selling products to an unsuspecting populace as a means of alien infiltration — initially seems uncommonly similar to the very first episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures. The concept of the Adipose creatures, though — small, almost cuddly entities made almost entirely of human fat — is original, and not a little twisted. Sadly, I don’t think they’re quite as creepy as I think we’re supposed to imagine they are, and while the sight of hundreds of the things waddling slowly down the street is certainly a technical accomplishment (achieved using similar CGI software that helped design the war scenes in the Lord of the Rings movies), there’s precious little in the way of threat from them.
Which leaves the sense of real danger — that at any time, a million people in London might find their whole selves turned into fatty creatures — in the hands of three actors, writhing on the floor. They don’t quite manage to pull it off; luckily a spaceship that seems to come straight from the celluloid of ET or Close Encounters of the Third Kind soon arrives to distract us with its pretty lights and stuff.
In the great tradition of panto villains, Lancashire’s Miss Foster ends up as the victim of her own scheme. Her role as Supernanny to the Adipose over now that mummy and daddy have arrived, she is dropped from a great height in a scene which owes more than a little to Chuck Jones and Wile E. Coyote — the momentary pause in mid-air, gravity only kicking in when the character looks down. It’s a nice little touch in an episode which is full of them.
Speaking of which, every series of Doctor Who has had an ongoing theme, from wolves to Torchwood and Mister Saxon. Here, it looks as if there’s something larger going on, as Rose Tyler appears at the end of the episode, only to vanish in front of our eyes. As well as setting up the mystery, it also ties the end of the episode up with its start — the idea that the Doctor is always around the corner from something, or someone, of interest.
Why did Rose vanish? Why was she there in the first place? What happened to a whole species of insect?* And exactly how many hats does Donna have? These questions (well, perhaps not the last one) may well prove pertinent in the weeks to come.
From next week onwards, Mark Wright will review each episode here on TV Today. Next week: Titter ye not, as the Doctor and Donna head up Pompeii way — and it’s Volcano Day…
* Assuming Donna meant insects, that is. She could have meant the letter. They do seem in short supply around here…