Last week, I described the psychologically terrifying Midnight as Russell T Davies’s
“finest script from four years of Doctor Who”.
I also pondered whether
“he’ll better it in the next three weeks.”
With Turn Left, he gave that challenge a spirited go and delivered a confident, witty and thoughtful piece that possibly just nudges ahead of Midnight. Turn Left provides a sideways glance at the Doctor Who universe by revisiting events we’ve seen in the last few years and puts Catherine Tate front and centre while David Tennant was off filming Midnight. It also brings Billie Piper back to the Doctor Who fold, and while I’m not usually fussed over that event, I can see why some may have been a gibbering wreck over their fish fingers and chips on Saturday night.
The premise of Turn Left is simple - what if Donna had never met the Doctor? What if on the morning she was due to turn up at HC Clements to start her new job, leading to the events of The Runaway Bride, Donna turned right instead of left and landed a different job? She never met the Doctor, she never ended up beneath the Thames on Christmas Day, wasn’t there to help the Time Lord defeat the Racnoss. Basically, what if the Doctor died there and then?
This is the nexus point used by a sinister creature on a distant alien planet, and thus the past (and the future) is rewritten around Donna - and that’s BAD, because Donna is a time traveller…
And that’s all there is to Turn Left - the question is asked, and now we see familiar events play out without the Doctor’s involvement. It’s utterly chilling to see the sonic screwdriver drop from a cold hand beneath a blanket as UNIT trooper reports the Time Lord’s death. It’s even more chilling to hear about the deaths of Martha Jones and Sarah Jane Smith during the events previously seen in Smith and Jones on the moon. Touchstones of Doctor Who wiped out because the Doctor wasn’t there. Shudder.
And this is why Turn Left strikes so much resonance with me - it shows how key, how central the Doctor is to everything. By not being there, he perversely becomes even more important.
And throughout we have Donna going through life, unaware that her fate could have been so different. Except for when somebody looks at her in revulsion, pointing at her and screaming ‘There’s something on your back!”. That’s all a but rum, isn’t it? And what about the blonde girl who keeps turning up at the most oddest moments (who appears to have an odd speech defect, but that’s another story). Why is she taking so much interest in Donna? And why does she tell her to get out of London at Christmas…?
…because the starship Titanic crash lands on top of Buckingham Palace, turning London into a radioactive slagheap and millions of people into refugees! The shots of a mushroom cloud erupting in the far distance as Donna and her family watch in horror are amongst the most chilling ever seen in Doctor Who. Like Midnight, the scares in this series don’t always have to come from a man in a rubber suit.
From this key point, the episode runs into high gear - England is brought to its knees, and descends into a military state with some dangerous undertones and comment threaded into the narrative. And again the blonde girl is there, confidently predicting that Donna will go with her when the stars start to go out. And lo and behold, the stars start to go out…
Turn Left belongs to Catherine Tate, pure and simple. Her performance here displays just how spoilt we’ve been over the previous ten episodes to have such a cracking actress in the role. It’s always been easy to dismiss Tate as light entertainment fodder, but the way she recaptures the original Donna, the bolshy, shouty pain we saw in The Runaway Bride shows how much layering she has built into the character. It’s a real character performance. As the true nature of what is happening to Donna is revealed by Rose, and what she must do to change things back, Tate breaks your heart, and it’s sad to think she may be coming to end of her Doctor Who journey (I’m saying nowt, just guessing…)
The episode is also blessed with fantastic turns from Bernard Cribbins as Wilf and Jacqueline King as Sylvia. Cribbins is as effortless and lovable as ever, but King is superb, giving Sylvia’s descent into despair and depression over the state of the world around her a poignant sadness. Of all the companions’ mums, Sylvia might just have become my favourite (sorry Jackie, I love another!).
And of course there’s Billie Piper. And her appearance here honestly leaves me a bit non-plussed. I simply don’t get why Rose is so special. Out of all the new Who girls, she’s at the bottom of my list thanks to the damage done in the second series when she was played as a smug, spoilt little brat. Others have come along since and done the job far better, so Rose’s return was never really going to interest me all that much. I do, however, appreciate that Piper was an integral part of the early success of new Who, and for many she was the first companion. That’s kind of special (I know how I feel about Sarah), so I’m happy to step aside on this point and stop being an old Scrooge.
My one down point, aside from reservations over Rose, is that bloody beetle strapped to Donna’s back, the cause of all the alternate universe malarkey. It’s a great concept, but looks like an unconvincing lump of plastic twitching around a bit. At least they could have smeared it with a bit of Vaseline to make it look a little bit more… slimy. But then beetles aren’t slimy, are they, so perhaps it was convincing after all? Still, it does subscribe to one of the oldest rules of Doctor Who - if the cast play it convincingly, they can sell coal to Geordies, and that’s certainly true here.
Turn Left says as much about Doctor Who’s past as well as its future. It’s a doom-laden portent of things to come, and the thrill of that cliffhanger and the return of the Bad Wolf signature sent shivers down my back. The next two weeks promises to be the maddest, craziest, exciting end to any series of Doctor Who.
I can’t wait!