Monday, 11 October 2010

Doctor Who: Turn Left

“You’re not gonna make the world any better by shouting at it.”

Right. This is me back. The final push starts now. Still, it looks as though Series Three of The Sarah Jane Adventures won’t be out on DVD till November 1st, so there would have had to have been a hiatus, and it’s all worked out quite well.

Er, that’s the best excuse I can think of, anyway. Back to Turn Left

It’s the pre-titles sequence, and the Doctor and Donna are nosing about on the Planet Of The Ever So Slightly Dodgy Ethnic Stereotypes. Donna sees a fortune teller (ever so slightly dodgy ethnic stereotyping within slightly dodgy ethnic stereotyping?), who seems uncannily similar to our late friend Chantho. Said fortune teller proceeds to use her alien reality-warping powers to force Donna to re-enact scenes from Planet of the Spiders. So that’s what all the “something on your back” foreshadowing was about.

Billie Piper’s name is in the credits. Ooh! And then it’s straight into that old TV sci-fi stand-by; the alternate universe. This is a trope which never fails, although sadly nothing can ever trump the example of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which had Evil Willow in it. Mmm… Evil Willow…

The episode is of course all about Donna, and thus reliant on Catherine Tate to put in a good performance. She really comes up trumps; this is probably the finest individual performance of any member of the regular cast in Doctor Who ever, even after Tennant’s stellar performance last episode. It’s also the Doctor-lite story, of course, and by far the most successful, being about the Doctor’s absence in a way no previous example has been.

We get to see a parade of recent episodes, starting with the appearance of the Racnoss star, except that this time Donna has been promoted, and so is both materially more successful- for now- and shallower than she would have been. She isn’t there to stop the Doctor, and so he dies. This is what we alternate history geeks (*cough* *cough*) call the “point of departure” or “POD”, and it’s interesting to consider this story as an example of this sub-genre. Because, on the one hand, the world changes entirely because of one apparently minor decision by an apparently ordinary person, yet there is also an awful lot of convergence as regards the alien invasions. It looks as though the butterfly effect hasn’t spread as far as the Adipose or the planet Sto. It’s a nice touch how the Doctors could-have-been companions (especially Martha) all get noble deaths. Of course, the Master never gives his pocket watch a second thought in this reality! It isn’t Harold Saxon who order’s the destruction of the Racnoss ship, I notice.

Oh, and how come the satellite pictures of the falling Titanic seem to be looking from the ground up? Ahem.

This is a very different Donna, at least on the surface: her reaction to being laid off does not present her in a good light, and she shows no interest in Wilf’s alien obsession. But this is the last point in the story in which she’s relatively untested by adversity. And Sylvia’s casually delivered “To be honest, I’ve given up on you” hits like a punch.

Donna is visited a number of times by a very Doctorish Rose, and her reaction is a little more accepting each time, showing how the hardships she suffers bring out her resourcefulness. Things start to get very dark, giving us a glimpse into the bleak world view that lurks behind RTD’s light touch, as also seen last episode (interesting comment by Nuallain on Midnight about RTD using his last chance to write the sort of crowd-pleasing episode which Moffat has so far had the luxury of writing- we seem to have another example of this here). The inhabitants of radiation-soaked southern England become refugees, France has closed its borders, people are billeted, dozens to a property, in the residential streets of northern cities while the army patrols outside; there’s some kind of “emergency government”; and finally the obvious foreigners, including a rather likeable example of the ever so slightly dodgy ethnic stereotypes, are sent off to “labour camps”. It’s not spelled out for the kids, but Wilf knows exactly what’s going on.

Sylvia, by this point, is quite horribly, cripplingly depressed; Jacqueline King portrays this brilliantly. Her final scene with Donna (“I suppose I’ve always been a disappointment.” “…Yeah…”) is understated and utterly heartbreaking.

It’s clear something is coming; not only is Rose warning of “The Darkness” that’s coming. We seem to have heard this before; a very similar phrasing was used in They Keep Killing Suzie. But far more effective is Wilf’s realisation that the stars are going out. So on we zoom towards the final scenes, with a Rose so Doctorish she might as well start calling herself Romana, a dying TARDIS, and a nice little re-enactment of the mirrors scene from Kinda. Catherine Tate really is sublime here in her delivery of every line- I love her desperate denial of her own certain death. Well, sort of certain. It’s a bit timey-wimey.

Everything returns to normal with Donna’s sacrifice, the Doctor notes all the odd coincidences surrounding Donna’s life, and the phrase “Bad Wolf” suddenly appears everywhere for no obvious reason. That’ll be a season finale coming up, then.

Brilliant. Something that could only be attempted once, so it’s great that it was done well. The amount of fanwank was nicely judged, nice but not excessive, and there was just the right amount of dystopian pessimism. And then there’s Catherine Tate. Wow. Best actress in Doctor Who ever. 5/5.

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