And so we get to this year's "doctor-lite" episode. The doctor-lite episode is a means of filming a thirteen-episode + Christmas special series each year without it straining at David Tennant's schedule, allowing the crew to film two episodes at the same time. In the previous two years, the doctor-lite episode has also been companion-lite. "Love and Monsters" in the second series, penned by Russell T. Davies, was a hilarious celebration of the nerdy world of Doctor Who fans, here a group of individuals with a real-life fascination with the mystery of the doctor whose world was devastated by the "absorbaloff" played by the wonderful Peter Kay. Last year, the doctor-lite episode was the sublime "Blink", penned by Steven Moffat, the future show-runner, in what turned out to be one of the best episodes of all time, rightly rewarded with a BAFTA. This year, "Turn Left" was as different from "Blink" as " Blink" was from "Love and Monsters". Since Catherine Tate had already had her week off, in the previous episode "Midnight", another innovation, this year's doctor-lite for the first time became companion-heavy. This was Donna's episode, and it was a triumph. It now seems like an aeon ago since the nay-sayers were worrying about the choice of Catherine Tate to play the doctor's companion in this series (Not me!). Even Simon Mayo, in an interview with Freema Agyeman, felt obliged to stick in a dig about the choice of Catherine Tate as companion for the (then) forthcoming series. Well, Donna has been a revelation and even the nay-sayers have been won over.
This episode used a favourite idea of science fiction, and one already exploited in earlier series of Doctor Who, especially the second of the new era (2006), the parallel universe. But this was not the parallel universe of the second series but rather a new parallel universe generated by Donna making a fatal decision at a literal crossroads (well, a literal T-junction). It is the exploration of alternative outcomes that makes Sliding Doors and The Butterfly Effect such great films. But as so often, Russell T. Davies borrows a great idea but finds a way to exploit it in the context of a developing TV series -- he does things here that you can't do in film. It's one of the many reasons that I think RTD is such a great writer -- he understands contemporary television better than anyone. Unlike many writers, he does not see TV as the poor man's cinema. He loves TV, and finds ever fresh ways to do interesting things that are unique to the platform.
So here, the long-lasting TV series provides the invitation to reimagine its own recent past, to ask the question, what would have happened if Donna had not met the doctor back in the Christmas of 2006? What would the last eighteen months have looked like? Where Sliding Doors has to set up its own back-story within the first twenty minutes or so of the film, here we have had two series worth of back-story, the entire 2007 and most of the 2008 series of Doctor Who. So we don't need to spend any time on Donna's story over the last eighteen months. We already know all about that. The entire episode can look at what her life would have been like if she had turned right. And then, of course, this raises the huge issue that her meeting with the doctor had, in effect, changed history. And so we get this fantastic review of a life without the doctor and the devastation that it has brought. This is a doctor-lite episode in which the doctor is consipicuous by his absence. It reminds me of one of those ridiculous death-of-God sermons about how God can be tangibly absent. And I am already enough of a geek about new Who to find it dead exciting to see great moments from the last year and more revisited, but this time turning out so much worse, all the more so when these things are happening in the background, with Donna's traumas taking place as the key action.
Once again Bernard Cribbins was brilliant as Wilf, and Jacqueline King, as Donna's mother, was wonderful, and one of the most memorable scenes was her staring into the distance in the house in Leeds, completely forlorn, with Donna in soft focus behind her. The fact that the camera kept her in focus for seconds longer than we would normally expect brought home that this character was at her lowest ebb.
I haven't even mentioned the return of Rose yet, and I loved the fact that Russell T. Davies chose this way of reintroducing Rose to the series, an episode in which Donna was the star. Billie Piper whizzes into view in the credits at the beginning of the episode, but it is Catherine Tate we remember. Rose becomes an enigma, and we are looking for more in the next episode.
I loved every moment of this episode; the goose-pimple moments came at the end with Donna's willingness to travel in time, and Murray Gold's music here:
And yes, as many others have said, the beetle was crap, the only thing that detracted from a fantastic episode. My favourite review this week is on Behind the Sofa, Beetlemania by Iain Hepburn; excerpt:
This was a tremendous turn from Tate, as we see a very different Donna - one clearly undermined and almost downtrodden by her mother’s disappointment in her. Who remains wrapped up in her own little world, even as the rest of the universe collapses in around her. Donna not meeting the Doctor might have killed him physically, but it also killed her spirit.How can this be bettered in episode 12? Once again, a clear five TARDIS groans.
Her finest scene in this episode? There’s so many to pick from, but for me it’s that moment when realisation slowly dawns, as the foreign family sharing the refugee home in Leeds is sent to a ‘labour camp’, what that actually means besides her own family having more room.