Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 68 (The Catherine Tate Show)

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There’s a decision we have to make going into The Runaway Bride, which is, in effect, the same decision we make about The Web of Fear - namely whether or not we’re going to treat the episode as extra important because it includes a character who was brought back later in a retooled and far more popular form. Grudgingly following the precedent of The Web of Fear, we should at least acknowledge it, while simultaneously explaining why this is transparently not the way the episode was read in 2006. Still, there’s a question worth squaring away up front: why is it that a comedian known for playing a variety of grotesques came to be what is, by a significant chunk of audience, the greatest companion of the new series?

First we should understand Catherine Tate herself. Or perhaps more accurately, we should understand David Tennant, as it is very specifically his Doctor that Donna ends up being a spectacularly good companion for. It is difficult, if not impossible to imagine Donna pairing well with Matt Smith’s kinetic and physical performance, nor with Eccleston’s often brooding portrayal. (Although arguably she’s exactly what Paul McGann always needed, and by arguably I mean “is Lucie Miller bovvered?”) It is something about the interaction of Donna with Ten specifically - or, more broadly, given that they’ve also produced compelling turns at both sketch comedy and Shakespeare, about the interaction of Catherine Tate and David Tennant.

We have previously discussed the way in which Tennant’s performance is based on a visible density of decisions. That is to say, when Tennant plays a part, his approach is usually to pack every scene and every line development with as many moments where he makes a visible decision, particularly a decision to change what he’s doing, as possible. The result is a very mannered performance, though not at all in a bad way. When one is watching David Tennant, however, one is always aware that one is watching a performance. There’s not a sense of Tennant trying to maintain an illusionary unity between actor and character. His performances are based profoundly on the longstanding British acting tradition in which the point is not the authenticity of the character but the business of communicating information to the audience.

Another way of putting all of this is that Tennant’s performance is not entirely dissimilar to a comedic performance, with particular similarity to comics who develop characters. A third way is that Tennant is, as actors go, an extremely cerebral one. He’s the sort of actor who says, with all seriousness, that as a child he had his parents explain what television actors were, and him immediately realizing that was what he wanted to do, and furthermore saying that he understood “the difference between the fantasy and reality of that, and that making it even more exciting.” He’s profoundly analytic in his approach.

All of which is to say that, quite separate from the question of which of his costars is the most skilled actor, on the basic level of technique, Catherine Tate was obviously a natural fit for him. A comedian who writes her own material and whose comedy is based on creating characters that need to be quickly defined with a mix of catchphrases, visual cues, and subtle shifts in comic timing is, in many ways, the perfect counterpoint to Tennant. Both of them are performers to whom the subtleties of timing and the structure of a scene are second nature, and who tailor their performances consciously around them. The result of this is that if you put the two of them in a scene together and hand them some decent repartee, they’re going to sparkle.

And crucially, Catherine Tate, like any comedian, is completely at the mercy of her costar in a sketch. There’s not a comic actor in the world who can nail a scene to the wall without an adequate straight man, and a good straight man can get a comedian to the laugh even with sub-par material. Not for nothing are Catherine Tate’s two most popular characters the ones who get Matthew Horne as their straight man. For all that her 2007 sketch with Tony Blair for Comic Relief was a bit of high concept brilliance (and it was), the scene itself is actually a bit excruciating because Tony Blair has no serious capacity for comic acting and doesn’t actually give Tate the foundation she needs to land her performance.

The fact that she did a sketch with Tony Blair gets at the other important thing to realize about Catherine Tate, which is that she was a massive cultural figure when she was cast in Doctor Who. The final shot of Doomsday carried a real cultural weight for the simple reason that it contained three separate things, all of them at this point about equally well known in Britain, none of them supposed to be in the same shot: the TARDIS, a wedding dress, and Catherine Tate. It was a damn good bit of setup.

And this is the first and foremost reason Davies hired her. He needed a celebrity cameo for Christmas, and she was a massive celebrity. Russell T Davies is every bit the impresario that Barry Letts and John Nathan-Turner was, and he came to the same exact conclusion that absolutely anybody with an ounce of television production sense would have. He didn’t want to introduce Martha in the Christmas special because then he wouldn’t have a debut hook for Series Three. And he needed some sort of Christmas special hook because, well, first of all, that’s how Christmas specials work, and second of all because there had to be some sort of tease at the end of Doomsday so that it didn’t feel like the end of Doctor Who, which, given the format’s dependence on Rose since its return, it otherwise would have. So clearly it’s time for a big celebrity cameo, and since it’s not like the series is ever getting Kylie Minogue or anything, a comedian is the sensible choice. Having already used Peter Kay for Love and Monsters, Catherine Tate was the next sensible choice.

But where Peter Kay had, like the Blue Peter-designed Abzorbaloff, been used to render accessible the most experimentally weird script of the new series, here Catherine Tate is used in something quite like her own element. Donna is very much a Catherine Tate character. Which, somewhat belatedly, brings us around to the topic of The Catherine Tate Show, a sketch comedy revue in which Catherine Tate plays a number of characters, and, more broadly, to the question of what the show is like. It is, for the most part, a well-executed sketch show. Like most sketch shows the question of where to end sketches is often tricky, but Tate has an instinct for a good punchline that usually rescues her. “Bonnie Langford,” in particular, is delivered with breathtaking relish.

But what’s most notable, as with any show along these lines, are the sorts of characters and setups that Tate creates. Most of Tate’s characters are grotesques, both conceptually and physically. Tate tends to create physical frames for her characters that she contorts herself into filling, and it’s telling that her two most iconic characters, Lauren and Nan, are also two with particularly drastic physical transformations. You can tell the moment you look at Tate playing either character what character she’s playing.

This fact is crucial to understanding the setup of The Runaway Bride. The joke is not merely that Catherine Tate appears in the TARDIS, but that she does so in a wedding dress - that is, that she’s visibly playing some new Catherine Tate character. But there’s more connoted in that deceptively simple image than even that sums up. Catherine Tate’s characters, broadly speaking, have two defining traits: a tendency to dominate scenes through sheer force and bravado and a pursuit of social acceptance that, in a large part due to the former tendency, they are never going to have.

Let’s take Lauren and Nan, since they are the two iconic characters, and since they are in most regards so very and profoundly different. With Nan the humor is in the outrageous things she says, and in a sort of excessive sincerity, whereas with Lauren the humor is actually in what she doesn’t say, and in particular in the instances where, in amidst her torrent of outraged “bovvereds,” she demonstrates that she’s smarter than she acts. (And, more broadly, in the fact that she very obviously is deeply bovvered by whatever is, at any given moment, not bovvering her.) Nan is played with a broad physicality, dominating the screen, whereas Lauren recedes into a small bit of space and defends it at all cost. And yet in the end both of them are basically the same joke - the socially crass character who angrily and loudly seeks approval in such a way as to ensure they won’t get it.

All of which is to say that the very first thing that anyone is going to think when they see Catherine Tate in a wedding dress is that we’re dealing with some sort of Bridezilla joke. Actually, there’s another whiff of unpleasantness here - Tate is essentially playing the nightmare bride. The central joke, at least in The Runaway Bride, is that you would have to be out of your skull to want to marry a shrieking and unpleasant woman like her, and that a giant spider is a preferable consort. (Although the fact that she’s carnivorous means that Lance’s options are, in fact, an unpleasant hag and a vagina dentata. It’s almost like there’s some sort of underlying idea that marrying a woman is some sort of hellish outcome.) But equally, that joke is exactly what you’d expect from the basic image of Catherine Tate in a wedding dress. And it’s the main gag of The Runaway Bride - Catherine Tate is loudmouthed, slightly irritating, and browbeats the Doctor into an often stupefied silence. Which is to say that one is supposed to spend much of the episode thinking “my God, how did this woman ever get engaged?”

This being a drama, and Doctor Who at that, this is eventually explained, and the answer is not entirely charitable. She got engaged, as it happens, because she was terribly thick and didn’t realize that Lance despised her. But there’s a real problem with this scene that highlights the kind of awkward fit this particular collision of Catherine Tate with Doctor Who. In a Catherine Tate sketch, which is what this is basically written as, the humor is that Lance would be right. This isn’t out of line in the least; Donna is very much written as a Catherine Tate character (although she’s created by Davies), and we’re supposed to laugh at the grotesque obliviousness of Catherine Tate characters. We’re supposed to think everything Lance says.

Except that in Doctor Who we have to take Lance to be the villain (although ultimately the moral judgment of “he didn’t deserve that” is settled on). We’re supposed to side with Donna. Which is difficult because nothing in the preceding chunk of episode has pointed us towards anything other than finding Donna to be a fairly annoying Catherine Tate character. But the problem is in the specifics. Tennant and Tate are a glorious pairing even here. The problem is that Tate needs to be given something more than a sketch comedy character in order to function well in a dramatic setting. The problem isn’t in Catherine Tate in the TARDIS, it’s in the reductive obviousness of casting Tate as Bridezilla. Putting Catherine Tate opposite David Tennant is at once straightforward and terribly clever. Putting her opposite Tennant as little more than a sketch character who’s expected to carry dramatic weight, however, was always doomed to at least some degree of failure. The problem, in a nutshell, is that Davies didn’t realize just how good an actress he had in Catherine Tate, and initially wrote Donna as a mere sketch character when Catherine Tate was more than capable of playing a real one.

Comments

Matthew Kilburn 3 years, 8 months ago

Beautifully argued encapsulation of the central problem of the episode.

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Seb Patrick 3 years, 8 months ago

I still remember the howl of anguish with which me and my friends greeted her appearance at the end of Doomsday, entirely because of how much we hated her sketch show.

I like her a lot more these days (and not just in Doctor Who, but in comedy as well - she's very good in the inoffensively decent Big School), but still can't abide the sketch show.

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Matthew Celestis 3 years, 8 months ago

Great analysis

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The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca 3 years, 8 months ago

I'm of two minds here: on the one hand, I like Donna, especially her tragic character arc. On the other hand, the first seven episodes of Series 4 (eight if we count Voyage) are the nadir of the Davies years, and the season finale is horribly overwrought in the plot department, with a farcical villainous plan, and so many characters that the thing barely drags its bloated, two-partner carcass over the finshing line of the credits. The Doctor's Daughter? The Poison Sky? Planet of the Ood? The Doctor's endless, brooding "I don't like guns' face because he apparently became Batman after Martha - it's not the sentiment I disagree with, but the holy-than-thou attitude, as though he never noticed UNIT carried guns before now. Ugh. Ugh, ugh, ugh. I stopped watching after the Doctor's Daughter, and didn't return to the series until a few weeks before the debut of the Eleventh Hour.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 8 months ago

I absolutely adore Planet of the Ood and Unicorn and the Wasp, and have no beef with Fires of Pompeii. The Sontarans get a pass on the "clearly the rubbish monster two-parter at the start of the season is a thing they're doing deliberately, so there must be some audience this appeals to," I've no objection to Partners in Crime, and The Doctor's Daughter... is the weak part of a really rather fantastic season.

And I adore the The Stolen Earth/Journey's End almost as much as the British public did.

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Bennett 3 years, 8 months ago

There seems to be a fan consensus that Donna's appearance in The Runaway Bride is an abberation; that she is written there purely as a "mere sketch character". I think there's more to it than that.

I agree that Donna is clearly written as a sketch character for the first half of The Runaway Bride. But after Lance's tirade the sketch ends, and she is cast adrift.

The beauty of this is that sketch characters cannot exist outside of the confines of the sketch, because there they would become a tragic figure rather than a comic one. We can never see Nan sitting quietly on her own, mourning the life she is rapidly losing. We can never see Lauren gazing into a mirror, contemplating self-harm. But in The Runaway Bride, Davies chooses (I believe delibrately) to take Donna past her Sketch's End.

I don't think it's a coincidence that in the very first scene after her "sketch" ends, Donna gets her first glimpse into the vastness of space - her boundaries are breaking down and the Universe is opening up before her. And when we leave Donna she commits to travelling - to keep her worldview broad and make sure she doesn't get trapped in another sketch.

That is a strong enough arc for a character only designed to appear in one special. The only difference I see between Runaway Donna and her Series 4 counterpart is time. And though I wouldn't wish away Martha's travels, every time I watch the final scene of The Runaway Bride part of me wishes that Donna would take up the Doctor's offer.

Oh well. Good things come to those who wait.

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Matthew Blanchette 3 years, 8 months ago

Just because the public loved it does not mean it's good. Remember that, Phil.

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Ununnilium 3 years, 8 months ago

Just because you hated it doesn't mean it's bad, though.

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Ununnilium 3 years, 8 months ago

Yesssssss

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BerserkRL 3 years, 8 months ago

I loved the sketch show; her ability to vanish into a character is amazing. I was always a little sad to see her on Doctor Who reduced to just one persona.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 8 months ago

I think for a BBC One show designed to appeal to a mass family audience, it might actually mean that it's good. There are many ways for Doctor Who to be good, but being the #1 show of the week with a 91 AI seems to me to unquestionably be one of them.

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Adam Riggio 3 years, 8 months ago

I get the feeling I'll have to pay close attention to the comment fields when we start season four, because I'll have to be one of its staunch defenders.

Mind you, I didn't really get the two-part finale anyway until I realized that it's Davies' kitchen sink (and bathroom sink, and portable washbasin, and chamber pot) method of building big ludicrous epics. This was the finale that was finally too much for him to handle as a writer, which he admits in The Writer's Tale. But I've come to appreciate the insane ambition of its mad excess, and the fun of a reunion of characters we actually remember.

One thing I'm not looking forward to in the comments is the coming explosion of inarticulate haters and internet bullies who will emerge to shout down everything Phil and his more intelligent commenters will have to say from season four onward.

"Catherine Tate's a cow who wrecked my show!"
"Steven Moffat is a sexist pig who probably beats his wife!"
"River Song is nothing but a Moffat sex doll!"
"Matt Smith is a babyfaced tool who plays with bow ties instead of acting and I hate his chin!"
"Shut the fuck up Phil! You just think you're smarter than everyone else!"

Not looking forward to any of that. But I'll keep reading the main posts at least.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 8 months ago

We've made it this far without the comment section turning awful. I think we might just make it across the line.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 8 months ago

Between her first and second appearances as Donna Noble, Catherine Tate appeared in a Doctor Who sketch with David Tennant: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WxB1gB6K-2A

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Anton B 3 years, 8 months ago

I didn't think there could be anything to add to Phil's pin sharp analysis and then there's this. Well done sir!

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BerserkRL 3 years, 8 months ago

Phil Sandifer is worse than Hitler.

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Anton B 3 years, 8 months ago

'...when Tennant plays a part, his approach is usually to pack every scene and every line development with as many moments where he makes a visible decision, particularly a decision to change what he’s doing, as possible. The result is a very mannered performance, though not at all in a bad way. When one is watching David Tennant, however, one is always aware that one is watching a performance. There’s not a sense of Tennant trying to maintain an illusionary unity between actor and character. His performances are based profoundly on the longstanding British acting tradition in which the point is not the authenticity of the character but the business of communicating information to the audience.'

Excellent observation. I really am looking forward to your Season Four posts now.

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 8 months ago

Your optimism lightens my heart. I think when we hit the Moffat Era we're going to get a bit more of a firestorm.

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 8 months ago

On the other hand, that's balanced out by getting to see the Tenth Doctor with a companion that is bar-none his best match.

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Adam Riggio 3 years, 8 months ago

Which will be the subject of an extra essay in the Tennant ebook volume?

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Adam Riggio 3 years, 8 months ago

Phil Sandifer is worse than Obama.




;)

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David Anderson 3 years, 8 months ago

I rather liked Donna in this, but I think you're right that we're not meant to. Mind,you, somebody else who probably liked Donna in this is Moffat.
Is it bad to defend Moffat by attacking Davies? Am I going to do so anyway? I don't think that there's anything as unpleasant as, 'Honour and obey,' in Moffat. If only because Moffat clearly thinks that the ability to browbeat the Doctor into a stunned silence is at worst a charming character quirk.

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Daibhid C 3 years, 8 months ago

Phil Sandifer is worse than Ian Levine.

I ... I took it too far, didn't I?

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Daibhid C 3 years, 8 months ago

"There are many ways for Doctor Who to be good, but being the #1 show of the week with a 91 AI seems to me to unquestionably be one of them."

Oh, lord, this takes me back. I remember spending many months on RADWM arguing with someone who insisted there was an objective definition of "good" that the EDAs were failing to live up to, and that this had nothing to do with mere popularity or whether people enjoyed them. (He insisted that this included whether or not *he* enjoyed them, although it was hard to believe the fact he clearly didn't wasn't influencing his opinion.)

The argument petered out (or possibly I gave up and killfiled it) before I heard this Terry Pratchett quote, which I would definitely have fired at him:

"I read Tolkien now and notice the gaps, the evasions, all the 'bad' things... but few books have had the effect on me that TLOTR had when I was thirteen. Is he better or worse, for example, than Anita Brookner, widely regarded as a 'fine writer' although terribly dull to read? What is a writer supposed to *achieve*?

Before I rank Tolkien, I'd like to know how the scoring is being done."

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Matthew Blanchette 3 years, 8 months ago

Phil Sandifer is the anti-John Wiles. You know, like Anti-Man from "Planet of Evil".

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peeeeeeet 3 years, 8 months ago

What surprises my when I watch any of the sketch show now is how much more finely crafted several of the characters are than Donna Noble. Donna would wind up being the best written companion of the Davies years, because she pretty much had to be - such a controversial choice could have been as damaging as Bonnie, and for the same reasons if he hadn't brought his A-game. Even so, she gives a performance notably broader than in her sketch shows and closer to the looser comedy dramas she'd been in (like that one where she and Dawn French were a couple? Bill Bailey was in it). Only in Turn Left does she consistently find any precision, and there she pretty much had to, because giving a careless performance when the whole story revolves around your character would have been odd. It's a weird period - I love the idea of the Doctor-Donna, but she plays it like she's just doing it for the money. It's almost the exact opposite of Martha; because no one was expecting Freema to fail, the writers slackened their belts, and the result was a generic companion with a few broad sketched-in traits who was never quite the same person when she went away and when she came back again. Freema was left with the thankless task of trying to make the character work, and I think she did an effective job, especially in Torchwood. But she shouldn't have had to.

If only there'd been a point after Rose's exit when both the actor and the writers had been really trying, every episode. They could have really got somewhere. Instead we get another two in a string of near-misses.

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Marionette 3 years, 8 months ago

Just out of the idle curiosity of having faced a similar problem very recently, I was wondering if you'd ever had to write a piece on something you thoroughly detested, purely because it was required by the remit you had set yourself.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 8 months ago

Like The Twin Dilemma or The Celestial Toymaker?

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encyclops 3 years, 8 months ago

I haven't (yet) seen Tate in anything but Doctor Who, but I've just finished "Planet of the Ood" in my rewatch, and what I've found so far is that she was much less obnoxious in "The Runaway Bride" than I'd remembered. I actually quite feel for her when Lance betrays her and I like the fact that she's not designed to be effortlessly easy to love.

Which is why I'm a little more disappointed with her after that than I'd expected to be. She's still prickly, but she seems to turn on a dime to be either starry-eyed or ultra-compassionate. Her depth of feeling for the doomed people of Pompeii and for the enslaved and mutilated Ood is certainly not misplaced, but it feels underearned and overacted. We're supposed to see a transition from someone who regards ancient Romans from the perspective of a tourist and someone who's only slightly defensive about sweatshop clothing to a companion who's even more passionate and moral than the Doctor on the issues of historical doom and future slavery, but to me it feels as though we jump from here to there and skip right over the epiphany...because, I guess, Donna is impulsive and mercurial, and these are very obviously the Right Ways to Feel. I'd just remembered these moments on my first viewing as being invigorating, and this time around they just felt melodramatic and false.

If I can get through the Sontaran two-parter and "The Doctor's Daughter" I think it'll be smooth sailing to the finale. I hope those are better than I remember.

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Travis Butler 3 years, 8 months ago

I came into these episodes knowing absolutely nothing about Catherine Tate, so her entrance at the end of Doomsday was a complete 'WTF?!?' - even seeing comments about Tate being a popular comic figure in the UK didn't give me anything to go on. This post finally explains it. Thank you.

I'll save comments on Runaway Bride itself for the episode... I'll just say here that even knowing the background doesn't really help her initial appearance at the end of Doomsday; knowing why she barges into the scene as a loud, very irritating character doesn't change the fact that it was a very loud, annoying character. ^^;;

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David Anderson 3 years, 8 months ago

I think Planet of the Ood was much better when it was called written by Baker and Martin and called The Mutants.

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Marionette 3 years, 8 months ago

The Twin Dilemma was what sprang to mind. I should go back and see how you tackled it. In my own blog I'm trying to make interesting a piece about a story that the more I look into it the more I despise it. 4000 words and I still haven't finished the damn thing yet.

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David Thiel 3 years, 8 months ago

As with Travis, I'd never heard of Tate so for me I couldn't see why the neckbeards were raising such a fuss about her mussing up their "Doctor Who."

She went on to become my favorite--bar none--of nuWho's companions, and to this day I'm still upset by her ultimate fate. I liked her in part because she's much closer to my own age, and because--after Rose and Martha--it was a relief to have a companion who *wasn't* lusting after the Doctor. (Don't get me wrong: I liked that the show went there after decades of "no hanky-panky in the TARDIS," but was glad to see it put on hold for a bit.)

I think that what I liked about her most was that she--even more than Rose--embodied the "ordinary" person. Rose might've been a simple shopgirl, but she was also youthful and beautiful and had her whole life ahead of her. Donna had every bit as humble a career, but also had to deal with being middle-aged and lonely. The Doctor's arrival opens her up to a world far beyond the limited horizons she's been conditioned to expect, and she enthusiastically dives in.

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encyclops 3 years, 8 months ago

About that ultimate fate: I think the new series would be even better if it would commit to writing out companions rather than finding ways to kill them without killing them.

I get that travelling with the Doctor is supposed to be awesome, but look, if this show is now more about characters and moments than worlds and plots, maybe it should pay more attention to the ultimate character moment: the one where you outgrow Neverland and find a reason to stop travelling and commit to something that means something to you. I would have been fascinated to know what Rose or Donna or Amy would have come to care about so much that it was worth stepping out of the TARDIS for the last time in order to live for. I recognize this is made more difficult by the fact that the Doctor saves worlds and it's hard to find something more important to care about than that -- except that sometimes saving a world has to be done the slow way, one assumes, say by curing one Lazar or freeing one Tharil at a time.

Instead we've had death by parallel universe, death by amnesia, death by time paradox, and now death by splintering through time (at least until November), and of the main companions only Martha has left of her own accord, in a damp squib sort of way. These tragic endings are compelling, I'll give them that, but wouldn't it mean something if there were a better reason to fall back into the world than to stay out of it? Wouldn't that be as compelling a story to tell, if it were done right?

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David Anderson 3 years, 8 months ago

Small quibble: Clara is being rescued in the last scene, so she's not even dead until November.
But I agree with the main point.
(I think the problem is partly the idea that if something isn't shown on television it doesn't happen. So if we've never seen the Doctor revisiting Sarah Jane then the Doctor hasn't ever revisited Sarah Jane. So there has to be a diegetic reason for why we never see the Doctor drop in on an old companion.)

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Dave 3 years, 8 months ago

Oh shit, it's a transgression-of-genre-and-narrative-boundaries reading. Ball's in your court, Sandifer.

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Scott 3 years, 8 months ago

"There are many ways for Doctor Who to be good, but being the #1 show of the week with a 91 AI seems to me to unquestionably be one of them."

Here I have to disagree. This is certainly an indication that "Doctor Who" is successful at doing what it does (and, granted, that lots of people are enjoying it), but not that what it does is particularly good. If we take this line of logic too far, the "Transformers" film series becomes the pinnacle of human artistic achievement.

(It also becomes a way of beating down opposing viewpoints -- "it's good, these numbers say so, you're wrong, shut up" isn't exactly a viewpoint that is unheard of on Gallifrey Base and the like.)

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 8 months ago

I will happily grant that the Transformers film series is very, very well-designed for its purpose, and that its purpose is not a bad one as such. That I don't particularly enjoy it does not seem to me to change the fact that it's designed to do a reasonable thing, and it does this thing very well. That seems at least one definition of "good."

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ferret 3 years, 8 months ago

This goes for me too - I'd moved to Australia the year before Nu-Who began, so by the time Doomsday came around I was entirely adrift from British current affairs and popular culture (plus Australia was by this point still 6 months behind in broadcasting, I think).

Catherine Tate was a complete unknown to me (whether her show was on ABC or not I have no idea, but if it was she had no public impact beyond it) and came as a breath of fresh air - finally someone who could be on a par with the Doctor instead of fawning around him.

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ferret 3 years, 8 months ago

Interesting that it's so Shakespeare-heavy, especially in her quite lengthy rant - considering they went on to do Shakespeare together too.

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ferret 3 years, 8 months ago

I rather enjoyed The Poison Sky two-parter, not sure what's causing all the apparent dislike for it. Still, plenty of time to re-watch before we get to that.

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Cyndy Cooper 3 years, 8 months ago

Donna is my least favorite companion and possibly my least favorite character on television ... which is completely and instantly explained by the fact that I don't find Catherine Tate characters or her style of comedy funny. If someone does find her independent work worthwhile I'd expect them to like her equally in Doctor Who.

What I don't understand is how many of the people who cite Donna as their favorite companion don't mention either her humor or her chemistry with David Tennant. They instead point things out like "she's competent" and "she's independent" and "she doesn't take the Doctor's crap" and -- most of all -- "she doesn't fall pathetically in love with the Doctor."

These justifications mystify me. Three of them apply to most companions from the TBaker era through the present, and the latter isn't a strength of Donna so much as a weakness of Martha and second season Rose. Leaving me ... mystified, as I find it hard to find virtues in Donna besides comedy-if-you-like-that-kind-of-comedy.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 8 months ago

I'll suggest that the appeal lies in the fact that she's ordinary. In a way that Rose, who never really stops being Billie Piper, gorgeous pop star, can never be. Donna is portrayed as at or near middle age, is single, is not really sexualized (which does set her apart from... erm... every single other televised female companion, actually, save maybe Mel). She's not designed to be a Doctor Who companion. She's not a fetish object. She's a woman having adventures on her own terms.

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Matthew Blanchette 3 years, 8 months ago

...when were Barbara or Susan ever sexualized? :-S

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 8 months ago

Susan? Since she appeared as a strange otherworldly child swaying seductively to John Smith and the Common Men.

Barbara is trickier, but she's at least sexualized in The Romans.

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brownstudy 3 years, 8 months ago

Excellent. Thank you for this.

Also, Donna in this episode is the first companion to tell the Doctor he shouldn't travel alone. Many reviewers thought this was deep when Amy said it, but Donna had gone there long before.

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storiteller 3 years, 8 months ago

What's fascinating watching Broadchurch is that David Tennant isn't playing his part like this. I thought I'd be thinking, "Huh, it's David Tennant" the entire time, but he's really disappearing into his character. It's heavy on the emoting, but not in the "cry in the rain" type of emoting that the Tenth Doctor did - more like general dark grumpiness. It helps that he's using his Scottish accent instead of the English accent he had for Doctor Who and Hamlet.

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The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca 3 years, 8 months ago

Oh crap. There I was shooting my mouth off as a way to avoid having to start work, and it turns into some big jumping-off point for discussion! How mortifying, I should have said something more substantial than "i don't like those bits much because specious reasons."

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Roderick Thompson 3 years, 8 months ago

As several people have commented above, I was dismayed when I heard that Catherine Tate would be appearing, because I never much cared for her sketch comedy show.

But I was won over very quickly by The Runaway Bride. It's been a while since I've seen it, but my recollection is that for me the sketch comedy character veneer cracked quite early with Donna's very evident disorientation and distress when she emerges from the TARDIS and has to come to grips with the shock of the difference between the interior and exterior dimensions.

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Nyq Only 3 years, 8 months ago

Key Doctor Who criteria: Was it fun?
Poison Sky was fun. Stolen Earth was fun.

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Nyq Only 3 years, 8 months ago

Rory isn't escaping from Rory though.
Darn I mean Arthur Darvill :)

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Nyq Only 3 years, 8 months ago

I think the a season of the show played between Doomsday and the Christmas Special.

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Nyq Only 3 years, 8 months ago

Turn Left surely vindicates Tate as one of the best companions? Not only does she carry the story but it was clear the writers and directors were confident that she could. Further the story (or a version thereof) wouldn't have made sense for Rose and even less sense for Martha.

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Tim 3 years, 8 months ago

Unfortunately, it seems to have become something of the fashion to go with the idea that one doesn't need to outgrow Neverland. That one can just stay in Neverland. Which as a storytelling element always feels to me like trying to have your cake and eat.

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Daru 3 years, 8 months ago

Yes. Yes. Yes !!

Totally agree and love your analysis.

Witnessing Donna being taken "past her Sketch's End" is exactly why I adore this upcoming episode.

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Scott 3 years, 8 months ago

@ Philip

But that just means they're successful at doing what they set out to do and that what they set out to do isn't particularly objectionable or 'evil' or anything, not that what they set out to do is particularly worthy of praise.

In any case, at the end of the day all ratings and AI (or box-office and whatever) tell us is that a lot of people watched and enjoyed it. That's a measure of success, certainly, but it's not a measure of quality.

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Ross 3 years, 8 months ago

The problem, for the new series, is that, as a television show which can last forever but where the characters are all played by actors who are real people, from time to time, you need to get rid of the companions and never have the Doctor go back and visit, even when he finds himself in a situation where that companion in particular would be really helpful, and yet at the same time, we have to believe that the Doctor isn't a sociopath who picks people up, uses them while there's something in it for him, then ditches them and never thinks about them again.

And that basically requires that the companion not simply "grow up and move on" -- you need a really properly permanent reason for them to give all this up. Not necessarily death-metaphor reasons, but something that's plainly final and irreversible.

I've mentioned before that I know someone who tried to get into Doctor Who by going back to the beginning. When they got to 'The Dalek Invasion of Earth', their reaction was "The Doctor just abandoned his own granddaughter on a post-apocalyptic earth with some guy she barely knows, basically ordering her to marry her first crush, and, despite his promises, he never comes back and hardly even mentions her ever again. The main character of this show is a deeply evil and abusive asshole; I can't watch this show any more."


@David: I think that "ordinary person" thing is part of what turned the Neckbeards off. A large part of their mindset is based around an obsession with the notion of their own superiority, so it's offensive to them that an "ordinary person" might be elevated above their proper station as someone for them to laugh at in their smug superiority.

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Chadwick 3 years, 8 months ago

My problems with The Catherine Tate Show aren't down to her performances, it's that she often forgets to edit her material because the performance is everything and the writing follows that which results in sketches that outstay their funniness. Compare with The Fast Show and, especially, Big Train where the characters do their bit and gag and then, bam, onto something else (or else Big Train would have the writing at the core and the performances fitted to the material).

The fact that her show divided audiences had an impact on how she was first received as a companion. The Runaway Bride was seen as stunt casting and her bridezilla demeanour had viewers of Dr Who thinking that the show was going to be a showcase for yet another Tate grotesque. By the time you get around to Silence In The Library, Donna was warmly accepted by almost everyone.

As for crossing the line of acceptability in the comments section, come on, this is a site dedicated to Dr Who! At some point a group of commenters were going to lose their cool and spout off. Twas ever thus in Who fandom.

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Ross 3 years, 8 months ago

@Philip: The first Transformers film, at least, is a moderately good disaster movie where the role of the Sharknado is played by giant robots. It's just that I had been hoping for an actual transformers movie.

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Matthew Blanchette 3 years, 8 months ago

Thank you, Scott, for more fluently putting into words what I was trying to say.

*appreciative hat-tip*

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gatchamandave 3 years, 8 months ago

Very thought provoking stuff.
But not, alas, happy ones.

I have a major reservation with the way that the companions over the next couple of seasons are handled.

Rose, we are continually reminded, was the bestest companion ever. The Doctor pines for her, she pines for the Doctor. Eventually she gets one of her very own to love and cherish for ever and ever.

Donna. Best mate ever. Oh, if only we could travel together like this for ever. Making her eventual fate tragic, until resolved by getting her we'd, with a winning lottery ticket stuck down her cleavage.

Martha ? Ah. "It got...complicated" he remarks, giving hid neck an embarrassed Pertwee rub.


only it didn't. It was perfectly straightforward. She loved the Doctor, he didn't love her. Didn't even seem to ne too bothered about having her as a mate, since he initially intends to drop her off for good when they get back to her time.

Which suggests an unpleasant, and let me make clear wholly unintended subtext over the rest of RTDs run.Because when we put Martha between Rose, Donna and, for that matter Amy and Clara, one thing is immediately noticable.

I would like to be proven wrong, to have it demonstrated that I am talking out of an orifice in my body not normally associated with the art of verbal communication. But sadly, it's something that does prevent me embracing the next two and a bit seasons.

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gatchamandave 3 years, 8 months ago

Apologies for the typos. This mobile has some truly idiosyncratic predictive text. Thus, as you see, it can handle "idiosyncratic" but 'wed" and 'be" give it real trouble.

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Cyndy Cooper 3 years, 8 months ago

... not sexualized? Seriously? The publicity photographs of Tate tend to be taken straight down her cleavage, and she frequently wears the same kind of figure-hugging outfits as everyone else.

But then, I don't like Tate and I think she's way better-looking than Billie Piper regardless of their relative ages.

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Cyndy Cooper 3 years, 8 months ago

I could even go so far as to add Jack to that list and it would only strengthen your argument.

The Doctor also seemed to be attempting to turn Reinette into a companion; that one just didn't work out. But, yes. Again.

And who was the only other companion the Doctor treated as badly as he treated Martha? Well, that'd be Mickey.

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encyclops 3 years, 8 months ago

I don't really understand where you guys are coming from with some of this. Maybe you're describing the history of the show rather than any real limitations on what could be done with it?

See, I don't think it's impossible or even difficult to suggest that the Doctor stays in touch with or even drops in on old companions from time to time. We've already seen the Doctor receive a letter from Jo Grant even in the classic series, we've seen him visit Craig a second time, and we've seen him drop off Clara between adventures (rather than keeping her with him in the TARDIS constantly). We don't have to see the visit for it to have happened, and it's only our peculiar idea that every relationship the Doctor has must be continuous, full-time, no breaks, no contact after it's over, that's imposing these arbitrary restrictions.

And in the new series, we have the Doctor and Martha hanging out again in season 4, and of course Rose has (or will have) broken out of her confinement more than once. I don't think you "need" to get rid of the companions at all; you can see them whenever the actor is available for a guest appearance, or just mention them in dialogue if you like. I don't think there's anything sociopathic about a friendship that's intense for a while and then cools as real life sends people into different places, and it's even less strange if you assume some of them are romantic relationships. I have tons of friends like that on Facebook. And maybe having a TARDIS -- so seeing them is free of charge -- makes it even more of an obligation to be careful about how and when you drop in, so you don't disrupt their lives too destructively.

So I don't think it has to be "properly permanent." It just has to be decisive, and that doesn't mean "final and irreversible," just meaningful.

The Susan dropoff is clearly shitty on all sorts of levels, at least without a lot of analysis to sort out what it means (and perhaps even then). But that's a very different thing. I'm not talking about the Doctor choosing to shut people out; I'm talking about his companions choosing to move on with their lives. If Susan had fallen in love with David and chosen to leave of her own accord, I can't imagine your friend would have said "what a sociopath the Doctor is for letting her choose the rest of her life!"

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Ununnilium 3 years, 8 months ago

What encyclops said, especially:

So I don't think it has to be "properly permanent." It just has to be decisive, and that doesn't mean "final and irreversible," just meaningful.

Actually, I think this is one of Moffat's big innovations; having companions that can not be with the Doctor sometimes. He still went for the tragic break with Amy and Rory, but I think that's more due to the series's current addiction to tragic endings and The Doctor Has To Pay A Cost.

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Seeing_I 3 years, 8 months ago

I so agree with this. The "Pringles" rant is basically the punchline to the "Donna sketch" but then Donna has to continue past it and deal with the fact that people - maybe even the Doctor - see her that way. It's unnerving and gorgeous. I am not overly fond of the episode itself - it's far too loud and bombastic - but it's full of great moment like this (and the taxi chase is just lovely).

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Ununnilium 3 years, 8 months ago

For me, a big part of Donna's appeal is that she doesn't put up with anyone's shit, and when the Doctor does something dumb, she doesn't go angsty or just go long with it; she gets in his face. Plus, she's active, going off and doing stuff because she thinks it's a good idea, and she seems like she'd genuinely be fun to hang out with.

(Actually, I like Amy for much the same reasons.)

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Seeing_I 3 years, 8 months ago

That's the paradox of Donna - on the surface she's far less likable than Rose and not as admirable as Martha, but she's got the most compassionate of them all, and feels everything that happens so deeply. Rose was a narcissist who felt everything that happened to her and the Doctor very deeply, but Donna felt everything that happened to the Ood or the Pompeiians with just as much emotional immediacy. How anybody could say she was a one-note joke after "Fires of Pompeii" is beyond me. And no other companion (in the new show) willingly died so that the rest of the world could live ("Turn Left" being one of the finest installments the show has every produced, IMO. But that's for another day.)

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David Thiel 3 years, 8 months ago

Too, the reaction to Catherine Tate reminded me very much of that to the casting of Bonnie Langford. As an American, I was left scratching my head as to what the problem was. (Granted, Bonnie's on-screen appearances weren't *quite* as successful--in my view--as Catherine's, but as the audio adventures have demonstrated, that wasn't entirely her fault. She's actually pretty good with a good script and outside the overall garishness of the 6th/7th Doctor eras.)

While I think that there's a case to be made that nuWho has gone out of its way to "kill off" its companions, @encyclops correctly observes that it's also revisited them far more than the old series ever did. Heck, that's pretty much the entire point of "The Stolen Earth" and the final minutes of "The End of Time."

I would suggest that the "permanent" removal of the companions may be a side-effect of nuWho making them, rather than the Doctor, the focus of the show. They can't just be someone who hangs around a while, they have to have a backstory, a character arc, supporting cast, and (usually) a mystery surrounding them. Of the main nuWho companions, only Martha isn't the most important woman in the universe at some point, and even she more-or-less single-handedly saves the world from the Master.

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David Thiel 3 years, 8 months ago

The taxi chase may be my favorite "Who" scene ever, if only for the sheer cheek of it all. (The children "watching" the Doctor and silently shouting their encouragement is just the best!)

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BerserkRL 3 years, 8 months ago

Which will be the subject of an extra essay in the Tennant ebook volume?

I hope the Ballad of Russell and Julie gets its own entry!

Not sure about a Ballad of Steven and Caroline though.

Interesting that it's so Shakespeare-heavy, especially in her quite lengthy rant - considering they went on to do Shakespeare together too.

I wish he'd said "My dear Lady Disdain, are you yet living?"

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Seeing_I 3 years, 8 months ago

Remember when that clip was shown at the first Doctor Who concert? How the audience actually *groaned* when the clip ended? That's when I knew Doctor Who would survive past the Rose Tyler era.

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Travis Butler 3 years, 8 months ago

While I also agree with Scott, you can't take that too far; at the end of that road lies the art film that maybe a handful of people like, and everyone else hates.

It's a balance; popularity certainly isn't the only metric for quality, but it is an important one. And when talking about art that needs public support to survive (whether directly through commercial purchases, or indirectly through public funding), it's also a critical one. Entertainment and enlightenment go hand in hand. You can't do any of the things you think art should do, if you can't get an audience to pay attention.

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encyclops 3 years, 8 months ago

See, Martha's departure is the only one I really liked, and it's because it wasn't some weird clingy "you're gonna have to quasi-kill me to get rid of me, ha ha ha" situation. It let her be a proper independent adult, I thought.

And maybe what happened was that people didn't respond well to it. Maybe it seemed anticlimactic, especially to fans who weren't used to the classic series where you don't have to die to quit the job, and RTD (and Moffat) realized that fans now expect some crazy melodramatic way of ending the relationship. So with the third companion they went for the grandiose again.

I know you said "unintended," but it does seem quite unlikely to me that the same guy who introduced our first nonwhite and nonhetero TV companions would have even an unconscious investment in making them less than special. He does grant Captain Jack immortality, and he does put both Jack and Martha (and Mickey? I don't know, I haven't seen it) into his spinoff series. Did Rose or Donna ever show up on Torchwood?

I don't know if any of those thoughts "prove you wrong," but they're why I personally enjoy those companions more. And yeah, I'm quite ready for the next companion to be not a young white straight girl again.

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ferret 3 years, 8 months ago

To some degree Moffat tries to address this, although it's easier mentioned that shown:

"I have got a time machine, Dorium. It's all still going on. For me it never stops. Liz the First is still waiting in a glade to elope with me. I could help Rose Tyler with her homework. I could go on all Jack's stag parties in one night."

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gatchamandave 3 years, 8 months ago

It's a wholly unintended consequence of RTD making Martha a complete contrast to Rose.

Rose comes from a working class, sink estate background, Martha's family is bourgeois. Rose has a go-nowhere job, Martha is a doctor. Rose is an only child, Marta isn't. But whilst Rose has a warm, close relationship with her mum, that between Marta and her mum is a bit less demonstrative.

However, there is then the unfortunate coincidence of the Doctor not fancying having a lengthy relationship with Martha and Martha being black. Then RTD compounds the problem by contrasting Donna with Martha. We're back to the same situation we saw when JNT intended the 6th Doctor to be an answer to the perceived problems with the 5th, a reaction against a situation that the person in charge created in the first place.

And if anything, that Martha and Mickey end up married to one another, when on-screen we haven't seen them exchange two words prior to this revelation only reinforces that he's a wee bit Carlson racial matters.

Oh, and let's add Astrid to the list of would-be perfect companions. Which, y'know, only goes to show...

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gatchamandave 3 years, 8 months ago

Crass on racial matters. Stoopid mobile.

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jane 3 years, 8 months ago

Personally I think the Lauren Cooper / Tony Blair sketch needs inclusion, too. Because if Tony Blair is appropriating Lauren's lines, and Lauren is a grotesque, that makes Blair a grotesque, too.

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William Silvia 3 years, 6 months ago

Your description of Donna in this special makes me understand why I disliked Season Four so much the first time I watched it. Ultimately, in Runaway Bride, she is the Elmyra (Tiny Toons, Pinky and the Brain) of Doctor Who. She arrives to brow beat our hero and make villains sympathetic. She actually starts to become a fairly good character fairly early on in her own season, but it's this image that sticks with us.

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