A rejigg of something I wrote for the old site on the subject of ‘Turn Left’, the best episode of series 4.
The alternate world that Davies conjures up in ‘Turn Left’ is not so far removed from our own. We might not (yet) see British soldiers patrolling our streets and pointing automatic weapons at unarmed women (though the recent behaviour of the police towards student protestors has been pretty savage)… but that sight would not be so unfamiliar to the people of Baghdad. Or Belfast, for that matter.
The nightmarish, decaying, dystopian Britain in this episode reflects aspects of our current social predicament… indeed, as Simon Kinnear pointed out in DWM, the episode seems prescient of the years ahead of it, of (to put it my way) recession/cuts torn Britain.
While it doesn’t get specific, or touch economics much, ‘Turn Left’ seems like the closest thing to a direct political attack on crisis-wracked British society that any mainstream TV show could possibly get away with. Let’s just recap: in an episode of that highly commercial kid’s romp known as Doctor Who, Russell T. Davies suggested that, in a time of crisis, the British state might institute a program of racist slavery, if not extermination. At the very least, we see people herded and treated like animals while patrolled by armed guardians of the state. Moreover, the people being treated that way are the poor, the dispossessed, the helpless. Brits get the kind of treatment meted out to refugees once they too become scapegoatable dependents.
I’m not sure that Davies intended the title as direct political advice (though it wouldn’t be bad advice) but it surely can’t be entirely an accident that Donna’s apocalyptic turn is a turn to the right, a turn that results in “England for the English”.
The Donna in the car at the start of ‘Turn Left’ might vote that way. She’s the same thoughtless, selfish Donna we met at the start of ‘The Runaway Bride’. She’s exactly the kind of self-involved, complacent brat who hardly notices as society crashes around her… until she is touched by it. Davies pulls no punches. We see her obsessing over stationary and offices grudges as the rest of Chowdry’s staff watch the TV, horrified, for news of the hospital. We see her asking “What’s for tea?” as news of Sarah Jane Smith’s death flashes on the screen.
I know people like that. Indeed, speaking as someone who lives in southern England – surely the global epicentre of reactionary complacency – it is very hard indeed not to derive a massive and delicious jolt of schadenfreude from the way Davies manages to turn the (surviving) population of the Sun and Daily Mail reading world into despised, harangued, jobless refugees. “Who’s going to listen to us?” asks Donna’s Mum, “Refugees. We haven’t even got a vote. We’re just no-one Donna. We don’t exist.” To put it another way: seek asylum and you’ll be locked up in one.
It’s ironic that as Donna’s society disintegrates, she suddenly discovers other people. With a little help from Wilf, Donna’s experience of privation brings her closer to society, to her fellow humans. She barges in to tell Rocco to shut up, calling him Mussolini (ironic, given that it’s now her country turning fascist), but ends up singing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ with him. When he and his family are taken away, she needs Wilf to tell her what it really means (is Bernard Cribbins incredible in that scene or what?), but when she realises, she chases the truck and demands to know what’s happening. She has woken up from her isolation and self-involvement.
Also, there is a highly encoded but still discernible protest against Islamophobia in that scene. Rocco and his family are not Muslims or from the Middle East, but it was simply impossible (for me anyway) to watch the rounding-up scene in 2008 without thinking of Guantanamo Bay, Jean Charles de Menezes and Jack Straw’s seeming addiction to demonising Muslims. People might object that this is an arbitrary and subjective reading… but plenty of reviewers were happy to interpret this scene as referencing the holocaust, despite the fact that Rocco and his family are not identified as Jews anymore than they are as Muslims. Given that the episode as a whole seems so determinedly current, I think my reading is more apt.
As for the bug? Well, it looks (when we eventually see it) very much like a rucksack designed by David Cronenberg. But what does it mean?
I think it’s a self-doubt monster. It doesn’t really feed on the changes it causes in history, it really feeds on Donna’s lack of self-worth, on her willingness to believe that her Mother is right about her, that she’s useless and helpless, a disappointment, a failure. The right turn it convinces her to make is a capitulation to her Mum. Donna’s own goals, at this point, might still be selfish, but they are based on confidence. The right turn, the turn to the safe option, is the turn towards her Mum’s view of her, towards the easy assumption that she’s nobody and nothing, that life is an uninspiring chore. “A life never loved,” as Rose puts it. And am I reading too much into the fact that ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ contains the lyrics “Nobody loves me” and “Mamma Mia, let me go”?
When first reviewing ‘Turn Left’ I made some connections between Donna’s self-doubt and the state of the society depicted. Those connections now seem rather tenuous to me. I don’t nowadays feel comfortable asserting that societies round up minorities because they suffer from free-floating neurosis. However, Donna’s fateful moment of self-doubt can be read as a capitulation to power, to the judgements of another who has power over her, as well as to a feeling that her horizons are bound by her background… even, with a little extrapolation, her class.
All in all, I adore this episode. If ‘Midnight’ is the anti-‘Gridlock’, this is ‘Midnight’s redeeming coda. Perhaps just as bleak in its way, but with hope lying in social solidarity and resistance to power.
The sci-fi elements might power the story, but the story is about human choices, personal and political. The kind of enjoyable sledgehammer metaphor underwriting, say, ‘Aliens of London’ can work as critique and/or satire but also, if taken literally, can create a distancing effect. The aliens or the mad computer get the blame for our social failures. This is undermined in ‘Turn Left’. The “Emergency Government” might exist because a Titanic-shaped spaceship fell on London, but there’s no hint that their policy of “England for the English” (and labour camps for the rest) is actually being fed to them by the evil, mind-controlling Zargoids. Moreover, they’re the sort of policies that might yet take hold on British soil in years to come, especially if the current government is allowed to push through its radical programme of neoliberal class-war shock therapy, which is amounting to a wanton and wholesale demolition of much-needed social safety nets.
You can’t extrapolate every detail of this into a coherent political thesis (thank goodness) and so it can be subjected to multiple interpretations (much more interesting). The jist is pretty clear though.
Shame about the orientalism on display in the ‘bookend’ sequences, which use ethnic diversity and Eastern ethnicity as semiotic vehicles for the uncanny, the threatening and the predatory. On the whole, though, with its depiction of racial inequality (not least in the sequence where Donna and family are served by a hotel maid who is clearly implied to be a migrant worker) this episode is clearly on the side of the angels, without also indulging in too much liberal sanctimony.
This is Doctor Who‘s version of The Children of Men (the film). It’s atonement for ‘The Unquiet Dead’. Borderline miraculous.