|One wonders why she was fooled. After all, everyone|
knows that spiders are from Mars.
It’s Christmas, 2006. So we’ve made it a whole day forward since Combat. There hasn’t really been any news, and the charts remain the same. On television, it’s an actual Doctor Who episode.
A side effect of Torchwood is that it increases the sense of time between the Doomsday and The Runaway Bride when compared to The Parting of the Ways and The Christmas Invasion. Actually, some of that is just the ludicrously compressed cultural timeframe of the first season. The point where bet shops opened odds on what Bad Wolf was overlapped with the release of The Gallifrey Chronicles, and both came long after the announcement of David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor. The Christmas Invasion feels as much like the culmination of Series One as it does the start of Series Two. It’s much harder to say that about The Runaway Bride, in part because it feels like nearly a season’s worth of television has happened since the end of Doomsday.
In hindsight, of course, this feels like the debut of Donna Noble, companion extraordinaire. As we said last time, this is true in exactly the same way that The Web of Fear introduces the Brigadier, which is to say, not really at all. Catherine Tate isn’t playing a prospective companion here, she’s playing a part that’s written to fit in seamlessly on The Catherine Tate Show, but that happens to not actually be one of her own creations. The point of The Runaway Bride is simply to mash up “a Catherine Tate character” with the Doctor for an hour. Whereas the Donna of Season Four is all about running away from being this character and giving Tate the fully rounded character she should have gotten the first time around.
Put another way, you can see why, when Catherine Tate’s casting in Season Four was announced, the consensus reaction in fandom was that Russell had finally gone completely mad. (Although the fact that we were coming off Last of the Time Lords didn’t help with that.) Because in this story she’s pitched as the annoying comedy sidekick, and is allowed to give voice to everybody in the (sizable) Christmas audience who thinks Doctor Who is complete rubbish. Needless to say, this makes her abrasive to fans even as it causes the episode to work perfectly well for the large casual audience the series acquires for Christmas. (For all I point them out, the problems with Donna in The Runaway Bride are narrow and have to do with the ending not quite coming off – most of the buildup is actually quite lovely. As entertaining screen-filler, the Doctor trapped in a Catherine Tate sketch is lovely. Davies just had no good way to resolve the thing.)
The thing is, there’s no point in the series’ history where the “oh God, do we have to watch Doctor Who” audience would have been culturally more on the run. 2006 had more raw hours of Doctor Who on television than any other year to date – a full fourteen episodes, plus eleven Torchwoods, thirteen Totally Doctor Whos, and fourteen Doctor Who Confidentials. Nothing like that had ever happened with Doctor Who before, and all appearances were that this was some sort of saturation point. And any look at the Tennant era has to grapple with the fact that for all that it appears to have been the apex of the new series… it wasn’t. By every measure other than anecdotal evidence, the apex of the new series’ popularity comes two years from now with the long exit of the Russell T Davies era. (Unless, of curse, we’re actually in the apex of the new series’ popularity right now, which is not a hypothesis that can be decisively ruled out.)
This gets at a troubling complexity with Rose. On the one hand, it’s self-evident that Billie Piper was a profoundly large piece of the new series’ early story. Whatever Doctor Who has become since 2005, the actual act of becoming the biggest show on television was done via Rose Tyler. This is true even in the absence of evidence; the second season isn’t actually about the Doctor and Rose in anything like the way that the first season was. (In fact, not even the first season was actually about the Doctor and Rose reliably after Dalek.) She was the known attraction. The big plot arcs revolved around her. And more to the point, Doctor Who had gotten her at the exact right point in her career.
The result is something that’s easy to miss if you don’t happen to be one of the millions of people for whom Christopher Eccleston simply got to play “the Doctor” instead of “the Ninth Doctor,” which is that her departure from the series was a big deal in a way that no other companion departure ever has been. Not even Sarah Jane’s departure in The Hand of Fear, which was milked extravagantly by 1976 standards, came close, nor the death of Adric. Tom Baker’s departure in 1981 was consciously underplayed. Maybe Jon Pertwee’s departure in a hail of car chases qualifies, but the difference between what television was in 2006 and 1974 makes trying to compare the event status of Doomsday with Planet of the Spiders an exercise in missing the point. The extended post-climax departure of Rose Tyler may have been grotesquely overblown compared to any previous departure of a character, but for a huge portion of the 2006 viewing audience any other approach would have been unthinkable. This isn’t the thirty-sixth companion departure, it’s the departure of Billie Piper, a singular event comparable only to itself. Any attempt to fit this event into a schematic defined primarily by moments like Leela or Vicki spontaneously falling in love is doomed to failure.
It’s irritatingly popular among “proper” Doctor Who fans to look with disdain at anyone for whom Rose is their favorite companion. This is, in practice, just a subset of the insidious “fake geek girl” meme that declares that because someone has the temerity to love the version of Doctor Who they were introduced to above all the others they are not a real fan. But however sincere or parodic the image of people for whom Rose is the only companion and any iteration of the series lacking Billie Piper is crap might be, the truth is that they have more of a point than their detractors. The departure of Rose is a bright line down the middle of the Russell T Davies era. The fact that the Davies era has a second and by most standards larger peak with Catherine Tate two years later doesn’t erase the fact that, in 2006 at least, Rose’s departure was the biggest change the series had undergone. Eccleston at least got a replacement who we were told unequivocally was the same person. Rose, however, is actually gone.
All of which is to say that the decision in The Runaway Bride and, for that matter, in Season Three to treat Rose as the One True Companion was wholly in keeping with popular taste at the time, and the alternative – treating Rose as trivially replaceable – would have been deemed unthinkable by a large swath of the audience the series actually had. It’s just that from the perspective of the future, when you know that the Doctor is meeting up with an equally popular companion for the first time, this all looks terribly strange. In reality everybody knows that the real split in the Davies era isn’t Tennant and Eccleston, it’s Rose and Donna. That’s where fans have to pick a side, or, at least, where they often do pick one.
All of which leaves The Runaway Bride, and to a lesser extent all of Series Three with a problem. For those on Team Rose the basic fact asserts itself: all the mourning in the world is not a viable substitute for the character herself. Team Donna, on the other hand, is never going to completely embrace a story that doesn’t feature Donna Noble but a prototypic version of her created to solve a specific problem thrown up in late 2006. The idea that the bulk of Team Donna could ever be completely satisfied by The Runaway Bride crumbles upon close inspection. What’s trickier to understand in hindsight is just how much The Runaway Bride was never going to win back disgruntled Rose fans. Because the loss of Billie Piper was always going to be a turnover point for the audience. And it comes in the right general range for things – the classic eras of Doctor Who all tend to last two or three years. The argued reasons for this vary; the most popular explanation involving “being the right age,” but the phenomenon seems bigger than just that. Regardless, the idea of audience turnover is built into the show, with the idea being that new people will get interested in it as old ones stop. This, in turn, is based on the idea that the show changes periodically.
So in that regard The Runaway Bride is not so much a failed effort to placate Rose fans as an attempt to declare “here’s how it is now.” It does so in a way that acknowledges the past debt to Rose, but that also calmly asserts a future for Doctor Who. And this is accomplished with its most standard method imaginable: crashing it into something else on television. In this case, The Catherine Tate Show. The mourning for Rose serves the same function that systematically blowing up all the pieces of the Tennant era does in The Eleventh Hour – acknowledging what it is the program is moving on for. The Runaway Bride is made, however, with an eye firmly on the future.
It’s easy to miss just how necessary this was. It isn’t just the massive departure of Billie Piper, although that was a huge deal. Over the course of twenty-seven episodes, Doctor Who has jettisoned its entire cast. It’s easy to forget just how shockingly fast the show has redone itself. The Runaway Bride comes only twenty-one months after Rose aired, and has exactly zero actors in common with it. It’s gotten to the point the original series got to in Power of the Daleks Part Two by the time of “Four Hundred Dawns.” In terms of screen time, it’s replaced the entire cast in the amount of time it took the classic series to get to The Romans. This is, by any standard, a dizzyingly fast reinvention.
In the wake of that, Davies needed to reestablish what the show was and what its draws were, since several of the ones that had gotten people to watch in the first place were gone. So he crafted the archetypal new series episode and let the premise stand on its own two feet. Which, broadly speaking, it did. Nothing in The Runaway Bride is hugely impressive, but its major story beats all work, its action set pieces are plausibly impressive, and it hangs together. Given that Catherine Tate enjoyed broad popularity, as did David Tennant, this was well-tailored to basically appeal to everybody. Its ratings and AI figures indicate that it more or less accomplished this.
But equally, The Runaway Bride is a feint. It doesn’t even start to answer the question of where Doctor Who is going to go post-Piper. Or, at least, it doesn’t look like it does. In reality the answer is there, albeit troubling. As mentioned, Donna’s main purpose in this story is to serve as the mouthpiece for people who don’t like Doctor Who – who has, in fact, missed every time Doctor Who has done event television so far. Obviously the episode eventually comes down on the side of Doctor Who – note how the Doctor effectively defeats the Racnoss by correcting Donna’s continuity error and establishing that he’s actually from Gallifrey, not Mars. Put another way, Donna’s basic function within this story is defined entirely by her relationship with existing Doctor Who tropes. That’s perfectly effective for a gag one-off, but altogether more troubling when you realize that Davies’s next companion is going to just be the opposite of Donna – a slightly annoyingly evangelical Doctor Who fan.
We also, dutifully, set up the next “arc word,” which is this time “Mister Saxon.” Exactly nobody had any trouble figuring out where this was going, and that was before they caught the obligatory anagram. If Season One brought back the Daleks and Season Two the Cybermen there was only one villain that Season Three was going to bring back, and so when you have a mysterious male figure as the center of your arc it’s not exactly a Moffatesque guessing game who it might be. For once absolutely nobody suggested the Rani. It’s notable that his identity is linked tacitly to Torchwood, setting up a larger nexus of ideas that gets paid off in the real twist, which is not Mister Saxon’s secret identity, but rather what his job is.
In other words, you can see where the Davies era is going from here. All of the threads of what works from here to the start of 2010 are in place, and it’s a perfectly sensible extension of what we see here. Ultimately the arc hinges on the theme set up in The Christmas Invasion, with the key scene of The Runaway Bride being Donna’s stopping of the Doctor as he stands witness to the death of the Racnoss. As ever the theme of the Tennant era is the Doctor’s hubris, a point paralleled inexorably with Doctor Who’s hubris. At the same time that The Runaway Bride presents a frothy spectacle of “here’s all the fun antics Doctor Who can get into” it’s already starting a critique of the idea of just putting Doctor Who center stage and saying “hooray, it’s Doctor Who!”
The problem, which is, to be clear, not actually a problem with the Davies era as a whole is that this marks the unsatisfying period of the autocritique. The error has been made, and it’s visible as an error, but the business of reversing the error hasn’t begun. Put another way, there’s no way to get from the massive success of Doomsday to the massive success of Journey’s End (and I don’t care what you think about Journey’s End, it was the actual number one television program of its week and its AI ratings were ridiculously good) without going through The Runaway Bride and the episodes that came after it. But in this case, at least, the destination feels rather more important than the journey.