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.