|DEMIURGE! (This has to be the most obscure caption|
I’ve done in ages.)
It’s April 5th, 2008. As you might imagine, very little has changed. We’ve just calmly plowed from the end of Torchwood Season Two into Doctor Who’s fourth season, specifically Partners in Crime.
Partners in Crime stands out as one of the most structural pieces Davies has ever done. Davies, on the commentary track, describes the story as in part a work of petulance on his part. Given that everyone expected he’d do a darker story to help change the perception of Donna from The Runaway Bride, he decided to turn towards comedy more thoroughly than he had in the past. And yet in all of this what jumps out is that Catherine Tate doesn’t do any comedy bits until her “mime at the Doctor” sequence when they finally meet. She’s in a comedy, yes, but she’s playing it straight the entire time.
This, more than anything, constitutes the reinvention of the character. Had Davies taken the obvious route of just throwing Donna into something dark and serious (i.e. either of the next two stories) he would have ended up with a functional character, but at the expense of having any reason to give the role to Catherine Tate. You don’t cast Catherine Tate for the latest iteration of generic companion. So Donna needs to retain the frisson of wrongness that animated The Runaway Bride. There the joke was that David Tennant was stuck with a character off of The Catherine Tate Show, and this was not a narrative he was well-suited to.
But a comedy sketch character can barely be stretched over an hour (Davies, quite sensibly, gives her an emotional arc so that she grows at the end). To do it over a season would be suicide – a fact so self-evident that even Doctor Who fans realized it and panicked when Tate was announced as the new companion. And so Donna had to be moved away from being a sketch character while still finding a way to retain the fact that she was an unusual choice as a companion.
Hence the structure, where we get an overtly comedic episode in which Catherine Tate gets exactly two comedy bits, only one of which – the one at the very end of the episode – involves her playing a Catherine Tate Show character. This provides a sort of halfway house for Donna as a character – she retains the genre colliding aspects she was first created with, but doesn’t actually have to be that character full-time in the narrative.
Instead, Donna is built up as a sorrowful character. The key sequence comes when she all but watches a woman die, then goes back to her mother’s where she’s berated and belittled for a scene (done gorgeously in time lapse, with Donna sitting wearily at a table, never moving as the scene cuts forward on her mother’s diatribe), and then goes to talk to her grandfather who is supportive but inescapably sad. The result is a portrayal of a cahracter who is trapped in her life. In this regard we’re back to the territory of Rose. But with Rose the point was the superficiality and banality of her life. With Donna it’s something else. Rose’s life was entertaining enough, but unsatisfying compared to the wonders of the universe. Donna’s life, on the other hand, is visibly intolerable.
There’s an odd class issue bound up in this. Rose is a working class character, whereas Donna is a middle class character losing her grip on the middle class. This is a timely narrative for Davies to embrace, coming as it does right at the dawning of the Great Recession and the point at which the unobtainability of the middle class, and indeed the degree to which middle class existence was a fragile bubble waiting to pop due to wholly external circumstances like horrifying spider monsters or, worse, the financial industry. And it’s a different sort of narrative than what was provided by Rose. Rose’s story is aspirational. Donna’s is more anxious. The Doctor isn’t a more noble life for Donna – he’s an acceptable one in a way that the slow motion collapse of her professional/family life isn’t.
This contrast is further amplified in the nature of the monsters in Rose and Partners in Crime. Rose recycles the Autons – Robert Holmes’s monsters of plasticity and fakeness. The idea of the Autons was originally that they’re fake people born of a growing industrial sector. And in Rose it is mannequins, initially the ones in Rose’s shop, that serve as the primary monsters. In other words, it’s literally Rose’s job that tries to kill her. But in Partners in Crime we switch to body horror. The Adipose are our own bodies being turned against us – horrors that literally emerge from us. Indeed, the bodily nature of the Adipose is foregrounded by the fact that the Adipose themselves are completely adorable and harmless. It’s merely the act of their creation that is dangerous.
But also notable is the sort of technology the Adipose represent, and who they’re targeted after. The Adipose are a weight-loss technology developed by a private company and telemarketed aggressively. They are, in other words, for people with money (hence their expensive-sounding “free gift”). In The Writer’s Tale Davies works through their development, starting from a parody of the “ladies who lunch” image as “ladies who lurch,” an image that further grounds it in the culture of the well-of. In other words, it’s not the job that threatens, but the entire aspirational culture it represents. At the time of writing I don’t know if this is going to be one of the stories Jack Graham deals with in the tail end of his phenomenally brilliant 50th Anniversary Countdown, but it would be perfect for it – a body horror monster that extends out of the ethic of capitalist consumption. Rose is attacked by her job; Donna is attacked by the entire culture of late capitalism.
This more existential sort of threat is reiterated by the fact that the Adipose are not monsters as such. Indeed, the story is mostly lacking in any villains. Miss Foster is a nasty piece of work, but only inasmuch as she’s protecting her scheme. It’s notable that this is one of those odd stories where everything would probably have been all right if the Doctor and Donna hadn’t shown up; Miss Foster’s scheme on its own wasn’t hurting anybody. Indeed, it’s not entirely clear why the Doctor is so determined to stop her, given that the scheme appears not to threaten the Earth on any meaningful level except inasmuch as she panics when he threatens her. There is, in other words, no villain here – merely a system that pushes various people into various courses of action that in aggregate cause profound harm.
All of this contributes to building Donna to where she represents a wealth of real-world concerns. And more to the point, to where she represents an enormously prescient set of concerns. These are very good issues to be tackling in 2008 – better, really, than Davies could realistically have known while writing it. (Indeed, look how much weaker his attempts to grapple with this get a year later in The End of Time, where he manages some of his most unsatisfying writing ever in trying to shoehorn Barack Obama into the plot. He does much better when he’s getting preposterously lucky.) And the result is a companion who immediately feels more grown-up than previous ones. Tat Wood’s usual line that the new series is targeted at teenage girls flounders here. Donna isn’t a mouthpiece for that sort of audience at all; she’s a mouthpiece for women in their twenties and thirties. This is a subtle but significant shift, and one that profoundly alters the shape of what Doctor Who is (as well as teeing up Moffat for his success in really breaking the show out among female fans).
In this regard it’s telling that Donna is also used to kill off one of Davies’s biggest innovations, which is romantic tension between the Doctor and the companion. Or, if not romantic tension, at least the inevitability of it, restoring the “best friends” option as a relationship between the Doctor and the companion. There’s a little bit of a problem here in that the romantic tension is killed off by swapping out the young companions (Billie Piper was 21 when she filmed Rose; Agyeman was 27) for an appreciably older one (Tate was 39 for Partners in Crime), but thankfully Moffat is going to be along in just a few episodes to set that right. And the broad strokes are really more important here; the acknowledgment of the possibility of a romantic relationship between the Doctor and the companion was a breath of fresh air, but with Martha it threatened to become overwhelming and to foreclose other possibilities. Donna is used to reopen those possibilities, and in doing so she appreciably broadens the audience to whom Doctor Who seems to speak.
The result is that we finally have a companion who can stand up to Rose, such that the tease of Rose’s return at the episode’s end is a thrilling shock, but not one that pre-emptively erases the entire rest of the season, as would have happened if she’d returned opposite Martha, or opposite some new generic companion. Her appearance is a reasonably compelling… well, it’s tempting to say mystery, but this misunderstands how Doctor Who’s arcs work. To suggest that Rose’s return is a mystery is to suggest that there is in some useful sense a way to solve it. Inevitably, however, Doctor Who’s resolutions to its season arcs come by introducing some key piece of information at the end. (Clara is a case in point – there is absolutely no way to guess what is going on with Clara prior to The Name of the Doctor. There aren’t even any red herrings to be had; there are absolutely no useful clues prior to the explanation of the mystery.) Instead they’re teases – indistinguishable from the trailers for future episodes. They exist to tease future Doctor Who.
Which is, of course, what a season opener is for. In a normal season of television the premiere does much better than the finale; given this, it’s an oddity that Davies’s premieres are usually relatively slender things. His turn towards overt comedy in Partners in Crime feels in many ways like the natural culmination of his premieres. And yet beneath the frivolity is an unusual degree of substance – certainly more than either New Earth or Smith and Jones had. From the get-go, Season Four displays a swagger and confidence in itself that is refreshing. Where Season Three seemed to go out of its way to keep apologizing for the fact that Rose wasn’t in it anymore, Partners in Crime just gets on with it. It’s engaged in the relatively novel practice of teasing a season of Doctor Who by just being really good. Indeed, it’s so self-confident in its ability to just be good Doctor Who that it manages to get away with including Rose as a teased afterthought that wasn’t even part of the media narrative of the story.
But, of course, we’re always cycling back to this media narrative. Because Doctor Who still exists in that context. It has since 2005, in fact, and for the last two seasons has demonstrated a growing sort of hubris about this – a sense of entitlement whereby the fact that it’s the biggest thing on television is just sort of assumed. But underneath that was still a clear nervousness – a desperation to hang on to its popularity even as it luxuriated in it. But with Partners in Crime we enter a new sort of space in this regard, in which the show casually deflects any sense that it might be arrogant with the age-old “it ain’t bragging if it’s true” defense. Save for a weak three-episode stretch, what unfolds here is a show that is ruthlessly confident in its own quality, and, more to the point, deservedly so. And while the finale may have a controversial reputation in fandom, that is essentially the only place it’s controversial. In a way not seen since the Hinchcliffe era, Doctor Who here reaches a point where it starts to make success look effortless, and where essentially everything it tries comes off. Unlike the Hinchcliffe era, or any other point where Doctor Who has hit this sort of frenzied stage of success, the baseline it’s building off of is already one of massive success. The result is, by any measure, absolutely massive.