|What do you mean they cast the guy who mistook me for|
a masseuse and wouldn’t go home? I’d have come back to the
series if they’d told me.
It’s June 21st, 2008. Mint Royale are “Singin’ in the Rain” at number one, with Gabriella Cilmi, domestic abuser Chris Brown, and a will.i.am/Cheryl Cole duet also charting. In news, same sex marriage starts in California, while the UK ratifies the Treaty of Lisbon. And AIG ousts its CEO due to losses suffered in the subprime mortgage crisis, which is probably reasonable given that three months later the company went spectacularly bankrupt.
Given that context, Turn Left marks one of those uncanny moments where Doctor Who gets ahead of cultural trends. It’s also a funny little thing. In some ways it marks the point where the “Doctor Lite” episode becomes obsolete, as it finally plays out the most obvious Doctor Lite concept imaginable – what if the Doctor never existed. Or, in this case, what if he died two seasons ago. What results is one of the most bizarre mishmashes of concepts in the entire Davies era, or, in many ways, of any era.
There’s a fair case that it was not Davies’s best ever idea to decide that in the absence of the Doctor the UK would descend into fascism complete with labor camps for unwanted foreigners. The It Happened Here vibe of this is certainly interesting in its own right, and Davies will of course revisit all of these ideas with considerable aplomb in 2009, but there’s something off about it here. It’s not that a nuclear explosion eradicating London wouldn’t plausibly lead to exactly the sort of scenario we see here. Rather, it’s… well… Donna.
Because the real point of Turn Left – the dramatic arc that actually drives it – is Donna becoming a hero from a different direction than the one she actually took. Which means that Catherine Tate is back to playing a Catherine Tate Show character for most of the story. But there’s a subtle twist to her performance – one that Tate herself is more than equipped to handle. In The Runaway Bride Donna is a comedy character who, by the end of the story, becomes a reasonably well-realized character, albeit ultimately still a one-off. But here she’s Donna Noble, who has been the primary companion and co-lead in nine of the last ten episodes. Yes, she’s regressed to a pre-Doctor state, but that characterization can’t be undone by fiat. At this point, looking at her, we still see Donna Noble, not Catherine Tate.
This leads to a certain degree of perversity, particularly in the labor camps scene, as Donna chases after the truck demanding to know where it’s going when it’s perfectly clear to everybody else what’s going on. There’s a joke here that’s suddenly turned nasty; Donna Noble, who missed all the alien attacks prior to The Runaway Bride, now misses the establishment of concentration camps in Britain because she’s so comically thick. There’s a horrifying wrongness here, with the tropes of comedy being used to add a second layer of awful dissonance to the site of fascism taking hold in Britain. Does it work? Well… that’s a trickier question. This is the most treacherous highwire act Davies ever attempts in terms of hitting disturbing instead of bathetic. Fascism in Britain is a well-worn trope. Catherine Tate playing a ludicrously oblivious character responding to the creep of fascism in Britain is, on the other hand, one of the single weirdest genre collisions ever attempted.
But it’s also the entire point of the episode. The whole thing is concerned with making the “joke” of Donna something altogether more disturbing. In many ways the most shocking scene isn’t the concentration camps (although Bernard Cribbins acts the living hell out of that scene) but the scene where Sylvia, haggard and without makeup (which is, of course, one of the most impressive makeup jobs the series has ever done) tells Donna that she’s been a disappointment. Because it breaks all of the rules of Donna as a character. All of the reasons Donna is a disappointment to Sylvia are, in the end, legacies of her origin as a comedic character. To actually take all of those traits and turn them against her is cruel. It’s fighting dirty.
And it’s fighting dirty in a way that’s uniquely Doctor Who, inasmuch as it is about genre collisions. Turn Left takes a comedic character who is sympathetically thick and puts her in a situation where everybody is going to take her deadly seriously. Including, crucially, the plot itself. It’s a very brave, weird way to do it, keeping Donna’s narrative role intact but regressing the character to her comedic roots. All, of course, without ever letting her become funny as such – Donna doesn’t get any comedy scenes as such. Instead she acts like a Catherine Tate character who has been put into a very bleak drama about social collapse.
Which, for the second time, is a case of the series being just a little prescient. Turn Left gets added currency for coming right as the Great Recession settled in. It’s pure coincidence, as when Davies tries to hit the same themes eighteen months later and after it’s actually blossomed in the culture he flounders, but in this case it’s a perfectly timed piece, coming right before the prospect that society is going to broadly collapse becomes an idea in the cultural foreground. And while in many ways Davies’s second attempt at these themes in Children of Earth (also written before the financial crisis proper) is the more thorough treatment, the decision to mash this up with Catherine Tate is bold, striking, and works more often than not.
Indeed, the whole episode works along this sort of logic. Equally shocking, if not moreso within the logic of Doctor Who, is the casual killing of Sarah Jane Smith, Luke, Clyde, and Maria. And not just killing, but killing in a particularly awful way, namely oxygen starvation on the moon. It’s a strong contender for the single nastiest moment on Doctor Who, and very probably the closest to crossing the line into seriously upsetting children that the new series has ever taken. Even with the clear understanding that this is an alternate universe and that the natural order will inevitably be restored at the end of the episode, the fact that Doctor Who enters, even temporarily, a realm where the kids show characters can be massacred, even offscreen, is properly disturbing.
All of this extends, of course, from the premise. And in many ways it stresses the unreality of Doctor Who; there’s really no point in the series’ history where it’s been as visibly far from being set in “our” world. The Davies era in general has always pushed at that limit, making aliens major news events that compounded each other, eliminating any sense of a “five minutes in the future” vibe or that this might just be our world with things we don’t notice going on. It’s not just the scale of the invasions and the repeated events like The Poison Sky or Doomsday that are outright impossible for the world not to notice, but the fact that we keep seeing news coverage of it, with Trinity Wells showing up every story to give a global perspective. Davies’s commitment to framing Doctor Who in the language of the TV around it, making it a seamless part of the BBC schedule ends up making the one era of Doctor Who that is unequivocally set in TV as opposed to in the world.
But here we get a story whose dramatic arc hinges on that. The only reason that the story can get away with suggesting that absent the Doctor Britain would suffer total social collapse is that the characters involved aren’t people, but television characters. Absent the Doctor to provide an ordering narrative principle, they’re unsuited to the world. The plucky journalist and her child friends investigating aliens stop being able to withstand the impossible and die horribly. Donna stops being able to function as a comedy character and just becomes tragic. The entire point is that once the Doctor goes away the rest of the world simply doesn’t work or make sense.
Except, of course, that Donna doesn’t quite become tragic. It’s averted, largely by the oft-teased return of Rose Tyler. There’s a somewhat dangerous game played with the return of Rose, in that two of her three episodes are spent actively deferring the big moment of her actual reunion with the Doctor. Instead she’s left with two episodes of being a mysterious outsider to the plot. Here, in the absence of the Doctor, she plays the detached supernatural mentor, showing up out of nowhere to give cryptic advice to Donna. It’s a strange role – Rose becomes the thin reed by which the world retains its connection to its organizing narrative principle.
But ultimately it’s necessary. To bring Rose back and allow her to straightforwardly reunite with the Doctor would disrupt the narrative too greatly. Rose has, by this point in the narrative, stopped being the ordinary shopgirl elevated to a better life and has instead become a mythic, totemic figure in Doctor Who. In this regard she’s become ensnared in the Problem of Susan – both of them have their actual humanity as characters overwritten by their mythic role in what Doctor Who is, such that they cease to function as people at all. (Ironically, of course, this is exactly what Jackie prophesied for Rose in Army of Ghosts, albeit on a shorter timeline: “in forty years time, fifty, there’ll be this woman, this strange woman, walking through the marketplace on some planet a billion miles from Earth. But she’s not Rose Tyler. Not anymore. She’s not even human.”) Part of this is Rose’s status as the companion the Doctor fell in love with, but it’s also simply that she’s Rose Tyler, original co-star of the series. Her appearance carries so much metafictional weight that it can’t simply be used to bring back an old companion. When the series is revived again in 2044 it won’t be Billie Piper they bring back for the new new series’s version of School Reunion, simply because to bring her back is too mythic.
Which is, ultimately, the weak link of Turn Left. All the oncoming fascism is just a sideshow in a story that’s really about building to that big and utterly gripping moment where all writing in the universe appears to have been turned to say “Bad Wolf” because… um… well… yeah, that’s never really picked up on. And yet it makes a sort of textual sense. Rose’s role in this story is essentially that of a divine figure – a very classically esoteric “woman as preserver of life” thing. It’s particularly fitting that the device she uses to send Donna back to fix the problem is a time machine made out of mirrors, a callback to the alchemical time machine of Evil of the Daleks. Rose, within the series’ iconography, becomes the preserver of its alchemy. It may hobble any hope the Bad Wolf concept had of making sci-fi technobabble sense, but it makes a perfect thematic sense – what she does in this story is absolutely an extension of her stint as time goddess in The Parting of the Ways, much more than it is an extension of her role as a nineteen-year-old shopgirl. And, of course, the presence of mirrors symbolically summons the same enemies as they heralded last time.
But Rose’s status as a goddess cannot help but cause problems for Donna. It’s not just that she gets the single worst alternate universe ending possible (or, really, character ending possible), death by world-saving suicide. I mean, that’s awful (although what is it with Rose and comforting people who have just been hit by cars), but the real problem comes a few scenes earlier, as she declares that she’s ready to do what’s necessary to restore the proper timeline. Because the stars are going out. Which, fine, it’s a great image, but wait a moment. It’s not the concentration camps that disturb Donna so much that she’ll sacrifice her life to stop it, it’s the stars going out? This is our Donna? Neighbor dragged off to death in a labor camp, well, keep calm and carry on, but when there’s a sci-fi plot like “the stars are going out” it’s time to go get involved?
It’s a shocking misstep from Davies, and one that extends almost entirely from the weird presence of Rose. With Rose deforming the narrative, the story has to go out on the mythic register, despite the fact that all of its interesting ideas come from working on the human level. And Donna, whose entire point is her existence on the human level and her ability to puncture the mythic, is caught in the middle. A story that is meant to spotlight her ends up doing nothing of the sort, and is instead a dress rehearsal for Children of Earth bolted on to an extended trailer for The Stolen Earth, with Donna caught awkwardly in the middle. Still, The Stolen Earth looks excellent.