To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.
Turn Left originally aired in 2008.
You said I was going to die, but you mean this whole world is going to blink out of existence. But that’s not dying, because a better world takes its place. The Doctor’s world. And I’m still alive. That’s right, isn’t it? I don’t die. If I change things, I don’t die. That’s that’s right, isn’t it?
– poor Donna… poor, poor Donna
The fourth season is basically one gigantic victory lap for Russell T. Davies’ Doctor Who. Davies has done the hard work of returning the show to television. He’s made the Daleks threatening. He’s rebooted the Cybermen. He’s made the Master sexy again. The fourth season is really just about enjoying the success of the show, and using that success to do crazy things like bringing back the Sontarans or Davros. Because nobody was clamouring for another Sontaran or Davros story.
That sense of celebration is probably most obvious in Turn Left, the penultimate story of the fourth season. It’s basically It’s a Wonderful Life, starring the Tenth Doctor. Or, to be more accurate, It’s a Wonderful Life for the new series of Doctor Who. It’s an excuse to celebrate a raft of continuity from The Runaway Bride through to The Sontaran Stratagem, to bring back Billie Piper and just to celebrate not only the wonder of Doctor Who, but the virtue of Davies’ approach to the series.
Davies doesn’t get enough credit for the way that he handles the science-fiction and fantasy elements of Doctor Who. He can toss out high-concepts and allegories like nobody’s business. In a way, episodes like The Long Game and Gridlock mark Davies as the spiritual successor to Andrew Cartmel, and establish a very direct link to the classic show. It’s not too hard to imagine Cartmel himself spearheading a revival of the show populated with bizarre and ingenious science-fiction allegories like New Earth. And Davies does them well – certainly a lot better than Moffat does when he tried to channel Davies-channeling-Cartmel in The Beast Below.
However, Davies’ most lasting and eternal contribution to the show – the one that everybody will always associate with him, for good or for ill – will be his decision to firmly ground it in something vaguely resembling the real world. He’s done an impossible amount for the series, but the image that really comes to mind when one imagines the Davies era are those shots of very British terraced houses and the Powell Estate where Rose grew up.
The Powell Estate is the last place the Doctor visits before he regenerates in The End of Time, Part II, and Captain Jack concedes he made pilgrimages to it in Utopia. Of course, both examples are both centred around Rose as a character – but they also typify Davies’ approach to the show. It’s a point of intersection between the Doctor and reality; or something approaching it. It’s a blend between Doctor Who and “kitchen sink.”
It’s a strange cocktail, one that the show seemed to be building towards with “Perivale” in the final season of the classic show, but one that feels perfectly suited to the television landscape of the naughties. Given that Turn Left is Davies last real chance to focus a story on the companion, it makes sense that Turn Left provides a fond farewell to this particular style of Doctor Who. The End of Time would revisit this version of Britain, but only fleetingly before Time Lords and “the Master Race” overwhelmed it completely.
It’s worth noting that Turn Left was intended to kick-start an extended run of Davies episodes that would carry the writer through to the end of his time on the show, up to the regeneration of David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor. Midnight wound up being shuffled into this run to put some distance between the “Donna trapped in an alternate world” story threads of Turn Left and Forest of the Dead. Given that the next two scripts will be the fourth season’s massive finalé, with a stretch of constant-companion-less specials written by Davies himself, this is the last chance that Davies has to look at the world of Doctor Who from that decidedly grounded setting.
After all, that’s really what Turn Left is. It’s the story of the end of the world from the perspective of a perfectly average once-middle-class family. Most of the special effects are recycled from earlier episodes and only fleetingly glimpsed. These are strange objects that intersect with Donna’s perfectly normal life. She’s more concerned with stealing Bea’s stapler than she is with the events of Smith & Jones. When the Titanic crashes into Buckingham Palace, Donna’s immediate reaction is that she can’t move to Leeds.
Even with “the whole of Southern England flooded with radiation, seven million people in need of relocation, and now France has closed its borders”, the focus remains strangely personal. There’s a sense of a world trying to get along in the background, trying to ignore all of the terrible things that have happened. As Donna, Sylvia and Wilf move into their new home, a neighbour reminds them that they still live in a world clinging to a desperate sense of normality. “Used to be a nice little family, number twenty nine. They missed one mortgage payment. Just one. They got booted out. All for you lot.”
It’s a very strange way of looking at the apocalypse, but it’s also a very effective one. The scene where Donna’s non-national housemates are carted off to “labour camps” could easily feel a little on the nose, but it’s all the more effective because the episode isn’t bothered with the politics or the rationale or the wider context of these decisions. “Labour camps,” Wilf repeats, in case the audience hasn’t picked up on the symbolism. “That’s what they called them last time.”
However, we’re spared confirmation of that fact; we’re not given justification; we aren’t offered excuses. We witness all this knowing no more and no less than Donna does, save the Easter Eggs pointing to various Doctor Who episodes. Who is making decisions, with the South of England destroyed? How can U.N.I.T. justify operating in a country that is running “labour camps”? All we get are the smallest and most fleeting glimpses of the insanity and despair. “Who’s going to listen to us?” Sylvia demands. “Refugees. We haven’t even got a vote. We’re just no one, Donna. We don’t exist.”
Davies’ juxtaposition is masterful, blending the bizarre and the goof with the downright terrifying. It’s telling that the threats posed to the planet here were never presented as entirely serious. In Turn Left, the characters seem to have trouble reacting to the absurdity of a “Titanic replica” crashing into London. The Sontarans were presented as posturing over-compensating potatoes. The Adipose were the cutest invasion ever.
It makes for a disconcerting contrast that those cute and wonderful things should prove so incredibly and brutally devastating. “It’s gone dead,” Sylvia observes as she tries to find some news on the television. “All of them.” At the same time, Donna still can’t get past the goofiness of it all. “No, but, the Titanic? Well, don’t be daft.” Davies seems to be underscoring just how surreal and weird the world of Doctor Who is – that the universe is filled with so many bizarre oddities, and almost all of them are incredibly dangerous. It makes the universe so much more terrifying.
It’s also worth noting that the beetle on Donna’s back is a decidedly old-school Doctor Who prop – a practical effect that could easily be considered goofy or cheesy or absurd or ridiculous. The fourth season has been about really embracing the ridiculousness of Doctor Who, featuring giant space wasps and sentient fat and militant potatoes. Even more than bringing back Davros, this suggests that Davies is well and truly comfortable with the classic series.
Even with (or perhaps because of) the goofiness, the sheer volume of tragedy becomes almost too much to process. As seen through the eyes of a normal person, we catch snapshots that we can try to fashion into some sort of shape we might better comprehend. It’s an ant caught in an avalanche. It’s important that – while the audience will recognise shout-outs to The Christmas Invasion, Partners in Crime and The Sontaran Stratagem – we’re not privy to the meetings of high-level officials or individuals dealing with the crisis, or even the true statistical cost of what unfolds. All we have is the world, as seen through the eyes of Donna Noble.
It’s powerful, bleak stuff, and it’s the kind of thing that Davies writes very well. Between this and Midnight, it seems like Davies is really playing to his strengths on Doctor Who. Again, there’s a sense of breathing space here – free from having to establish a high-profile piece of legacy, writing for one of the biggest shows on television, the fourth season really allows Davies a bit more room to indulge than he might otherwise have.
There’s a sense of a lot more freedom in this season of the show. Helen Raynor gets a second shot at that hard-to-get-right first two-parter of the season; Steven Moffat gets to seed his stories and revisit The Doctor Dances; the Ood are brought back to tie up loose ends; the Sontarans and Davros are resurrected. Russell T. Davies writes the tail-end of the season and all of the upcoming specials, allowing him more opportunity as a writer as well as an executive producer.
In many ways, Turn Left is the culmination of all this. It’s one gigantic continuity reference – a chain of familiar in-jokes and sequences that rely on the viewer’s casual familiarity with the show. A lot of this is to save the budget, but there’s also a very conscious attempt to rely on those episodes. For example, the production team went to the hassle of hiring Ben Righton to reprise his minor role in Smith & Jones and re-shot his interview with new dialogue in order to solidify the links between Turn Left and the earlier episodes.
(That said, the budget apparently didn’t stretch to CGI-ing the Adipose into American streets and cities for the reprise of Partners in Crime. Still, it does make much more sense for the story to unfold there; as I noted in my review of the episode, it has a distinctly “American” feel to it, right down to the goons carrying the gigantic machine guns. One wonders why Miss Foster chose Britain in the first place – given that the Adipose consumed “over sixty million” people, which would require nearly every man, woman and child in the United Kingdom to be taking those pills.)
Turn Left also sees the show acknowledging the spin-offs. It’s not a new thing. After all, Torchwood spun out of Doctor Who in its second season, and the Doctor discovered that Jack was working there in The Sound of Drums. However, Turn Left makes a point to single out the cast members by name, rather than simply treating Torchwood as “that thing Jack does when he’s not guest starring on Doctor Who.” Rose singles out the supporting players. “That was the Torchwood team,” Rose tells Donna. “Gwen Cooper, Ianto Jones.”
Indeed, the episode even finds time to mention not only Sarah Jane Smith (who had appeared in School Reunion), but also alluding to the cast of The Sarah Jane Adventures. The news report begins, “Miss Smith had a son called Luke, but early reports that Luke–“ We don’t get to hear the end of that snippet, but the implication is that the entire cast of The Sarah Jane Adventures has been killed off. Which, it’s worth pausing to note, is downright brutal.
This is the first time that Davies has really drawn in the supporting characters from the satellite shows, and he name-drops them here as a way of reminding viewers just how far Doctor Who has come in the past four years. There were quite a few people who doubted the viability of the series before Rose hit the air in 2005, and Davies seems to treat the end of the fourth season as a chance to do a “state of the franchise” roll call.
It is also, in more practical terms, a nice way of priming the audience for what is to come. The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End effectively amount to a gigantic comic book crossover of the Doctor Who franchise, drawing in just about every scrap of Doctor Who from the revival, and a few additional elements to boot. While Turn Left doesn’t feature any of those cast members, alluding them – drawing attention to their very existence – is a nice way of vaguely foreshadowing what is to come, in the “be sure to mention finalé plot points before they appear” way that Davies does.
And then there’s Rose. Rose is a character I’m rather conflicted on. I like Rose as she was introduced. She had a nice character arc running through the first season of the show, from Rose through to The Parting of the Ways. She’s a massive part of why the revival was so popular and – in many ways – she represented the logical continuation of the development of the companion archetype that began with Ace. Billie Piper was great in the role, and she provided the perfect intersection of “kitchen sink” and “outer space” for Davies’ vision.
However, it’s hard not to get the sense that Davies is in love with Rose just a bit too much. I think Rose worked well as a companion to the Ninth Doctor, but that she never quite clicked with the Tenth. Rose went from being a grounded and anchored character to one who felt almost entitled to the Doctor and the TARDIS. Davies alluded to this idea himself in Tooth and Claw, but it’s one of the reasons I’ve never been too moved by the end of Doomsday.
School Reunion was about how terrible it was for Sarah Jane to be kicked out of the TARDIS in Aberdeen, and how abandoned she felt. That’s the pretty crap – but pretty average – end for a companion. In contrast, Rose got pretty much everything handed to her on a plate. She got to resurrect her dead dad. She got a cushy job that allowed her to play to her talents. She got material wealth. She got a reunited family built around her.
Sure, she expected she was probably never going to see the Doctor again, but seen as how that applies to almost every other companion, it’s hard to feel too shaken up about that – particularly in light of the fact that she returned for the fourth season, for The End of Time, Part II and is returning for The Day of the Doctor. Maybe I’m just heartless, but it really felt like Davies had bent the show around giving Rose everything possible to offer her a happy ending except the Doctor – and given the rules of the show itself, that’s pretty much taken for granted.
Again, legacy plays a big part here. Rose will be back. She’ll keep turning up, so it’s hard to be moved by the end of Doomsday, with the show continually (and rapidly) diluting the impact of that farewell. Indeed, that’s my biggest problem with The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End, the muddled-but-endearing season-ending two-parter that is held together by little more than Davies’ audacity, good-will and sheer momentum. It further diminishes the value of Rose as a character.
That is especially disappointing because I actually quite like Turn Left‘s version of “Rose Tyler, defender of the Earth.” The Doctor is constantly enabling and encouraging people, so it’s cool to see that taken to its logical extreme – a character who steps up and fills the gap left by the Doctor. Davies makes it quite clear that Rose is functioning as a pseudo-Doctor. She rigs a raffle in order to manoeuvre Donna, a technique quite similar to the Doctor’s modus operandi in School Reunion. When Magumbo salutes her, she reacts with the same disdain that the Doctor did in The Sontaran Stratagem. “I’ve told you, don’t salute.”
Rose has even given up her name, becoming an anonymous traveler in time and space. “I’ve crossed too many different realities,” she explains. “Trust me, the wrong word in the wrong place can change an entire causal nexus.” Magumbo deadpans, “She talks like that. A lot.” Another similarity. It’s a fairly logical character arc for Rose, and a nice plot element for Davies’ Doctor Who. Ace had a similar arc in some of the expanded universe tie-ins after the end of the classic show, but it’s very different to see that arc realised on the screen.
It’s a shame, then, that The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End completely undermine this version of Rose. Of course she’s chasing the Doctor – the show is called Doctor Who, after all – but it’s disappointing that she seems to as interested in hooking up with him again as she is in saving reality itself. She’s unceremoniously dumped back on that same beach from Doomsday, and assigned to act as warden and caregiver to a clone of the man she loves.
Still, Rose is handled well here. Despite the bleakness of the story, Turn Left is really a vindication of the Doctor and the companion. Placing it after Midnight and before Journey’s End is important. The past year has seen Davies meditating on the culpability of the Doctor, on his effectiveness and his moral authority. The third and fourth seasons of the show present the Doctor as an incredibly flawed character.
Voyage of the Damned focused on the Doctor’s failure to protect the crew and guests on the luxury liner. The Poison Sky argued that the Doctor was a bit of a hypocrite around U.N.I.T. and guns. Planet of the Ood called the Doctor to account for his willingness to turn a blind eye to slavery in The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit. The Fires of Pompeii suggested that he can miss the big picture. Midnight pointed out that the Doctor’s methods are incredibly dangerous and often rely on narrative convenience to work.
Davies isn’t blind to the contradictions at the heart of the Doctor, contradictions that stretch back across the show’s history, playing out in the Third Doctor’s alliance with U.N.I.T. or the Fifth Doctor’s basic uselessness. And it’s worth conceding that the Tenth Doctor’s biggest moral failure is yet to come, in The Waters of Mars. However, Turn Left is really about accepting those criticisms and observations, and accepting that the Doctor is still a hero despite them.
While Voyage of the Damned focused on the passengers the Doctor couldn’t save, Turn Left draws attention to the world that he did. While The Poison Sky argued that the Doctor needed U.N.I.T., Turn Left suggests that they also needed him. It’s “the Doctor is worth the monsters” writ on a global scale, a vindication of the character, a measure of his worth and importance. Midnight deconstructs the Doctor as a protagonist on a show like this, but Turn Left reconstructs him.
Indeed, Turn Left serves as something of a vindication of the Doctor and the companion. The companion, as in The Fires of Pompeii, serves as a humanising influence on the Doctor. She stops the characters from going wrong, and pulls him back to reality when he threatens to float away from it. It’s rather telling that the fourth season has a companion-lite episode as well as a Doctor-lite episode, as if emphasising that the two need to work together in order to be truly effective.
Turn Left is an opportunity to bid farewell to a particular kind of Doctor Who, and an important part of Davies’ swan song with the character.
You might be interested in our other reviews from David Tennant’s third season of Doctor Who:
- Partners in Crime
- The Fires of Pompeii
- Planet of the Ood
- The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky
- The Doctor’s Daughter
- The Unicorn and the Wasp
- Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead
- Turn Left
- The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End
Filed under: Television | Tagged: arts, bbc, Billie Piper, Davies, doctor, DoctorWho, Donna, Donna Noble, End of Time, RoseTyler, russell t. davies, science fiction, Sontaran, Sontaran Stratagem, Tenth Doctor |