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Doctor Who: The Runaway Bride (Review)

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.

The Runaway Bride originally aired in 2006.

What, there’s like a secret base hidden underneath a major London landmark?

Oh, I know. Unheard of.

– Donna and the Doctor present Doctor Who 101

The Runaway Bride is really more indicative of a Davies-era Christmas Special than The Christmas Invasion was. The Christmas Invasion came with so much narrative baggage to unpack that it even spilt over into the Born Again scene that aired as part of Children in Need. While The Runaway Bride does have to deal with some of the fallout from Billie Piper’s departure in Doomsday, it’s a much more stand-alone piece of Doctor Who.

It’s a very light piece of television, but that’s really the ideal kind of Doctor Who to air as part of the BBC’s Christmas line-up.

He's fire and ice and rage...

He’s fire and ice and rage…

The Runaway Bride moves with tremendous speed, and is built around a variety of set pieces and action sequences. There’s a wonderfully nonsensical (but visually impressive) chase sequence with the TARDIS and taxi; another attack by a bunch of Christmas decorations; a giant spider; an exploding underground lair; and even some tanks. It’s not an episode that pushes audience expectations of Doctor Who or redefines the show.

Instead, it’s really about trying to do a lot of what Doctor Who takes for granted in a bombastic “blockbuster” style. Which makes sense. The Runaway Bride is an episode to watch after Christmas dinner. The kids are probably coming down from their sugar high. The adults may have been partaking in merrymaking. Most people will be full of turkey and desert. The Runaway Bride isn’t designed to blow anybody’s mind or to make anybody thing particularly hard. It’s intended to be an enjoyable slice of Christmas dessert, in televisual form.

Cashing in...

Cashing in…

It’s remarkable how hard The Runaway Bride works to really establish a lot of the dynamics that Davies has been working into the show over the past two seasons. Not only does the Doctor explain the basics of the show’s narrative rules to Donna over the course of the episode, helping keep the people watching at home up to speed, but Davies also hits a lot of his key themes quite heavily and repeatedly. You could watch The Runaway Bride and come away from it with a pretty accurate idea of how the Davies era works, just with any hint of subtlety thrown out the window and everything turned up to eleven.

This isn’t an episode that really works in the grander context of Doctor Who, as it’s really just retreading a lot of familiar thematic ground in a rather blunt manner. Anybody who has watched all twenty-seven episodes of Doctor Who leading up to this point won’t find anything particularly novel here. They already know a lot of what Davies is going to say with The Runaway Bride. In particular, it’s worth noting that the next episode to air, Smith & Jones, is a much leaner and efficient (and understated) exploration of a lot of the ideas broached here.



Then again, Smith & Jones wasn’t designed as something for the extended family to watch after a gigantic dinner. The Runaway Bride is a pretty efficient delivery system of “everything you need to know about the modern version of Doctor Who” aimed at relatives who wouldn’t normally sit down on a Saturday night to watch the show. Davies pretty much prints gigantic bullet points for the folks watching at home.

So we get lots of speeches about how people are important. In particular, this being the Davies era, there’s a particular emphasis on working class people. Donna is not presented as an exceptionally smart or cultured individual. She’s loud and obnoxious and stupid. It would be easy to turn her into a figure of parody, and Davies comes close a couple of times. (When the Doctor asks how she missed the events of The Christmas Invasion, she replies, “I had a bit of a hangover.”)

A hole load of trouble...

A hole load of trouble…

Donna is – quite pointedly – not the kind of person who would watch Doctor Who. The show points this out by having Donna humourously miss out on all the big events of the past couple of years. Of course she doesn’t know about the invasion of the Cybermen, she doesn’t watch Doctor Who. That nerdy continuity stuff isn’t really anything she’s interested in, so why should she care about it? Why shouldn’t the Doctor have to explain the rules to her.

And here Davies seems to have a bit of a go at the more snobbish elements of Doctor Who fandom; the kinds of people who treat anybody who watches I’m a Celebrity with disdain, or who look down on others who don’t share their interests. Davies really doesn’t like those snooty and exclusive elements of fandom, devoting entire episodes (like Dalek and Love & Monsters) to exploring how that sort of possessive attitude is ultimately toxic. It’s worth pointing out that these were exactly the kind of people who would have reacted quite aggressively to the casting of Catherine Tate.

Partners in crime...

Partners in crime…

Late in the episode, Lance tears into Donna viciously, attacking her as unrefined and tasteless. It’s a decidedly snobbish criticism of Donna. “And then I was stuck with a woman who thinks the height of excitement is a new flavour Pringle,” he moans. “Oh, I had to sit there and listen to all that yap yap yap. Oh, Brad and Angelina. Is Posh pregnant? X-Factor, Atkins Diet, Feng Shui, split ends, text me, text me, text me. Dear God, the never ending fountain of fat, stupid trivia. I deserve a medal.”

The whole point of The Runaway Bride is that Donna’s taste doesn’t make her a bad person, and it’s a rather blunt way of reiterating Davies’ fascination with decidedly working- and middle-class characters. As the Doctor points out here, Rose came from the Powell Estates. Davies Doctor Who is absolutely fascinated with the people who live these sorts of lives, in council estates and flats, watching reality television and interested in celebrity gossip.

Slay ride?

Slay ride?

This is one of the more controversial aspects of Davies’ tenure, and he was frequently accused of dumbing the show down, or of pandering. There’s a line of argument that his stunt casting for The Runaway Bride and Voyage of the Damned was a cynical attempt to appeal to the kind of people who watch reality television or who buy celebrity gossip rags. There’s a hint of elitism to those sorts of complaints, as if fans are somehow put out at having to “share” their show.

In a way, this is exactly what Davies attempted with the Christmas Specials. Kylie Minogue and Catherine Tate were very clear efforts at stunt casting. (Of course, it turned out Tate was a phenomenal dramatic actress, so it worked out well.) However, there’s nothing wrong with trying to appeal to a broader audience. The entire success of the revival has been built off appealing to a wider audience, and there’s a reason that Davies has been so wary of snobbish elitists who would try to take something wonderful and lock it up so that only they could enjoy it. Donna deserves to a chance to see the magic of the universe as well, after all.

Talk about a web of deceit...

Talk about a web of deceit…

And so The Runaway Bride hammers home that Davies era fascination with ordinary people with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. As the Doctor takes Donna back to witness the birth of planet Earth, she struggles with the enormity of it all. “Puts the wedding in perspective,” she states. “Lance was right. We’re just tiny.” The Doctor ladles on the saccharin in his reply, “No, but that’s what you do. The human race makes sense out of chaos. Marking it out with weddings and Christmas and calendars. This whole process is beautiful, but only if it’s being observed.”

(Note that the Doctor puts the emphasis on observing the process – not necessarily participating. Davies is quite clearly talking about opening up the show to people who would never have watched Doctor Who when its was a cancelled BBC science-fiction show in the wilderness years. People like Donna are a vital part of Doctor Who, regardless of the elitist attitudes in the fan establishment. After all, when you start pandering to the fan establishment, you get Attack of the Cybermen. So… you know…)

Flight of fancy...

Flight of fancy…

And, despite all the criticisms that the plot and Lance (and even the Doctor) make of Donna and her inability to shut up, The Runaway Bride is very sympathetic towards her. She might be distinctly middle class, but – as her surname implies – she is a decidedly noble character. She has a wonderful sense of empathy, an empathy lacking in even the Doctor. While she’s upset at how her big day has been ruined, during the attack on her wedding reception, her primary concern is for the people at the party.

As the Doctor tries to figure out the reasoning behind the attack, and to trace it back to its roots, Donna is more interested in saving lives and helping people. “Just help ’em,” she instructs. When the Doctor gets caught up in the bigger picture, she remains focused on the important stuff. “Never mind all that. You’re a doctor. People have been hurt.” Which is to say that Donna really is the perfect companion of the Davies era.

The sound system has been Doctor-ed...

The sound system has been Doctor-ed…

The Runaway Bride doesn’t just reiterate Davies’ attitude toward normal people. It also makes stresses the importance of the companion. The Doctor has recently lost Rose. It’s a pretty big deal. This isn’t the classic show, where the Doctor instantly forgets his travelling companion and recruits a suitable replacement. The Doctor is shocked up upset by the loss of Rose. While the Tenth Doctor (and Davies himself) could become far too fixated on the importance of Rose, it makes perfect sense that Rose should cast a shadow over The Runaway Bride. At the same time, The Runaway Bride is quite clear that the Doctor needs a companion.

If The Christmas Invasion defined the Tenth Doctor as a man who simply didn’t know when to stop, The Runaway Bride makes it clear that the companion’s role is to tell him to stop. It’s such a great idea that Turn Left revisits the climax of The Runaway Bride, suggesting that things would have gone very differently had Donna not been there to pull the Tenth Doctor back from edge of the abyss. (It’s quite ironic that, despite his buoyant personality, the Tenth Doctor also seemed more prone to outright depression and suicidal fantasies than his direct predecessor.)

Don't stop 'till you get enough...

Don’t stop ’till you get enough…

It’s also worth noting that Donna is the only companion who really stands up to the Tenth Doctor. Rose was hopelessly head-over-heels in love with him, to the point where he had to banish her to an alternate universe with a clone in order to get her off his back. Martha had a crush and was willing to let the Doctor walk all over her; when the time came to stand up, she simply walked away. Which is a valid choice from her perspective, but not what the Tenth Doctor needs in a companion.

On the other hand, Donna is a character who is perfectly willing to call the Doctor out when he needs to be called out. Given that arrogance and hubris count among the Tenth Doctor’s defining character traits, this is a very endearing attribute for Donna. More than that, Donna exists as a person who isn’t immediately impressed by Daleks or Cybermen or the weight of continuity. She isn’t too concerned with the world of Doctor Who.

Christmas star...

Christmas star…

As such, Donna is perfectly positioned to be a check on the show’s excesses; she’s not caught up in the hype, and can thus stand outside the narrative. Her introductory sequence features her doing something that the Doctor deems “impossible.” She manages to infiltrate the heart of the TARDIS, by-passing all the shielding and defences. She manages to cut right to the heart of Doctor Who as well.

And, of course, the Doctor improves her. Rather, he enables her. He brings qualities to the fore that were always simmering in the background. Even though they have only had one adventure together, there’s a sense that the Doctor has made quite an impact on Donna’s life. He has opened her eyes. “So, what will you do with yourself now?” he asks. “Not getting married, for starters,” she replies. “And I’m not going to temp anymore. I don’t know. Travel. See a bit more of planet Earth. Walk in the dust. Just go out there and do something.”

Taking the window of opportunity...

Taking the window of opportunity…

In a way, he has turned Donna into another pseudo-Doctor. This makes the climax of the fourth season all the more heart-breaking. Had Donna never met the Doctor again, she would have a happy ending. However, stumbling across the Doctor for a second time allowed her to ascend even further – becoming the most convincing of pseudo-Doctors. However, there is a limit to how far the companion can ascend, as Davies asserted back in The Christmas Invasion.

It’s worth noting just how wonderful Catherine Tate is in the role. Tate was obviously hired because “Catherine Tate in Doctor Who” was a demographic crossover that Russell T. Davies could never refuse. However, Tate proves herself a formidable dramatic actress. Davies doesn’t just let Catherine Tate loose in Doctor Who. He gives the character some nice dramatic beats and development. Tate runs with these aspects of the character, and turns Donna into something far more interesting than “Catherine Tate in Doctor Who” might suggest.

Let it snow...

Let it snow…

Tate works beautifully with Tennant. Their acting styles play well off one another, and Tate is perfectly willing to fight for her corner of the screen against Tennant’s explosive screen presence. For the first time since Lalla Ward and Tom Baker shared the TARDIS, Doctor Who feels like a partnership of equals. Well, as equal as it can be when the show is branded for one character and not the other. It helps that Tate can deliver lines like “Santa’s a robot!” in a beautifully endearing manner.

The Runaway Bride is not the most ambitious of episodes. Indeed, it feels more like a catch-up hour than anything too exciting or dynamic on its own terms. Nevertheless, it serves as a surprisingly efficient encapsulation of the Davies era, playing out the entire relationship between the Doctor and his companion in the space of a single hour. It also introduces one of the strongest characters in the history of the franchise.

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