Monday, September 12, 2016

Sliding Doors For Doctor Who Comes When Donna Noble Fails To "Turn Left!"

The Good: Catherine Tate's performance, Plot, Character twists
The Bad: Minutiae
The Basics: Despite a technical issue or two, the Doctor Who episode "Turn Left" is so close to perfect!

There are some concepts in modern science fiction that have become new standards, such that virtually every new work feels the need to try their hand at that type of episode. For a long time, it was alternate universe episodes, based largely on the massive success of Star Trek's "Mirror, Mirror" (reviewed here!). Since the film Sliding Doors was released, many science fiction works have tried an episode that illustrates how a single decision can cause a major divergence in the storyline and/or character arcs. Hell, even Frasier got in on the action with the episode "Sliding Frasier!" In Doctor Who, the episode that uses the Sliding Doors conceit is "Turn Left" and it is a shockingly good use of the conceit and a decent hour of television in its own right!

"Turn Left" is the episode that properly returns Rose Tyler to the Doctor Who narrative. Tyler has appeared in background flashes an allusions throughout the fourth season of Doctor Who and in "Turn Left," she returns to the forefront of the narrative, pairing with Donna Noble, to reveal what the cameos before have been about. In some ways, "Turn Left" works better without seeing "Doomsday" (reviewed here!), which left Tyler trapped permanently in an alternate universe (her ability to transport across the universal divide without unleashing all the Daleks and Cybermen is not addressed in the episode). However, because the episode revisits the events of "The Runaway Bride" (reviewed here!), "Smith And Jones" (reviewed here!), "Voyage Of The Damned" (reviewed here!), "Partners In Crime" (reviewed here!) and "The Poison Sky" (reviewed here!), it helps for viewers to have some familiarity with those past episodes to get the most out of "Turn Left."

Opening with The Doctor and Donna on a distant planet, the pair gets separated and Donna meets a fortune teller. The fortune teller gets Donna to realize that six months prior to her taking the temp job at H.C. Clements, she made a distinct choice that put her on a course to meeting The Doctor. Donna is infected with a parasite and convinced to re-choose and rewrite her timeline by turning right at a key moment and taking a different job. When the Racnoss attack London, Donna is not there to convince The Doctor to let up and he dies when UNIT attacks their ship. On the day that Donna is sacked from her job, Royal Hope Hospital disappears from Earth and when it is returned, there is only one survivor (not Martha Jones).

When Rose Tyler appears again, she continues to look over Donna's shoulder at the parasite she perceives there. Tyler advises Noble to get out of London and mentions the raffle ticket that Noble's mother found in her box from her job. The raffle ticket pays off and the next Christmas, the Noble family is on holiday when the space Titanic crashes into London. With London destroyed, the Noble family becomes refugees and is forced to move to Leeds where they have to share a flat with multiple families. Before the U.S. can bail out the U.K., sixty million people there are killed when they are transformed by the Adipose. When the Torchwood team is sacrificed stopping the Sontarans during the ATMOS incident, Rose Tyler appears to tell Donna Noble that she must come with her and that when she does, she will die. The UK deports all immigrants to labor camps and, as the world falls down around Donna, she finally sees evidence of Rose Tyler's "oncoming darkness." When that happens, Donna chooses to join Rose Tyler and UNIT to try to save the multiverse by returning to the key moment and making the right choice.

"Turn Left" works very hard to prepare viewers for the big goodbye episode that Russell T. Davies has planned over the course of the next two episodes. The references to all of the Doctor's allies, Companions, and organizations helps mentally soften the viewer up for all of them interacting in the subsequent two-parter. Fortunately, the episode is more than that.

In many ways, "Turn Left" softens the viewer up for the idea of how important Donna Noble is in the long-term arc of Doctor Who. The character was frequently treated as a throwaway character who was brash, loud, and obnoxious, but she became integral to several key moments in The Doctor's narrative. Equally important, she is set-up in "Turn Left" as someone who is special and has a destiny to play in the fate of the galaxy.

"Turn Left" is a good character study that smartly explores so many impressive consequences of recent actions in the Doctor Who universe. Harold Saxon never comes to power because The Doctor and Martha Jones never go to the end of time. The rest of the Earth-bound adventures of Doctor Who from the prior two seasons are explored for how those who knew The Doctor could have intervened to save the world in his absence. For an episode that is so intricately put together, it is shocking that the hidden adversary of the episode is so poorly constructed. The Darkness is a destructive force that is wiping out stars; for that to be an imminent threat, it would have been destroying star systems for centuries, which would hardly be a new thing at all.

Catherine Tate earns her paycheck for "Turn Left." The strength of her performance when Donna Noble sees the parasite is amazing. Tate dominates the episode and she creates a tearjerker performance that is exceptional. While some episodes, like the very popular "Blink" (reviewed here!) feature The Doctor as a peripheral character and are built around the Monster Of The Week, "Turn Left" minimizes The Doctor and elevates his Companion. Donna Noble manages to develop from self-centered and loud to passionate and involved without The Doctor and Tate makes the viewer care about her and her journey, more than they thrill to the return of Billie Piper's Rose Tyler.

While some complain about the effect of the parasite, "Turn Left" is not about the Creature Of The Week; it is about the Doctor Who companion Donna Noble. The creature does not have to be an amazing special effect; it has to horrify Donna Noble and Catherine Tate absolutely portrays the character's shock and horror at the creature on her back.

"Turn Left" could be a cheap gimmick episode, but it manages to use its premise exceptionally well and become a strong, positive work of its own.

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Doctor Who - The Complete Fourth Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the final season of David Tennant as The Doctor here!


For other Doctor Who episode and movie reviews, please visit my Doctor Who Review Index Page!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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