Doctor-light episodes seem to have become a way for the Doctor Who production team to do something a bit more experimental. This has happened right back from the early days when a lead actor needed to take a break the Doctor or his companions would find one or other of them turned invisible as in The Celesital Toymaker, transformed temporarily into a different actor as occurred in The Mind Robber or imprisoned as happened in The Time Meddler. In the new series we’ve had a couple of Doctor light episodes where the main cast gets involved in the story but the core characters are separate. This year we had a pair of stories, with Donna taking a break last week, however it is rather more difficult to sideline the Doctor in the same way.
In Turn Left the chosen route was a classic alternative history story, exploring what would have happened if Donna had not taken the job where she initially gets involved with the Doctor. As a result, she is not present to snap the Doctor out of his almost trance like state during the climax of The Runaway Bride, and in the alternative version of events the Doctor dies during the encounter. Throughout the rest of the episode we see key events in the series through the eyes of Donna as an ordinary person. So the events of Smith and Jones are seen, but Martha Jones dies, and it is Sarah Jane Smith who gets involved, and again she doesn’t make it out alive. The next big event series wise is the return of The Master, but of course since he is released by the Doctor after the events of The Runaway Bride, in this alternate reality he is still trapped in the far future. Next up without the Doctor, the replica of the Titanic does smash into London, wiping out millions and plunging the UK into chaos. Thanks to a bit of intervention from Rose Tyler, Donna is safely away in the country. Moving on to the latest stories, the Adipose don’t much affect the crippled UK, and with petrol rationed, the Sontaran Stratagem has much less of an effect, but it is Captain Jack and Torchwood who help defeat that threat, but again at the cost of their lives – the immortal Captain Jack is left stranded on Sontar.
All of this goes towards removing all the possibilities for salvation when towards the climax of the episode stars in the night sky start to disappear as part of what Rose refers to as the approaching darkness. Using the last remaining power from the TARDIS, which UNIT had salvaged, but which following the passing of it’s owner is slowly dying, Rose sends Donna back in time to stop her past self from making the fateful decision that leads her away from the Doctor, turning right rather than turning left. Ultimately Donna sacrifices herself in the alternate timeline, and as she lays dying, Rose appears once again and whispers two words to tell the Doctor.
Much as with Utopia last year, episode eleven was very much about putting things in place for the series finale. With that episode as with this, it is the last few minutes of the episode that are key. This time around the big reveal moment is when Donna repeats the whispered words which both confirms the identity of Rose, and also highlights the importance of what is happening – Bad Wolf – the words that Rose scattered through time to guide herself and the Doctor towards their fateful battle against the resurgent Daleks. In much the same way, from the glimpses in the trailer, it seems the last Dalek who escaped at the conclusion of Evolution of the Daleks may have started anew – perhaps with a little help – and once again Bad Wolf is guiding the Doctor and his companions towards another battle, and again from the clues laid down in this weeks episode, the cost is going to be high.
What made the episode, was the big conclusion, and the expectation it produced for the finale. Despite some strong performances, I thought the rest was pretty derivative. The â€œWhat Ifâ€? idea has been done in a lot of other series, and whilst it was interesting to see the alternative history, it was in some ways pretty predictable, and a lot of the episode was very much a whole series of continuity references for fans – and yet another temporal paradox. The almost messianic idea that Russell has used previously was clear as well, everything is bad without the Doctor. What might have been more experimental would be if some things had actually been better had the Doctor not been involved. The giant beetle monster and the whole concept of what it did really didn’t hang together overly well either – and the question of how a dying Donna in the alternate timeline that ceases to exist was able to give a message to the Doctor is something that really doesn’t make sense either. As the SFX preview of the finale has said cramming an episode with continuity references entertains the fans, but sometimes when you look at it rationally, peeling back the references, there isn’t much underneath – sadly my opinion this week was that it was primarily a vehicle for the fan pleasing references, and didn’t do much underneath. Hopefully things might be better next week.
Turning to next week, it looks like we’re going to get multiple trailers, the first of which is online already.