Tony Fyler remembers the heaviest Doctor-Light story in history.
Broadcast 21st June 2008
Would you die to save the world? Would you die – really, properly, forever – for the chance to make the world a better place?
Plenty of people have – they’ve looked at the world, and made the ultimate sacrifice, not in the certainty but in the simple, fervent hope that doing so would save the world for everyone else. And many of those people weren’t ‘special,’ or ‘noble’ or ‘brave’ for the majority of their lives. But they looked the question of What If in the face, and found the courage to put themselves in the way of something worse than the here and now, and helped to save or helped to change the world.
What would you do, if it actually came to the crunch?
Welcome to Turn Left, the Series 4 ‘Doctor-Light’ story.
Since the dawn of David Tennant’s time in the Tardis, two traditions have gone hand in hand – the Doctor Who Christmas Special, and the Doctor-Light episode in every series, by which expediency, through double-banked filming, the Christmas extravaganza is paid for. The Doctor-Light episode got off to a bumpy start, with Russell T Davies giving us Love and Monsters, but one thing they’ve always been good at is examining the impact of the Doctor’s life on others. Turn Left takes the concept of Doctor-Lightness to its logical in-universe conclusion. If Donna Noble had never met the Doctor, if she’d never stopped him, broken him out of his dark reverie as he watched the Racnoss drown, what would have happened? How would their never meeting have affected the universe?
It’s a question posed by a creepily insistent fortune teller on the planet Shan Shen, played by Chipo Chung. After quite some prodding, Donna remembers some of the events that led to her meeting the Doctor, and the fortune teller is able to narrow the flow of causality down to one decision: a choice of two jobs, one of which lies to the left at a junction, the other to the right. In established history, Donna turned left, went to work for HC Clements, met and was set to marry Lance, and so was beamed into the Doctor’s life. This time, she turns right, and the meeting with the Doctor never takes place.
As scripts go, Turn Left is a giant dark game of What If? It’s a game everyone plays at some point in their lives – what if I hadn’t said this thing? What if we were still together? What if I’d followed my dream? What if I hadn’t? It’s one of the fastest known ways to drive a human stark raving bonkers, but we’re still intensely fascinated with the What Ifs of life, the other possibilities, the paths not taken.
Turn Left also does some heavy continuity-mining from the four series that precede it, playing out the impact of the Doctor’s absence from the scene of several of his most apocalyptic adventures. It’s perhaps a heavy-handed scripting convenience that without Donna by his side for the events of The Runaway Bride, he would simply have stared into the soggy abyss as it swallowed the Racnoss until it was too late, and subsequently not been able to regenerate, but to some extent it wouldn’t be a Davies extravaganza without a little wheel-greasing scripting convenience.
The point is that the script that it allows to unfold is one of the most terrifying in New Who history. It’s Doctor Who…without the Doctor in it. That means that, for instance, that the destruction of the Racnoss leads to a flooded Thames, losing Donna her job as London is waterlogged. The events of Smith and Jones read: http://www.warpedfactor.com/2016/05/doctor-who-revisiting-smith-and-jones.html play out without the Doctor to stop Florence the Plasmavore, but, in the first of a series of examples, Sarah-Jane Smith and her gang of teenaged alien investigators manage to sonic the MRI before half the world burns, and they die in the process. Martha too never gets to meet the Doctor, but shows her innate compassion by giving fellow student Oliver the last of the oxygen, before she too dies.
There’s that sense, even though some of them will never now know it, that being a friend of the Doctor’s means being willing, if necessary, to be the Doctor, to do what the Doctor does – even if that involves dying in the process to save the world from devastation.
The next cataclysm that hits the world has no such ‘Children of Time’ to prevent it – the events of Voyage of the Damned play out as Max Capricorn intends them to, and the Titanic crashes into Buckingham Palace, effectively destroying London and bathing the whole south of England in radiation. This is properly apocalyptic stuff, with martial law being declared, and survivors being moved up north. In a world where these things happen on the TV to people from Somewhere Else, it’s a sobering watch to see the Noble family billeted with three other families in a house in Leeds, the three generations living together in a kitchen. Never fear, declares Wilf – the Americans are coming to help us.
Except there’s no Doctor and no Donna to stop the Adipose breeding plan, and millions of Americans dissolve into fat, plunging the nation into crisis.
The Sontaran Stratagem with the ATMOS system (stitch that, Luke Rattigan!) drapes Europe and China into choking chaos, and again the Children of Time are forced to give their lives in the Doctor’s place and in his spirit, Gwen Cooper and Ianto Jones dying on board the Sontaran ship and Captain Jack being taken back to Sontar for endless rounds of target practice.
Donna, exhausted, is visited by Rose, who tells her that something even worse is coming, and that she needs to come with her – and that when she does, in three weeks’ time, she’ll die. It seems like the culmination of the worst game of What If in history, spinning an ever-increasing apocalypse from a single decision about which job Donna Noble, the temp from Chiswick, takes. And Davies doesn’t spare us even then, displaying a graveyard honesty about human nature. ‘Labour camps’ are set up to get rid of foreigners and keep ‘England for the English,’ giving us a heartbreaking scene between Wilf and Mr Colasanto, their endlessly cheerful, wartime-spirited neighbour, as he and his family are carted away to their deaths at the hands of a British military faced with an impossible decision.
Against the backdrop of this world, and with the stars going out, Donna – exhausted, terrified, hopeless Donna – goes with Rose and finds the horrifying truth of her destiny: she has to die to put the world back the way it should be. And even when she’s able to face that reality, the comfort she gives herself, that it means she won’t ‘really’ die, that she’ll carry on in some alternative version of the world, is ripped away from her by Rose. When Donna Noble steps in front of a truck so as to force the other version of herself to turn left and break the timeline that’s been built around her, she has only a desperate hope, that she’s not just ending her life for nothing.
Turn Left is the ultimate New Who counterfactual story, showing the strands of causality on which in Donna’s case the universe depends. As well as taking a simple idea to its logical conclusion though, what makes Turn Left so impressive is three-fold. Firstly, it gives us an episode without much in the way of hope – the Doctor’s dead, things can only get worse, and they do, relentlessly and mercilessly, the events that crowd the storytelling just hyper-inflated science-fiction versions of the things that could happen to every one of us in real life – death, disappointment, and the loss of hope. That’s some hard core storytelling. Secondly, it proves, for anyone who hasn’t yet been convinced, that while she thinks of herself as nothing special, Donna Noble has the right stuff to be a companion of the Doctor’s and an influence in the universe in her own right – she eventually does what all companions have to be able to do; she does the Doctor’s job when he can’t. And thirdly, it allows some of the Series 4 regulars to really break our hearts with their acting. Catherine Tate, Jacqueline King, Bernard Cribbins, Joseph Long as Colasanto – they all give us powerhouse performances, so we never feel the lack of the Doctor from a dramatic standpoint. Granted, there’s the latest in a long line of disappointing BBC bug effects to contend with, but ultimately one naff prop doesn’t overbalance the emotional wringer that the series regulars put us through, or the philosophical punch the episode delivers.
Turn Left is in some ways the ultimate Doctor-Light story. Re-watched eight years on, it’s still a thing of aching sad wonder in terms of the relentless logic of its storytelling and the outstanding performances from most of the cast.