The Runaway Bride
Tony’s at the reception.
The end of Series 2 left a lot of relatively new Doctor Who fans bereft. Rose, who’d been their introduction, their guide to life by the Doctor’s side, had been trapped on a parallel world, seemingly forever, and the Doctor had run out of words just a little too soon, giving us one of the best and most depressing warnings to tell people what they mean to you while you can, because life can snatch you or them away on the very next breath.
Fans needed a screen wipe, mind wipe, a complete change of pace, whether to recover from the Rose storyline’s emotional tug, or to recover from what had been an especially sentimental era of Doctor Who. What could deliver that sort of new start?
Catherine Tate in a wedding dress, demanding ‘What the hell is this place?’
That’ll do nicely. Thanks Russell.
The Christmas Special that followed on from that line had a lot to do. Just as the first Christmas Special had proved Doctor Who could survive without Christopher Eccleston, so The Runaway Bride had to prove it could survive without Billie Piper’s Rose, who’d been there from the start.
It also gave the Production Team the chance to go back to Classic Who basics, with none of the gooey romantic stuff that had been the hallmark of Series 2, just a Time Lord and his friend, righting wrongs and being amazing.
The Runaway Bride actually delivers a lot more than that. Beginning with a prelude to the cliff-hanger we’d already seen, it shows us Donna Noble going up the aisle with a humph of self-determination and a scream as she’s stolen from her big day.
As a story, it’s a misbegotten romance, a story of utter heartbreak and the betrayal of someone who badly needs someone to care for, someone to care for her, to make her life somehow more meaningful than it has been. Tate as Donna delivers the funny with a punch and a flair you’d expect of someone who’d made her name delivering character comedy (‘Pockets!’, ‘Santa’s a robot!’), but she also makes Donna real, and not entirely likeable – we wonder what Nerys has to ‘get her back’ for, and Lance, in his cruellest moment, describes her as a never-ending fountain of fat, stupid trivia, claiming he deserves a medal just for putting up with her long enough for the Empress of the Racnoss’ plans to come to fruition. We also see Donna, faced with questions and accusations, pull the oldest trick in the book – the crybaby routine – and win everyone round to her support. Manipulative too, then – but when she winks at the Doctor, he smiles, seeing the skill and the advantage of the act, which changes the mood of the room in an instant. What’s perhaps more important is that she rarely if ever lets the Doctor off the hook, which in his Tenth incarnation, he’s perhaps a little too eager to do himself. He asks her to trust him, and she asks him, even as she’s being whisked away by Robot Santa Cabbie, ‘Is that what you said to her? Your friend? The one you lost? Did she trust you?’
And ultimately of course, we see Donna as the conscience the Tenth Doctor sometimes forgets to have. It’s Donna who breaks him from his bitter reverie as he watches the Racnoss babies drown, and she who tells him bluntly ‘They were dying, and you just stood there like… I think you need someone to stop you.’
That’s a key development. Rose’s ‘role’ in the Doctor’s life was to remind him how to be the Doctor after the Time War scarred him so badly he was filled with residual rage. The cheeky chappie Tenth Doctor persona is essentially a mask for Mr No Second Chances, and it’s Donna who first sees the potential for him to be subsumed by that darkness, that black and white, live or die simplicity, the Time Lord Victorious. ‘You need someone to stop you.’ It’s both an evolution of the Tenth Doctor’s character that hooks us forward to see what he does next, and a flirtation with David Tennant’s ability to play darker roles than the sometimes smug Tenth Doctor had been with Rose. The Runaway Bride showed there was more potential to the Tenth Doctor, that he was a character that could be played more than the one original way. If you wanted to get pretentious about it, you could say that The Runaway Bride secured the future of Doctor Who by proving it could work another way – particularly in retrospect, given its return to messy relationships in Series 3 with Martha. Donna would never have come back for Series 4 if The Runaway Bride hadn’t proved that a non-romantic relationship could work in the 21st century Tardis, and cemented the pally chemistry between Tennant and Tate. It’s no accident that after the ‘unrequited love’ arc of Series 3, the Production Team returned to the Tennant and Tate, to a tweaked Donna Noble alongside the Tenth Doctor for a full series.
The Runaway Bride is Donna with all her rough edges intact, and it acts as an awakening for her in a number of ways – not only that Lance, a man she trusted absolutely, that she wanted to marry (and, the implication is, a man to whom she gave her love and her vulnerability) found her objectionable, but also that she’s more than nothing, more than ‘ordinary,’ because ordinary doesn’t exist unless you let it. The Doctor opens her eyes that while Brad and Angelina and Eastenders are fine if you enjoy them, there really is an opportunity in being alive, the chance to ‘be magnificent’ while life and health allow you to. While she turns the Doctor’s invitation to the universe down at the end of the episode, the seed is sown in her to ‘go out there and see it all. To walk in the dust.’ The events of the episode break her out of a rut of ‘ordinary.’
The Runaway Bride offers still more on a re-watch. The Racnoss are a species ‘born starving’ and the Empress, in her oddly stylised way, asks a pertinent question – ‘Is that our fault?’ The early empires combined to destroy the Racnoss, when really, the problem with allowing them to live is simply a matter of their life cycle and their diet. There’s an obvious, odd and unChristmassy parallel to what feels like the villain’s inspiration – spiders in the bath, washed down the plughole not because they do us any harm, but because they really rather creep us out. There’s a perfectly reasonable tragedy to be made out of the Racnoss story, victims of persecution and their own biology, except that Russell T Davies doesn’t let us explore that angle, firmly drawing the lines of rights and wrong at Christmas by having the ‘One Chance’ Doctor offer them a way out of their situation, and the Empress turn it down, so that ‘what happens next is your doing’ – a somewhat self-serving rationalisation by a Tenth Doctor who seems exhausted and bitter as he watches the Racnoss drown, as though he needs to hurt something after losing Rose to the Daleks’ plans for re-genesis. It’s in that moment that the seed of exactly how cruel this Tenth Doctor could be, how arrogant, how fundamentally dark is really brought to the fore for the first time, after flashes of an uncompromising nature studded throughout Series 2. ‘Someone to stop you’ in this episode is equivalent to ‘someone to save you,’ which the Doctor needs after losing his blonde-haired anchor of salvation.
The Runaway Bride is by no means all darkness, of course – where would be the Christmassy fun in that? – and David Tennant gets a good few motormouthed Tiggerish moments in, but again the lines of difference are drawn. Where Rose would usually laugh and cheer when he did that, Donna has a tendency to slap him, as though he’s getting hysterical, and bring him back down to the seriousness of the situation. And there are a couple of sequences, like the taxi ride with the Tardis flying alongside, that still bring an air-punch on a re-watch.
The Runaway Bride did all it had to do – giving us a different energy in the Tardis, lots of comedy, but an equal scoop of newish, less restrained darkness to look forward to in the Doctor. It brought the Classic companion back in the world of New Who, and it gave us a first mention of the mysterious Mr Saxon.
It also gave us a template for how a Christmas companion should work, as an adjunct to ongoing arcs, without ever really undoing those arcs, while proving that with a little rewriting, Christmas companions could bring great new things to the show, an idea being tried again with new companion Nardole.
Re-watch The Runaway Bride today, and let Donna Noble steal your heart again.