First broadcast 21/6/2008 starring Catherine Tate
You might think that featuring a story that barely includes The Doctor as my favourite Doctor Who story of all time may be a tad odd. Especially on this day, the 50th Anniversary of the world’s greatest television show. But, for me, Turn Left is an absolute testament to the strength of the series, how the role of the companion is vital to its ethos whilst also acting as a metaphor for Doctor Who itself (I’ll explain later).
What if? and parallel world stories are always fascinating and given that, as an audience, we knew the status quo would be restored (although, in this episode, it wasn’t quite) it’s creditable that the tale manages to pull such a dramatic and emotional punch. Of course, this is all down to the incredible companion that is Donna Noble.
In a neat nutshell, we are presented with her journey from gobby and ignorant temp to saviour of the universe, a woman willing to sacrifice her life for the greater good. I have to admit, Donna is my favourite companion in Doctor Who, and this is the perfect example of just why. Not many of the Doctor’s friends can completely carry a story, and Chiswick’s finest does it all too well. It’s difficult to know where Russell T Davies’ writing and Catherine Tate’s own acting skills begin when it comes Donna. Her lines, from the acerbic and bitter temp to her glorious pre-time traveling speech in the circle of mirrors, hit each note and beat perfectly. And Tate performs them sublimely.
In particular, the aforementioned circle of mirrors scene gets me every time. It’s such an joyous and triumphant moment, accompanied by the finest piece music Murray Gold has composed for the show, that engages and thrills enormously. But the weeping of joy soon turns to grief when poor Donna realises her fate. And yet she still goes into the unknown. The Doctor, or the imprint or shadow of him, has affected her life enough to make her a hero. For me, it’s the single greatest moment in Doctor Who history.
Sound familiar? Well, yes. Turn Left can also be seen as telling the story of fandom. Doctor Who was killed but it was the fans who remembered, the fans who kept those memories and then, when the time was right, brought it back and saved the universe. Well, the television landscape anyway. We became the companion in those dark times and wished him back – and he did come back. Thankfully, we didn’t have to break into another universe or sacrifice ourselves though (not to my knowledge anyway).
That moment, that brilliant heart-shattering moment is followed by another moment of equal force and reverberation. Bad Wolf. Whilst maybe not quite as heart-poundingly shocking as The Master reveal in Utopia (and if that was 100, this is perhaps 99), the denouement turns the happy ending and resolution, throws it away and reignites the heart, setting it into overdrive.
The story, whilst most definitely bleak (no bad thing) and including numerous pleasing fan nods, delves into an apocalyptic vision of the UK, another sci-fi trope I enjoy. As Donna and her family move to Leeds we discover Blighty has become an almost fascist state, sending foreigners to camps. Considering how light Doctor Who is at times, these moments are truly shocking and deeply affecting.
Again, congratulations must go the cast. In a guest role, and all too brief, Joseph Long shines as Rocco Colasanto. His twinkly eyes and jubilant spirit make for a memorable role but also more difficult when he’s taken away. Bernard Cribbins comes into his own here with another powerful performance and his teary salute ensures there’s not a dry eye in the house. His presence in Doctor Who has been nothing less than exemplary.
The bleakness continues in the relationship between Donna and her mum Sylvia. It’s a bickering, almost fun fight between them (notably in the car – “City executives don’t need temps, except for practice”) but the interplay between them becomes as dark as the world they live in. Donna, still trying to keep upbeat tells her, “You were right. You said I should have worked harder at school. I suppose I’ve always been a disappointment.” To which Sylvia replies with an affirmative, “Yeah.” It’s one of the hardest and coldest responses I’ve seen on Doctor Who. Chilling. Russell T Davies knows how to write cheerful but he also knows how to kill with a word or a phrase.
In Midnight, Russell took away The Tenth Doctor’s greatest traits – his companion and his voice. In Turn Left, he disavows Doctor Who completely of its Time Lord. In the space of two weeks the then showrunner had delivered two remarkable pieces of television (with equally gratifyingly high audience figures) but still experimenting with the formula. Two amazing, vastly different and deeply dark bits of telly on a Saturday night.
This is when the love for Doctor Who was at its peak. Never before had I felt so engaged with each story or so desperate to discover what was happening next or feel so fully satisfied and delighted every week. The pairing of Tennant and Tate was exquisite. It made me feel so damn happy inside. And it hasn’t really got close since.
Turn Left stands proud as an episode I never, never tire of, despite the Time Beetle, and can watch over and over again. It’s a shining example of what Doctor Who is capable of. What Doctor Who can be when it touches the heart and shows that the unlikeliest person can not only be your friend, but be someone who changes your life and saves the universe.
At its simplest level, Turn Left gets me emotionally. I care about all the characters. I care about what’s going on. I’m involved and my heart is the leading the way. It’s a tragic yet triumphant story that signifies the height of Doctor Who and, now, reminds me of happier times (ironic considering how relentlessly downbeat the story is). Donna and The Doctor, Tate and Tennant – that’s when I loved the show the most in my 35 years (or so) of watching. When I think of Doctor Who, I think of Donna in that circle, with that amazing music, bringing light into the lives of millions.
The Doctor, though barely present, leads the way for those in his wake.