A First-Timer Watches Doctor Who: “Turn Left”
Rose is back, and she’s still wearing hideous purple pleather. Although Rose’s return was presumably the main attraction of this episode, Donna was the companion who created the most impact. For the second time this season, she’s put through the wringer on a heartbreaking alternate life. Time/space, give this woman a break!
Donna and the Doctor get separated on a trip to a bustling Asian marketplace. While the Doctor chats with a local, Donna is persuaded to have her fortune read by a cute—but secretly devious—psychic. As the reading begins, the fortuneteller asks Donna to pinpoint the decisions that led to her meeting the Doctor. What moments led up to their encounter in “The Runaway Bride”? Donna realizes that it all came down to one car ride with her mother: she had turned left, which brought her to her job in the city—where she met her fiancé and, eventually, the Doctor. But if she had turned right, what would have happened?
“Turn right!” the fortune teller urges, and Donna is transported—in her head but also sort of in real life?—back to that car ride. She turns right, which means she’s not there to save the Doctor during their first meeting. He dies, leaving the world vulnerable to all sorts of malevolent alien influences: the Titanic crashes into London, the Adipose kill 60 million Americans, and the Torchwood team are killed while trying to save the world from the ATMOS system. Through all this, Rose keeps visiting Donna, eventually convincing her to go back in time and try to change the course of events.
We know how much the Doctor has missed Rose, so it was frustrating—but kind of fun—that they never cross paths. Rose is different from when we last saw her: more serious, less googly-eyed, perhaps more damaged. And one other thing: what’s with the voice? Billie Piper’s affected delivery was definitely a little distracting—although it’s funny that she herself blames her speech on that unfortunate leather jacket. All in all, Rose’s return lacked energy. The premise felt a little repetitive because she seems to be taking on a similar role to Martha in “The Sontaran Stratagem”: helping governmental forces protect the world from attacking aliens. And while it makes sense that her identity was shrouded in mystery—since telling her name could have unsettled time, space, etc.—her flitting visits and mysterious conversations with Donna meant it was hard to reestablish a connection to her character—even though we already know her well.
Donna, on the other hand, had enough emotions for both of them. When she first joined the show, Catherine Tate brought levity to the role of the companion: Donna was a goof—if sometimes unintentionally. But as the season has progressed, Tate has shown some serious dramatic acting skills. She lost her kids in “Forest of the Dead,” and now she’s lost her life—both figuratively and literally—in “Turn Left.” Tate is able to bring out Donna’s vulnerability just as much as her (very funny) belligerence. Donna and Rose actually both have very similar motives: they both started travelling with the Doctor to escape their humdrum, going-nowhere lives. But perhaps because Donna is a little older, this imperative seems more urgent in her case. There is more sadness behind her desire for new things—her sense of failure is more deeply ingrained. Which makes for a richer character.
So it’s disappointing that Donna’s time is coming to an end. I was wondering the same question the Doctor voiced after Donna returned to the “present”: why is she surrounded by so many coincidences? Also, at the end of this episode, the fortune teller asks, “What will you be?” Apparently Donna’s is a) super strong, b) surrounded by bizarre coincidences, c) maybe about to die. We’ll see what happens in the season finale.