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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

‘Doctor Who’ blogging: “Turn Left”

(tons of spoilers! don’t read till you’ve seen the episode! and no comments from party poopers — this is a love fest only / previous: Episode 10: “Midnight”)

This is Back to the Future II meets Twelve Monkeys. It’s among the most innovative use of the SF concepts of time travel and parallel universes I’ve ever seen. It’s so damn good I almost forget, every time I watch it, that David Tennant is hardly in it at all.
And Catherine Tate. Wow. Awesome awesome performance from her. It’s like one of the characters from her sketch comedy show — which are always terribly funny and terribly accurate, if exaggerated and satirized, images of modern womanhood — suddenly made real. Donna Noble without the Doctor is tragic because we know what she can be, what she’s capable of when only someone believes in her, when she isn’t crushed into self-doubt and self-loathing by a world that doesn’t tend to recognize women’s actual accomplishments, however small they are, and doesn’t tend to encourage women to be more ambitious than the smallest kind of ambition they can muster.

I mean, look: Donna’s mother is a nightmare. It’s easy to imagine that she’s been disappointed in her life, and so this is why she takes it out on her daughter, but still: ugh. Is that really a reason to demolish your daughter like you may have been demolished? Maybe Donna’s ambitions really were so small as hoping to marry the kind of man who would work at a posh company in the City (that’s the London equivalent of Wall Street, for the non-Anglophiles)… and her mother must stomp out even that? (“City executives don’t need temps, except for practice.” That is downright cruel.) Is Donna’s mother so bitter that she doesn’t even wish for her daughter to be that kind of traditional, marrying a man for his money? (It’s interesting that Donna’s mother is so perfect a depiction of downtrodden womanhood that I can’t even remember if we’ve ever heard her name.) It’s still heartbreaking to see Donna’s mother sink even further into despair… even if, at what appears to be her worst moment, all she can do is rag on Donna some more. (“I’ve given up on you,” and, later, all she can say is “Yeah” when Donna says, “I suppose I’ve always been a disappointment.” Jesus.)

“Turn Left” might be one of the most sneakily feminist bits of pop culture ever. Not just because the world goes to hell if Donna — just a temp, just a “mere” woman — is removed from events… although, wow, it’s not just that the world needs the Doctor but that the world needs a Doctor who needs Donna. It’s that we see, through this alternate world in which Donna never meets the Doctor, that, really, all it takes is a little encouragement and a little enthusiasm for what a woman can do that makes her blossom. Remove that from Donna’s life, and she’s insecure and uncertain and miserable and never discovers what she can be.

That’s disguised, of course, as this: Remove the Doctor from events — especially recent events, when, as Wilf notes, there’s a lot more aliens about — and what happens? Not the end of the world, but maybe something worse. It’s very fan-fictionish to be looking at the events of a television show from a new angle — that’s what fan fiction does — to become a different kind of observer of them. Here’s Donna, not getting married on the Christmas Eve of the Christmas Star, and so, without her to make him leave, to save his life, everything cascades into awfulness. Not everything changes… The Royal Hope Hospital still gets snatched by the Judoon, but now Martha Jones dies, and so does Sarah Jane Smith (and even all the kids who hang around with her, and again, it’s like: Jesus). The starship Titanic still comes screaming through Earth’s atmosphere on a collision course with the planet… and without the Doctor to stop it:


It just keeps getting more and more horrific. The collapsing global economy (which isn’t helped by the Adipose, unopposed by the Doctor, targeting America instead of the ruined U.K.). The “labor camps” (oh, the look on Wilf’s face as he knows where their Italian neighbors are going). The remants of Torchwood sacrificing themselves to save Earth from the Sontarans. We need the Doctor… but the Doctor needs us, too. He can’t do it without us.

Random thoughts on “Turn Left”:

• Cut from the Sci Fi Channel edit of this episode is this marvelous little moment from the opening scene, in the alien marketplace:

The Doctor tells Donna she’s gonna love whatever it is that they’re drinking, and she does. And then also cut from just moments later, while the fortune teller is trying to entice Donna into her shop, is this exchange:

“Don’t you want to know if you’re going to be happy?” –the fortune teller
“I’m happy right now.” –Donna

That is not something we usually hear people say on Doctor Who, but hey, if I were wandering in a marketplace on an alien planet with the Doctor, just, you know, shopping for something to cook for dinner on the TARDIS, I’d be happy too.

• Is there anything sadder than this:

Well, maybe the Doctor’s dead body on a stretcher. But the dead TARDIS is a close second.

• Creepiness! “The stars are going out” is good for that, but “There’s something on your back” is up there with “Are you my mummy?” for sheer unexpectedness. Who would have thought something so seemingly mundane could be so damn unnerving?

• It cannot be a coincidence that the time-changer insect thingie plus the fortune teller happen to hone in on Donna. This doesn’t really spoil anything for the two upcoming episodes, but we never find out who the fortune teller is (except the same actress who played Chan-Tho in “Utopia”) or if she was working for someone, or what. And we don’t learn anything more about “the Trickster’s Brigade,” which the Doctor says the insect thingie is one of.

• When Donna asks Rose, “Were you and him…?” meaning you-know-what, Rose says nothing. I wonder why…

• Rose looks older, doesn’t she? I don’t mean that she’s aged — it’s that she’s wiser.

(next: Episode 12: “The Stolen Earth”)

MPAA: not rated

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