What do you get when you have an episode full of Doctor? Another episode full of companion, that's what. And after a series pregnant with dark hints, we finally get to find out what's the deal with Donna - and the thing on her back those Pompeiians got so exercised about.
An episode as heavily companion-oriented as this is a real departure, and that's always something we applaud. Messing around with time is also something we think the series doesn't do nearly enough of, so that also gets a big tick from us.
It has to work, though. Does it? Mmm…not for us it didn't.
Russell T Davies has been rummaging in the Big Buffy Book Of Plot Ideas again. "What would the world be like without the Doctor?" is a rerun of Buffy episode The Wish, which is itself a rework of It's A Wonderful Life. That's not necessarily fatal in itself: it's not the originality of the material that's critical, it's what you spin out of it. Unfortunately, what Turn Left spins is kind of like those Victorian cushions with big cabbage roses on them: all garish colours and no subtlety, with an increasingly dull repeating pattern.
What would happen without the Doctor's not an unreasonable question to ask. Trouble is, though, that the answer is obvious: woe and doom. We know this, because we've seen him preventing woe and doom on a regular basis. Take the Doctor out of the equation, and of course woe and doom will follow as night follows day. What else?
And that's why we find Turn Left so yawnsome. One demonstration of how bad it gets when the Doctor doesn't intervene, OK - we don't seriously think there's anyone in the audience to whom this would come as yer actual revelation, but we'll give them the benefit of the doubt. But then they do it again. And again and again and again. Remember this bit? Where the Doctor did something? Now he's not going to! Oh, no! The thing he was trying to prevent happened! That's bad! And here's another thing he was going to do! Oh, no! Etc etc. Yes, we get the picture. Stop drawing it.
To be fair, Russell T Davies does try and ring the changes. Unfortunately, he does this in the bad way. As things get crapper and crapper, the brushstrokes get broader and broader. We know Donna's supposed to be like unto a miserable worm squirming upon the ground without the Doctor, but come on. Are we really expected to believe anyone - anyone at all - is so self-involved they're completely uninterested in a hospital and its sorry cargo of 2,000 souls vanishing?
And it gets worse. Priority one in the event of a disaster turns out to be churning out giant rubber stamps, and as a result the Nobles are off up North. Russell T Davies, falling over himself to make a point about British attitudes to immigration, wants to make damned sure we don't miss the point, and as a result he flings in an appallingly stereotyped immigrant. Oh, the irony. And while we're still reeling from the jolly, singsong-prone Italian, Davies goes the whole hog and tops the whole thing off with labour camps. Labour camps? We're perfectly willing to believe the worst of people, but that's a bit much. Yes, yes, we know the British invented the concentration camp, but please, you have to at least give us a reason. General mayhem just doesn't cut it. It's a cheap shot for instant drama. But all of that's not the worst part. What really sinks this episode is that Davies can pile on the angst all he likes (and he does), killing off beloved characters right and left, and none of it is even remotely affecting, because the reset button is hovering at all times. Do any of us think the Doctor is permanently dead? Well, duh. Do we think he's going to leave Sarah Jane buried under rubble and the UK in ruins? Not a chance. So how are we supposed to get all sniffly about it?
Even Donna's death, which is clearly set up to be a sledgehammer blow, is in fact about as hard-hitting as a swipe with a dandelion. First of all, we know she might die in this reality, but it'll be business as usual in the proper one whatever Rose says, at the very least up till the divergence. And also, how stupid is her dying anyway? The UNIT lot have had like forever to build an actual time machine and give it a cool name and all, and in all that time it doesn't seem as if any of them have given a single thought to how Donna's going to get herself to stick out her left indicator. Not to mention to what problems it's going to cause, in a Father's Dayish way, if she meets herself. Wouldn't you think Rose of all people would have dropped a word in Donna's shell-like about this? And seeing they don't have any kind of plan at all, why drop her in the past with only a few minutes to spare?
More vitally, is this really the only point in the timestream in which Donna could have changed her mind about working for HC Clements? We know they mumble on about the moment of intervention, but isn't it the result - meeting or not meeting the Doctor - that counts? So isn't there another point that's slightly more convenient than stopping traffic with her corpse? Oh yes, and isn't that method a bit risky? What's the guarantee that Donna still wouldn't have turned right? Wouldn't an anonymous call with a hanky over the mouthpiece about Mr Chowdry's wandering hands have been a bit more certain?
Of course, it's possible that Rose already knows that Donna will work out what to do without instruction, as she's seen the future. She certainly gives Donna some hefty enough hints about offing herself. But how does that work again? How does she know what happens in all other worlds, for a start? We thought the Doctor had scooped all that omniscient stuff out of her. And she can't have seen this particular future, since it's now wiped out of time. Can she? Since there's no working out this paradox, because it's highly unlikely the writer did either, we're just going to back away now and get some aspirin.
And sorry, call us callous bitches, but getting squashed by a truck is hilarious. It just is. No fair showing her from the shoulders up, though. What about the tyre track through her stomach? We're not even going to start with the whole plotholes stuff and whether the Adipose bunch would have ended up killing anyone if the Doctor hadn't interfered and why Britain isn't overrun with wasps and whatnot. Frankly, we just don’t care enough.
What works? Well, Catherine Tate shows she's more than capable of carrying an entire episode by herself: we were quite surprised when the Doctor popped up at the end, as we'd forgotten all about him. We do wish, though, that she was given more of a range. That hilarious outrage gets old awfully quickly, and her belligerence in general is looking pretty tired by now. The relationship with her mother has promise, and the moment when her mother agrees with her that she's always been disappointing is effective, but it would have been effectiver had they done more spadework on just why her mother feels that way. Her spiteful delivery in the car of the line about how Donna wants to work at HC Clement to meet a man verges on vicious, and we're really not sure why.
What else? Donna's indifferent response to Sarah Jane's death feels powerfully sacrilegious. Bernard Cribbins knocks it out of the park, as usual ("I'll take that one, it's got me liniment in it!"). Surprisingly, we quite like the bug: it's a genuinely creepy idea, especially early on when you can't quite see what it is, and its plastickyness made us feel all nostalgic.
Oh, yes. We suppose we'd better mention Rose. Sigh. We were more than over her when she left the first time, so her reappearance was greeted by us with a groan. So Rose isn't walled up in her loooonely universe forever, then? Go figure. Remind us again - what's the point of programming in gut-wrenching scenes ringing with finality when five minutes later you turn around and say you were just joking? As with the spectre of the reset button, reversing the big dramas makes pretty much everything utterly pointless. Why get all sobby about it? It'll be taken apart in the next series.
Brave attempt, but tripped up by its own obviousness.
MORAL: You only live twice.
BY THEIR ANGLES WILL YE KNOW THEM
As soon as we saw that scuttling shot in the tent at ground level through the curtain we all said "Graeme Harper" simultaneously. It's got his sticky paws all over it.
THE CRYSTAL IS CLOUDY
Did we miss something? Who is the fortune teller (apart from Chantho in disguise), anyway? Is she the beetle's pimp? How does she know about the Doctor? It can't have been Dalek Caan, because if the beetle had succeeded Caan's cunning plan would have been derailed.
SHO SHO WRONG
Despite our annoyance at seeing Rose yoyoing back, never let it be said that she has no entertainment value. We were so entranced by her lisp that we hardly heard a word she said.
THIS IS TO COMBAT TECHNOBABBLE
Yeah, we laughed at the "This is to combat dehydration" line.
When she lands back in the past, Donna's wearing a coat covered with wires. How come nobody's the teensiest bit suspicious of that?
PASS THE BLU-TACK
It looks good when The Doctor bursts out of the TARDIS to see Bad Wolf plastered everywhere (and especially on the TARDIS). But wait a minute - how did that happen, exactly? Yes, Rose arranged it when she was omniscient, but how? We're picturing her up a ladder with a glue gun in her hand…. And what happens to all the Bad Wolf stuff afterwards? Is there a junkyard somewhere piled with Bad Wolf banners?
PAY ATTENTION, CHILDREN
All that immigrant stuff? Donna turns right, y'see, so Britain turns right. See? Searing social commentary.