After last week gave us a Doctor-filled adventure, this week we’re presented with a ‘what-if’ type story featuring Donna Noble. After the Doctor and Donna touch down in a quaint market-place, Donna is taken in by a dodgy fortune-teller woman with an odd accent, who promptly attaches a weird bug to our heroine which transports her back to a time before she hadn’t met the Doctor, and inspires her to take a different path through life that bypasses him entirely. What follows is a dystopian vision of Britain – with no Donna to save him, the Doctor dies during that Christmas special two years ago and things go from bad to worse very quickly.
And much of the episode is very effective. Catherine Tate is on good form here, as we see her character go through subtle changes as she turns from shrewish good-for-nothing to a more worthy, intelligent person. Tate is very adept at conveying this slow growth of her character - although unusually enough, the majority of her comedic scenes are botched. No worries, though, because Tate is a much more effective dramatic actor than a comedic one when it comes to Who, so it’s nice to see her stretch her ability. With no David Tennant around, the show does seem wobbly, but Russell T Davies’ script compensates by incorporating this into the proceedings. As time goes on we see all the different events from season 3-onward come to fruition without the Doctor, none of which end particularly well for us. The absence of Tennant is fantastically put together, and shows how needed the Doctor is for earth, and for the show.
It’s much better to witness his absence than to suffer through all the messiah parallels that Davies’ seems to have put into the script. Yes, it's true, we get a fair few scenes here proclaiming the Doctor as the best thing ever, and they get quite annoying. But at the same time it’s nice to see names we’re familiar with spring up from time to time – Torchwood get a mention, and it’s nice to see they’ve finally started doing proper missions instead of constructing elaborate love-triangles with one another. One character who comes into the breach to help Tate is none other than... I won’t name her, the show doesn’t, but she’s back and she’s oddly poor in the role. Was it just me, or has she got some kind of bizarre lisp during this episode? I certainly don’t remember noticing that before, and perhaps she’s had it all belong. In any case, she sounds strange and she doesn’t seem able to convey the emotions that her character should have. This could be done intentionally, to cover what’s been happening to her and will all be explained later, but… I’m a little worried. I hope it gets better.
Russell T has got a nice story here, and while in most cases a ‘what if’ merely provides a chance to kill off the supporting cast, here he uses it as a way to expand on them instead. Donna’s family are prominent for most of the story, and Bernard Cribbins again steals as much of the show as he can with his unflashy yet gripping acting style. We also see a little more of Donna’s mother, who slowly becomes more and more depressed as things go on. Both of them are fantastic, and it feels realistic – it provides a solid base for the story (and Tate) to work against. There are a few quibbles, however – Russell T Davies seems to think that Yorkshire hasn’t changed for the past fifty years. As a Yorkshireman myself, it was odd to see the Yorkshire from Monty Python’s ‘The Meaning Of Life’ film being portrayed as reality. That bugged me. Also, everything remains completely cryptic, with no explanation offered for several parts of the story (including who the fortune teller is).
That aside, this is a good episode, well-written and entertaining, and it sets up the remaining two fairly well.
Next week: The Universe calls upon Gwen, Ianto, Jack, Martha, Rose, Sarah-Jane and Donna to save it. Oh, and the Doctor might appear too.