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June 23, 2008

Get Back

Doctor Who: Turn Left

Turnright_2Donna Noble wasn’t the only one changing direction this week. While the temperamental temp was dooming the world with a casual flick of her indicator, Russell T Davies was slamming on the brakes, locking the wheel and executing a complete 180. Or at least that’s how it looked, as the man who never wastes an opportunity to remind us how vulnerable the average Who viewer is to the lure of ITV’s big shiny floors went charging pedal to the metal through four years’ worth of backstory, collecting spaceships, spin-offs and supporting players from Sarah Jane to Sarah Parish like bugs on his windscreen.

Only last year, Rusty was still claiming that only a small percentage – two million, tops – of his audience were regular viewers, while the rest was made up of casual floating voters who wouldn’t know a Polyphase Avatron from an egg sandwich. Turn Left – and series four in general – suggests the big man has either decided to give these fairweather followers the finger, indulge his own fanboy fantasies and leave Moffat to deal with the fall-out or, more likely, has come to his senses and realised there’s a hardcore audience of at least five million who would stay in and watch this show even if a nuclear-powered replica of a giant ocean liner was about to land on their heads.

And who among those five million didn’t secretly punch the air every time they spotted some throwaway reference to another episode, character or distant outpost of the franchise? (There were more of them than you might think, too: I know I felt particularly pleased with myself for noting the tragic irony of Private Harris declaring the Doctor dead, knowing, with benefit of hindsight – or is it foresight? – that the Doctor isn’t, but he almost certainly is.)

A healthy dose of retconning’s all very well, but dignifying Voyage of the Damned with this sort of dark apocalyptic vision is a bit like making a Holocaust drama out of Bedknobs and Broomsticks

And that’s fine - there are perfectly good evolutionary reasons why we get such an endorphin rush from spotting these allusions and being able to piece together the evolving jigsaw puzzle in our heads. It’s to do with tribal allegiance, status within groups and the fact we’ve been hard-wired since the Pleistocene epoch to see every familiar face – or webstar or lunar hospital – as safe and secure, and every strange new thing as a potential threat. (Or something like that – look, you don't really come here expecting hard science, do you? The important thing is that cheering when you recognise a bit player from Smith and Jones, or a passing reference to The Time Warrior, doesn’t make a you a geek or a fanwank obsessive – it just makes you human.)

Turn Left, then, crosses hefty chunks of Sliding Doors with a dose of Love & Monsters, a dash of Father’s Day and a sprinkle of – well, everything else, really – to create what looks suspiciously like the first volume of a three-part Doctor Who Greatest Hits collection. Which is all terrifically exciting, so long as you remember that, just as greatest hits packages rarely come without their fair share of ropey filler, it’s impossible to travel back through this show’s history without tripping over some of its more maddening inconsistencies.

Bleakhouse_2I’d dearly love to have seen the tone meeting for this one: “It’s gritty, tragic, hopeless; filled with dark shadows and a sickly sense of foreboding. Oh, and the Titanic lands on Buckingham Palace.” Because even the most causal viewer must have trouble reconciling scenes of refugees, internment camps and mass slaughter with that frothy festive nonsense with Kylie and the Queen. A healthy dose of retconning’s all very well, but dignifying Voyage of the Damned with this sort of dark apocalyptic vision is a bit like making a Holocaust drama out of Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

And yet, somehow, it works. Well, most of it works. This episode has so many ideas that some – like the gratuitous implication of gassing immigrants, which only served to cheapen a very real atrocity - are bound to fall short. And some elements seem only to have been included in a bid to paper over previous mistakes and inconsistencies (while haplessly throwing up a few more into the bargain – wasn’t London supposed to be deserted during VOTD, for starters?). But it’s always better to have too many ideas than too few and, in Turn Left, Davies’ scattershot imagination fires new (and, indeed, old) faces, locations, concepts and mysteries at us like an ADHD-afflicted Raston Robot who's missed his Ritalin shot.

According to this week’s Confidential, this was supposed to be “the cheap episode”. From that, I can only conclude that David Tennant is trousering the bulk of the weekly budget because, that bloody beetle aside, this certainly didn’t look cheap. I know the sfx were recycled, and every clip from the archives is a few quid saved but, even so… It seemed to have a massive cast – including every vaguely Chinese-looking person in Wales – and about a hundred different locations: Surely they’re still more expensive than a couple of minutes of CGI from The Mill?

In an episode filled with flying ocean liners, killer fat and the ghost of Earl Mountbatten haunting the Boat Show, Rose’s voice was by far the oddest element.

(Oh, and while we’re on locations, don’t think I’m going to let that cheeky Manc take on my home city of Leeds pass without comment. Suffice to say that, for all Donna’s horror and those redbrick terraces straight out of Life On Mars, if you’d turned over to BBC Two straight afterwards, you’d have seen Andrew Marr wrapping up his History of Modern Britain from “the Knightsbridge of the North”, and holding the city up as an icon of 21st century style and prosperity. Or empty consumerist Temple of Mammon, depending on which way you choose to slice it. But the point is it’s not all whippets and rickets and outside crappers. That is all.)

What’s striking about Turn Left is how, even though David Tennant is the beating hearts and wheezing-groaning engine of this show, he wasn’t really missed. And you can put that down to Catherine Tate, who was amazing. Again. Funny how easily we take that for granted now, isn’t it? And interesting how, now we’ve been assured of her versatility, and her character’s innate likeability, we can sit back and safely enjoy watching her resurrecting the strident, shrewish Donna of The Runaway Bride for a tour-de-force encore.

BilliechopsAnd then there was Rose - or Roshe, as she now appears to be known across the entire interweb. I mean, what was that all about? I know Billie has admitted struggling to find the accent again, but what on Earth – any Earth - made her think a speech impediment was the answer? In an episode filled with flying ocean liners, killer fat and the ghost of Earl Mountbatten haunting the Boat Show, Rose’s voice was by far the oddest element. Still, I guess at least she’s good for recycling old Sean Connery jokes (“Shall I meet you at 10ish?” “Tennish, I thought we were playing golf!”). And sorry to get all Closer on you, but who was Billie’s stylist on this - Neill Gorton? It’s all very well rhapsodising about the Doctor’s “great hair”, but you might want to sort out that Croydon facelift ‘do’ yourself, luv. (Incidentally, I don’t think it’s so much that Billie’s teeth have grown, as some have speculated, as that the rest of her face has shrunk around them, with the result that she could now, as my old mate Bobby used to say, comfortably eat an apple through a five bar gate. Hopefully those pregnancy cravings should sort her out – she was certainly looking a lot healthier in her Confidential interviews. I know, I know - it’s like Loose Women in here sometimes.)

All that aside, it was still a treat to have Billie back, even if she was reduced to playing a supporting role to Catherine Tate and the continuity researcher. It would have been all too easy to construct an entire episode around Rose’s return but, as we’ve discovered, RTD just has too many stories to tell right now – stories about mothers and daughters (and wasn’t that scene in the hallway - “S’pose I’ve always been a disappointment” “Yeah” - the bleakest, most brutal in Doctor Who’s long history?) and grandfathers and destiny and darkness and death and triumph and hope. It’s a big, bold vision that, for all its occasional over-reaching and over-ambition, has never looked bigger or bolder. Until next week anyway.

Next time: RTD breaks out in a cold sweat when he realises he’s neglected to find a place for K-9 and Company’s Bill Pollock in The Stolen Earth.

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