Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre
Doctor Who: Turn Left
In William Burroughs' Naked Lunch, where 'nothing is true, and everything is permitted' insects are symbolic of authoritarian control. They allow the central character access to the alternative dimension of Interzone. It's clear that Russell T Davies' hallucinatory Turn Left, whilst a wholesale revision of his ideas for the entire series, is concerned with Donna Noble's own fateful journey into the Interzone of her own life and times with the Doctor. Her possession by the time beetle also gives Davies an opportunity to boldy offer up a kind of 'state of the nation' address and a rather pessimistic view of humanity that he first articulated this year in Midnight.
He views contemporary society as a global village under constant attack and in Turn Left he takes many of the submerged political subtexts in his work for the series and sets them centre stage. His argument here is that we must not be blind to significant and insignificant actions and he illustrates this by removing, from the entire Donna Noble narrative of The Runaway Bride and Series 4, the active symbol of the Doctor. When you take the Doctor out of events unjustifiable choices become a reality and chaos ensues. Davies is not only echoing Edward Lorenz's Chaos Theory and the predestination paradox of It's A Wonderful Life but he's also taking the personal context of an episode like Father's Day and giving it a universal scale.
...she plunges into a regressive history where, metaphorically speaking, she will never pass on into the future.
The end point of history (and here I'm going to use a bit of Baudrillard so those of you with a nervous disposition around French postmodernist thought had better skip this paragraph) is seen here as a collapse of universes vast and small - from the breakdown between worlds that allows Rose to intercept Donna to the very bleak loss of hope within the Noble family itself. Baudrillard argued that by the end of the 20th Century we no longer actually believe in utopias and that historic moments, like 9/11 for example, only petrify our societies further. Our sense of forward progress, a belief in history continuing was, he believed, just an illusion. In Turn Left Donna is forced to turn away from history 'in progress', with none of the crises of her adventures having been resolved, and she plunges into a regressive history where, metaphorically speaking, she will never pass on into the future.
Donna understands that, as the stars go out, her own history and her death, have become unavoidable. She must go back into history in order to reclaim it for herself and the Doctor.
Davies also postulates, cleverly, that the effects of Donna's history go in two directions: not only does it put an end to time in the future, where the Doctor declares it to be the 'end of the universe', but it also exhausts itself in the obsessional revision of the events of the past, from the Racnoss invasion through to the Sontaran stratagem. The ultimate revision is the crash of the Titanic into Buckingham Palace and the footage of which Donna is convinced is from a 'sequel' and thus a clever in-joke on Voyage Of The Damned itself by Davies. Donna's wrong turn is equivalent to a non-occurrence of memory - equivalent to a non-occurrence of current history. As part of this non-occurrence we hear of the deaths of Sarah Jane, Martha Jones and the remaining members of Torchwood. It's almost as if Davies is saying that Donna wipes out the very series and stories he created for them too. This destruction of history does have a final trajectory and it reminds me of Arthur C. Clarke's story, The Nine Billion Names of God which is in the same way about hastening the end of history as a result of recording the many names of God. In the story the stars go out, one by one, and in Turn Left, Donna understands that, as the stars go out, her own history and her death, have become unavoidable. She must go back into history in order to reclaim it for herself and the Doctor.
As we see the consequences of a hopeless and, could we even say, Godless world where the Doctor is dead, Davies script concentrates on the smaller drama of the Noble family. We see Donna as she was in The Runaway Bride, bolshy and gobby, and yet the Doctor's demise and the arrival of Rose still ensure that she is transformed into one of the bravest characters the series has ever seen. As this journey progresses, the Noble family become representative of an audience struggling to make sense of a modern world where human rights are abused and eroded ('we can't even vote'), immigrants are deported or held in camps, nationalism becomes an excuse for oppression ('England for the English') and the relationships between family members shatter through poverty and a lack of faith in each other. I think here that it is worth highlighting the brilliant performances from Jacqueline King as Sylvia and Bernard Cribbins as Wilf. Just as Love And Monsters superbly expanded the character of Jackie Tyler, this script allowed us to see an emotionally drained Sylvia and a disillusioned Wilf. Cribbins was particularly moving as Wilf recalled the use of labour camps during wartime and his fear of history repeating itself. Particularly effective is the scene with Sylvia, in close up, seemingly shell shocked by events, contrasted with an out of focus Donna who resigns herself to her complete redundancy - '...suppose I've always been a disappointment'.
Piper wasn't as impressive, unfortunately, and seemed to spend much of the episode trying to break in a new set of teeth.
And then we come to Catherine Tate. She was stunning. Her ability to articulate the choices that Donna must make, from the mother-daughter arguing that informs her possessed self to take a different direction to the final sacrifice where she throws herself in front of the lorry, ensured that the entire episode was a completely satisfying emotional journey for Donna in and of itself. Her conviction that she will make a difference by traveling back in time and won't die is full of inevitable tragedy and her chemistry with Billie Piper for that scene was spot on. She also provided much of the humour in this bleakest of episodes, the scene where she's sacked and packs up her desk being particularly funny. Piper wasn't as impressive, unfortunately, and seemed to spend much of the episode trying to break in a new set of teeth. However, by the last half she had improved and was effective as a symbolic Doctor like figure working with UNIT and trying to get Donna to accept her fate. The scenes on the bench and in the circle of mirrors were superbly played - 'the whole world is stinking...' and 'I'm nothing special' with the ' You're gonna die' coda giving both actresses some very poignant moments to play.
As these events for the Noble family play out and Donna continues to meet Rose, we are kept aware of the time beetle's presence through some chillingly evocative sound effects and the reactions of people around her. However, the animatronic version of the creature isn't terribly convincing and this was further compounded by the comparison to the Metebelis spider in the accompanying Confidential. Slightly worrying that an effect from 1974 is better than one in 2008. Murray Gold's music was also understated where it needed to be, often quite funereal, and made use of established themes for Rose and Bad Wolf. The music for the scene where Donna enters the circle of mirrors - 'it's a time machine' - was particularly effective and shows that he's back on form and that bit of military fanfare as the Italian neighbours are driven away to the camps was a little stroke of genius.
That final Bad Wolf revelation provided an immensely satisfying punch to the episode and a solid segue into the finale as well as building up the meta-narrative of the last four series. Turn Left can't simply be dismissed just as a fanwanky prelude to the two part finale or as a budget saving, empty clips show. It's far, far too good for that. In fact it doesn't put a stroke wrong, Piper's uneven performance and 'Ringo' the beetle aside, and very beautifully emphasises the power of the absent Doctor as a unifying force for good, protector of humanity and of history itself, the equally special qualities of Donna as his companion and the sheer scale of Russell T Davies bravura gameplan.