It’s a sign of the maturity of the show that the now traditional “Doctor Lite” episode – one made at the same time as another as a cost-saving measure, and in which the star barely appears – should turn out to be such a powerful, inventive piece. While a lot of attention will obviously go to the much anticipated return of Billie Piper as Rose Tyler, the episode really belonged to Catherine Tate, who added a new dimension to her portrayal of Donna.
It all starts with the Doctor and Donna in an oriental market on a distant planet. While the Doctor does some shopping, Donna is persuaded to go into a fortune teller’s tent. The fortune teller is a bit creepier than the average, and tells her that she “sees a man”, and asks how Donna came to meet him. Cue flashbacks to Donna working at HC Clements, and the question of how she came to be working there. It all turned on which way Donna turned her car at a junction – left led to the job with HC Clements, which led to her meeting the Doctor, and right would have led to a different job and a different life.
As the fortune teller grasps Donna’s hands, and tells her to make the choice again, and turn right, something crawls up her back. Then she is in the car with her mother, and allows herself to be persuaded to turn right, and take a different job, and that changes everything.
Because the Doctor never met Donna, there was nobody to stop him destroying the Racnoss, nobody to make him get away from the flood, and so the Doctor died, too quickly to be able to regenerate.
With the Doctor dead, when the Judoon took that hospital to the Moon, there was only one survivor. Martha Jones died, and news reports suggest that Sarah Jane Smith and her young friends were also lost.
And without the Doctor, the Titanic crashed on Buckingham Palace, devastating the south of England, and displacing millions of people, including Donna, her mother and grandfather, who find themselves billeted in a house in Leeds, along with a large Asian family.
As things get worse and worse, Donna keeps encountering a young blonde woman, who we recognise as Rose Tyler, last seen trapped in another universe. She tells Donna that she’s crossing the boundaries of the universe because something much worse is coming. Every universe is endangered.
The Darkness is coming
Rose tells Donna she needs her to come with her, and she’ll be ready in three weeks. And warns her that she is going to die.
Things are getting worse. As the country fails to recover from the Titanic disaster, things get really ugly, as the Asian family that Donna and her family have been living with are taken away to a “labour camp”. Donna’s grandfather Wilf is old enough to recognise that for the evil euphemism it is, and when Donna catches on, she’s horrified. And when the stars start going out, she knows that Rose was right: she’s ready.
So when Rose (not that Donna knows she’s Rose) appears again, Donna goes with her and some UNIT soldiers to a secret base, where they have the Tardis, salvaged from the bottom of the Thames. The Tardis isn’t too well, but UNIT’s scientists have managed to extract some technology, and have a rudimentary bit of time technology. Donna is placed in a circle of mirrors which allows her to finally see the thing on her back that people have been nearly seeing all along. It’s a very large shiny beetle.
Donna is given her mission – she has to go back in time using that circle of mirrors and prevent herself from turning right. But she’s OK with that – she understands that when Rose said she was going to die, she meant that the present world would cease to exist, and be replaced with a better one – the Doctor’s world, and that Donna would have a new life with him. Right? All Rose can say in reply is a Doctor-like “sorry”. But Donna goes back anyway, and finds herself half a mile from the key point, with just a few minutes to go.
And all she can do is to cause a traffic jam by stepping in front of a truck, with fatal results. As she lies dying, Rose approaches and whispers “two words” in her ear.
And Donna is back in the fortune teller’s tent. The beetle falls off, dead. The fortune teller quite sensibly runs away.
The Doctor arrives and identifies the beetle as a nasty little thing that feeds off time, by making small changes to people’s lives. Normally, the changes are very small, and time adjusts around them, but changing Donna’s life had enormous consequences. Why is Donna so special? Why do things keep happening around her? Will we find out? Maybe.
This was a seriously good bit of work from Russell T Davies – answering the charge that a lot of people tend to die when the Doctor’s around by showing how much worse things would be if he wasn’t there, and showing us Donna more as she was before her life was transformed by the Doctor, before he showed her she was a better person than she thought she could be.
But that wasn’t quite the end. The Doctor asks Donna about the young woman, asks who she was, which Donna doesn’t know. Asks what she looks like, to which all Donna can say is “blonde”, as her memory of her other life is fading. But she manages to remember the two words whispered in her ear:
The Doctor races out of the tent. Every sign, every banner, every poster on every wall, even the signs on the Tardis, have changed. They all say the same thing:
In the Tardis, there’s a red glow, and what older fans will recognise as the Cloister Bell is tolling.
Donna asks what it all means, to which the Doctor replies:
The end of the universe
Yes, as expected, this episode, for all its drama and quite impressive scale (especially as it was pretty much a zero budget show) was just the prelude for the two-part series finale. Which will have lots of good fun. Quite apart from the little matter of the end of the universe, there’s going to be:
Daleks!! Rose!! Daleks!!! Martha!!! Captain Jack and the Torchwood crew!! Daleks!!! Sarah Jane and friends!!!!
And if Davros doesn’t appear, RTD’s been doing his best bit of misdirection yet! My guess is that it’s going to be a lot of fun.
Oh, and one detail from Doctor Who Confidential: the return of Rose was planned from the moment she left. Nicely done.