TV EYE: Doctor Who, S4 E11: Turn Left

A double bill of Whoblogging, thanks to Edinburgh Festival commitments. Later, I’ll be looking at the continuity-tastic ‘The Stolen Earth’, but here it’s last week’s edition of the RTD rollercoaster.

Following up the previous RTD episode, we have another Who story that’s interesting and surprisingly dark without ever quite pushing the envelope into genuinely outstanding. ‘Turn Left’ has been heavily trailed as a showcase for Tate’s character- it’s certainly another way of doing the Doctor-lite story, although thanks to the structure and execution it felt rather familiar, and nowhere near as scary as the absence of the Doctor in ‘Blink’. Indeed, over-familiarity is a major problem, as we had yet another episode that revolves around a creature who consumes time (way too similar to the Weeping Angels), more world-shaking events shown through news footage, and another ‘time alteration’ story that ends with one of the characters hurling themselves in front of a car. ‘Turn Left’ is definitely one of RTD’s more adventurous scripts- it’s a far more interesting experiment than Love and Monsters, and once again proves that when he takes the gloves off and stops trying to entertain everyone constantly, he’s capable of serving up some seriously dark material. The alternate timeline is even darker and bleaker than the Children of Men shennanigans in Last of the Timelords – there’s a fascinating (if incredibly depressing) post from the often highly opinionated Who author Lawrence Miles here that deals with the idea that New Who has generally been staying away from near-future stories because it’s getting very hard to do a near-future story that isn’t a very bleak dystopia, and that Turn Left’s horrible Doctor-less world is worryingly close to where our own Doctor-less world could end up. There’s some good stuff here, and it’s refreshing to see the show being unafraid to tackle darker stuff (even if, once again, the rest button is hit at the end)- but it’s also a showcase of why RTD can only rarely combine his big emotional ideas with genuine SF.

Turn Left is essentially 70% prologue- and it’s yet another example of a convenient Who alien whose only real strategy is to be a convenient devouring beast (The set-up for the “There is something on your back” gave some serious expectations- especially the hint that something was already there. To find out that it was essentially a trail for an unconvincing puppet space-beetle who only lasts one episode was, to be honest, a bit of a let-down). The Sliding Doors-style time changing is an interesting idea (with an added dash of Run Lola Run’s reality-shifting, especially the car-accident scene with Donna and Rose), but instead of going at it from an oblique angle (and running the risk of confusing the less intelligent members of the audience), everything is spelled out in the prologue by the Evil Chinese Fortune Teller, so that there’s no mystery- we know we’re in a timeline where Donna never met the Doctor, so the first 2/3rds of the episode is essentially waiting patiently as we spool through alternate versions of past episodes and let Donna catch up with what we already know. If we’d been thrown straight into it- bang, we’ve flashed back, Donna’s back on Earth, she hasn’t met the Doctor and suddenly the Doctor’s dead… that’s a mystery set-up. Instead, I was left drumming my fingers and waiting to get to the meat of the story. Admittedly, there are some very impressive sections, and even some of the smaller touches- like Donna’s Italian house-mates, and their V for Vendetta-style fate- were effectively done, quietly powerful in a way Who doesn’t always manage, and holding a message without beating the audience around the head. (It also has to be said- and I never thought I’d write these words- but thank god for Bernard Cribbins. The man is hi-jacking every scene he’s in, and he’s arguably the first of New Who’s ‘domestics’ to take the somewhat cartoony nature of his character and make it work, so he’s exaggerated and comic, but a genuine empathetic character at the same time).

It’s also the much bally-hooed return of Rose- and it’s certainly nice to see some darker edges to her character (although Piper’s weird delivery did have me occasionally wondering whether she’d recently had a stroke…), while the re-appearence of the Bad Wolf effect was a complete surprise and rather impressive (even if I bet we still don’t get a decent explanation as to what the hell it really means…). Trouble is, if you sit down and start thinking about how this all fits together with the previous ‘arc’ moments like Rose’s appearence in Partners in Crime (and the screen appearences in Poison Sky and Midnight), it’s hard to see exactly how it all fits together. Once again, RTD loves the idea of story arc plotting, and yet never quite manages to execute it right (as in the Martha’s Mum plotline last year)- the finale may prove me wrong, but much of these ‘arc moments’ may end up as random moments to make fans go ‘squee’ rather than a plot that genuinely makes sense.

Most of all, Turn Left is proof that Tate is still capable of going from excellent to annoying in record time – here, she’s obviously channeling a little more of the Runaway Bride version of Donna, so a little more bellowing is appropriate, but while she’s been better than expected, she’s never quite excelled for me, and the fact that the far more appealing Martha has now been downgraded to brief, meaningless guest appearences is another one of those Who-related decisions that make me sigh wistfully. Tate is good but never fantastic- I like a lot of the way they’ve handled the character, but I won’t be sorry to see her go if the likely possibility of her death/transcendence to Godhood/memory erasure/whatever comes to pass.

Essentially, Turn Left was rather like a starter in a restaurant- initially tasty, and yet nowhere near enough to fill you up, and it’s only real purpose seems to be to hint vaguely at how awesomely nice the main course will be. Of course, we’re getting the first part of that main course tonight, with more cross-overs than the mind can comfortably encompass- and only time will tell whether the show is going to triumph or implode…

2 thoughts on “TV EYE: Doctor Who, S4 E11: Turn Left

  1. another ‘time alteration’ story that ends with one of the characters hurling themselves in front of a car
    But surely that parallel is intentional? “Turn Left” is very much a repeat of “Father’s Day,” with Rose playing the role of the Doctor, or rather a more sinister version of his role in that episode, grooming and manipulating Donna until she’s ready to sacrifice herself in order to save the world. Which is also the reason for those first 2/3 – they’re the crucible in which that self-sacrificing Donna is forged, even as, in the background, we keep seeing examples of the Doctor’s other companions making that same choice.

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    • Admittedly, it is possible that it’s intentional – but it would surprise me, mainly because as a parallel it’s not very overt (and RTD rarely takes the subtle approach with that kind of thing), while New Who hasn’t exactly been afraid of recycling bits of its own past seasons before. I can see why the first 2/3rds are there, and while there was stuff there I liked, I just felt that the execution of it lacked momentum. It’s a good episode, just- at least for me- it wasn’t a great episode.

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