21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: The Runaway Bride

Stale turkey sandwiches.

That's one of the things I most link with Christmas. Forget your crackers and tinsel or your mince pies and Tunis Cakes, or even your Slades and Band Aids, no, it's the thought of the stale turkey sandwiches that lingers in the mind. Simply because the turkey's invariably so big, that it's enough to feed all the family for those come-down days from December 26th. It's a festive summary of Déjà vu, to the point where Summer can't come fast enough.

There's a similar sort of feeling among some of the Doctor Who fans when it comes to The Runaway Bride. For the uninitiated, I'm not talking about the screwball comedy starring Richard Gere, Julia Roberts and Julia Roberts' huge mouth – no, I'm talking about the second all-important Doctor Who Christmas special, which was now becoming the big festive treat of the season.

A common complaint with The Runaway Bride is that we've seen it all before in The Christmas Invasion, and fair play, there are some of the same elements and themes reappearing.

Psycho Santas? Check. They're back with a vengeance, although they've evidently had a bit of Botox to make them look a bit younger.

Killer Christmas icons? Check. After last year's Whirling Dervish tree, we now have exploding tree baubles.

Ranting and raving alien beast? Check. The Empress of the Racnoss is so shouty, she makes the Sycorax Leader look like Grun the King's Champion by comparison.

No Second Chances Doctor? Check to the max. He dispatches a whole alien race at the end, with a scary 'Couldn't Care Less' steely glare.

Oh, and of course 'Merry Xmas Everybody' by Slade. Noddy Holder must be able to afford 100 holidays a year in Barbados, given that the wretched festive dirge always crops up in Doctor Who every Christmas.

With all of these tried and tested elements dragged out again, I can understand why some fans don't rate The Runaway Bride too highly. Personally I rather like it. It may lack the big cinematic sweep of The Christmas Invasion, but then that's the whole point. It's deliberately smaller in scope. The danger isn't played out on such a global scale as it was in The Christmas Invasion. We don't get to see France or China or wherever react to the threat of the Racnoss. Instead, the action is largely confined to London, as shrieking bride Donna Noble does her best to get to the church on time for her wedding.

Not only that, but the story's much more muted in tone. Whereas The Christmas Invasion contained its fair share of grim scenes and ideas, it was tempered by a celebratory, renewed feel. The Runaway Bride, by contrast, is much more sombre, as the Doctor tries to come to terms with the loss of Rose. Put it this way, The Christmas Invasion ends with the Doctor beaming and looking ahead to pastures new. The Runaway Bride ends with the Doctor trying not to burst into tears.

With that in mind, I really like this darker, introspective second shot at the Christmas special. Of course another reason why people don't like this one so much is because Catherine Tate's shrieking the place down. Cast your minds back to July 2006 when she started yelling at the Doctor at the climax of Doomsday. It's fair to say that a sizeable amount of fans weren't best pleased. Catherine Tate's shows were a classic case of Marmite love or hate, and as a result, a lot of fans were worried that Tate's bride would be based on her shouty caricatures such as Lauren or Nan.

Wow, talk about taking a fahhhkin' liberty.

The irony is of course, is that Donna actually turns out to be the best match for the Tenth Doctor – it's just that you can't realise it yet. Naturally, she'll undergo some personality transplant between this adventure and Partners In Crime, by which time, all the abrasive edges have been smoothed down. But I think that Donna's great. She dares to challenge and stand up to the Doctor. Whereas Martha's too busy moping about how the Doctor's not falling in love with her or Rose is too busy making smug, glib comments, Donna calls a spade a spade and tells the Doctor how it is. It's one of the few times that a companion undergoes a deep 'n' meaningful journey. Donna learns a lot during her time in the TARDIS, at least until she is forced to have her mind wiped by the conclusion of Journey's End.

This journey is seen in microcosm in The Runaway Bride. She starts out as a shouty witch, screaming abuse and threats at a slightly baffled Doctor. But as the adventure unfolds, we see that all this bluster is a smokescreen for an insecure woman who's trapped by her own inadequacies and lack of confidence.

We see this in a number of ways. Tellingly, she doesn't seem to have that many real friends or people on her side. Her mum's too busy bitching about her and wishing that she was better than she was (“It's one of her silly little look at me party pieces!” she growls after Donna's faded away). Nerys spends her time pulling sneering faces and rolling her eyes behind Donna's back.

The ultimate slap in the face is her husband-to-be Lance, who of course, doesn't want to marry her, but to use her in the Racnoss' plan to revive her children. Worse still is the way in which he launches into a lengthy tirade about all her inadequacies, whether she's failing to point to Germany on a map, prattling on about Brad and Angelina or salivating over a new flavour of Pringle. “The never-ending fountain of fat, stupid trivia”. Whereas Rose and Martha have their – admittedly, dysfunctional – families to fall back on, Donna's so-called family and friends don't give her the same amount of support, which means that she has to use shallow bellowing to get her voice heard as best as she can.

It's only when she starts to get to know the Doctor a bit more that we see glimpses of the real Donna. The subdued chinwag on top is a good case in point. When she tells the Doctor about her first few days at HC Clements, she admits that “Well, I thought, I'm never gonna fit in here”. We also see Donna's insecurity in her relentless begging to Lance to marry her – high comedy in one way, but sad in another, almost as if she's so desperate for company or at least someone to show her some sort of love. Not only that, but later she realises that she's just a speck in the ocean when she witnesses the big creation while standing in the doorway of the TARDIS. “Puts the wedding in perspective,” she says. “Lance was right – we're just tiny”. By the end of the story, she's making promises that she's going to travel and see more of the world, rather than carry on in her own little bubble – although as she says in Partners In Crime, these good intentions don't come to much.

What's important though is that Donna learns a new way of seeing the world – not just in Heat magazines or on The X Factor. It's another good example of how the Doctor inspires other people to better themselves and to not let the world pass them by.

Catherine Tate's performance may not be everyone's cup of tea, but I like it a lot. OK, so she's shouting and yelling like no tomorrow in the first 20 minutes or so, but then she's supposed to. Actually some of the early scenes are quite amusing. The scene in which the Doctor asks if it's Christmas is a good 'un (“Well, duh! Maybe not on Mars, but here, it's Christmas Eve!”) as are the various reactions from leering taxi drivers (“They think I'm in fancy dress... They think I'm drunk... They think I'm in drag...”). Considering her comedy background, Tate surprisingly does well with the subtleties of the script. Her slow but shocked reaction to Lance's betrayal is well done, as is the rather sad scene in the TARDIS as she starts to silently cry.

Stunt casting? Possibly, but on this occasion, Tate's excellent performance is a key ingredient in The Runaway Bride's success. Looking back, it's understandable why Russell T Davies gave her a second spin in the TARDIS on a more permanent basis.

But The Runaway Bride belongs to David Tennant without a shadow of a doubt. Looking back at the last few reviews, I've normally had to resort to demented ramblings along the lines of “Oh, Tennant's a great actor... blah blah blah... if only the production team would allow him to prove it... blah di blah... why do they make the 10th Doctor behave like a silly toddler etc?” Luckily, the OTT prancing and whooping have gone, replaced by a more thoughtful, contemplative take on the character.

While we still see the funny side (his rather exasperated reactions to Donna's yelling are very good: “I'm not a Martian” he keeps sighing), this is a lost, wounded Doctor, who's surprisingly subdued for pretty much all of the story. Rose's departure has knocked the wind out of the Doctor's sails – a bit like the Fifth Doctor's morose character in Planet Of Fire. He tries to avoid Donna's questions about Rose, always evading the issue whenever possible. Just like the Fifth Doctor in Planet Of Fire, he's not willing to show mercy to his enemy.

We've already has the “No second chances” quip in The Christmas Invasion, but The Runaway Bride emphasises this quote writ large. The Doctor kills the Racnoss' children with a mixture of fire and water (thanks to the explosive Christmas baubles), but worse still, he does it so impassively. There's that memorable close-up shot of the Doctor's grim face, which fleetingly contains a flicker of deep regret. It's disturbing to see the Doctor be so unmoved by the damage that he has done, and maybe he realises this too, given that he stands like a zombie, only eventually reacting to Donna's pleas and escaping. “You were stood there like... I don't know... a stranger,” Donna later says.

This is a brave move on Davies' part, pushing the Doctor into darker territory. The reason why the Tenth Doctor is such a people person is because he needs them to keep him on the straight and narrow. He needs that extra conscience, because without it, he's prone to making some very bad decisions. We'll later see the end product of that isolation in The Waters Of Mars, but The Runaway Bride is a bold move in making the Doctor a darker anti-hero.

David Tennant gives one of his best performances here, responding to the demands of the script with great skill. Whether he's acting as the gag feed for Donna, standing in grim silence at the wholesale destruction of the Racnoss children or coming to terms with Rose's loss, Tennant plays the part of the Doctor to perfection. Just the odd extra flourishes work magnificently, such as his blink 'n' miss it glimpse at Rose's abandoned jacket (“That's my friend's”) or the out-of-place isolation at the wedding disco, they all link together to provide the first proper look at the definitive Tenth Doctor, an incarnation who mixes jovial cheer with deep, raw sorrow and loss.

It's this great Tennant and Tate combo which make The Runaway Bride work so well. Without them, would it stand up? Well, pretty much, although one or two elements leave a lot to be desired. The Empress of the Racnoss has clearly been watching too many repeats of The Horns Of Nimon, given that she's prone to croaking hammy threats and bad jokes in a raspy 50-a-day voice. The realisation of the Empress is not too bad, although the close-up shots work better than the far-away ones which reveal the clunky limitations of the costume. The make-up's very good though – if you'd asked me to identify the OTT actress, I'd have never guessed that it was Cutting It's Sarah Parish.

The Racnoss Empress' plan's a little odd, though. For one thing, how come Donna needs to be dosed up with Huon particles over a certain amount of time, whereas with Lance, it takes no time at all?

Talking of Lance, it's also blatantly obvious that he's a double crossing baddie. Possibly because he's played by Don Gilet, who seems to specialise in playing nutjobs par excellence, such as Lucas the Bible-thumping freak in EastEnders. Weirdo though Lucas was, at least he never resorted to frolicking around with an overgrown spider thing. Neska knows what he would have made of taking Lupton's place in Planet Of The Spiders. All of his Christmases would have come at once. Nevertheless, Gilet is excellent as Lance, imbuing the character with a real boo-hiss malevolence. It's gratifying that he becomes Racnoss baby food, after being dropped down a big black pit, although inevitably, we never see the grisly remains.

There's also quite a few other things to recommend in this festive frolic. The script from RTD is very well structured. We get several clues to key events in early throwaway lines or events. The floating baubles are at first just a nostalgic set-piece, but in fact, this sequence is integral to the story's climax. Ditto what seems to be a forgettable line about Lance making Donna coffee. Again, it's a key mover in the plot. Long-term though, the orders of Mr Saxon mean nothing in December 2006, but by June 2007, they'll mean a lot more when a dastardly old foe rears his ugly head again. Altogether, this is a strong, well-plotted script from Davies, who manages to piece together comedy, action sequences, crowd-pleasing moments (the rescue of Donna in the taxi) and also poignancy.

It's all impressively assembled by the ever-popular Euros Lyn, who's thankfully recovered from the Fear Her débâcle. The only notable problem with the production is the reverse of Fear Her, in that the action's blatantly taking place on a boiling hot July day rather than on a freezing December one. Otherwise, this is good stuff. Lyn keeps the screwball action barrelling along at breakneck speed (the early sequences in which the Doctor tries to get Donna to Chiswick), adding some cool special effects (the formation of the Earth or the Christmas star Racnoss ship) and well-executed set-pieces (the juxtaposition of the dance with the Doctor's memories of Rose).

Oddly, I seem to be the only one who this time doesn't mind Murray Gold's incidental score so much. It's loud and too intrusive, yes, but there are some good tunes here, such as the faithful homage to '50s style comedy capers or what's actually my favourite Gold composition – I don't know what it's called, but it's that recurring piece heard when the Doctor and Donna climb out of the Thames Flood Barrier near the end of the story. It's a beautiful piece of haunting music, and I love it to bits.

Often seen as the poor relation to The Christmas Invasion and other Christmas specials, there are far more gifts to open in The Runaway Bride than you might think. The story's low-key atmosphere works for rather than against it, and Russell T Davies' script achieves the right balance of humour, action and pathos. The production's lovely, and the performances from Catherine Tate and especially David Tennant hold it all together.

All told then, a Runaway success.

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US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07DBBSSW9