21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: Turn Left

“Mind blowing decisions causes head-on collisions”.

So said 1970s funksters Heatwave in a notably laid back jazzy groove – but never a truer word was spoken when referring to a great Doctor Who story 30 years in the future: Turn Left, the bookend to Midnight in which the companion takes centre stage while the Doctor goes AWOL.

Following the blockbusting Library two-parter and the equally impressive Midnight, it's easy to think that this Doctor-Lite story could be the weak link in the chain. In fact, it's no such thing and proves to be a tale that's just as amazing as its predecessors.

A good factor in its success is that it's such a simple idea, and it works because of this. Basically, Donna is shown an alternative universe in which the Doctor doesn't exist any more – having chosen to turn right rather than left in her car en route to the prospect of a new career (all thanks to the machinations of a creepy alien fortune teller and her pet beetle who bring anything but good cheer). It's the polar opposite of Midnight in which the Doctor was regarded by humans as surplus to requirements. In Turn Left, we see the devastating fallout of the Doctor's death, and how badly he's actually needed.

It's a clever structure, this – what Russell T Davies does is to sneakily go through the adventures of NuWho Seasons Three and Four and show the alternate endings. Starting off with The Runaway Bride, the Doctor is killed outright in his battle against the Empress of the Racnoss, and from that moment on, everything goes to hell in a hand basket. The occupants of the Royal Hope Hospital are destroyed (bar whimpering wretch Morgenstern). The Titanic spaceship does actually fall and wipe out the whole of London, throwing the country into disarray. America can't bail out Britain because it’s dealing with its own 60 million death toll as a result of the Adipose. All over the world, people are getting choked to death by gas from the ATMOS devices, and to make matters worse, the stars are going out because of something called The Darkness. Blimey, what is it with Davies and bad mullet rock? First it was Saxon, now we have the bubble permed goons with a lead singer who sings like a woman. Alas, we'd have never seen what would have happened if Davies had stuck around for another full season – although the rumours of a baddie called Toto, a Foreigner from the planet Europe in the constellation of Deep Purple are yet to be proven.

All these events are played out and considerably reverse assumptions about the previous adventures. It's taken for granted that Voyage Of The Damned is a lark-about disaster movie pastiche or that Partners In Crime is a light comedy jape, but in the context of Turn Left, both adventures have much more at stake. The crash of the Titanic spaceship in particular, is the real turning point for how everything goes spectacularly wrong.

The past adventures also highlight how a lot of attention is paid to continuity in NuWho, harking back to previously forgotten characters such as the aforementioned Morgenstern. Oddly, it doesn't feel self-indulgent – partly because the story's weaved together with a lot of thought, and also because not too much time is dwelt on each of the past adventures. Instead, the story concentrates on the fallout from the various disasters, and how only one woman can put things to rights.

In one or two ways, Turn Left's mimicking reality. There was already a lengthy period when Doctor Who wasn't around – and that was back in the dreary old '90s and early '00s. The days when 'quality' TV such as Eldorado, The Big Breakfast and TFI Friday reigned supreme. More to the point, it's pointing the way for things to come. It's carrying on the Rule Of Side Four in that it's signalling the end for the Tennant years. I'm not sure as to when David Tennant handed in his notice, but from Silence In The Library, the adventures look at the ending of the Tenth Doctor in various ways – whether it's an out of place appearance in an Eleventh Doctor style story, the near miss of the season finale, the ominous warning in the specials, the mental breakdown of The Waters Of Mars or the actual death itself in The End Of Time. Don't forget, by this point David Tennant had proven to be a hugely popular choice as the Doctor, winning various Best Doctor polls and accolades from critics and fans. So in a way, there's a feeling of What Would Happen If The Tenth Doctor Wasn't Around? Is RTD trying to tell the viewer something already and letting the Tennant fans know that a change is around the corner sooner than they think?

As it is, it's left to Donna to take centre stage here. Turn Left is the centrepiece for Catherine Tate and she grabs the opportunity by the scruff of the neck, turning in her best performance. It's nice to see Donna's journey in microcosm during this adventure – she starts out as the bolshy, loudmouth as seen in The Runaway Bride, mellows gradually and then is forced to make the ultimate self-sacrifice.

The Donna of The Runaway Bride pops in for a quick shout, whether she's disregarding the hospital deaths as an irritating distraction from the fact that she's just lost her job or whether she's calling Rocco Colasanto “Mussolini” (who says that political correctness was alive and well?). There are some great opportunities for humour here though (the slightly iffy name calling to Rocco notwithstanding). It's amusing to see Donna shoot down her former work colleagues in flames (“Sack Cliff! He just sits there – don't know what he does all day!”) or taking the mickey out of her friends (“It was bad enough when you saw the ghost of Earl Mountbatten at the Boat Show!” she cries at quivering wreck, Alice). Davies again shows his great talent for writing amusing lines, but at the same time, he's laying down an effective contrast with the character that Donna later becomes.

It helps that the story mainly revolves around not only Donna, but also her family of Sylvia and Wilf. Up until now, Sylvia hasn't been much more than a stereotyped henpecker, forever putting Donna down and valuing the shallow things in life. Turn Left however, throws Sylvia into a world which she can't even begin to comprehend, leaving her like a fish out of water.

As the story progresses, Sylvia is slowly broken down bit by bit, going from uncomprehending shock to depressed resignation. She reaches her very lowest ebb in that stark scene when she can't even bring herself to talk to her daughter. It's notably shot, with a close-up of Sylvia's make-up-free face staring blankly into space and Donna hovering in the background, acknowledging that she's always been a failure. What's so haunting about this is that Sylvia doesn't even raise so much as an eyebrow – the brutal system and recent events have ground her down to an empty shell that can't even feel emotion any more. Just like Catherine Tate, Turn Left affords a whole range of opportunity for actress Jacqueline King, and she turns in a superb performance. The example above is probably the highpoint of a hugely impressive turn.

Needless to say, this story is just as much Wilf's as it is Donna's. Wilf's character is so popular because he's the heart of the family, both literally and metaphorically. He's always trying to keep people's spirits up, even when the world's crashing down around them. He's always trying to placate Donna in her moments of anger (“Sweetheart, come on! You're not going to make the world any better by shouting at it!”). He leads the Colasantos in an old wartime style sing-along – although 'Bohemian Rhapsody'... really? He even tries to see the positive in staying in cramped conditions (“Oh well, we'll settle in won't we? Make do? Bit of wartime spirit, eh?”).

But Wilf is the heart of the story, and at times, that big old Wombling heart is broken, notably in the scene where Rocco and his family are unceremoniously shunted off to what's referred to as “Labour camps” (“It's happening again,” sobs Wilf). It's a harrowing scene in a number of ways – the way in which Rocco tries to make light of his future prospects is notably bittersweet (“Sewing! Digging! Is good!”). Rocco could have been something of a comedy cliché, but in a short space of time, he's become an endearing character, partly as a result of good writing, partly as a result from Joseph Long's wonderful cameo. But it's Bernard Cribbins again who sells the horror of unfolding events. Maybe the production team are relying on Wilf breaking out the crying towel every few seconds, but Cribbins always does this performance so convincingly. This scene aside, Cribbins again proves that his casting was one of the most inspired in Doctor Who history, adding much warmth and charm to the character of Wilf, who's one of the lynchpins of this story – representing the humanity and heart that's slowly fading away in the parallel universe.

Turn Left is as brutal as Doctor Who ever got, and Davies isn't backwards in coming forwards in presenting some pretty harrowing material. Not only are Rocco and his family transported to labour camps (jargon for something worse, I'd guess), just look at the death toll. We're talking way more than your average Saward story and that's saying something. The various disasters are played out in almost casual fashion. “That was the Torchwood team,” says Rose as Captain Jack's buddies are blasted into oblivion, as if they've just driven past her and Donna in a taxi. The death toll has mounted to the point where it's become a daily occurrence to have wholesale destruction. That's probably why Turn Left is such a chilling Doctor Who tale – it's as if the body count becomes a statistical balance sheet because the numbers are too great. What's more, the shattered world feels so real too – from the shifty, nervy soldiers right through to the ineffectual pen pushers who are sticking to their bureaucratic rules even in moments of extreme crisis (“It's Leeds,” moans the hatchet-faced housing officer. “Or you can wait in the hostel for another three months”).

Of course, Turn Left does have one saviour, who's miraculously returned from a universe that she couldn't ever leave. Oh, well, she has – hooray for bleeding universe realities.

Welcome back Rose Tyler. Having skulked around in the background like a sulky stalker or turned up on TV like a trapped Big Brother contestant demanding to be set free, Rose finally delights her fans with her first fully fledged appearance since Doomsday.

Or not as the case may be. Billie Piper's appearance in this is jarringly strange. She's forever appearing and disappearing like the Genie Of The Lamp, and furthermore looking slightly put out by the whole experience. I guess all that coming and going between parallel worlds must cause a bit of fatigue, but even so, Rose seems to slouch around pulling sulky faces. And what's up with her speech? If ever Ceefax was needed then it's during Turn Left, since it's difficult to work out what on Earth Rose is saying. Maybe she's got a bit of chicken bone trapped in her wisdom teeth. Maybe Billie's decided to go for a bit of radical artist interpretation by playing Rose in the manner of Charley The Cat from those old public information adverts. Whatever the reason, it's a shame that the much touted return of Piper turns out to be a bit of a damp squib and just about the only weak link in what's a very well assembled cast.

Which is stolen by Catherine Tate, who handles the comedic side very well, while proving that she's just as adept with the drama. Throughout the story, Donna is pushed to the limit until she approaches breaking point. Take the scene in which she finally loses her rag when confronted with the beetle thing on her back that's caused the whole shebang. “You told me I was special!” she shrieks. “But it's not me, it's this thing! I'm just a host!” All of that pent-up fear and rage is unleashed, and Tate makes a great job of this. Altogether, Turn Left is undoubtedly her finest moment in the series.

All of the other actors do very well, from the regular crew through to the minor guest roles. Joseph Long steals the show as Rocco with his infectious portrayal, but then there's also Chipo Chung making a welcome return (thankfully for her without the clunky prosthetics) as the creepy fortune teller who causes the sorry mess in the first place; Bhasker Patel as the put-upon Mr Chowdry, Donna's former boss; and Natalie Walter as the quaking Alice Coltrane. Another strong list from director par excellence Graeme Harper, who keeps the action speeding along like there's no tomorrow. Not only does he make great use of flashback clips, he also knows when to control the tempo of Davies' multi-layered script. Whether he's ramping the action up to the nines at the climatic end as Donna races to stop the parallel world from becoming reality or whether he's slowed the pace right down as Wilf and Donna have an amiable chat on top of the hill, Harper always proves to be a safe pair of hands. It's an old cliché to say that the right director's a dependable one, but that's exactly the case with Harper who coaxes out every last drop of subtlety from Davies' excellent script.

Naturally by the end of the story, Donna's managed to save the day, although in a rather odd fashion in which she has a head-on collision with a lorry in order to stop herself from turning right. You may think that because Donna's dead in this other reality, she'll end up dead in the fortune teller's booth. But instead she's up and backing away from the beetle thing as the cowering fortune teller inexplicably starts babbling “What will you be? What will you be?” I suppose that's linking in with the Donna/Doctor fusion of the season finale, but even then she won't be killed in that story as Turn Left might have you think. Just as baffling is the odd cliffhanger in which the Doctor reacts in horror at the various Bad Wolf signs everywhere. It makes for a tense cliffhanger, but it's never really followed through satisfactorily in the finale.

Despite these small niggles and Billie's odd diction, Turn Left carries on the quality of the season. It's such an obvious idea, but it's beautifully told. It's done with both a high quota of gritty realism but always with a sense of human resourcefulness bubbling under the surface. It's superbly made, contains excellent performances from Jacqueline King and Bernard Cribbins, and of course it's a great showcase for the none-too-shabby acting talents of Catherine Tate.

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