I'm a total sucker for the alternate universe, everything goes Sprang! kind of story. I was addicted to Marvel's What If comics, even the ones with the nonsense titles like What If Civil War?. (What indeed?) So I was pretty much the target audience for the latest Doctor Who episode, and it still exceeded my expectations. What was the secret ingredient that made "Turn Left" work so well for me? Two words: Donna's mom.
Of all the things that have annoyed me about this season of Doctor Who, Donna's mom has been in the top 10 or maybe top 15. She barely made any impression on me in the "Runaway Bride," the Christmas special where we first met Donna. But her appearances earlier this season didn't impress: too much bickering and nagging, without any real dimension to her. She seemed like a weak copy of Jackie Tyler, without any of the saucy warmth. At least last year, Martha's mom got a paper-thin subplot that turned out to be vaguely important.
But wow, this time around Sylvia Noble made an impression - by being a total psycho bitch. First there's the excruciating scene where Sylvia talks Donna out of taking a "posh" temp job in the city by convincing her that no upwardly mobile man would ever want her. (With a little help from a space beetle.) But it just goes downhill from there, after Donna loses the job her mom steered her into. There's a totally excruciating scene where the mom says, with a flatness that's uncharacteristic of the operatic Doctor Who, that she's given up on Donna. And then there's the above clip, where Sylvia seems like she's just dead inside, and Donna's out of focus in the background. Scenes like that elevate a standard-issue "evil alternate universe where everyone dies" story into something more memorable and horrible.
It also fulfills the early promise of the RTD era, by showing us the ground-level impact of all the disasters and monsters the Doctor fights. We're seeing everything from the point of displaced people, refugees stuck in cramped living conditions. It's the kind of post-apocalyptic world you don't see as often — the post-apocalypse as Great Depression times ten. There are vague references to an Emergency Government, and later on we see the relentlessly cheery Italian guy (channeling Roberto Benigni) being sent off to a Labor Camp. But mostly the big stuff seems very far away, and there's just grinding, boring awfulness. (Although did anybody else think Donna was a bit dense that it took her like five minutes to figure out "labor camps" were not a beach holiday?)
It reminded me a bit of the evil-alternate-universe in last year's Master two-parter, except that there was no manic villain gloating and dancing around this time. And no shrinky-dink Doctor to steal the focus from the ordinary human misery of all those people crammed into houses. And yet it sets up future plotlines in a pretty neat way, with "the Darkness" and the stars going out. We get to see the future as well as the present of this alternate world.
One reason I was so harsh about Doctor Who season four for a while there was my sense that Russell T. Davies, and the rest of his crew, were getting a bit bored. I was getting a repetitive storyline injury. A lot of the humor felt increasingly forced. But with last week's "Midnight" and this week's "Turn Left," I get the sense that RTD is ready to write small, bleak dramas involving a few actors in a room together. So he's left behind the big, blustery high-camp that's been his signature style on Who, at least for a couple of weeks. At least, both episodes were way more understated than I normally expect from RTD.
Of course, there's another reason I might have liked "Midnight" and "Turn Left" better than most of this year's eps: neither episode has that many scenes between David Tennant and Catherine Tate. It could just be the combination of his manic grin and her brassy bluster that I'm happy to get a break from. Although I've liked their interplay in some episodes, most notably the Pompeii one and the Ood one.
Sadly, the Annedroid was right about Rose back in "Bad Wolf" — she is the weakest link. At least she was this week. I couldn't tell if Billie Piper was having trouble getting back into the role, or if she just couldn't carry off being in the "Doctor" role for a change. But whatever it was, Rose seemed weirdly muted and spoke her lines with absolutely no conviction whatsoever. Worse yet, there should have been awesome chemistry between the two companions, and there was none whatsoever. It felt as though Catherine Tate was acting opposite a tree or something. I begin to see why Russell T. Davies thought a Rose Tyler show was one spin-off too many. (Update: People are actually speculating actress Billie Tyler might have had dental work, so weird was her delivery in this episode.)
I also had to exert a huge effort of good will to ignore the Sinister Oriental at the start of the episode. The whole Planet Kowloon sequence was a bit excruciating, with the mock-Chinese music and the bustling hutong full of scrappy space Asians haggling with passers by. But the evil Chinese fortune teller — I guess it's good that she wasn't a gypsy? — was pretty insane. I just had to banish her from my mind, so I could enjoy the rest of the episode.
I didn't really understand the giant cliffhanger at the end — why does "Bad Wolf" mean the end of the universe exactly? Did Rose put the words "Bad Wolf" everywhere? And if so, how did she have the power to do that? Does this mean we're finally going to get some kind of explanation of Rose's magic hand-wavy powers at the end of season one? Or (much more likely) was this just something that RTD thought would be a cool moment, and who cares if it makes sense?
Anyway, next week we're back to full-on crazy big RTD, with probably lots of histrionics punctuated by extreme silliness. And pretty much every guest star ever coming back for a giant hootenanny. Based on the previous season finales, it will be extreme and make no sense — and it'll be incredibly fun to watch. Basically I'm expecting it to be like "The Five Doctors" on crystal meth and E. With just a hint of ketamine, for seasoning.