Ever since the announcement of Catherine Tate’s return, I’ve been meaning to sit down and re-watch “The Runaway Bride”, and today I did. Viewing it with the benefit of S3 hindsight made me see it very differently…….
My view now is that it’s arguably the best DW episode RTD has done so far (Yes, that does include Utopia). The brief was daunting – to follow up Doomsday, literally moments later, without undermining its poignancy, and yet to produce an entertaining romp which could be viewed by all the family on the most sensitive occasion of the year. To deliver a story of loss and grief to an audience including many children who’d experienced precisely those things in the past year, some of them dealing very directly with “Dad’s new girlfriend” and all the complicated feelings that stirs up. Oh, and to make it exciting and funny and, on at least some levels, convincing. Quite a tall order that.
It works. It more than works, it’s bloody brilliant. But what, apart from telling an adventure story, is it meant to achieve? To me, this came over loud and clear. The only problem is that having done a difficult thing so well, it’s completely undermined later on by most of Series Three.
The Runaway Bride works best if it’s viewed as Part Three of the S2 concluding narrative. Like the Master’s return, this is a big enough story to burst its banks and demand more than 90 minutes, and it needs the passage of time between Parts Two and Three. Donna’s not meant to be likeable. In fact, the story only really works if she’s unwillingly involved, and abrasive (the precise opposite of Rose). She ends up showing him compassion, but the thing that struck me on this repeat viewing is how very likeable the Doctor is. He’s sensitive, he’s vulnerable, he shows patience, empathy and kindness. All these things he learnt from Rose. The clear implication is that he’s grown through loving and losing her. That the experience has left him heartbroken, but a better man, able to move on to new relationships.
Now the shippers may find this conclusion uncomfortable. But the awful thing about Doomsday was the lack of closure, and it’s an act of mercy to give it to him here. Before anyone protests that Rose wasn’t that lucky, it’s worth remembering that at the time the BBC had officially sanctioned a spin-off, Rose Tyler, Earth Defender, which would have presumably done the same for her. An idea later rejected by RTD at a surprisingly late stage of development. If someone is dead, they’re dead, and no amount of wishful thinking will bring them back. Presumably, at the end of S2 that was what we were all meant to believe. Under the circumstances, nobody who genuinely wanted the best outcome for the Doctor would want to see him spend the rest of his life alone, locked in bitterness and grief.
In “The Runaway Bride”, both Donna and the Doctor confront their deepest fears. Donna is fundamentally an insecure person, terrified of being rejected and thought stupid. Like many such women, she’s become rather strident and tends to state the very things she fears people believe about her before they get the chance to say them. Lance’s cruelty wounds her to the core; she’s just begun to believe she’s somebody when it’s thrown back in her face. Could anything be more devastating, or less like Rose’s own confession of love and the Doctor’s struggle to reply, than Lance’s words, “That’s what made it easy”? It’s emotional rape. Yet the Doctor, who used to be so insensitive that he could take away a widow’s daughter for twelve months and barely understand why she had a problem with it, puts this broken, not particularly likeable woman back together with grace and gentleness, granting her the dignity to weep in private and then quietly showing her the bigger picture.
In giving, he also receives. He finds the courage to name his two greatest losses and most terrible griefs, Gallifrey and Rose. And Donna gives him space. She invites him to dinner, but she understands exactly why he backs out. What she won’t compromise on is the chance to give him the healing that he needs; once that’s done, as he did with her, she allows him privacy to grieve.
It’s a beautifully complete and satisfying narrative, and finally we look forward to Series Three, expecting to see the Doctor strengthened, healed and renewed. And in Smith and Jones, that really seems to be happening. He’s regained some of his bounce and cheek, and there’s a kindness and sensitivity that used to be lacking. He isn’t the self-involved bastard he once was; his balcony scene with Martha shows true respect for her feelings. Even the notorious kiss, whilst rather obviously a publicity stunt, is done in a way that acknowledges that it might confuse and disturb her. He’s come a long way. Even if she wasn’t wild about the genetic transfer bit, there’s nothing here that Rose would fundamentally disapprove of.
In “Gridlock” we see another flash of this intriguing character development, in the pivotal conversation about Gallifrey. It really looks as if Martha will be able to reach the parts Rose couldn’t, for whatever reason, and play a significant and positive role in his life. Then it all falls apart. A string of dud episodes reduce Martha to a lovelorn cipher, and the Doctor to a heartless bastard. I didn’t really appreciate how absolutely foul he is to Martha, how unforgivable his behaviour is, until I saw him interact with the outwardly much less attractive Donna.
“The Shakespeare Code” is an interesting episode, which seems to send out contradictory messages; so much so that it suggests some rather clumsy last-minute revision. The Doctor and Martha really do seem to be sparking off each other; she’s intelligent, she’s funny and he’s enjoying himself in a way he hasn’t for a long time. Yet, as if from nowhere, grief hits him and he coldly rejects her. We’re told he has a darkness at his heart, and that nobody can ever fully know him (“Why does he hide his title in such despair?”). Not the first time we’ve been told such things about the Doctor, of course, but the bedroom scene, though beautifully played in itself, somehow doesn’t quite sit with his demeanour towards Martha throughout the adventure in general, and his eagerness to have her along on future journeys.
As a general rule, when we’re told things about the Doctor (things like “A storm is coming, I can feel it”, or Elton Pope’s doom-laden prediction that there’ll be tears before bedtime) it’s a sign that the writer is out of their depth. We never see Donna tell her mum or a friend “It’s as if he’s lost someone and he can never get her back.” It wasn’t necessary; all we needed was the look on his face when she picked up Rose’s blue top. But Martha gets saddled with lines like that all the time, yet somehow she ends up holding him together in more costly ways than Rose ever had to, and he barely has the grace to thank her. We’re left to believe that at some point, off stage, their relationship reached a depth where this could conceivably happen without Martha being totally victimised. With Rose and the Doctor, as their love grew we were shown every glance, every nuance, every little invasion of personal space. With Martha, it’s reported and we have to take people’s word for it. “The Infinite Quest”, the Doctor and Martha novels and even her blog tell us the outcome of what, blatantly obviously, just isn’t happening on the TV screen. And the Rift in Millennium Square is nothing compared to this one.
So what are we to make of this? Why is Series Three so broken-backed and unsatisfactory as a whole, for all its moments of brilliance? Maybe RTD was stretched too thin with three shows now in production, and he simply couldn’t maintain the standard he reached in The Runaway Bride. In a revealing comment in the latest DWM, he admits that when the pressure’s on, the tendency is to go dark rather than light (Especially if Tennant is your leading man, one might add). Tennant can be a wonderful light comedian, but you get the feeling that emo is his default setting. But my own reading of the tealeaves is a little more controversial. There’s a definite feeling of retcon, an adjustment of the emotional pace, after Block One of S3, as if someone suddenly thought, “Quick, get a mention of Rose Tyler into every episode.”
I could be completely wrong, but the one thing that would tie all this together would be Billie Piper’s confirmed decision to return at a future date. It would explain the rather sudden change from Martha’s entrance being so carefully set up, with the Doctor emotionally primed to receive her into his life, to her resigned awareness that she’ll never be the one he wants. I have sympathy with the feelings of Martha’s fans, because an emotional payoff is clearly promised at the start of her story, yet it never seems to materialise. It would also explain the rather clumsy way she appears to be written out of Series Three, when everything suggests the original investment in her character was meant to be deeper. If Rose is indeed to return, it would stretch credulity to allow Martha the luxury of a two-season narrative arc as the only companion. Anyone who sticks around that long is going to be important to the Doctor, and Rose wouldn’t be able to come back and act as if nothing had changed.
I realised around the middle of S3 that, much as I missed Rose, the person I missed most was the person the Doctor became through loving her and having her around. “The Runaway Bride” suggested that that person would survive his loss, a positive outcome which everything from “42” onwards appeared to contradict. No amount of upbeat remarks from RTD, or anyone else, that “fundamentally this is a person who loves his life” can banish the spectre of the Doctor at the end of “Family of Blood” from my mind. He’s damaged and he’s dangerous, to a point that starts to sit uncomfortably with his status as the hero of a family show. When he tells Jack that exposure to the Time Vortex would turn a Time Lord into a vengeful God, we see how close he is to that abyss himself. Tinkerbell Christ Doctor is all very well, but the character we see towards the end of S3 isn’t someone I’m comfortable with the thought of the human race invoking as their saviour.
And where to now? Well, the Titanic should be fun, and I’m probably reading far too much into that final scene when I think about the irony of the Doctor being thrown a lifebelt from the ship which bore another Rose and Jack into the ocean of popular culture. Donna is returning, reopening an emotional narrative which had been satisfactorily concluded, and the Specials format we are promised for 2009 sounds ideally suited to busy principals with very limited availability. And it wouldn’t be DW without a cliffhanger and endless speculation. So we shall see.
Meanwhile, I’m delighted and relieved that the Doctor I loved survived Doomsday, if only for an episode or two.