RTD and the Demise of Donna – Notes from “The Writer’s Tale”

I promised I’d come back to the subject of Donna and her fate, as described in RTD’s
“The Writer’s Tale”.

One of the more endearing features of the book was that he’s so open about his struggles to wind up the Doctor/Rose romance in a convincing way – though I’m not entirely persuaded that he ever really did.

With Donna’s fate, it’s more difficult to work out what went wrong. If indeed, anything did go wrong.

. As far as RTD’s concerned, he got it exactly right and he’s enormously chuffed by that, to the point of boasting that Bernard Cribbins wept for two days when he got the script.

Clearly he struggled to think of a convincing way to write Donna out. He adored the character and praises CT to the skies. Did he realise how strongly the “ming mongs” of fandom would turn on him for what he did to her? Perhaps that spurred him on. He doesn’t always come over as a pleasant character (that’s what makes it such an interesting read) – and when Ben Cook challenges him with the objection that maybe the ending was too sad, he obviously sets a fuse alight. I find RTD’s reply one of the most disturbing passages in the book:

“That ending is devastating. I hope it’s never forgotten. I hope people cry for years. In 70 years’ time, kids watching it now will be in old folks’ homes, saying, ‘Oh, why couldn’t Donna Noble have remembered just one thing?’”

Conversely, he then argues that it won’t bother kids too much, since it’s actually a pretty sophisticated sci-fi concept, and they couldn’t identify with it. In another revealing comment he defends his inclusion of a “WHAAT?” moment at the end of JE (it was eventually cut), on these grounds:

“The Doctor’s life never stops, no matter how sad things get. Dry your tears, move on. New adventures to come. Otherwise you might remember DW as a sad and bleak thing, which is maybe not so good if you’re eight years old.”

Seems to me that there’s some handwaving going on here. The kids aren’t the ones we ought to be worried about. They know the scary monsters will be back and that life in the TARDIS is the coolest thing ever. It’s the many adult viewers who are likely to be affected by the bleakness, the end of any potential for the Doctor’s character to evolve.

RTD clearly has a lot of anger bubbling away against fandom, and you can understand at least some of the reasons why. He claims that art isn’t a democracy, and by implication critics have no right to protest against the artistic decisions he makes. (He’s more than ready to point up examples of bad scriptwriting practice on TV, however, and he rewrites many of the DW scripts to a very high degree). Looking at his language when he speaks of Donna, there does seem to be a kind of vindictiveness there, an assertion of his power to break hearts and upset people. Isn’t it a little bit over the top to hope people are still crying over Donna in 70 years’ time? Is telly really that important? That’s a massive claim – will people be crying over 9/11 for that long? Should they be?

The character of Donna went through a number of reinventions. CT became available when RTD already had plans for a new companion, Penny, well advanced. Another factor was the illness and death of Howard Attfield, who played Donna’s dad in TRB and was planned to reprise the role throughout S4. It was clear at an early stage of shooting that Howard was a very sick man but they hoped he’d be well enough to finish the role. The fact that when he showed up for PIC he was already weakened by chemotherapy was something RTD wrote into his role, and Donna’s too. It’s still possible to see traces of this in the Sontaran two-parter, where there’s an oblique reference between Wilf and Donna to “our little secret.” I know several people in fandom who interpreted this as a coded sign that Donna was dying, and this was the reason she’d chosen to track down the Doctor.

In fact, the original plan was that Donna’s decision to find the Doctor and travel with him was related to her recent discovery that her beloved dad had been diagnosed with cancer. This puts her eagerness to travel with the Doctor into a somewhat changed light; it could be interpreted as her running away from the situation:

“I’m writing his illness into the story (can I do that? Should I?), that Donna has to face the death of her father. That she always was. That she went looking for the Doctor on the day Geoff was diagnosed. That she’s running away – and will, one day, have to walk back and face it. And then Donna Noble grows up.”

RTD frets about the tastefulness of this plotline, but it does suggest that he was, at that point, working on a scenario where Donna would find a motivation to stop travelling with the Doctor, one that wouldn’t necessarily rule out future adventures after she’d spent some time at home. I don’t think it’s reading too much between the lines to say that this sense of moruning creeps into the the Doctor’s final scene with Donna’s family. RTD was deeply affected by the death of his own mum, and it wouldn’t have been far away from David Tennant’s own memories. Losing a parent is shattering, and it does involve a complete reassessment of your identity.

As things turned out, Donna did her growing up aboard the TARDIS and ultimately the Doctor returned her to childhood to save her life. In a convoluted way, RTD seemed to think that the tragedy of her fate threw the Doctor/Rose resolution into relief and consolidated its staus as a happy ending:

“When I get this stuck {on the Bad Wolf Bay scene}, I start lying to myself. I tell myself that the Bad Wolf Bay scene mustn’t be that sad, because the really sad scene is Donna’s departure. You can’t have tragedy after tragedy. There’s a certain amount of sense in that, but it’s still a lie. I’m telling myself that to soothe myself for not getting the scene right in the first place.”

So, who knows? Perhaps if he’d been able to admit that the Bad Wolf Bay scene wasn’t a happy resolution, he’d have been kinder to Donna. Writer’s aren’t always rational, particularly when they’ve been up all night finishing a finale, they’ve made themselves ill and they’ve now got less than three weeks to come up with a Christmas special.

In the end, he’s right – he has the power to do what he likes with his creations. But, like the image of the Doctor’s hands closing around Donna’s frightened face as she pleads with him not to take her memories away, the sight of male power abused, even by the nicest person for the best of reasons, can be very unsettling.


2 thoughts on “RTD and the Demise of Donna – Notes from “The Writer’s Tale”

  1. Incidentally, are you going to The Writer’s Tale booksigning in Manchester on October 9th? I think it starts at 6pm, because RTD and Benjamin Cook are in Birmingham to sign at midday the same day.
    I’m wondering if I have the confidence to say something about Bad Wolf Bay in the seven seconds I’ll be standing in front of them.

  2. I won’t be, cos I’ll see them at the Cheltenham Lit Fest a few days later.
    I don’t think there’s any point at all in mentioning anything like that – in fact I think it makes him more determined than ever to piss off the fans (I don’t know who he thinks is buying the book and making him all that ciggie money, but there you go).
    No, i don’t hate RTD. I’m just in a bit of a mood.

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