There’s been a very DW-shaped hole in the British press over the last week or two, as new series of “Robin Hood” and “Primeval” kicked off to grace our early Saturday evenings, and several critics complained that they lacked the Doctor’s lightness of touch. That’s probably why there’s been so much good publicity for POTD – we make the most of what we’ve got.
It looks like it’ll be a good romp, but I get the feeling that the hardcore fans are much more interested in what will basically be the final three-parter (RTD likes those, doesn’t he?) I’ve a feeling it’s going to deliver a few shocks that’ll make JE end look mild in comparison. Here, FWIW, is my prediction.
SPOILERS AND SPECULATION START HERE. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED!!!
Donna’s going to die. How do I know? Well, I don’t, of course. I’m just going on my hunches – that JE was very much unfinished business and the reactions of both actors and production staff conveyed that at the time, that Ten and Rose in the Alt!verse has so much spin-off potential that any TV producer would be insane to let it go and that the overwhelming, distinctive story of the RTD years has been the Doctor and Rose. I still think that is going to be honoured with an appropriate ending. I didn’t say happy – you could argue that JE was that. Happy, but not appropriate. It didn’t feel like the right ending, because it was not. Not the ending, that is.
It’s safe to say that whatever RTD goes on to do, he’ll never get a better opportunity than the end of his DW tenure to pull off what he’s always referred to as the Holy Grail of TV drama – the completely unpredicted character death. He’s already tested the water for his two most controversial decisions – the “death” of a companion and the Ten/Rose happy ending, in JE. He’ll be aware of the charge that killing off a loved companion could upset the kiddies (never mind the grown-ups). But Donna’s end has been prepared for. First, by the loss of so much that made her narrative arc meaningful in JE. Second, by the time we witness it, she’ll have been off-screen as a regular for nearly 18 months, long enough for the kiddies to forget her a bit.
Many Donna fans have noticed how, compared to Martha, Donna’s received little attention in the novels and other spin-offs. In fact, there have only been a trio of “proper” Donna stories. The fourth, “Beautiful Chaos”, was very much an elegy to the Doctor/Donna relationship. It’s framed by Wilf and Sylvia remembering it, a theme that’s underscored by personal loss in both characters’ lives (the story starts on the anniversary of Geoff Noble’s death, and Wilf becomes involved with someone who’s losing her mind to dementia). There’s even a farewell letter from Donna to her Mum explaining that she belongs with the Doctor, regardless of the price she’ll have to pay. It’s very different from Martha, who continued to have published adventures with the Doctor long after S3 was over. I believe there’s a reason for that.
Let’s turn to the prophecies. There’s three significant ones, at least – Caan’s warning that “one of them will die”, the Shadow Proclamation’s hint of Donna having to make a terrible sacrifice and, going a little further back, the Ood’s prediction that the Doctor’s song was soon to change. RTD himself has said that is about the Doctor’s death, he perceived it as such and he’s “haunted by it.” Okay, so RTD’s interpretations aren’t always reliable, but I’ll be coming back to that later.
Starting with Caan – well, people will argue, Donna as we know it did die, so that’s been fulfilled. That’s a fair point, although it’ll be badly undermined if she returns. It won’t be any more convincing than the Beast’s prediction that Rose would die. We saw RTD wriggle out of that and he’s pushing his luck if he does it again. It would be more in character for the old rascal to lull us into a sense of security and then kill Donna, after all. He’s even had a practise run at companion death on Christmas Day, when we lost Astrid in VOTD.
Next, the Shadow Proclamation. It was possibly lost in the general noise of that frantic episode, but the Chief Constable said very clearly that Donna would have to make a sacrifice. That implies an element of choice and self-determination, which she was denied. She didn’t want to lose her memories, so they were removed against her will. Regardless of the moral argument, that’s not a sacrifice, or at least not one you need to purify yourself for in advance.
The Ood’s prophecy is perhaps the most cryptic. “A new song” could be sad or happy. However, by that stage in Ten’s career, a sad song would hardly be a new one. It seems especially incongruous that in a scene celebrating freedom and happiness, the Ood offer to share their song with the Doctor when all it will express is his continued misery. But there’s a lovely sense of things coming full circle if the tale of the Doctor making good his failure to protect the Ood at the end of TSP culminates in them predicting that the glory of that episode, his unswerving belief in Rose Tyler, will ultimately be vindicated.
Of course, the last people to give anything significant away are likely to be RTD and DT themselves, but they’ve both dropped interesting tidbits. Back in the Christmas Radio Times, RTD warned viewers that regeneration wasn’t a straightforward process, and gave a big hint that the Doctor hadn’t heard the last of his botched one. RTD has also taken great care to warn us of the Doctor’s impending “death”. But wouldn’t it be typical of him to be concealing the shock of Donna’s death by setting us up for Ten’s?
There are a couple of problems with getting too heavily into the concept of how and why the Doctor’s going to die. First, spin it how you like, it won’t have shock value because the viewers know it’s going to happen and that he won’t die in the way a human character would. We have to believe that in some sense the Doctor lives on as the same consciousness or it makes nonsense of the whole show. Then there is the issue of repetition. It’s been suggested that Ten will perish saving Donna’s life. That raises the question of why he didn’t do that first time around – he had little enough to live for by the end of JE. Also, it would be virtually identical to the way that Nine died for Rose in POTW. I think they’d want to avoid that, if only because it cheapens what little we have of Nine’s unique contribution to the story. It’s bound to invite comparison.
We can also be reasonably sure that if Donna’s “fix” is in trouble, there’s a fair chance that Handy’s will be as well. The two characters are very closely linked. In fact, 10.5 states unequivocally that it was the touch of Donna’s hand that brought him into being. If the original Doctor separated himself from Rose a second time because the only hope of keeping both the second Doctor and Donna alive was if they were in separate universes, that makes him an infinitely more attractive character than the self-destructive emo he appeared to be in JE. As many people have noted, it simply wasn’t consistent characterisation for the man who ran joyfully to meet Rose at the end of TSE to decide he couldn’t handle loving a human woman at the end of the next episode.
By contrast, the drama and angst of Ten sacrificing the love of his life to save his best mate is pure TV gold. He wouldn’t tell anybody why he was doing it for the very good reason that if he did Donna would be the first person to slap his face and tell him not to be a pillock. It would also present viewers with the unedifying spectacle of seeing the reunited lovers condemn 10.5 to death. Anyone familiar with “The Writers Tale” will recall how Rusty agonised over the Bad Wolf Bay scene; candid though that account of the creative process was, would he really have been so honest about his dissatisfaction with it if he hadn’t already been thinking in terms of a second attempt at its resolution?
This doesn’t necessarily mean that Rose will lose her happy ending with 10.5. It could be that either Ten or Donna sacrifice themselves to prevent that happening – or that, as was RTD’s original intention, Ten himself goes to Rose when he regenerates, and replaces Handy. But I do think we can infer that (a) Donna’s memory-wipe is at risk somehow, or why bring her back at all? and (b) that will have implications for Handy and Rose that will, somehow, need to be fixed.
I’ve only scratched the surface of the possibilities – there are several other intriguing ones, such as the return of the Master or even a complete Time War retcon. It’s all deliciously speculative. DT himself says of the narrative arc after the Easter Special, “When we start on the next script, you can sense the bell tolling for the Tenth Doctor. Something happens in that one that fundamentally alters who the Doctor is and where he is, which is the sort of thing you can only do when you know you’re coming to the end.”
Intriguing stuff indeed, and it could give a whole new meaning to the “whole new man” line. My personal hope is that he’s given the option of living a human lifespan with Rose, but if he is it will be at a terrible cost. The high price tag of such happy outcomes is built into the moral underpinning of the show. There are very few occasions, arguably none at all from RTD’s pen, when everybody lives. But it is also a series that consistently celebrates the ability of ordinary people to make extraordinarily brave and unselfish decisions. That was why the fate of Donna in JE felt so wrong – the Doctor had apparently taken that away from her. It was particularly difficult to take because in “Turn Left” we had seen Donna’s potential to sacrifice her very life to the greater good – and Rose, standing in as the Doctor in absentia, had been the priestly figure expressing sorrow and regret that such a sacrifice was required of her.
I wonder if RTD ever guessed just how much Donna would be loved as a character? I’d hate to think of him rubbing his hands and chuckling at the thought of bumping her off, but I think the end of JE showed that there are, literally, fates worse than death – at least in TV drama. Such fates are those that contradict everything about a character that has captured our hearts and made them memorable. Donna deserves to make her own choices, not only in some fan-created AU where she can be awesome in a Doctor-less career, but right up there on screen, finishing what started when she stood there in her wedding gown and held out a lifeline to him. Much as I love Donna (in fact, because I love her so much) I can’t think of a better way for her to go than by deciding, of her own free will, that through her death she will give this character, who has saved so many people, the chance to finish the sentence he was in the middle of when she burst into his life three years ago. And it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to find out that RTD had planned it that way all along.
High-profile, prime-time character death is a sure route to a place in broadcasting history, but I hope that RTD will be remembered best not as the person who had the guts to kill off a loved companion, but who had the cheek and the courage to give the Doctor what he needed more than anything and would always deny himself – his hearts’ desire and the dream of a normal life. It would be the wrenching but life-enhancing culmination of a story that has been, more than anything else, about love in all its forms – love of planet and species (both native and adopted), romantic love (fulfilled and unrequited) and, arguably the greatest of all, the love that willingly lays down its life for a friend.