“The Runaway Bride” is Doctor Who’s second Christmas special penned by Russell T. Davies, serving as the bridge between Series 2 and Series 3. Russell has written frothy lighthearted comedy romps several times before for the series, like “Boom Town” and “New Earth“, and it’s pretty clear that after the hefty emotional devastation of the series finales, he always liked to follow up the climax of a season with a good breather episode for Christmas (“Voyage Of The Damned” stands out as an exception, since it was probably his most intense Christmas special).
As far as Christmas specials go, “The Runaway Bride” is certainly a good step up from Russell’s first attempt with “The Christmas Invasion“. While that episode could drag a lot in places from how passive both of the main characters were (the Doctor because he was sick and unconscious for most of that episode, and Rose because her spirit was basically broken by the Doctor’s regeneration), “The Runaway Bride” is always on the move, constantly engaging the audience with new layers of the mystery, while occasionally stopping and taking a breather to let important emotional beats sink in. The best thing about “The Runaway Bride” is just how silly it is.
Taking advantage of David Tennant and Catherine Tate’s chemistry as a comedic duo, this episode fully embraces just how insane and absurd Doctor Who can get without any shame: like the montage of Ten and Donna trying and failing to flag down a cab, or Ten promising to catch Donna and then letting her drop on her face, or the duo’s unique mode of transportation in the tunnels, and of course, the truly bizarre visual of a flying phone box chasing a taxi cab driven by a robot Santa down the highway. I don’t know if I would say “The Runaway Bride” is one of my favorite Christmas specials, but it is a genuinely fun one to watch. And the fact that most of this episode is so silly makes the mood whiplash of the surprisingly dark climax all the more effective.
Picking up from the cliffhanger of “Doomsday“, the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) has barely had any time to process losing his closest friend, confidante and loved one for the last two years, seemingly forever, before he suddenly finds an unexpected visitor in his TARDIS and he has to throw himself headlong into another case. Ten has a stroppy, temperamental bride-to-be on his hands in this episode, and whether he particularly likes it or not, he has to stick with her and protect her from danger until he can solve the mystery of why she’s so special and why alien villains are after her.
When it comes to the Tenth Doctor’s companions, Donna is kind of an outlier. Rose and Martha both had soft, genial, friendly exteriors, but when you pushed their buttons, their claws would come out, revealing they had iron cores and a lot of emotional strength (Rose dressing down Cassandra for being a judgmental bitch is still one of my favorite Rose scenes, and Martha was hardly a pushover either, raging at Daleks and Judoon). Donna is the opposite. Donna is abrasive as hell on the surface, very cynical, and she’s slow to trust, but once you gain her trust, you’ll find she has a soft interior under all the bluster. Poor Ten really doesn’t know to how to deal with her at first, since the usual things he would say to placate someone don’t work on her, and he loses patience with her constant complaining about as often as she does with him, trading barbs and snark freely. But over time, as they start to bond, Ten warms to her company. He offers her wisdom and emotional support when she needs it the most, he shows her amazing things, and he helps her to expand and broaden her mind. By the end of this episode, the two of them have started to become genuine friends.
David Tenannt’s performance in this episode (and Series 3 as a whole) validates the statement I made in “The Girl In The Fireplace” that as much as the Tenth Doctor loves to jabber away jovially while he’s making small talk, his most important emotions are often conveyed non-verbally through his expressions; and David excels at this, because there are various points in this episode where he really sells Ten as someone who’s very old and very tired with just his eyes. Ten has such a hyper personality and is prone to such erratic mood swings that sometimes it’s easy to buy into his chipper façade, but make no mistake, the Doctor is still grieving losing Rose during this episode: he’s simply filing his feelings away and compartmentalizing them in an unhealthy fashion to focus on the task at hand until they boil over at the end.
Donna unknowingly triggers him several times by taking shots at Rose, he isn’t happy in the slightest when he finds out Torchwood’s involved (who he obviously blames for the disaster at Canary Wharf), and then there’s the jarring shift in tone during the climax. To stop the Racnoss Queen from destroying the Earth, the Doctor has to once again kill off another alien race for the greater good, including children. The Doctor is clearly having flashbacks to the end of the time war in this scene, where he had to sentence his entire race to death. The Doctor distracted himself from his troubles for the last two seasons by goofing off with Rose, but now that she’s gone, the emptiness has returned. In this scene, he’s drowning in his own loneliness, self-loathing and despair, and “Turn Left” confirms that if Donna hadn’t been there at the time, Ten would have actually let himself drown. Needless to say, the Doctor is not okay right now, and the dark turn the last ten minutes of this special take nicely set up Ten’s character arc for the next season, where’s he semi-depressed for most of it.
“The Runaway Bride” is the debut of Donna Noble, a companion who became a fan favorite of the RTD era over time. Donna was initially intended to be one-off companion for the Christmas special, in same the vein as Astrid Peth or Christina De Souza, before Catherine Tate showed interest in returning and was brought back full-time as the companion for Series 4. I am quite glad about that, since Catherine Tate is hilarious in the role. When we’re first introduced to her, Donna is a very bossy and unpleasant woman. She’s stubborn, hot-tempered, oblivious, cynical, and prone to missing the forest for it’s trees because she’s always so focused on one thing. Donna basically embodies the bridezilla trope to a tee. Throughout the first half of the episode, Donna is obsessed with getting married to her groom so they can run off and have their happily ever after together, and as the special unfolds, we gradually find out why.
Donna is very unhappy with her life. She grew up with an overbearing, overly-critical mother who never supported her and destroyed her self-esteem over the years. She’s in her thirties now, she’s stuck in a dead end job, she’s often overlooked, and she feels like she’s never done anything noteworthy in her life. So she latched onto the first guy she met who treated her nicely and rushed into a serious relationship with him to try to fill the void in her life, because she wanted to live the dream of domestic bliss. It’s interesting how this is the second episode in a row, after Rose’s character arc in Series 2 that came to a head in “Doomsday”, where Russell decided to send out this sort of message about relationships. If you have serious problems with where your life is at, or serious problems with yourself, throwing yourself into a relationship won’t fix them. At best, it’s only a crutch, and at worst, it will only lead to you getting your heart broken.
With Rose, her heartbreak came from being hit with the reality that she couldn’t live out her fantasy of staying with the Doctor forever. And with Donna, her heartbreak comes from the reveal that Lance never loved her, or even liked her, he was just using her as a human sacrifice to a giant spider. He even takes the opportunity to rip into all her insecurities, all the things she doesn’t like about herself, out of spite and it’s genuinely hard to watch. Donna is steadily overwhelmed by the sheer size and scale of the universe once she starts to become fully aware of it, and she starts to feel tiny and insignificant by comparison. Thankfully, she has the Doctor with her as a confidant. As he gains her trust, she becomes more cooperative, her world view expands, and she starts to open her mind to new ideas and new possibilities, growing out of her previous self-centered mindset. In a way, her character arc over her entire tenure plays out on a micro scale during her debut episode.
By the end, she’s shown a lot of growth, gaining a new sense of self-empowerment like many characters in the RTD era who encounter the Doctor. She’s gained a new leash on life, she wants to improve herself, and she wants to see more than just her own tiny corner of the world now. However, when the Doctor offers to take her onboard the TARDIS as a companion, Donna understandably turns him down. Partly because she’s still too traumatized by her ordeal to even consider such a thing, and partly because she’s still disturbed by what she saw – including the Doctor himself, which is an interesting turn. There are a lot of companions in Doctor Who who have overly rosy views of the Doctor early on that get steadily shattered over time (like Amy Pond, one of my faves), so it’s kind of nice to have a companion who right from the start has no illusions about what the Doctor is or isn’t capable of, and is fully aware that traveling in the TARDIS won’t always be sunshine and rainbows. In a heartwarming final scene, the two lonely individuals part ways on the best of terms until we thankfully get to see more of their friendship when they reunite in Series 4.
When it comes to Donna’s scumbag fiancé, Lance, I like how the foreshadowing for his treachery is handled. Upon rewatch, you can see it scattered throughout the episode, hinting at his true nature (like how he seems to be positively dreading trading vows with Donna during the teaser, an expression a groom probably shouldn’t be having; or how he’s completely okay with having the wedding reception without her, like everyone else, while she’s still missing), without making the third act twist blindingly obvious. Underneath an affable, mild-mannered façade, Lance shows himself to be spiteful, resentful and very power-hungry (though one has to wonder how his partnership with a giant alien spider actually came about). It’s pretty clear by now that Russell loves a good karmic death scene for his villains. Lance relished the idea of using Donna to get what he wanted and throwing her under the bus, to the point where he was foolishly blind to the fact that the Racnoss queen was also using him until it was too late, so the two-faced, backstabbing man died the way he lived.
I enjoy Russell T. Davies’ writing style for the most part, particularly his character work, but I think his villains were often the weakest part of his episodes. Russell was very good at putting new spins on classic villains like the Daleks, the Cybermen, and the Master, but his original villains were much more of a mixed bag. On the one hand, you have the Editor, the werewolf from “Tooth and Claw“, the Toclafane, the creature from “Midnight” and the Flood from “The Waters of Mars“. And on the other hand, you have Cassandra and the cat nuns, the Slitheen, the Sycorax, the Absorbaloff, Madame Foster and the Adipose, and whatever those string-rays were in “Planet of the Dead“, all of whom were less than impressive. The Racnoss queen fits the pattern of semi-lame antagonists. On top of her spider costume looking more than a bit ridiculous, her actress overacts like crazy to a cringeworthy level.
Euros Lynn is given the task of handling “The Runaway Bride”, and he once again indulges in his fondness for Dutch angles in this episode, though he thankfully doesn’t overuse them like he did in “The Idiot’s Lantern”. The CGI work from the Mill continues to improve with each season (you can tell a good chunk of this episode’s budget was spent on the scene where the Doctor and Donna watch the Earth form in space billions of years ago), while still showing its limitations in places (during the climax, there’s a shot where a bolt lightning approaches a screaming girl on the street that’s a long way away from being convincing).
As the unofficial start of a new season, “The Runaway Bride” is an interesting episode when it comes to Murray Gold’s rousing score and the catalog of melodies he’s been building up for a while now, because a new series means new material. After the Ninth Doctor regenerated into the Tenth Doctor, Ten inherited his theme throughout Series 2. With “The Runaway Bride”, he’s finally given his own unique leitmotif, “The Doctor Forever“; a piece that’s simultaneously adventurous and melancholy, reflecting the two, equally valid sides of the Tenth Doctor’s personality. Contemplative variations of it were often used at the end of every episode in Series 3 and 4, like the final chat Ten and Donna have at the end of this special. As one of the Doctor’s companions, Donna Noble is given her own distinct theme. Unlike “Rose’s Theme” and “Martha’s Theme” (both of which went on a bittersweet emotional journey), “Donna’s Theme” is a carefree and lighthearted melody, and is mainly Murray riffing on Donna’s sassy personality. The standout piece from the special is easily “The Runaway Bride“, the manic adventure music that makes full use of the BBC National Orchestra when Ten saves Donna from being abducted during the taxi cab chase on the highway.
“The Runaway Bride” is a pretty solid Christmas special, signifying that even though Rose is gone and things will never be the same again, the show still has plenty of new places to explore and plenty of new things to do with Ten in the next series.
* Nerys’ salty face during Donna’s ceremony is hilarious.
* “How did you get in here?!” “Well, obviously, when you kidnapped me. Who was it? Who’s paying you? Is it Nerys? Oh my God, she’s finally got me back. This has got Nerys written all over it!”
* “This man you’re marrying. What’s his name?” “Lance” “Good luck, Lance” “Oi! No stupid Martian is going to stop me from getting married. To hell with you!”
* Can we talk about how Ten uses the sonic screwdriver to straight up steal some cash from an ATM? And the funny thing is, that’s not even in the top twenty shadiest things we’ve seen the Doctor do on this show.
* “Oi, thanks for nothing, spaceman! I’ll see you in court!”
* “Santa’s a robot!”
* “Trust me!” “Is that what you said to her? Your friend? The one you lost? Did she trust you?” “Yes, she did. And she is not dead. She is so alive!” Not because of you, Ten. Pete was the one who saved Rose, while you screamed helplessly in terror (but Donna didn’t need to know that when she was about to jump out of a speeding taxi).
* “You had the reception without me?!” “Hello. I’m the Doctor” “They had the reception without me!” “Yes, I gathered”.
* As soon as the crowd starts ganging up on her, Donna quickly breaks out the fake tears to gain all their sympathy. Donna, you sneaky, sneaky woman.
* “To honor and obey?” “Tell me about it, mate” “Oi!”
* “Donna, have you thought about this? Properly? I mean, this is serious! What the hell are we going to do?” “Oh, I thought July”
* “They eat people?” “HC Clements, did he wear those, those er, black and white shoes?” “He did. We used to laugh. We used to call him the fat cat in spats. Oh, my God!”
* “I hate you!” “Yeah, I think we’ve gone a bit beyond that now, sweetheart”.
* “Just promise me one thing. Find someone” “I don’t need anyone” “Yes, you do. Because sometimes, I think you need someone to stop you”.
* I would just like to point out that after two episodes of Russell implying you shouldn’t jump into a relationship and rely on other people as an emotional crutch to avoid your own deeply rooted problems, it’s explicitly stated that the Doctor needs someone around to keep him in check, which is later validated by Ten going off the rails during the year of specials. So I guess that sort of advice only applies when you’re not the main character.