During “The Fires Of Pompeii“, Lucius Petrus Dextrus sneered at Donna Noble that she had something creeping on her back, a rather ominous warning that was quickly forgotten about by our heroes as they rushed to preserve ancient history. But as Series 4 of Doctor Who starts to draw to a close, that prophecy is finally going to be fulfilled in “Turn Left”. “Turn Left” is the annual Doctor-lite episode of the season, in which David Tennant is given a respite, only appearing in the first and last scenes of the episode to bookend the story. Unlike “Love And Monsters” and “Blink“, which put the focus on one-off characters, “Turn Left” is a centered entirely around the current companion, giving us a Donna-centric episode that lets Catherine Tate shine (and I would say it’s tied with “The Fires Of Pompeii” as the quintessential Donna episode).
The previous episode, “Midnight“, tackled a classic type of sci-fi story, the bottle episode, and “Turn Left” does the same with another classic sci-fi trope: the ‘what-if?’ one-shot story. A story that’s set inside an alternate timeline, exploring how differently a main character’s life could have gone for the worse if they had made different choices. Naturally, since Russell T. Davies has the freedom to do whatever he wants in an alternate timeline, “Turn Left” is one of the darker episodes of the series and a large divergence from Doctor Who’s usual formula. The overall tone of this story is very gloomy and bleak, as things grow worse and worse for the UK without the Doctor around. There are little glimmers of hope and brief moments of levity between all the death and depression, but they never last long before the rug is pulled out from under the audience again. “Turn Left” is the penultimate story of the season, the calm before the storm that sets the stage for the two-part finale. Except, unlike it’s rough equivalent from Series 3, “Utopia“, it’s generally considered to be a separate story from “The Stolen Earth / Journey’s End“.
During a fun trip to a future planet, Donna is tricked by a manipulative fortuneteller and her leech of a partner into rewriting her own history, creating an alternate timeline where she never met the Doctor. Despite having no memory of what changed, there are cracks in her mirage of a normal life – people can still sense the creature feeding off her, even if they can’t see it, and she often catches them staring at her in horror. It’s a fantastically creepy concept, and it’s most effective when the creature is left to our imaginations. When we actually see the beetle monster at the episode’s end, it looks very plastic, like the shark from “Jaws”.
While it’s been clear before, “Turn Left” makes it especially apparent how the Doctor’s influence has changed Donna for the better, when she’s reset to the person she was in “The Runaway Bride”, who was pretty self-absorbed and struggled to see past her own corner of the world. There’s one scene where Donna is disturbingly callous about hundreds of people disappearing, and is more concerned about getting fired from her job. This reminder of where she started from really makes you appreciate how much she’s grown in Series 4, and it also makes it all the more painful to see her be permanently reset for real in the following finale. The basic idea of “Turn Left” is how much the world needs the Doctor to fight off monsters, but this episode also makes it clear how much the Doctor needs a companion to keep his flaws in check: how Ten and Donna are both important in their own ways. Donna saved the Doctor’s life in “The Runaway Bride“. Without her there to do that, a domino effect is set in motion that ultimately leads to the world ending. As a Donna-centric episode, “Turn Left” devotes a lot of time to exploring her dynamics with her family: her delightful father-daughter relationship with Wilf, and the horrible way Sylvia speaks to her, which would wear down anyone eventually.
As Britain’s society steadily collapses, Donna is forced to deal with her home being destroyed, her government falling, and more and more people dying everyday. She tries to take a page from Wilf’s book and keep up the family’s morale, but her relatives lose hope and give into depression. Sylvia in particular is haunted by the devastation and becomes a shell of her former self; she gives up on living because in her eyes, there’s nothing worth living for. Donna’s main character flaw, her painfully low amount of self-worth, has been hinted at since her first appearance and is often the source of her troubles, but it’s put on full display during the final stretch of episodes in Series 4 – the climax of her character arc – and is exacerbated by the horrible circumstances in “Turn Left”.
In this bleak dystopia, Donna can’t find work to support her family when they need it the most, because of her past failures, so she feels useless. And even now, after all this time, some part of her still craves her distant mother’s approval. She doesn’t understand how she can possibly help to save the world, when she can’t even help herself, and Catherine turns in another viscerally raw performance when Donna finally snaps under the pressure of it all and lashes out at Rose. The truly brilliant thing is “Turn Left” demonstrates that Donna always had the potential in her to be extraordinary. The Doctor showed it to her in the main timeline, but even without him around here, she still does what she has to and steps up to save the world. Donna certainly isn’t perfect, and she’s sometimes annoying, but she embodies some of the best traits humanity has to offer when it counts. “Turn Left” is also the point where Russell’s foreshadowing about her destiny really starts to ramp up. Even after she’s already committed suicide in one timeline to fix the world, there’s still something major coming for her in her future, something that will apparently end with her life ending. Donna is officially a cursed woman.
After it’s been constantly teased throughout Series 4, Rose Tyler finally makes her big guest return to the show in “Turn Left”. Since the RTD era will be coming to an end in a few more stories, Davies has decided to bring his showrunning tenure full circle by bringing back the companion who started it all in 2005, giving Ten and Rose some much-needed closure. Rose has obviously changed a lot since we last saw her in “Doomsday” (though her insensitive streak has remained as one of her personality flaws). When you watch “Turn Left” for the first time, you’d be forgiven for thinking Rose died offscreen and became a ghost at some point, since that’s certainly the way she’s written and portrayed in this episode. There’s something very eerie and dreamlike about Rose in this episode: how she constantly seems detached from the world around her and uncertain, while also being strangely omniscient. Apparently, Billie Piper had forgotten how to play Rose in the gap between Series 2 and 4 and needed to rewatch some of her older performances to refresh herself, which partially explains why Rose feels so different in this episode (and why her performance in the following two-parter feels more in line with Series 1 & 2 Rose).
Rose has become a dimensional traveler who’s main goal is to reunite with the Doctor and give him an important warning. As someone who exists outside of time, Rose is the only one who knows the world has gone wrong and tries to find out why. It’s always a pleasure watching a former and current companion meet in the RTD era, but Rose’s connection with Donna is quite different and special. Rose is essentially a ghost of Donna’s future who wanders in and out of her life, guiding her towards answers. We, the audience, know more about Rose than Donna does, but there are still several unanswered questions as Russell drops tantalizing hints about the series arc, like how Rose keeps appearing everywhere and why she seems to know so much, having become more like the Doctor now.
Russell T. Davies had a noticeable writing habit of portraying the Doctor as some sort of messiah figure for the people of Earth (which came to a head in “Last Of The Time Lords”, where Ten literally rejuvenated himself with the power of humanity’s belief in him), and that trend crops up again in “Turn Left”. He also likes to stress how important the Doctor’s role in the show is, in-universe, and how much people need him. In Ten’s first episode, “The Christmas Invasion“, Britain suffered through an alien invasion that would have been easy for the Doctor to defeat, because he was recuperating at the time from his new regeneration. In the latter half of Series 3, episodes like “42“, “Human Nature” and “Last Of The Time Lords” put Martha under intense pressure, having to stand on her own against dangerous villains without the wisdom of the Doctor to help her.
“Turn Left” takes this idea and plays it out on a massive scale, by exploring what kind of consequences there would be for mankind if the Doctor was totally absent, considering how often aliens invade the Earth in this show. All the invasions we’ve seen in Series 3 and 4 (even the goofier ones like the Adipose’s), have much greater causalities and ramifications, killing thousands of people and destroying the economies of nations. The Doctor’s friends and allies all die standing in for him, since they’re in way over their heads, but it’s the only thing they can do to help. The TARDIS, the heart of the series and the franchise mascot, wastes away in silence, since she loves the Doctor and has a symbiotic relationship with him. The Doctor’s world has always been pretty dark – it’s a universe where stone statues can destroy your entire life in the blink of an eye, shadows can strip the flesh right off your bones, and unknown monsters can steal your voice and your body from you – but “Turn Left” is the first time it feels empty and depressing. In this story, the Whoniverse runs out of heroes and runs out of hope as everything gradually decays.
The UK gradually turns into a post-apocalyptic hellhole as society collapses. We never get any insight into what’s running through the minds of government officials as they make crucial decisions about who lives and who dies: we only see the consequences on the ground level and how they affect average citizens like Donna’s family and her neighbors, and in many ways, that makes things even creepier. By the third act, Britain is running dangerously low on resources with so many homeless people to house and feed, and every other nation out there has closed their borders to tend to their own problems, so a choice is made to get rid of all the nation’s immigrants by hauling them off to concentration camps. Holy shit. One disturbing scene has Donna’s neighbor try to be brave and pretend he’s okay about his fate, and while Donna is pretty slow to freak out at first, since the Nazis were well before her time, Wilf immediately makes the connection and breaks down crying.
The fact that the British government would stoop that low once the nation was in tatters and there was nothing around to keep them in check touches upon a pretty harsh and ugly conclusion the previous episode, “Midnight”, made about humanity and magnifies it: when circumstances get really bad, when people get desperate, and when they want to secure the survival of their own at all costs, it takes far less than the Doctor would like to believe for some people to turn into monsters. “Turn Left” makes it clear that without the Doctor around to keep history in check, the Earth would quickly die. Even after the timeline is fixed and everything is back in place, the ending cliffhanger of this story makes it clear that everyone is still in danger, and that the worst is still to come. Someone or something out there is doing something evil that’s putting the whole multiverse in danger, and the people of Earth need their Doctor now more than ever.
“Turn Left” is once again handed over to Grahame Harper, who returns to form after his rather flat work on “The Unicorn And The Wasp”. Harper’s direction is definitely more muted and low-key than usual, to match the downbeat tone of this story. There are a lot of low-angle shots, as well as some tastefully staged shots that have fun obscuring objects in the background – like Rose running up towards the camera from a distance, or Donna trying and failing to get her depressed mother’s attention – which calls to mind all those sweet shots Harper filmed of the Cybermen in “The Age Of Steel” that always kept them just out of focus.
Like “The Unicorn And The Wasp” and “Midnight”, “Turn Left” is clearly intended to be one of the more low-budget episodes of the season, despite having a lot of location shooting. There’s barely any CGI used from the Mill, and most of what does appear is recycled from older episodes in Series 3 and 4 (there’s also a pretty unconvincing effect of the atmosphere igniting at night at one point, which looked a lot better in “The Poison Sky“). The show seems to be saving up most of its special effects budget so it can spend it on the following two-part finale, one of the most expensive stories in the RTD era, and that was a decision that paid off massively. Unlike his work in the previous episode, Murray Gold’s score in “Turn Left” incorporates a lot of recurring themes and motifs throughout Series 4, like “Midnight”, “Life Among The Distant Stars”, and “A Pressing Need To Save The World”. With his new material, Gold often blends acoustic guitars and electric guitars with a synthesizer, particularly in the title theme “Turn Left” (which features a rather ghostly and distorted version of “The Doctor’s Theme”), as well as “A Dazzling End” and “The Rueful Fate Of Donna Noble” (the former of which seems to be built upon the same melody as “The Mad Man With A Box” in Series 5).
As a journey down a more morbid path, “Turn Left” is a rather haunting episode of Doctor Who that won’t be easily forgotten, since it also marks the beginning of the end for Donna’s time in the TARDIS: with the two-part finale right on the horizon, nothing will ever be the same after this episode.
* “Oh, I know why you want a job at HC Clements, lady. Because you think you’ll meet a man with lots of money and your whole life will change. Well let me tell you, sweetheart. City executives don’t need temps, except for practice” Can I just say I always laugh at the exaggerated look on Sylvia’s face during that line?
* “Well, sack one of this lot! Sack Cliff! He just sits there, don’t know what he does all day. Sorry, Cliff. Actually, I’m not sorry. What do you do all day?”
* “Thanks for nothing! Oh, and you know when that money went missing from the kitty? Anne-Marie, that’s all I’m saying. Anne-Marie!”
* “I’m just tired, Donna, what with your father and everything. To be honest, I’ve given up on you” Damn, Sylvia.
* “Be classy. Dad, take those things off” “No, I shan’t. It’s Christmas!”
* “Sweetheart, come on. You’re not going to make the world any better by shouting at it!” “I can try”.
* “Ah, well. We’ll settle in, won’t we? Make do? Bit of wartime spirit, eh?” “Yeah, but there isn’t a war. There’s no fight. It’s just this” Already, the depression is setting in.
* One of the most annoying things about the RTD era is how, every time there’s a modern day invasion story, we always cut away to coverage on the local news. It’s getting old. Plus, there’s usually these extreme close-ups all the way to the reporters’ lips, and I do not want to see that.
* “Mary McGinty. Do you remember her? She worked in the newsagent on Sunday. Little woman. Black hair. She’ll be dead. Every day I think of someone else. All dead”.
* “Trust me, we need the Doctor more than ever. I’ve been pulled across from a different universe because every single universe is in danger. It’s coming, Donna. It’s coming from across the stars and nothing can stop it… the darkness”.
* “I need you to come with me” “Yeah. Well, blonde hair might work on the men, but you ain’t shifting me, lady”.
* “You were right. You said I should have worked harder at school. I suppose I’ve always been a disappointment” “Yeah” Wow, Sylvia. Just wow.
* “Look, look there! They’re going out. Oh, my God! Donna, look! The stars are going out!”
* “I’m ready! Because I understand now. You said I was going to die, but you mean this whole world is going to blink out of existence. But that’s not dying, because a better world takes its place. The Doctor’s world. And I’m still alive. That’s right, isn’t it? I don’t die. If I change things, I don’t die. That’s that’s right, isn’t it?” “…I’m sorry”
* Hot damn, that quote above was a great moment. That shot of Rose being completely and totally silent, looking at Donna with pity, was held just long enough to make you feel deeply uncomfortable, and it always gives me a chill.
* “I’m half a mile away. I’m half a mile away!” It’s times like these that Donna really regrets not being in better shape.
* Between Pete’s sacrifice in “Father’s Day”, John’s sacrifice in “The Family Of Blood”, and Donna’s sacrifice in “Turn Left”, heroic suicide is a rather dark trope that the RTD era is very fond of.
* “What the hell is that?!” A really plastic beetle, Donna.
* “What was her name?” “I don’t know. But she told me to warn you. She said two words: bad wolf”.