Doctor Who fans finally have a date for the broadcast of “The Star Beast”, the first of three specials to celebrate the show’s 60th anniversary. As we all start opening the little advent calendar windows counting down to the 25th of November, we are starting to have questions. During this celebration returning showrunner Russell T Davies has six whole decades of storytelling to draw from.
The 50th anniversary hit upon some of the most iconic high points of the series – Daleks, UNIT, multi-Doctor stories, the Time War, even the Zygons!
But from what we have seen of the upcoming specials the callbacks this time around are a little bit more… esoteric. The Toymaker, a one-and-done villain from a lost episode at the dawn of the series. Beep the Meep, and a story called “The Star Beast”, hinting that this might be an adaptation or sequel to a mostly forgotten comic story from the eighties. Instead of the classic multi-Doctor shindig we are used to, we have had the latest Doctor regenerate into a past incarnation (David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor).
And among all of that, we have the return of Donna Noble, the Tenth Doctor’s companion during the second Christmas Special, “The Runaway Bride”, and the fourth season of the new show, as played by Catherine Tate.
A great character? Sure! But out of the entire canon of Doctor Who is she the character we want to bring back to celebrate the 60th?
Absolutely. Donna is the perfect choice for many reasons, chief of which is that her return gives the show an opportunity to fix one of its greatest injustices. But first…
It’s an Excuse to Get the Gang Back Together
Let’s get the real reason for Donna’s return out of the way first. The Doctor Who specials we are about to watch were conceived at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, when a lot of bored and lonely nerds decided to push through the isolation of lockdown by sitting down at an agreed time to watch old Doctor Who episodes, then tweeting through them, with commentary from the cast and crew that worked on the episode.
One of these was Donna Noble’s Doctor Who debut, “The Runaway Bride”, and both Russell T Davies and Catherine Tate all got in on the action. The story goes that it was this tweet-along (and some WhatsApp messages in its aftermath) that got Davies, Tate and Tennant reminiscing about the fun they had on series four, so much so that Davies decided it was time for another go round.
These specials are the absolute epitome of Getting The Band Back Together, with not only Tennant and Tate, but Davies’ old fellow producers, Phil Collinson and Julie Gardner, and even composer Murray Gold returning to the fray.
Because as well as making some of the best Doctor Who in the show’s 60-year history, these are also people who get on. Stuff like “The Ballad of Russell and Julie” – a video made for Davies’ leaving party – shows that these are people who have fun working together, and that is a big part of the reason for this reunion.
But of course, as fans, we don’t care whether the people making the show are happy. Bastards that we are, we only care if it’s good.
The Doctor-Companion Relationship is Perfect Here
Another reason for bringing back Donna Noble is that, quite simply, she has one of the best dynamics with the Doctor out of any of the companions in the new series. While we’re not going to get into a fight ranking all the companions (today), Donna brought something fresh to the TARDIS.
And by that we mean “She didn’t fancy the Doctor”.
After the star-crossed romance of Rose and the Doctor, and Martha Jones’s unrequited love, it was good to see the Doctor finally travel with a mate (“You ain’t mating with me sunshine!”). But more than just reinstating the ‘No hanky-panky in the TARDIS’ rule, Donna was refreshing because just wasn’t all that impressed by the Doctor. With Donna, there were no big speeches about how wonderful and magnificent the Doctor is.
Martha Jones’s final regular story saw her trekking across an Earth taken over by the Master, secretly spreading the Doctor’s legend. If Donna were given the same task, well, that story would have probably ended differently.
Donna is nobody’s sidekick or human pet. She’s his equal. And yet…
Donna Is the Most Ordinary of Companions
Before Donna returned to the TARDIS in series four’s “Partners in Crime”, the Doctor travelled with two other companions. Rose was a shopworker with an overbearing mother and rubbish boyfriend, but who clearly longs for more, and jumps feet first into the Doctor’s world. Martha Jones is a brilliant medical student who is immediately fascinated by the Doctor (if you know what I mean) and even before she has the Doctor’s help, takes a Judoon abduction in her stride. These companions are superheroes, they are Peter Parker, waiting for the spider bite. If the Doctor hadn’t turned up in their life, there would have been another Call To Adventure along in a minute. The same is true for subsequent companions such as Amy, Clara and Bill. But not Donna.
Like Rose, Donna has a crappy job (she’s a temp) an overbearing mother and a rubbish boyfriend (fiancé). But when we meet her she’s not yearning for the stars, she is not immediately drawn to the Doctor. From the moment she appears on the TARDIS, she only wants to get off and get back to her wedding. She doesn’t want to fight an alien invasion, she wants a nice, boring life of domestic bliss. She is, in the new series at least, the first of the Doctor’s companions who comes across as actually ordinary.
It sounds like it’s doing her down, but that ordinariness is her superpower. It means that she’s the sort of person who sees a town about to be destroyed by a volcano in “The Fires of Pompeii” and thinks “You must be some sort of terrible bastard to allow this to happen” not “Well, I’m sure Mr The Lonely God must have a good reason”. It means she is really, deeply affected by what she sees.
And really, that’s what the Doctor’s companion should be. The companion is the audience’s proxy, and also the Doctor’s as he flies them through the universe to see familiar sights anew through their eyes.
Tennant and Tate Have Serious Chemistry
However ordinary Donna Noble may be, Catherine Tate is an incredible actor, and she and David Tennant have incredible chemistry together. You can see this not only in their time together on Doctor Who, or in their performance in “The Ballad of Russell and Julie”, but in their appearance as Beatrice and Benedict in the Shakespeare Play “Much Ado About Nothing”, where they play the original verbally sparring rivals whose feud hides a deeper affection.
As Russell T Davies himself said in “The Writer’s Tale” (a book collecting the emails between him and Benjamin Cook during the writing of Doctor Who season four): “Imagine a whole season of Tennant and Tate! It’s a casting director’s dream.”
Any chance to see that again on screen is a chance not to miss.
But, aside from how brilliant Donna Noble is, and how brilliant Catherine Tate is, here’s the main reason we desperately want to see Donna Noble again.
It’s Time to Fix One of Doctor Who’s Great Injustices
For the 50th anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor”, Steven Moffat went back and “fixed” one of the great tragedies of the Doctor’s life – the destruction of Gallifrey (The next showrunner, Chris Chibnall then went back and blew it up again, but we’re sure that won’t last long). In this trilogy of specials, it looks like Russell T Davies is going to do the same on a smaller scale, although one much closer to fans’ hearts.
Donna Noble’s arc saw her go from being an ordinary woman who genuinely believed she was unimportant, to an adventurer and saviour of countless planets, to a half-Time Lord spacetime event that the entire universe had bent around. But it proved to be too much – her brain couldn’t cope. So the Doctor was forced to wipe her memory of all their adventures together and return her to her ordinary life.
She’s not the first companion to meet this fate – ask the Second Doctor’s companions, Jamie McCrimmon and Zoe Herriot – except they won’t remember because they had their memories wiped by the Time Lords before they returned to their old lives. But with Donna, this packed a greater punch, because she didn’t just lose the Doctor or her adventures with him, she lost herself, and the knowledge of what she was capable of.
She went back to being the temp who only wanted to get married, and her “happy ending” when we last see her at the end of “The End of Time”, is to get married and receive a winning lottery ticket to guarantee her the domestic bliss she always wanted. Even as a happy ending, it sees her limited, trapped, and cut off from a huge swathe of who she is.
It was an ending so devastating that Moffat, as well as undoing the destruction Gallifrey, also sought to undo this in a way. The Eleventh and Twelfth Doctor companion, Clara Oswald, was also placed in a position where her memory of the Doctor endangered both her and the universe. Moffat turned things around by having the Doctor’s memory of Clara wiped instead.
But now, with Tennant and Tate’s return for the anniversary special, fans will finally get what we all want – Donna Noble returned to form and a proper send-off for one of the Doctor’s greatest companions.
You know, unless Davies has an even more terrible fate in store for her…
Doctor Who returns on November 25 to BBC One, BBC iPlayer in the UK and Disney+