Doctor Who series 4 episode 11 review: Turn Left

The Doctor steps aside as Catherine Tate's Donna takes centre stage, for an episode that rips apart her entire world. Check out our Turn Left review here...

If Russell T Davies is prowling the Internet tonight, as these words are being written, then surely he’s feeling some sort of vindication. Frequently championed for his story arcs, and yet chastised for his individual episodes, for the second week running he’s shown his writing team, and the many assorted critics he’s faced, just how it should be done.

Let’s make no bones about this: Turn Left was really, really good.

It’s also the kind of episode you can only really do once in a blue moon, and it didn’t take long for RTD to get going. With a fairly poor special effect to kick the shebang off, it’s not too long before Donna is separated from the Doctor, courtesy of an insistent fortune teller.

Of course, this being Doctor Who, and this being before the credits, there’s usually danger in the offing, and so it proves to be. Before long, the fortune teller has tracked Donna’s life back to a single pivotal decision, about whether to turn her car left, towards a life with the Doctor, or right, towards a life without him. And before you can say Sliding Doors or Back To The Future Part II, her decision is reversed, and much of the episode is dedicated to the resultant repercussions. In fact, the Doctor is shoehorned out of it, only appearing at the start and the end, as the focus is very much of Donna, and what looks like her fatal journey.

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This gives RTD the chance to serve up a bit of a compilation album of moments from the last few years, albeit viewed from a different standpoint, and with very different consequences. Thus, we head back to The Runaway Bride where, without the intervention of Donna, the Doctor dies. We also get a look at what would have happened in Smith & Jones without the Doctor (Martha dies), we find out that Sarah-Jane buys it too, that Captain Jack is on the Sontaran homeworld, that two of the Torchwood team have perished, and that the Titanic from Voyage Of The Damned has crashed into London. Killing pretty much everyone (even American gets it later in the episode, courtesy of – by all things – the Adipose. They’ll be delighted about that).

Thus, Donna and her family – who survived only thanks to a winning raffle ticket (for the cheapest-looking luxury break I think I’ve ever seen) and a bit of advice from Billie Piper (who we’re coming to shortly) – are sent with other refugees of London up to Leeds, where they’re crammed into a small house with many others, some of whom head off, ominously, to a labour camp by the episode’s end.

The upshot of this is that not only does Tate get to flex her acting muscles, pulling off an episode hinged around her really rather well, but it also gives Bernard Cribbins a decent amount to do as well. And heck, could many of the supporting players we’ve met over the past few years learn something from him. When tears well up in his eyes, as the truck heads off to the aforementioned labour camp, it feels so much more substantial than the shoehorning in of another EastEnders cast-off would have managed. More Cribbins, please.

Also into the mix, of course, was the returning Rose Tyler. Her job was to pop up at various points throughout the episode and nudge Donna in the right direction – in effect, do the Doctor’s job – and she was mainly kept in the background for much of the time. Was it us, though, or did her speech sound a little off? She’d either had a bad trip to the dentist, or perhaps this ties into the return of the two magical words, Bad Wolf, at the end. She certainly sounded more like the Rose from the end of The Parting Of The Ways (but I can’t remember what she wore in that episode, so can’t say with certainty about the importance of her outfit) than the one who traipsed around in every other episode, and we wait and see whether this is a deliberate ploy or not.

But this was, ultimately, an episode about Donna, and one that had the side effect of showing the fragility of the Doctor himself. Because for all the talk of his loneliness, and how the assistants can sometimes end up more as narrative devices than integral parts of a storyline, here we see for certain that without a companion, he’s a dead man. As simple as that. The assistants save him, allowing him to save the world.

It’s surely certain too that he’ll be companion shopping again come the fifth series in 2010. On the back of Catherine Tate in this episode was not only a ropey looking creature that had leapt straight out of the Davison era of the show, but also a big target, with an arrow above her head proclaiming “Donna’s going to die”. I’m doubting that too many people were surprised when Rose told Donna that she was going to buy it, and we go into the last two episodes knowing that she’s thrown herself in front of a truck to re-alter fate once more. It’s one pickle that the Doctor is unlikely to be able to pull her out of, for all the psychic paper in the world.

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But then he has problems of his own. Why did he meet Donna for a second time, and was someone in control of that? Why have more bees gone missing? How can he stave off the coming darkness? And how, for the second time, did he miss the Bad Wolf stuff all around him?

There were some problems with the episode, it should be said. That strange beetle was the most wholly unconvincing effect we’ve seen all series, Tate did occasionally threaten to become the version we associate more with her sketch show, and if I was a resident of Leeds, I suspect I’d be writing to Points Of View right about now.

But this was still an intriguing episode, very well handled. The continual shifts in the tone of the script worked a treat, as every time it looked like things were being allowed to lighten, things once again took a turn for the worse. And it’s setting up a potentially corking concluding double bill, for not only the series, but also RTD’s four-season story arc.

I do have a concern that it seems that, well, everything is being thrown into the mix next week, and from the trailer, wouldn’t be surprised if Tegan, Nyssa, Romana and Ace were dragged back in there too. Yet make no mistake here: Russell T is on a roll, and this writer at least can’t wait to see what’s coming next, in the hope that he can make it three cracking episodes on the trot.

Because next week? Surely, surely, it’s Davros time. And that alone is just what they invented goosebumps for…

Read our review of last week’s episode, Midnight, here

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