Two Views: Doctor Who, "The Runaway Bride"
Reviewed by Nicholas Whyte and Tony Keen
15 January 2007
Climbing up the Spout Again
By Nicholas Whyte
It's almost a law of nature that any long-running television serial will face the problem of what to do about members of the regular cast who come and go. Too glib a disappearance—or indeed reappearance—can wreck a programme's reputation. Everyone remembers Dallas in 1986, when it turned out that the entire previous season of stories had been Pam Ewing's dream.
Doctor Who is no different, and its original series, which started in 1963, became more careless in this regard as time went on: while the first few companions were written out after falling in love, discovering means of return to their own home, being adopted by alien races as their ruler, or (in a couple of daring cases) killed off, it wasn't too long before regulars whose contracts had expired started popping off to the countryside for a quick break from which they never reappeared. (And that is just the first Doctor's companions.)
New Who has placed a much greater burden on the audience's rapport with just two central characters—Billie Piper's Rose Tyler and the Doctor himself. The 2005 Christmas special had the difficult task of introducing David Tennant's tenth Doctor, in succession to Christopher Eccleston's superb reintroduction of the character to teatime audiences, and was sufficiently unsure of itself that it kept him asleep in bed for a large part of the somewhat rambling story.
The 2006 Christmas special had a somewhat easier job: Tennant had firmly established himself as an audience favourite during the year, handsomely winning a viewer poll as the best of the ten actors to play the role (which caused some grinding of teeth among us older fans, but let that be). Rose's departure gave the writers a chance to portray his Doctor meeting a potential replacement, but also meant that viewers would see the Doctor from a different perspective, Rose having been effectively the viewpoint character for the first two seasons.
Judged on that basis, as a segment of the Doctor's developing character arc, I think "The Runaway Bride" succeeded. Partly this was because the extra fifteen minutes of plot were used by writer and producer Russell T. Davies to balance frenetic action with pauses for reflection (say, on top of a skyscraper). Much also depended on well-known (to others, if not to me) comedian Catherine Tate, cast as one-off sidekick Donna Noble, snatched from the aisle on her wedding day and mysteriously materializing inside the TARDIS at the start of the episode.
Donna gives us an immediately different view of the Doctor. To her, the Doctor is a possible Martian, for whom being human is optional; a kidnapper whose "er, spaceship" is smaller on the outside than the inside (alone among Doctor Who characters, Donna sees its interior first); and a guy who sometimes makes so little sense that you just have to give him a slap (she hits him twice). By the end of the story, she has resolved not to go with him on his travels. Her treacherous fiance, Lance, was tempted by the opportunity to explore the universe; Donna prefers to stay at home.
Donna is herself one of the great Doctor Who creations: she missed the last two alien invasions of Earth (in "The Christmas Invasion" and "Doomsday") because she was variously hungover or scuba-diving in Spain. Compared by the Doctor to a 4H pencil, she has nagged her boyfriend into marriage, and her disappearance during the ceremony causes her family so little dismay that they go ahead with the reception without her; she spends much of the first part of the story simply yelling. David Tennant himself notes on the commentary track for the episode that "Donna is not the Doctor's normal choice of traveling companion."
Above all, Donna is funny. More, it must be said, in the sense that we laugh at her than with her. (She is gobsmacked that there is a secret base hidden underneath a major London landmark: "I know, unheard of!" replies the Doctor.) Yet it is more than just a comedic role, and Donna's grief at her betrayal by Lance—it turns out he only wanted her for her body, or rather for its usefulness to his real mistress—is poignant.
The episode's other lead character is the alien threatening destruction of the Earth, Sarah Parish's Spider Queen (as I must think of her; the official name of the character is the Empress of the Racnoss). I don't require much of my Doctor Who villains except that they snarl convincingly, and the Spider Queen does this to the tips of all eight legs—or was it ten? I lost count. In the end, the Doctor literally washes the spiders down the plug-hole, using the River Thames, and the Spider Queen is blown up by conventional weaponry (some fans grumbled at this intervention of state coercive power being untrue to Who, but we older types mutter about the Silurians and the Krynoid from the 1970s, similarly eliminated by the armed forces rather than by the Doctor).
Although the sequence is effective enough on first viewing, I have to say that on re-watching, some limitations become apparent. The scale of the costume means that the Spider Queen is unable to move from her spot—not a patch on Shelob from The Lord of the Rings, for instance—and the spider-children concealed at the center of the Earth, whose potential awakening and feeding (on humanity) is supposedly the core of the plot, are never themselves actually seen, presumably due to budget restrictions. Apart from this, however, the effects are convincing—the dawn of creation, witnessed by the Doctor and Donna, and the TARDIS chasing a taxi down the motorway being particularly memorable. Other chase sequences involving a bus and Donna's pink Smart Car were apparently cut (probably a good thing), though a sequence involving Segways was mysteriously retained. Even the spiders' lair is rather good. I'll also put a good word in for Murray Gold's score, particularly in contrast with some of the old Doctor Who stories ("The Three Doctors" and "Battlefield" come to mind).
As Donna runs from her own wedding reception, her mother asks her, "Who is he? Who is that man?" New Who has tended to opt for exploring character rather than plot, and although Donna's mother gets no reply, we learn more about the answer to her question by the end of the story. In particular, the Doctor becomes more and more a wizardly rather than scientific figure; indeed, with his glasses on and brandishing the sonic screwdriver as a magic wand, David Tennant begins to faintly resemble an older version of Daniel Radcliffe's Harry Potter. The sonic screwdriver works on cash machines, sound systems, and snowstorms, and the Doctor's pockets are bigger on the inside than the outside; however, the Doctor's biodamper ring is a less successful device, its failure perhaps mirroring the failure of Donna's wedding.
However, he has a much darker side: he is grieving for the loss of Rose (whose name, spoken for the first time, is the last word of the episode) and he is unmoved by the Spider Queen as he destroys the underground lair, or by Donna's entreaties for moderation. But when Donna, overwhelmed by the dawn of creation, mutters that "it puts the wedding in perspective," the Doctor responds with one of the best lines of the show: "The human race! You make sense out of chaos, marking it out with weddings and Christmas and calendars. The process is beautiful, but only if it's being observed." It is a line that reshapes Doctor Who's essential optimism about humanity, and also the Doctor's concern with the fate of individuals, shown again in his final instruction to Donna to "Be magnificent!"
"The Runaway Bride" nods to but is not overly burdened by Doctor Who's past. The spiders' lair had been taken over by them from the London branch of the Torchwood Institute, whose Cardiff offshoot is now the subject of a separate TV series. (Since "Torchwood" is famously an anagram of "Doctor Who," I was trying to make a decent anagram out of their front company in this episode, Donna's employer H.C. Clements, but all I can get is "Clench Stem" so I'd probably better stop.) The extrapolator gadget which saves the Doctor and Donna is a souvenir from the ninth Doctor's encounter with the Slitheen in Cardiff. Hardcore fans like me were very excited by the Doctor uttering the name of his home planet, Gallifrey; New Who has thrown away much of the burdensome continuity of the Doctor's people, the Time Lords, but informed speculation is that at least one of them will make a reappearance in 2007.
Christmas is a time of high expectations—perhaps only weddings (according to the Doctor, scenes of chemical warfare) come close. "The Runaway Bride" turns the familiar into a threat—killer Santas, exploding baubles, a spaceship shaped like the star from a Christmas tree. And families will have enjoyed the episode. I note its use of children—three in the wedding reception, two watching the motorway chase, one near the end threatened with death by laser, none of them speaking parts—and suspect it will have been much more successful at making the youngest viewers feel part of the action than Old Who's habit of dragging in child actors ever was. Above all there is a happy ending; the man with the magic screwdriver sees us right, all over in time for dinner.
Is this the way they say the future's meant to feel?
By Tony Keen
I am a dyed-in-the-wool Doctor Who traditionalist. I have definite ideas of what the programme and character should be, built up over nearly forty years of viewing. Bear that in mind. It may colour my perspective.
I also saw a programme called Dark Season when first broadcast in 1991. Though made for children, the quality of writing, and its debt to Doctor Who, was immediately apparent; here was somebody who plainly wanted to write Who, and could do it well. It still stands up, as you may find out for yourselves now it's finally on DVD. So I was extremely enthusiastic when it was announced that Dark Season's writer, Russell T. Davies, had got his wish and would be overseeing the revival of Britain's best-loved SF television series. Imagine my surprise when it turned out he really wanted to write Buffy the Vampire Slayer instead.
Nevertheless, the revived Who's first season, whilst as like to the 1963-1989 series as Star Trek: The Next Generation is to Gene Roddenberry's original vision, was consistently entertaining television. It's less easy to say that about the second season. One could blame David Tennant for this, but that's unfair. He is, as the genealogical programme Who Do You Think You Are? showed, extremely charismatic, with the potential to be a great Doctor. He believes in the role wholly, where Eccleston often appeared to be tipping a sly wink to the audience. The problem is that too often scripts require Tennant to behave in an un-Doctor-like manner, most extremely in the otherwise rather clever "The Girl In The Fireplace." Here Tennant had to revel in tongue-swapping with a famous French aristocrat and at least pretend to be outrageously drunk, something I can't imagine any previous Doctor doing.
Such moments are symptomatic of a show so busy deconstructing itself that it's in danger of forgetting what was attractive about Who in the first place. There have been good moments—"School Reunion" was a nostalgic treat, even if its message about the Doctor's relationship with his companions only actually applies to Sarah Jane Smith, and "The Impossible Planet"/"The Satan Pit" showed that traditional Who set on an isolated human outpost under terrible threat can still work well. On the other hand, I loathed "Love and Monsters," though not just because it was so far outside the Who format—despite straining to be funny and touching, it was neither, throwing away the last chance of poignancy in favour of a dubious knob gag.
So I was primed to greet "The Runaway Bride" with a degree of caution, especially after Davies has further blotted his copybook with Torchwood. (To be fair, he's probably not closely involved in the day-to-day running of that show, but, perhaps as a result, it is, frankly, poor, and he did create it.) Moreover, the buzz for "The Runaway Bride" was not altogether encouraging. Davies seems sometimes to have a fanboy approach to writing, deciding "that's a great idea!" and running with the original notion, regardless of whether he actually has a story to tell around it. "Army of Ghosts"/"Doomsday" grew out of the long-desired fan idea of "Cybermen vs. Daleks!", for instance.
The seed for "The Runaway Bride" seems to have been "Catherine Tate in Doctor Who! Great!" Whether one agrees that this is intrinsically a good idea depends partly on one's opinion of Tate. Many see her as the natural heir to the crown of UK television sketch comedy, currently held by Matt Lucas and David Walliams's Little Britain. I've never quite bought that, feeling she goes down a road of female comedy caricature already well trod by Morwenna Banks In Absolutely, Arabella Weir in The Fast Show, and others, though few for a long time have matched Tate's achievement of having her own primetime show. I also remember eighties Who, and the novelty casting then its bane (novelty casting is another reason I disliked "Love and Monsters"). Finally, the trailer didn't inspire confidence either. Evil Santas? Didn't we have them last year in "The Christmas Invasion"?
The actual episode doesn't altogether overturn my concerns. Tate's okay, though she does shout a lot, in the fashion that has become the norm in British television acting, popularized by the soap opera EastEnders. And I feel we're meant to take on trust that, as this is Catherine Tate, we're watching a great comedy performance, rather than it actually being particularly funny.
But the main problem is, as in much of last season, the writing. "The Runaway Bride" moves at breakneck pace, from set-piece to set-piece, with lots of running (or trundling) down corridors, climbing ladders, etc. The hope seems to be that the audience will never have time to catch their breath and think about what they're watching. It tries also to win them over by being a bit of a light comedy. But it's never amusing enough, and Murray Gold's intrusive music continues to bludgeon viewers into reacting appropriately (this bit is FUNNY, this is EXCITING), and destroying rather than enhancing mood.
At which point one starts to notice things. Such as the fact that the Doctor spends the episode pulling increasingly unlikely rabbits out of hats; of course, that's what he always does, but it's usually less obvious. Or that Torchwood, which casually abandons huge underground bases, remains the most useless alien-defence organization ever. (And is it ethical to link Who to a show too adult—allegedly—for a substantial portion of the audience to watch?) Not to mention that much of this is really rather silly (special Who money was created for the scene where the Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver to get an ATM to spew out cash—have they nothing better to do?), the "ancient Huon energy" seems there solely to get the Doctor involved, and the spider queen overacts like Grace Jones on acid. And they just couldn't resist pressing what I have come to call the TOTAL BOLLOCKS OVERDRIVE button at the end, could they? (Draining the Thames indeed, and simply to wash lots of spiders down a very large plughole.)
Most notable of all is how much of this is a rehash of earlier Davies episodes. Donna is a bit more than a surrogate Rose, but Lance, until revealed as a baddie, is little more than a replacement Mickey, even having the same facial expressions. The speech on how wonderful humans are is a straight retread of various speeches from last year, the last chance for the spider queen is lifted straight out of "Rose," and much of the rest of the episode seems drawn from last year's Christmas special. It's always a bad sign when a show starts feeding off its own mythology more than other sources. This is what happened to The X-Files, and what happened to Who in the eighties.
Not that there aren't good bits. The nastier side of the Doctor revealed at the climax gives him some depth, and it's nice finally to see the Doctor back to his old ways of clearing off without saying goodbye. And it is better than Torchwood. But that isn't a very high standard. "The Runaway Bride" needs to be judged against the best of Davies's Who, and against television standards in general. Here it falls short, for me at least. Glitzy, fast-paced, but unable to conceal a lack of inspiration, and of story, this is as near as Davies has got to a Colin Baker episode.
One could argue that a long-time viewer like me is not the intended audience, and that kids not bothered about having their intellects engaged will like this well enough. Maybe so, but the best Who (including Davies's best) has always been able to appeal on multiple levels. And even disregarding that, Christmas episodes should be where all the stops are pulled out; "The Runaway Bride" only does this for the SFX (in particular the pointless motorway chase—in story terms it would be more efficient and less dangerous to let the robot take Donna where it wanted and then rescue her). "The Christmas Invasion" featured a significant event in the Doctor's life; this just marks time between the departure of one companion and the arrival of the next. Not a bad episode, particularly, and certainly not nearly as bad as the Torchwood finale, but not really very good either.
"The Runaway Bride" also illustrates two structural problems with the present Who format. One is that the new series usually crams a story into the length of two old twenty-five minute episodes, rather than the four to six per story that was more common before 1989; it is notable that many of the best stories of the past two years have been spread over two parts (though fairness requires mentioning "Aliens of London"/"World War Three," which wasn't so good). The extra fifteen minutes in "The Runaway Bride" doesn't make enough difference, whereas an extra forty-five might. The story is too compressed and never gets time to build properly—Lance's betrayal might be more shocking if we had been given any time to actually care about him.
The other problem is Davies's insistence on setting almost every story on Earth. The last time Who was entirely Earthbound (albeit also then to one period in Earth's history), the production team soon realized they were restricting the sort of stories they could tell, and in less than two years were sending the Doctor to exotic alien worlds again. That Davies hasn't been doing this (especially when he has two spin-offs which perforce must be Earthbound) leads to the sort of recycling seen in "The Runaway Bride." Nor does the sequence of preview clips (Daleks again?) suggest much in the way of new ideas.
"The Runaway Bride" is the product of talented people doing just enough to get by; It's okay but no more. Those involved can do better—the first episode of new spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures shows that. But Davies needs to break free of his self-imposed restrictions and let his and his writers' imagination and intelligence work at their highest level for Doctor Who to once again fulfil its true potential.