Review: Doctor Who – 4×11 – Turn Left

Bleak to the future

The 1970s. A lot of people get all nostalgic about them, forgetting the constant strikes, power cuts, massive inflation and white dog poo that came with the era.

One good reason to get nostalgic is the TV. Ignore fluffy stuff like The Good Life or jaw-dropping programmes like The Black and White Minstrels Show – the essence of 70s TV was bleak, miserable and pessimistic despair, whether it was in sci-fi like Doomwatch, The Survivors, Blake’s 7 or The Changes or dramas like Callan, The Sandbaggers, Special Branch or Law and Order. 

Fan-bloody-tastic TV, in other words. This is what we want. 

And praise the Lord, Rusty gave us misery in spades with tonight’s episode.

As Donna’s world collapses, she finds help from a mysterious blonde woman – but can Donna and Rose stop the approaching Darkness?

Was it any good?
Well, we already knew that Rusty could do dark and miserable thanks to Utopia, The Sound of Drums, Last of the Time Lords
 and even Midnight. So Turn Left wasn’t a big surprise in that sense.

But after saying series four needed to be more fun, to suddenly start up with the misery again towards the end is something of a U-turn, albeit a welcome one – for me at least.

Having "what if I’d made a different choice over something trivial?" as the theme of an episode or movie isn’t new: It’s A Wonderful Life is the most obvious (although not being born isn’t all that trivial), but there’s Sliding Doors, the ST:TNG episode Tapestry, numerous episodes of Buffy and Angel and more. And if you can pull them off, they’re great, because 

  1. everyone wonders about their choices in life, if they’re sufficiently old, so it speaks to everyone more or less
  2. you can be nasty and bleak to show just how important decisions or particular people are in the scheme of things

Turn Left was really very good in that it also added to this theme that mainstay of budget-restricted television, the clips episode (cf ST:TNG‘s Shades of Grey, Doctor Who’s own Love and Monsters or just about every episode of Stargate SG:1), and turned it into a virtue. Here we see how two entire series of Doctor Who would have turned out without the Doctor: Martha dead, Torchwood wiped out defeating the Sontarans, the adipose pentimating America – it’s all the wonderful dystopia of Last of the Time Lords but without the Scissor Sisters soundtrack. 

And wasn’t this dystopia so very dys? Forced labour camps? London turned into a nuclear waste? People being forced to live in Leeds? Gark. Does life get any better than this when you’re watching Doctor Who? No, of course it doesn’t.

The glue
Keeping all that mess of clips together is a great big dollop of fanwank as Donna is revealed to be the Bad Wolf of the series, even as the Bad Wolf of series one makes its return. We learn there’s something weird about her and she’s what’s been causing the odd coincidences this series that turn out not to be bad script editing or unfortunate parallel thinking by the writers but are really well explained parts of the series story arc. Honest.

Whether you believe that or not, at least we’re being credited with enough intelligence to have noticed the possibility and that we might need an explanation if our disbelief is to continue to be suspended. Which is an improvement over series two, say.

Indeed, because of the previous virtual world of Forest of the Dead, I was half expecting Donna to comment on the scene cuts. But it never happened. That’s what happens if you undermine the conventions of television, Stephen Moffat. The foundations are crumbling and it’s all your fault.

But, of course, this was really about the return of Rose, as well as giving Catherine Tate more chances to shout a lot. The latter’s quite cruel, because when you have a character start off quite loud and shouty to begin with, taking her to places where she has increasingly good reasons to shout louder and louder means she hits her ceiling very quickly.

Rose’s return, while slightly inexplicable in some senses – we can only presume, at this stage, at least, that from the vantage point of a parallel universe, she can see what’s supposed to have been happening the whole time – was a little anti-climatic since she never meets the Doctor or says her name. Plus Billy was slurring a lot. Kids of today, hey? Speak up, lazy bones. Stop with your mumbling. It’s not cool, you know.

All the same, it was a good way to show off the new, harder Rose, the Doctor of her own universe who has to fight the good fight without the wisdom of the Time Lords to help her. And UNIT learning how the TARDIS works? That’s the breaking of sacrosanct rules that only the New Adventures used to be able to do. Nice.

The beetle on the back seemed an improbably McGuffin to be able to change the entire universe that way (although the Doctor’s reference to the Sarah Jane Adventures‘ Trickster clears that up, sort of), but who cares? It was creepy, thanks to our near-universal dislike and fear of insects. The Second World War parallels were clumsy, right down to having the ever wonderful Cribbins saying it’s all happening like last time (didn’t anyone learn their lessons in clumsy Nazi parallels from V?), but still thought-provoking and moving.

And Donna’s suicide, not only speaking of the virtues of a decent gym programme – it literally will save your life – was equally moving in both its sacrifice and its sheer triviality: to die under a lorry just to make a car turn left instead of right.

All in all, not faultless and the massive continuity references and cross-referencing will no doubt confuse people who never watched the Ecclescake series, for example. But still a solid piece of work from our Rusty with decent character work and dialogue for Donna and her family, some real creepiness and scary moments, and a chance for Catherine Tate to do some proper acting again (as well as shout).

Doctor Who continuity
As well as references to most of this series’ episodes, we have references to The Runaway Bride, Voyage of the Damned, Smith and Jones, series one, time travel with mirrors (Evil of the Daleks), kontron particles (Timelash), the cloister bell (every Peter Davison story), the omnipresent UNIT (don’t make me list them), Torchwood, Sarah Jane Smith,
Metropolitan magazine, and erm, probably some other episodes, too.

The Murray Gold Watch
This week Murray Gold wasn’t drowing much out as Rob was watching Turn Left on his computer with his earphones in so as not to wake his wife – and it’s noticeable how much better Murray is with a proper sense of stereo. But Rob did notice more than a few similarities with the scores of films by Sergei Tarkovsky, most notably the original Solaris. What a ponce – Rob that is.

Next week
Prepare to squee at the largest Who crossover in recorded history as the Doctor, Martha, Donna, Pipes, team Torchwood and team Sarah Jane Adventures unite to fight those not-Sontarans from Smith and Jones, red Daleks, probably containing the Master, the Cybermen and a Nimon, and… well, that would be telling.

Other reviews
Other reviewers might have chosen to disagree with me elsewhere. Fortunately, they have beetles on their backs so have made the correct decision not to yet. If they ever return from their parallels worlds, they can leave links to their reviews below.