Doctor Who

Monday, December 25, 2006 by

If you like your Doctor Who in the breezy style then “The Runaway Bride” was for you.

With the same kind of casual manner in which he dispenses criticism of his scriptwriting, Russell T Davies gave us a Doctor Who story that felt effortless and fancy free. Or should that be Rose free? Indeed the absence of the character made “The Runaway Bride” feel that bit lighter and more energetic than recent episodes. The Doctor’s mourning of her loss was delicately judged, but it was a wise move to make the central driver of the story him moving on, rather than remembering his lost companion.

In this respect Davies again exerted his almost supernatural ability for judging with perfection how and when to nudge along the back story that underpins his version of Who. Donna’s observation that the universe is a terrifying place made for a refreshing change of perspective for one of the Timelord’s sidekick (albeit one that will most likely be flipped back with the arrival of Martha Jones in the next episode), and it served as a useful, if subtle reset of the Doctor-companion dynamic

Beautifully judged too was Sarah Parish’s performance as the Empress of Racnos. Her inherent scariness was perfectly diluted by a sense of comic campness and old-school badness that ensured younger viewers wouldn’t become too frightened by what was an impressive looking alien. By contrast, Catherine Tate’s Donna came across a bit like a character out of a Dead Ringers EastEnders spoof. You half-expected her to yell, “Shut your bleedin’ maaafff,” and, “Oi Doctor! Sort it!” However, to her credit Tate did a lot better during the story’s (very few) quiet moments.

More seriously though, the continuing London-centric nature of the show is troubling. In fact the whole programme right now seems imbued with a kind of metropolitan attitude that presupposes we all agree on what’s hot and what’s not. One fears for the day when the Doctor will pass judgement on Johnny Vaughan’s Capital Radio breakfast Show and in this respect Doctor Who seems to be fast outgrowing Russell T Davies’ range of cultural references.

But what of the story? It has become widely accepted that plotting is RTD’s weakest attribute as a scriptwriter. On the plus side, the neat reveal of Donna’s drugging via the cups of coffee that brought her and her fiancĂ© together was very nice, but on the minus a resolution that consisted pretty much of pouring loads of water down a big hole seemed a bit of a let down, if not a real worry. How did we know that all the aliens were dead, and perhaps more importantly, does it do a planet any good to get its core flooded with dirty Thames water?

In this respect Davies is baffling. He possesses all of the skills needed to take a clinical and balanced look at how to structure and pace a long-running series, yet when asked to bring those attributes of plotting and timing to bear on a single episode he seems to struggle. In the case of “The Runaway Bride” though, there were enough good points to paper over the cracks. The car chase, the sequence in which Donna watches the formation of the Earth, not to mention the audacity of coming up with as brilliant an image as the Thames running dry, ensured that this Christmas special was a triumph on so many levels it didn’t really matter that, once again, it failed to properly coalesce as a whole.

Inevitably, thoughts now turn to series three. The brief montage at the close of “The Runaway Bride” didn’t look as appetising as the one we saw this time last year, but then again that trailer offered us glimpses of the return of two of the series’ best-loved companions. The critical question for series three is how the Doctor’s relationship with Martha Jones will unfold. Clearly, the majority view is that we need to see something far removed from the Doctor-Rose dynamic and right now it’s difficult to see how the show can come up with anything other than a “playful romance”. That in itself is a criticism of Davies operating too much from within his own scriptwriting comfort zone. You suspect that attempting to create something new between the Doctor and Martha will stretch RTD further than he’s yet gone with Doctor Who.

Still if the Doctor-companion relationship retains its cheery irritability throughout 2007, then at least it’s pretty obvious that we have some major storylines to look forward to. After all, the key moment in “The Runaway Bride” wherein the Doctor utters the word “Gallifrey” for the first time in this new run has to be a pre-echo of something bigger looming, doesn’t it?


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