Donna Noble: Change, And Not a Moment Too Soon…

“Catherine Tate?!?!?”

I could barely believe the contents of the press release. The BBC had chosen their new companion, and it was the Runaway Bride. At the time, I was frequenting a text-based BBS (oh, just Google it) and the mood on the Doctor Who page was sombre. “No good will come of this,” I remember saying, probably in a thick, rumbling Jamaican accent accompanied by an ominous look into the distance. An online acquaintance agreed. “I have to say,” he wrote, “you have to go to a lot of effort to make me dread Doctor Who. This coming season I’m dreading like I heard Bonnie Langford was going to be in it.”

This article was almost going to be called Predictions I’ve Made About Doctor Who That Were Utterly Wrong (other highlights: Matt Smith was too young to play the Doctor, and Torchwood was going to be a great show). Suffice it to say that Series Four is the only one of Tennant’s that I actually like, and while there are a number of reasons for this, the various facets of the reinvention of Donna probably get the lion’s share. Because Donna’s one of that rare breed: a companion who undergoes a sea change and emerges all the better for it.

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Doctor Who has always thrived on change, of course. It is the closest, perhaps, that any show has come to being all things to all people, if you allow your definition of ‘all people’ to be somewhat limited. The programme is a cluster of tiny mayflies, all hatching at different times over the space of a single, fifty-year day, births and deaths sometimes overlapping and sometimes not, some mayflies drifting off to new places and adventures, some meeting up with other mayflies, some getting cruelly swatted before they’re fully grown, and one or two disappearing abruptly with no real explanation in the middle of a story.

All the mayflies learn something. Companions leave the Doctor older and wiser and very occasionally dead, but all are different, however brief the journey. There’s a telling scene in an early episode of Red Dwarf where Rimmer extracts a supposedly identical hologram of himself from the ship’s computer, resulting in chaos. We might attribute all the bitching and sniping that follows to Rimmer’s heavily layered self-loathing, but in the novel the ‘new’ Rimmer offers an alternative explanation: he is a copy of the original, not the tempered, moderated version who has been living with Lister for the past few weeks on an empty ship.

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Simultaneously, there’s a difference between companions who change a bit (Martha, Steven, Liz) and those who actively go on a journey, for better or worse. And perhaps it’s the nature of Donna’s journey – from bolshy, comedic beginnings to final, bittersweet end – that give me a reason to remember her. There is a place for having a bit of fun with the Doctor and then getting on with your life. It suited Harry Sullivan to a tee, and he’s one of my favourites. For the most part it ought to be the default option: Nu Who arguably doesn’t do it enough, opting instead for a tediously companion-centric worldview. But when it’s done well – as Donna’s transformation is, at least until its final episode – then the act of metamorphosis, whether subtle or substantial, can make for extremely powerful television.

Curiously, the first time this happens, it’s to the Doctor himself. For the first thirteen or fourteen episodes Hartnell is (to all intents and purposes) the companion in his own show, largely as Newman and Lambert had originally intended. The Doctor is the archetype of suspicion, a shadowy enigma capable of wanton selfishness, irrational vandalism and outright malice. Just as interplanetary travel broadens the minds of Ian and Barbara, so the Doctor softens under their influence. It wouldn’t be the first time that the presence of a companion actively changes the way in which he behaves, but it’s by far the most potent.

It’s telling that in the case of Donna, much of the change appears to have happened off-screen. Partners in Crime is a romp and a half, but aside from the mugging at the window and the suitcases in the TARDIS, we’re already looking at a more restrained version of the character: one who’s had time to reflect on her life choices and find them wanting. Her travels with the Doctor are the sort of spontaneous bar-hopping, let-your-hair-down holiday you take with a mate (A MATE. A MATE) just after a painful break-up, although Donna has to wait a year or so to get on the plane.

In many ways, Donna works as a companion precisely because she’s previously been burned: it’s not that she doesn’t fancy the Doctor, more that neither of them are prepared to risk damage to their relationship by moving it beyond platonic (Tate and Tennant would save that for the Shakespeare they did a couple of years later). In many ways The X-Files was Doctor Who’s undoing: we had nine years of chemistry in a mainstream science fiction series while Doctor Who was languishing somewhere between the BBC retrospectives and development hell, and it was thus inconceivable that romance wouldn’t be a part of Nu Who. Audience expectations had changed, and so, it seemed, had casting requirements: these days a sexualised Doctor is the elephant in the TARDIS, however much it upsets the traditionalists.

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It wasn’t always like this. Back in the days when sex was something that happened off screen and as far away from the script as possible (if there was ever any doubt that Doctor Who is quintessentially English, this sort of Darcy-esque reserve ought to assuage it in a double heartbeat), there was an occasional tendency to write out a companion by marrying them off. The Doctor effectively acts as a chaperone for these young and unworldly ladies (and is the butt of several jokes to this effect in assorted Big Finish productions) and releases them into the world once they have blossomed. Jo Grant discovers the joy of mushrooms before carrying on up the Amazon. Susan is cruelly abandoned in post-apocalyptic London resigned to a life of ash-grey skies and constantly watching her back every time she’s walking by the river. The Fourth Doctor becomes a literal Henry Higgins to Leela’s Eliza Doolittle: had Douglas Adams been script editing before the end of season 16 it’s a safe bet that The Invasion of Time would have featured the Doctor asking “Leela, where the devil are my slippers?”, presumably just after banging his head on the TARDIS console.

The problem with Leela’s departure is that you simply don’t see it coming. They tried. God knows they did. There is nothing in the script to indicate that Leela’s fallen for Andred, and Jameson and Tranchell had to be content with including as many subtle inferences as you can feasibly cram into an excessively padded story. On the other hand, it’s better than having your head shaved and marrying Brian Blessed. (Those of you who know your DVD extras will be aware that the Mindwarp documentary goes into this in some detail, even going so far as to record Nicola Bryant’s horrified reaction upon seeing the scene for the very first time. Everyone interviewed is suitably scathing about the whole affair, with the notable exception of Brian Blessed. It’s not rocket science.)

Other changes are far more subtle, and manifest visually. Rose’s dress sense grows steadily more confident (and rather less chavvy) as her own confidence increases – it’s a little like playing Grand Theft Auto IV – while the influence of the Fourth Doctor on Sarah Jane manifests in a series of increasingly outlandish outfits, culminating in the infamous dungarees. Nyssa begins her time in the TARDIS as a prim and pampered princess, and ends it when she volunteers to help at a leper colony, virtually stripping to her underwear in the process. Clothes may not make the man, but outfits are telling, although I think we can all agree that the Snakedance ensemble was probably a mistake.

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Then there’s Turlough, who begins as an obnoxious, treacherous and cowardly public schoolboy – one of the few companions to openly attempt suicide – and who departs as a slightly less obnoxious, marginally less treacherous and still basically cowardly former political prisoner. Perhaps the real joy behind Turlough is how much he doesn’t change, rather than how he does: it would have been comparatively simple to turn him into an all-singing, all-dancing hero, much like they did with the titular Beast in Disney’s 1991 magnum opus, but it’s to the credit of Saward and Turner that they realised Turlough was far more interesting as a character we could never quite trust, and thus it’s a quality he retains, to the end of his final story. (The eagle-eyed among you will note that there are no references to Big Finish in this article: this was quite deliberate, because otherwise we’re all going to get very confused.)

Sometimes change is a conscious decision. There are many in-universe explanations for the apparently spontaneous regeneration of Romana at the beginning of Destiny of the Daleks, but the one I like best is that Romana had realised that it was necessary to match the Doctor’s eccentricity somewhat, which goes a long way to explain the sudden spark between them. That’s not to do Mary Tamm a disservice – the first Romana is marvellous, particularly in Androids of Tara – but if anything the character evolves into someone who is in many far more like Baker’s Doctor. (In a parallel universe somewhere there is a version of Doctor Who where this happens while Colin Baker is in the TARDIS, which is an intriguing, if somewhat disturbing concept.)

It’s a shame it all goes so horribly wrong for Donna in Journey’s End. It is not enough that she can defeat the Daleks on her own: she requires the Doctor’s intelligence in order to do so. I probably have enough ammunition to make a point about male dominance here (the whole scene is somewhat reminiscent of the Barbie MCP debacle) but what irritates me about the tedious Doctor-Donna hybrid is that it places the companion once more at the centre of the universe; a needless, headline-grabbing, meme-generating piece of TV hokum. I’m not denying that the role of the sidekick has expanded rather from the traditional screaming “Doctor, what’s going on?” archetype, but this really is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

On the plus side, Donna isn’t Amy or Clara: two characters ruined by the sort of obnoxious smugness that made you wonder what you saw in them in the first place. Amy is horrible to her husband. Clara’s time as a many splintered thing turned her into a pathological liar. Eventually she becomes increasingly reckless, learns the folly of her actions the hard way – and is promptly granted immortality, thus learning nothing. Character development should always drive plot: both Clara and Amy are needlessly changed in order to explore different facets of the Doctor, facets that are only explored after they are written out.

Essentially there is a biting point for Who: development that doesn’t hinder narrative and that is not there because the writer apparently ran out of things to do (a clear sign that a character has run its natural course and should be granted a dignified exit). Until her last episode, Donna is it. She never quite stops being the bolshy (and feisty. Mustn’t forget feisty) temp from Chiswick – god knows there are enough typing references in series four – but she’s quieter and considered and, in her strongest stories, terrific fun to watch, achieving a chemistry with the Tenth Doctor that no other companion has quite managed to match. Or as Wilf puts it, “she was better with you” – just as Tennant, in turn, was better with her, and we love them both for it. Six years after he left I still question the validity of some of Davies’ production decisions, but on this occasion he proved he was more switched on than we were. Who knew that the Runaway Bride could have such a large part of fandom eating out of her hand?