I’m getting married today!
And so today we have the customary Doctor Who review, albeit not The Return of Doctor Mysterio – that’ll be up at some point tomorrow, or perhaps the day after. (Hopefully alongside The Husbands of River Song, which I unfortunately missed last year.)
No, we’ve here got The Runaway Bride, continuing with the ongoing retrospective of David Tennant’s era as the Doctor. I was quite determined to get this one posted today, simply because I’ve never missed an anniversary yet for these reviews, though I suspect I may end up cutting it rather fine with these ones into the next year. But we’ll see for now.
It’s hardly a new observation to note that, in this particular special, that Catherine Tate as Donna is representing the casual audience – most immediately, she’s the audience identification figure to whom everything is explained, but of course there’s also the fact that she’s missed all the other episodes of Doctor Who. Hungover during the last Christmas special, in Spain during the season finale, so on, so forth. Of course, that’s also interesting though is that Catherine Tate was cast in this role; while she’s arguably now known more for Doctor Who and Shakespeare (I recognise this is heavily debatable), at the time of The Runaway Bride, she’d recently finished starring in the third season of The Catherine Tate Show. This is Doctor Who colliding with another icon of popular culture…
… and, actually, being weirdly unrelenting in how firmly it makes the case for Doctor Who. Of course, going into it, I was well aware that Donna was representative of the general audience here – so I was expecting the episode to be far more in that vein. It’s not though, is it? A lot of it is reliant upon knowledge of previous episodes – or, at least, if not reliant upon it, The Runaway Bride certainly assumes a certain knowledge. The Santa robots, for example, have very little explanation or set up; the Christmas trees are a direct callback to The Christmas Invasion; Torchwood plays a heavy role in the plot of the episode. There’s even the new series’ first reference to Gallifrey, for the older generation of anoraks.
And in general, that was just quite an interesting facet of the episode, to my mind. The Christmas special, intended for a mass audience and designed to have broad appeal, and yet it assumes the people watching are, by and large, Doctor Who fans. More than that: if they’re not, they should be! Understandable, given that the intention for this is perhaps also to attract more of an audience next year, but it’s really nice to see this episode making that statement of validity, and really reaffirming it across the entirety of its runtime.
Notable also is the characterisation of the Doctor; this is the episode in which Russell T Davies most overtly established that idea that he needs someone to travel with, which remained a prominent theme for the rest of his era, and arguably still until today. Consider, after all, the scene in Heaven Sent where the Twelfth Doctor declares he always needs an audience, and that recurring idea throughout Moffat’s tenure that ‘the Doctor’ is an ideal to live up to for the madman in the box. It’s a clever touchstone, and one that makes the character more interesting than if he were simply a paragon of virtue at all times.
Also worthy of comment, though, is Donna. I don’t think Catherine Tate gets enough credit for this episode, actually; received wisdom is always that she plays a very broadly comedic character here, essentially out of one of her sketch shows, and it was only during series four that Donna received any real depth.
Unarguably, the character was expanded during her later appearances – of course she would be, that’s only natural when one compares thirteen forty-five minute episodes with one hour long special. But it’s actually worth looking at the arc Donna undergoes in this episode, and remarking upon the quieter moments. Certainly, Tate does a good job of selling Donna’s grief after Lance’s betrayal, and it’s actually quite moving – I’d argue that it’s impactful because of the tonal shift, because it’s the first time we’re forced to engage with Donna as a character, rather than merely a caricature. It’s quite effective, and I think justifies a lot of the tonal shifts within the episodes; often that’s pointed to as a weakness, and while that’s fair, I think it’s paid off by these quiet moments.
In general, that’s one of the strengths of Russell T Davies’ writing; the ability to encapsulate broad, sweeping spectacle, with quieter and more human moments. It’s particularly well suited to a Christmas episode, where you need to encompass that breadth more than ever.
Beyond that? What stood out to me most was the Empress of the Racnoss. More than anything, I realise that she actually had a personality; there was a certain sardonic wit to her that I didn’t particularly remember. It’s a great performance from Sarah Parish which goes a long way towards creating a really fascinating monster; of course, the spectacular design work must be commended as well. Really, it’s an amazing piece of work. (Though the gift of hindsight is now making me wonder if RTD had a ticklist of animals that he worked his way through across his time on the show…!)
Admittedly, the episode isn’t perfect. Some of the direction does, I think, leave a little to be desired – there’s a lot of shaky camera movements combined with closeups, particularly during the scenes with the Racnoss, which obscures what’s happening onscreen. It’s a little bit irritating, and doesn’t seem to serve any particular purpose.
More notable – and your mileage may vary to what extent this is a problem, though – the episode isn’t exactly very Christmassy, is it? In contrast to prior and successive years, much of the Christmas elements of The Runaway Bride feel somewhat tacked on. This is an episode coincidentally set at Christmas, rather than a Christmas episode. It’s not the end of the world, but it is a bit of a bother for an episode which is meant to be the Christmas special. (Of course, I’d argue the same problem plagued The Return of Doctor Mysterio, so it’s clearly not always an easy one to overcome.)
Regardless: The Runaway Bride is a fun and entertaining episode of Doctor Who, which manages to not only further the Doctor’s character arc, but create a new character in Donna who already has enough potential to be one of the best companions of the revived series. It’s difficult to term any episode that manages that a failure.
And a very Merry Christmas, to all of you at home!