“The Runaway Bride” (season 3, Christmas special; originally aired 12/25/2006)
“Roboforms are not necessary. My children may feast on Martian flesh.” “Oh, but I’m not from Mars.” “Then where?” “My home planet is far away and long since gone. But its name lives on: Gallifrey!”
The climax of “The Runaway Bride” features the Doctor using what looks suspiciously like an Xbox controller to detonate some flying Christmas baubles and flood a hole that goes all the way to the center of the Earth, thereby foiling the plans of a colossal, wisecracking spider-woman. At the risk of getting overly technical here, that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen. But what’s really crazy about that scene is that, unlike so many other aspects of “The Runaway Bride,” it isn’t played for laughs. David Tennant has never looked more deadly serious than he does in that scene, and it’s proof of his considerable talent that he—with some crucial assistance from Catherine Tate—actually pulls off that moment. “The Runaway Bride” exults in the fact that the world of Doctor Who is a wondrous, ridiculous, even childish place, and all that somehow doesn’t contradict the fact that the Doctor constantly faces deadly threats and world-altering choices. With that climax, Russell T. Davies is out to prove that the Doctor is a dangerous, alien figure; the Doctor may be magic, but it’s a capricious, unknowable kind of magic. Indeed, so many of the creative decisions that shape this episode—the physical comedy, the jaunty score, the over-the-top acting, the ridiculous plots twists and turns—are there to lull the audience into a false sense of security. At this moment of grief and unreasoning sadness, the Doctor might like to think that his world can be a big, silly cartoon, but the darker truth is always lurking underneath.
When I embarked upon these reviews of new Doctor Who’s first three seasons, I’ll admit that “The Runaway Bride” was the episode I was least looking forward to revisiting. It’s the one episode from this period that I viscerally hated the first time I saw it; if you had asked the me of 2006 to review this one, I suspect this episode might well have gotten an “F.” As you can tell by the grade, I’ve warmed to this episode. Admittedly, I’m not entirely won over, as there are still far too many pieces of this special that don’t work. Everything about the Empress of the Racnoss is misjudged, starting with a monster design that makes it a little too obvious where the person ends and the spider-like pincers begin. Sarah Parish doesn’t really have that many options when it comes to delivering the Empress’ ludicrous one-liners, but she’s never able to suggest the character is anything more than a pantomime villain. “Pantomime” feels like the appropriate term, as so much of “The Runaway Bride”—including the constant attempts to incorporate Christmas-themed imagery—feels like Doctor Who made expressly, if not exclusively, for children.
Indeed, the TARDIS car chase sequence is something that Russell T. Davies had wanted to see in Doctor Who since he was a boy, and it’s likely not a coincidence that two children are in the car ahead of the taxi, soundlessly cheering on the Doctor and Donna. The sequence was originally intended for “School Reunion”—and really, what better way could there have been to pay homage to Sarah Jane Smith and her era than with a gratuitous car chase?—and it really is one of the more visually impressive sequences of the Davies era. It’s dumb fun, but it’s precisely the sort of dumb fun that Doctor Who should occasionally indulge in, especially at Christmastime. Still, it’s a bit weird that the production team was so much less successful with some of the later stunts; the framing of Donna swinging through the Racnoss chamber is particularly underwhelming, and the episode has trouble depicting the Empress’ actions when it is so dependent on budget-saving close-up shots.
As for Donna, the first 15 minutes in particular are hard to take, as Catherine Tate’s initial range spans from angrily loud to furiously loud. She gets a lot better over the course of the special, but Tate is grating in the early going. The character’s brashness right at the end of “Doomsday” served a particular narrative purpose, as it snapped the Doctor out of his grief and forced him to confront the bizarre matter at hand. “The Runaway Bride” doesn’t really find a way for Donna to downshift from that heightened emotional state until the aftermath of the big car chase. One factor I missed back on Christmas Day 2006 was that this is supposed to be Donna’s wedding day, which the episode points to as part of the reason that she’s so overbearing early on; as the Doctor says, there’s a chemical war going on inside Donna, even before the addition of the Huon particles.
Even so, the story attempts to present Donna both as companion material and as comic relief, and it doesn’t always succeed in its attempt to split the difference. Donna is essentially the halfway point between Rose and Jackie Tyler, plus a solid helping of the kind of high-decibel character work Tate had previously brought to her eponymous sketch show. Much like “Love And Monsters,” this episode is an insane tonal mismatch, and, much like his treatment of the LINDA members in that earlier episode, Davies goes back and forth on whether the audience should treat Donna as a real character or just considered her the butt of the joke. The gags about her lack of intelligence, her bossiness, and her general undesirability can come across as mean-spirited, and I’m not totally convinced that all the Doctor’s cracks at Donna’s expense are balanced out by her slapping him when he gets out of line. A more successful attempt to reveal Donna’s humanity comes after Lance so cruelly betrays her. The rest of the story keeps chugging along as the bonkers tale of a giant spider, her human consort, and the non-Martian who has pledged to foil their nefarious plans, but Donna is too busy being heartbroken to notice.
Indeed, what makes “The Runaway Bride” significantly better than I remember is that, as silly as it so often is, the story ultimately remembers that its characters should take these events seriously. Davies sets up a tension between the Doctor’s insistence on looking at the big picture and Donna’s almost pathological inability to look beyond the little meaningless events. Both perspectives have their drawbacks—the Doctor brushes off Donna’s demand that he help the wounded more brusquely than he needs to, while Donna’s worldview is so limited that she somehow managed to miss multiple alien invasions—but together they add up to Doctor Who’s guiding ethos. As the Doctor observes while looking out on the formation of the Earth, humans need their pointless little milestones to bring meaning to their lives, and by extension, the entire cosmos. It’s telling that the Doctor mentions weddings and Christmas and calendars; he may be a Time Lord, but it’s humans like Donna who bring meaning to the time that he is a lord of.
Some of my earlier negative reaction to this episode, I suppose, was wrapped up in the old-school fan impulse that Rose had left the show, so why wasn’t the Doctor just moving on like he had after the exits of all his previous companions? That issue is worth circling back to in later stories—indeed, I’ll say right now that we’re going to be dealing with that matter plenty throughout the third season—but the several subsequent seasons of new Doctor Who and their heightened focus on individual companions have helped soften my opinion. Apart from the odd false note here or there, “The Runaway Bride” is largely successful in helping the Doctor work through his grief over Rose. Whatever my misgivings eight years ago, it’s entirely reasonable that the Doctor would need time to work through that loss, and that he would need the mystery of Donna—and, more to the point, Donna herself—to snap him out of his sadness. I remain unmoved when the Doctor finally mentions Rose by name at the end of the episode—although I’m exactly the sort of fan who always gets chills when the Doctor at last mentions his home planet, hence the choice of quote up top—but this story does a satisfactory job showing how the Doctor could prepare himself to move on from Rose.
Indeed, that’s really Donna’s most crucial narrative function in “The Runaway Bride.” By refusing the Doctor’s invitation to travel with him, she preserves Rose’s special status as a human who can handle both the wonder and the terror of traveling with the Doctor, but she also paves the way for the next companion. At the end of “Doomsday,” the holographic Doctor told his lost companion that he would just go on traveling in the TARDIS, and a weeping Rose could only respond “On your own?” before declaring her love for him. She couldn’t imagine the Doctor finding someone new to travel with, and it wouldn’t have been fair to her character to make her tell the Doctor to move on. By forcing Donna into the Doctor’s life and them letting them build a relationship, Doctor Who creates a character who can stand in for Rose and do what she could never do: Donna grant the Doctor permission to find someone else, because he needs a human around to keep him grounded. “The Runaway Bride” takes a sometimes entertaining, sometimes maddening path to that lesson, but it does make clear the fact that the Doctor needs a companion. Now it’s just a question of finding the right one.
- I remember being weirdly annoyed when this episode first aired by the suggestion that the Earth only formed in the first place because of the Racnoss’ interference. My goodness, there really is nothing quite so exquisitely joyless as an 18-year-old classic Doctor Who fan watching a new series episode. Needless to say, I’m no longer all that bothered by this part of the story, though I’ll admit I do still need to rationalize this aspect by assuming that the Earth still would have formed eventually, even if the Racnoss weren’t there to jumpstart the process.
- This Week In Mythos: The Doctor only took two episodes of the revived Doctor Who to reveal his species, but it took just over two seasons for him to name his home planet. In fairness, both of those marks are a lot faster than his records on the old series, as he didn’t name the Time Lords until season six’s “The War Games” and he didn’t mention “Gallifrey” until the 11th season’s “The Time Warrior.” Whatever my other issues with “The Runaway Bride,” the way it reintroduces the name of the Doctor’s planet is pitch-perfect. The constant, erroneous references to the Doctor as a Martian are a nifty bit of setup, and the ultimate use of “Gallifrey” is specifically positioned for maximum dramatic impact. It was worth the wait, basically.
- At the risk of rather old, very general spoilers, this isn’t the last we see of Donna. I considered devoting part of this review to a look ahead at the companion that Donna became, but I’m going to hold off on that for the time being. There’s a later review I’ll be doing that should provide a good opportunity to talk some more about Donna, so I’ll wait for that.
“Smith And Jones” (season 3, episode 1; originally aired 3/31/2007)
“Oh, my god. You can travel in time. But hold on. If you could see me this morning, why didn’t you tell me not to go in to work? “Crossing into established events is strictly forbidden. Except for cheap tricks.”
In the first two seasons of the revived Doctor Who, we never really saw the Doctor travel alone. Yes, he was without a companion at the beginning of “Rose,” but that episode was told so completely from its title character’s perspective that it was difficult to get a sense of how the Doctor would act when Rose wasn’t around. There were sequences in subsequent episodes where the Doctor went off on a little solo adventuring—his investigations in “Aliens Of London,” his search for Nancy in “The Empty Child,” and his fight against the Wire in “The Idiot’s Lantern,” to name three such examples—but the clearest precedent for the Doctor’s behavior in “The Runaway Bride” and “Smith And Jones” is in “Bad Wolf”/“The Parting Of The Ways,” where the Doctor almost immediately fashions a prospective companion out of Lynda (with a “y”). That interaction revealed just how much the Doctor craves company and how naturally he moves to make new friends. All that remains true even when the Doctor insists that he wants to be alone. “Smith And Jones” ably proves just how good the Doctor and Martha Jones can be when working together as a team. Yet the Doctor hesitates to bring her into his world, explicitly promising just one trip in the TARDIS.
The episode makes no secret of why the Doctor is wary of Martha, as he awkwardly tries to convince her—and, more to the point, himself—that she is not being brought aboard to replace Rose, but thankfully that element is largely absent throughout the bulk of the episode. There’s no indication how much time has passed between “The Runaway Bride” and this episode; it’s highly unlikely that the Doctor has, say, taken on some unseen companion in the interim, but it’s certainly possible he’s had several adventures since the TARDIS blasted off outside Donna’s house. The Doctor makes a real point here that he had no ulterior motives in coming to the hospital, that he was just passing through and not looking for trouble. That line is primarily a brief window into the Doctor’s eternally, madly optimistic mindset. It’s a reminder that he’s brilliant at just wandering into deadly danger, even if he refuses to admit it; Donna was right when she said the Doctor’s life was always this dangerous, despite his protests.
But it’s also a reminder that the Doctor did not come to Royal Hope Hospital looking for a new companion, and that in turns means that Martha earns her place on the TARDIS entirely on her own merits. The opening scene establishes Martha as the peacekeeper for her fractured family; there’s far less sense of the Jones clan here than there was of Jackie and Mickey in “Rose,” but Martha’s parents and siblings ably fulfill the purpose that the narrative requires of them. Their mundane squabbling gives Martha something to rise above, which makes her appear just that bit more capable and impressive than the average human, and their big, deeply pointless fight at Leo’s birthday helps give Martha the impetus to run away for a little while by accepting the Doctor’s invitation. Yes, the Doctor uses the same line about the TARDIS being a time machine that he used on Rose, so Martha likely assumes she will be able to return home without anyone having missed her, but it’s clear that she’s ready to get away for a while. That’s really the ideal companion: Someone who is both bold enough to reach for the stars and unattached enough to actually want to go.
Martha doesn’t make it all the way to the stars in “Smith And Jones,” but she’s suitably impressed by the trip to the Moon. Her initial reaction—“We’re on the bloody Moon!”—conveys a wonderfully human sense of disbelief; she is understandably shocked by this turn of events, but she never denies the impossible yet obvious fact staring her in the face. That willingness to take the story’s events as they come, even if it requires expanding the scope of what she considers possible, is a crucial reason why she shows such potential as a companion, and that’s on display when the Doctor first meets her—though not the other way around, given their temporally jumbled interactions—as Martha is intrigued but not freaked out by the Doctor’s two hearts. Admittedly, it’s a bit odd that Martha never mentions that again as she’s processing the Doctor’s claim that he’s an alien, though that silence does clear the way for the real eventual callback, as Martha realizes she has to modify her CPR technique to revive the seemingly dead Doctor.
In any event, the other factor that makes Martha such a strong prospective companion is her ability to ask the right questions. Going right back to the William Hartnell era, the primary role of the companion on Doctor Who has always been to feed the Doctor a steady stream of exposition-minded questions that help him explain the plot. That narrative function can appear divorced from characterization—indeed, that tendency to ask plot-centric questions is often used as a shorthand proof of the underwritten status of classic series companions—but one of the cleverer innovations of new Doctor Who is the explicit suggestion that a companion’s proclivity for asking questions is the sign of a rare, inquisitive mind. “The Runaway Bride” poked some fun at Donna by having her ask questions about issues that had already been explained, but Martha consistently zeroes in on the most pertinent matters at hand, to the point that her presence is occasionally the only thing keeping the oft-rambling Doctor focused on the immediate threat. Indeed, the Doctor generally appears to have grown a bit more eccentric in the absence of any companion—I mean, he never used to go around expelling roentgen radiation through his foot and then gallivanting off barefoot—and some of his rougher edges have become unsmoothed. For instance, the Doctor is rather harsh in his rejection of Swales, who is too overcome by terror to speculate intelligently on just why the hospital still has air; that’s the kind of rudeness that Rose tended to curb, or at least she forced the Doctor to admit he was being a jerk.
Not unlike “Rose,” the last companion-introducing episode, “Smith And Jones” has a largely perfunctory plot. The Plasmavore Florence Finnegan is your standard new Doctor Who villain, a slightly underwritten character who derives sadistic glee from her crimes. There’s nothing revelatory about Mrs. Finnegan, but after a villain like the Empress of the Racnoss, I’ll gladly take a villain who is merely a bit bland; besides, Anne Reid, who in 2007 also played Leslie Tiller in Hot Fuzz, has a lot of fun in the role, nicely balancing the façade of a harmless old lady with the underlying reality of a ruthless, hardened criminal. The more inspired element of “Smith And Jones” is the Judoon, one of the first alien races on the new Doctor Who that does not readily fit into either the “good” or the “bad” category, but they are very definitely so, so dumb.
These interstellar mercenaries represent a fascinating enough concept that they could well have supported a more detailed exploration than what they get “Smith And Jones,” but the episode does at least convey the inherent tension between their rigid adherence to proper procedure—one can only imagine what Martha ends up doing with that compensation—and their willingness to summarily execute anyone who gets in their way. The presence of the Judoon livens up what would otherwise have been a fairly rote search for a stranded, malevolent alien, and that’s really all this episode requires of the creatures. After all, “Smith And Jones” has a new TARDIS team to introduce, even if the Doctor isn’t entirely convinced just yet.
- I haven’t yet mentioned an aspect of Martha Jones that attracted so much attention when Freema Agyeman was first cast back in 2007: Martha is Doctor Who’s first black companion. Of course, that oft-cited fact is obviously untrue, as Mickey was a companion just last year. Still, Martha is the first non-white primary companion—a distinction that really only has to be made with new series companions—in the show’s history. The reason I didn’t mention it in the main body of the review is that, while the significance of such representation definitely shouldn’t be ignored, “Smith And Jones” never calls attention to her skin color, as there’s really no obvious reason why a 2007-set episode should. Subsequent episodes do acknowledge how Martha’s race can be more of a factor as the Doctor takes her back into history, so I’ll try to have something more worthwhile to say on the subject when we get to those episodes.
- I know Russell T. Davies never met a supporting character he couldn’t kill, but the fate of Mr. Stoker seems particularly cruel. Having one’s blood sucked out by Mrs. Finnegan is bad enough in isolation, but it’s so much more heartbreaking to first have to hear Mr. Stoker talk about the daughter that he will never see again. It just seems mean to prove all his worst fears correct quite so quickly.
- Another interesting but largely undeveloped element is Oliver Morgenstern’s status as a Judoon collaborator. The Doctor is occupied elsewhere, so the episode never really builds any coherent themes out of Oliver’s decision; instead, we ultimately learn that the character’s primary significance is in furthering the latest arc phrase, “Mr. Saxon.”
- The quote that opens this “Smith And Jones” review is one of several lines that appears to quite consciously echo things that the Doctor said to Donna in “The Runaway Bride.” I’m not totally sure what, if anything, Davies was going for with these little moments of synchronicity, but I might suggest that “Smith And Jones” ends up being a bit of a redo for the Doctor, a second attempt to prove his own worthiness to a potential companion.
- “I had a cousin. Adeola. She worked at Canary Wharf. She never came home.” You know, I understand that a lot of fans want some explanation as to why someone identical to Martha Jones appeared in “Army Of Ghosts,” but I have to admit that I’ve never understood this particular impulse. I mean, the reason that Adeola looks like Martha is that they’re both played by Freema Agyeman, and I don’t really think anything is gained by jamming in an in-universe explanation—identical cousins!—for the resemblance. Fine, fine, it’s possible that I’m just being grumpy.
Next week: The Doctor takes Martha into the past with “The Shakespeare Code” and into the far, far future with “Gridlock.”