After last week's Donna-lite episode "Midnight," we get its opposite number. The Doctor barely makes an appearance in "Turn Left" but he's conspicuous by his absence in an episode that's essentially about his absence. Tricked into playing host to a reality-altering insect that looks like it's on loan from David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch adaptation, Donna spends the hour wandering a universe in which she and the Doctor never had their Christmas rendezvous and, consequently, the Doctor died. It's a variation on a Christmas favorite, It's A Wonderful Life, only with the total destruction of London in place of Zuzu's petals. Christmas comes early, and repeatedly, this year.
In a setup reminiscent of Sliding Doors, it all comes down to a single element of one day's commute. Specifically, the moment when Donna decided to stick with her temp job downtown, which eventually lead to her meeting with The Doctor in "The Runaway Bride" and saving his life. Good thing, too, since without the Doctor we get a hospital disappearing into space and returning with a lone survivor, a Titanic-shaped spaceship crashing into Buckingham Palace, and a bunch of fat-focused aliens deciding that the U.S. would make a better breeding ground than a devastated U.K. (I could have told them that would be the case even without the devastation.) We also get a Great Britain that descends into fascism as if it were just waiting for an excuse. Why is this fear so prevalent in British science fiction? Three's a trend and I can immediately click off V For Vendetta and Children Of Men as the other examples. And I've got It Happened Here out from Netflix. So there's another.
Saving the day, grimly, is none other than Billie Piper's erstwhile Rose, making a welcome return. She seems as focused and dark as she was when last we saw her those many seasons ago, although Piper sounds like she's picked up a bit of a lisp. (Or was that just me?) She helps the alternate universe Donna–let's just call her Bug Donna–make a decision to travel back in order to save the proper universe, even though it means her death. But is it just Bug Donna who dies or is Rose referring to some future sacrifice from Real Donna? (And no spoilers. We're taking these episodes at Yank pace even if a bunch of you are already in the U.K. or, like me, using Internet magic to see episodes not shredded by Sci Fi.)
This episode felt like a lot of table-setting for the big two-part finale to come, but I liked it. The references to past episodes, for one, were clever and had a point, even if that point about the interconnectedness of events is a bit familiar by now. But Catherine Tate's performance really made it work. I didn't care all that much for "The Runaway Bride" as an episode or her performance therein but Tate won me over right away this season. She's a different type of companion than we've seen before, at least in the modern era. Her relationship with the Doctor may not lend itself to the furious 'shipper speculation of Rose and Martha, but it's driven by a genuine, collegial love. Where Rose and Martha's partnerships seemed destined to burn out or explode into passion after a while, Donna could stick around for a while. (But before we leave 'shipper speculation behind: What was with that long pause when Donna asked Rose about the nature of her relationship with the Doctor?) She's not an actress of great subtlety, but here there's no mistaking Bug Donna for Real Donna. She's much less confident and much more petty. But in the end, she rises to the occasion, suggesting she had the potential for greatness in her all along.
So, yes, in the end, nothing happens in this episode, which pretty much takes us back where we started. But we learn a lot about Donna that she may not even know about herself. Now on to this year's version of the end of the world.