By Sparky_Buzzsaw 8 Comments
Welcome, one and all, to the second part of my Doctor Who bloganza. Yesterday, I talked a little bit about the Doctor's return to television and his first companion, Rose Tyler. Today's blog is going to cover his second and third modern companions, Freema Agyeman's Martha Jones and Catherine Tate's Donna Noble. It should be noted that while Martha Jones would join the cast full-time first, Donna Noble would make an earlier appearance between the second and third seasons for a Christmas special, making her technically the second companion to... you know what? I don't particularly care. I'm calling Martha Jones the Doctor's second companion and Donna Noble the third. If you have a problem with that, know that I understand the technicalities and don't give a hoot.
The Doctor's companions tend to serve multiple roles, often all at the same time. They can be love interests, friends, or allies, but most of all, they have existed in the modern series to be his anchor and often his conscience. Rose Tyler served as both a love interest and as a mender of his broken spirit after he destroyed two entire races of beings, including his own. Both Martha Jones and Donna Noble served very specific roles for David Tennant's Doctor, with varying degrees of success.
We're first introduced to Martha Jones after the Doctor has left behind Rose Tyler in an alternate universe and the events of the horrible Christmas special that followed (more on that in Donna Noble's section). She's a nurse, studying to be a doctor, who encounters the Doctor first in the street and then in the hospital in which she works. This episode, Smith and Jones, does its job functionally well, setting up Martha Jones as a family woman, exasperated by her siblings and parents, but with strong ties to them nonetheless. It also sets up her infatuation with the Doctor, as at one point he kisses her firmly to transfer some of his DNA in order to fool an alien race. Her infatuation is, of course, one-sided, as the Doctor is still grieving over Rose and hardly seems to notice Martha until she finally asserts herself at the end of their run.
Unfortunately, that's about as much character development as we get with Martha Jones. She serves primarily as a rebound companion for the lost Rose Tyler, although being black, the character's story arcs also allow for the possibility to explore racial issues of the past, present, and future. Unfortunately, Doctor Who, being still a family show (more or less), never quite takes advantage of those opportunities, instead opting to display the past with rose-colored glasses, showing people of color in prominent roles in society and blatantly disregarding the travesties and moral crimes of the past (as seen in the earliest parts of the tepid Shakespeare Code). It's meant in earnest, meaning to portray equality in all people, but it genuinely feels like it's trivializing centuries of racism and equality issues by glossing over the topic.
But Doctor Who is meant for entertainment, and so we should turn to a study of whether or not the Martha Jones chapter of the Doctor Who series entertains. Unfortunately, while Freema Agyeman's performance is fine, her character just never quite sparks. As mentioned, her character development peters out, leaving her as a lovestruck companion who will never see her love returned, as the Doctor by and large ignores her feelings. There could have been some room to play with this, perhaps with some resentment and jealousy on Martha's part, but again, it never goes anywhere, leading to a limp resolution of her character and several halfhearted attempts to give her a happy ending in future episodes.
It's sort of fitting then that she would ultimately wind up with Rose Tyler's ex-boyfriend Mickey of all people. Both characters loved someone they couldn't have, were ultimately wasted by the show's writers, and never amounted to more than footnotes in the Doctor's long history of companions. Given just a bit more effort and balls by the producers, Martha Jones could have really shined as an entertaining character as well as serving as a glimpse into history's uglier side and our triumphs over racism and bigotry. Instead, she was, at best, a way station for the Doctor. Sad.
That said, Freema Agyeman's performance is terrific, given what little room she has to explore the role. Her run features some of the better one-off episodes in the whole of the series, and one of the best mid-season two-parters in Human Nature, in which the Doctor wipes his own mind and creates a human backstory for himself in order to hide from a warmongering family of aliens. The two-parter is notable mostly for Tennant's performance, but Agyeman's heartache over watching the Doctor fall in love with someone else is palpable, and she plays the role perfectly. Also of note are The Lazarus Experiment, where Martha's love and frustration with her family is put on full display alongside a great Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde villain and the two-parter The Sound of Drums and Last of the Time Lords, which puts Martha front and center as she finally comes into her own. Sound of Drums and Last of the Time Lords also features the greatest modern Who villain to date in David Simm's The Master. The episodes also feature a thinly veiled story about slavery and rising up against oppression, easily the best sociopolitical episodes of the modern Who universe.
I dreaded writing this section. I can't bring myself to care for the characterization of Donna Noble, but her episodes are deeply critical parts of the Doctor Who lore, and feature some of the best writing of the series to date.
Much of my irritation with the character can best be summed up by her introduction in the stunningly dreadful The Runaway Bride. Technically, her character made her first appearance in the last moments of the second season, but she wouldn't get to know who she was until that Christmas special. Donna Noble is introduced as a screeching, loudmouthed, braying jackass of a character, barely able to speak a sentence without shrieking or shouting. It really, really didn't help matters much that the villain, some sort of arachnid thing looking to give birth to thousands of little spiderlings, was even more brash and annoying than Donna Noble, not so much acting as just bellowing lines and making funny faces at the camera.
Thankfully, the writers took a sabbatical from Donna Noble for an entire season, opting instead to make Martha Jones the Doctor's full-time companion first. It was a smart move, because had they continued with Donna in that direction, I'd have quit on the show. I've no question of that in my mind.
When Donna Noble returned for the surprisingly smart and funny Partners in Crime, it became evident we were stuck with her, even if just for the short term. This is where the show really lost me the first time through, when I became more of a sporadic watcher than the Doctor Who binging maniac I am today. Donna Noble became sort of an emotionally polar character, alternating from terrific moments of seriousness and occasional spats of wit to a shrieking, breathless, buffonish caricature. The wildly uneven characterization is, in part, due to Catherine Tate's own comedic background, but having watched her run on The Office, I know she's better than Donna Noble.
It's too bad that the more dramatic moments are outshadowed by Tate's annoyingly aggressive loudmouthedness. The character is honestly well-written and deserves applause for her outstanding and incredibly sad conclusion (well, sort of). While the majority of her one-off episodes can be written off, she has some outstanding moments and particular episodes, easily among the series' best. Her overarching story plot is crucial to the Who universe, and she winds up actually feeling like an important character in the great scheme of things as opposed to a trivial one, like Martha Jones. The idea that her fate has been decided, that every psychic or knowledgeable person knows she's coming to a tragic end, it transcends the awkward half of the characterization and focuses the attention of the viewer on the dramatic side of things, which is where Tate shines.
Ultimately, I guess you could say that Donna Noble herself served mostly as a catalyst to get the Doctor and Rose Tyler back together, but doing so dismisses what's great and awful about her character. Take, for example, The Fires of Pompeii. This would have been a thoroughly awful episode of Doctor Who, featuring absurdly overacting psychics (including, oddly enough, Karen Gillen, who would portray a later Whopanion) and a dreadful, overly "oh my God!" performance from Tate for most of the first two acts. But then... then things get serious. The episode's villains are a race of fire-rock creatures stranded on Earth and sheltering under Vesuvius. The Doctor and Donna manage to make it to the center of the creatures' lair, where they realize, in one of the series' most haunting moments, that the creatures are actually hatling Vesuvius from erupting, but will take over the entire planet. Therefore, the Doctor and Donna must choose to blow up Vesuvius, causing the destruction of Pompeii and costing tens of thousands of people their lives at the expense of saving the world. The Doctor lays his hand on the trigger, and Donna Noble, in easily her most powerful moment, lays her hand on top of his and pushes down. Their anguish, their choice, and the consequences thereafter define Donna Noble as being much more than the awful, screeching thing of the first half of the episode.
It's such a shame, then, that the breathless, loud side of Donna Noble is the one we're stuck with for the bulk of the run, because honestly, she had a chance to become the greatest companion of the Doctor in the modern era. But there's only so much bellowing I can take, and eventually, it becomes immensely gratifying to see the Doctor finally leave her behind with her family.
For the best Donna Noble moments, you'd have to pick and choose very carefully among the bulk of her episodes, and even then, I'd recommend you keep the mute button handy. For the best overall (and evenly keeled) Donna Noble episodes, check out Planet of the Ood, Silence in the Library, and Forest of the Dead. All three are Doctor Who classics. And despite its Tate-isms, I'm also fond of Turn Left, an episode that barely even features the Doctor at all, as Donna experiences what life would have been like if she hadn't met the Doctor. It's a strong character study, if not exactly the most entertaining of episodes.
Special Companion - Wilfred Mott
I hemmed and hawed about including Wilfred under Donna's section, as he's not actually a true companion to the Doctor, but rather a recurring character throughout Donna Noble's arc. He's Donna's grandfather, a simple man who dreams of the stars and loves his granddaughter dearly, often acting as a buffer between Donna and her vicious mother.
For reasons I don't want to spoil here, it becomes clear that Wilfred is instrumental in the Tenth Doctor's fate, as Tennant's Doctor continues to bump into him, even without Donna Noble around (as seen in the Titanic Christmas episode and Tennant's sendoff episode The End of Time).
I bring up Wilfred because of the tremendous performance of Bernard Cribbins, particularly when it came to the End of Time episodes. There's a small scene between Cribbins and Tennant in a diner, wherein they discuss the Doctor's impending death and Donna Noble's lost memories that stands as the best moment in the entire show. The dialogue between Cribbins and Tennant is heartbreaking and best shown, not told. Tennant breaking down is the definition of the Doctor, his sadness and exhaustion showing through the cracks in the Doctor's facade. Check it out for yourself, though be warned, it does contain some pretty major spoilers for Donna:
Wilfred becomes absolutely crucial to the emotional sendoff of David Tennant as the Doctor, and it couldn't have worked without such a powerhouse of an actor behind it. The last twenty minutes' of Tennant's run as the Doctor owes as much to Cribbins' excellent work as it does to Tennant's own skills as an actor. It's a beautiful swan song, full of tragedy, sorrow, and a little bit of redemption for the darker turns the Doctor had taken.
And that's about it for today. Tomorrow, we'll delve into some shaky territory as I talk about the good and bad of Amy Pond and Rory, the Doctor's next two companions. I'm going to need to gauge the length of that blog before I decide, but it might also include a bit on River Song, the eleventh Doctor's love interest and one of the serie's best characters. See you then.