‘Am I ever going to see you again?’ As much as The Christmas Invasion, this feels like another Day One for the series, continuing it beyond the end of Rose’s story. When Ian and Barbara, the only real classic series analogues for Rose, left the audience had already had six months to get used to the Doctor and Vicki team. Wisely, I think, RTD judges that the new series’ audience isn’t likely to take kindly to the Doctor instantly getting over Rose and picking up with a new woman (although I suspect he also underestimated their ability to move on – Martha’s plot feels like it’s undermined by the fear of replacing Rose). Donna is the result, conceived as a one-off comedy double-act for the Christmas episode to help the Doctor through his post-Doomsday grief, and get the audience ready for the real replacement.
In which case it’s thoroughly apt that this should begin in the same way as Rose and The Christmas Invasion, with a pan from the Moon’s orbit right down into the streets of London before we replay the end of the previous episode from Donna’s perspective, as she’s kidnapped from the altar and teleported inside the TARDIS. These early scenes are excellent, played as screwball with the Doctor both fascinated and terrified by this impossible woman who’s appeared inside the Ship, peering round the central column to inspect her and reacting badly to her questions about the previous woman on board.
The whole opening sequence is brilliant, from Donna’s appearance in the TARDIS, arriving in London on Christmas Eve, Donna’s attempts to get to the church on time while the Doctor desperately tries to get cash, to the magnificent sequence of the TARDIS pursuing a taxi down the Westway to rescue Donna from a robot Santa. It’s probably the funniest, most spectacular sequence in the show to date, and makes the first third a complete success.
The middle of the episode slows the pace, beginning with the great scene on top of a high rise, with the Doctor draping his jacket over the shoulders of the disconsolate Donna. This provides most of the necessary backstory in another funny sequence of Donna’s memory of the rough wooing of Lance contrasting with flashbacks to the reality. The wedding reception sequence is perhaps a bit of filler (there might have been a quicker way for Donna to get Lance to meet her at HC Clements, and the whole bio-dampening ring is a bit of a waste of time), but it’s a chance for RTD to introduce another of his trademark monster mothers (Sylvia makes Jackie look like a pussycat), the infamous Nerys, and a neat little moment of the Doctor haunted by a blonde woman who reminds him of Rose. We didn’t really need more killer Christmas decorations, but it works.
Then the last part of the episode introduces the impressively immense monster behind it all, with Lance outed as a rat, and an Image of the Fendahl style quick trip in the TARDIS to fill in the blanks of what the Racnoss Empress has hidden in the centre of the Earth. Given the finale mostly plays out in the same sort of warehouse as the Nestene’s lair or Van Statten’s bunker, this helps give a sense of scale to the story that might have otherwise been lacking, as does the first new series mention of Gallifrey. The Doctor’s pitiless extermination of the Racnoss amid fire and flood finally makes true his promise of ‘no second chances’, and leads to a final scene where Donna can justifiably suggest he’s as frightening as he is fantastic.
Depending on the day of the week, I’m inclined to rate this above The Christmas Invasion. It’s very funny, and Tennant and Tate’s partnership is immediately brilliant, nailing in an episode the kind of 1930s screwball partnership Sixie and Peri swung for and missed, and the eighth Doctor and Grace could have had in a series. For me, it’s the episode where Tennant really lands on his Doctor: grinning slightly madly, marked by tragedy and with the undercurrent of danger that seemed like a lot of hot air back in School Reunion. It also lays a lot of groundwork for the forthcoming third series, with a mention of Mr Saxon, and the Doctor declaring human is ‘optional’ for him in a way we don’t really understand until Human Nature.
The downsides: it has the slight feel of a standard 45-minute episode (very enjoyably) stretched to fill the time available; the Huon particle explanation seems more half-bothered than usual, and the Racnoss Empress is a great design but her general immobility highlights the lack of a budget for a sequence of her crawling, like Shelob, at horrific speed through a funnel web.
Coming Soon: Smith and Jones
Next Time: Invasion of the Bane