This post is about the Dr. Who two-parter, “End of Time,” in which David Tennant finishes his tenure as the 10th Doctor. If you care about watching the episodes before reading what happens DO NOT READ FURTHER.
So I’m gonna be upfront here and say I’m a relative newcomer to the whole Dr. Who universe. For the perspective of a lifelong fan, I defer to Hanna’s own reactions to “End of Time,” “i don’t want to go,” posted over at …fly over me, evil angel…; I’m not gonna try to do the same level of analysis she does there — but there’s something (or, more specifically, someone) I really need to write about here.
And that’s Donna.
More specifically, it’s about how Donna needed to die.
Let me explain.
Donna is, hands-down, my favorite Dr. Who new-series companion. Not to diss Rose and Martha (both of whom I like for their own sakes), but from the minute Donna Noble appeared on the Tardis in “Runaway Bride” and slapped David Tennant’s Doctor upside the head for, well, being himself, I was sold. Donna is to the Doctor what you’d get if you crossed an exasperated big sister (“bite me, alien boy“) with an adoring niece who’s favorite Uncle had just given her the opportunity to walk away from her infantalized existence (trapped in dead-end temp jobs, dominated by her demanding, unhappy mother) and take on the universe.
After the Doctor rescues her from a wedding gone wrong in “The Runaway Bride,” Donna packs the boot of her car packed in readiness for interstellar space/time travel and seeks out the Doctor by following suspicious, potentially alien activity, in hopes that she can reinvent herself as his companion.
By mutual agreement, theirs is not a romantic or sexual relationship. Though there is, by the end of Donna’s tenure, a deep, deep love that would have been believable (at least in my mind) as sexual intimacy if the writers had chosen to take it in that direction. But they didn’t and it worked just as well (possibly better) without the simmering sexual tension that is at present an over-used trope in television serials. The relationship between Donna and the Doctor was on some level unequal (which is where the “cool uncle” part comes in; he’s a nine-hundred-year-old Time Lord, for goodness’ sake!) while also being entirely egalitarian (big sister who doesn’t take any crap from her little bro).
And I also think that, more than either of the companions immediately preceding her, Donna was unequivocal about the fact that joining the Doctor on the Tardis was her decision from the start. And one about which she had no second thoughts. Possibly this is because when we meet Donna she is older than both Martha and Rose, both more certain of who she is and wants to be in the world and also restless, full of unrealized potential. She’s ready for a challenge, and realizes it. Which is why she packs that suitcase and goes looking for her spaceman.
So on the one hand, it’s completely understandable, given this love between them, that the Doctor — faced with Donna’s imminent death as the result of a human-time lord meta-crisis (no, I’m not exactly sure either) which saved the universe from invasion by Daleks — makes a quite human mistake. Given the choice of either allowing Donna to die with dignity — in full knowledge of who she is and the choices she has made — or “saving” her by wiping her memory, the Doctor chooses to put her on the Time Lord equivalent of life support, a medically-induced coma, if you will. She becomes a shell of her former self, with no memory of the life she had in which she was a Self with agency: in which she acted in the world.
What the Doctor did to her, even in the name of salvaging her physical existence, was a violation. In writing this post I sat down and watched the scene in “Journey’s End” where the Doctor erases Donna’s memory. She tells him no. Repeatedly. “Don’t make me go back,” she pleads with him, “please, don’t make me go back.” And he does it anyway.
This is NOT OKAY. Understandable, maybe, in a broken, human, bad-decision-in-a-time-of-crisis sort of way. But NOT. OKAY.
So when it became clear that Donna re-appeared in the “End of Time” two-parter, both Hanna and I were hopeful that the writers had realized the error of their ways and were going to, finally, screw up the courage to do what they’d failed to do in the first instance, and that was let Donna die. After all: for all intents and purposes, she had died already — as both Donna’s grandfather and the Doctor acknowledge in the opening scenes of “End of Time.” As Hanna writes,
bernard cribbins does a(nother) great turn [in “End of Time”] as donna’s grandfather, really providing the companion for the show and doing a fantastic job at it, too, keen to see the doctor again, eager to help, but also desperate to understand why the doctor abandoned donna and why the doctor, seemingly so lonely and at loose ends, won’t just take donna back travelling with him.
Suffice to say, we were desperate to have Donna return to herself (please please please!) and die (in some sort of meta-crisis crisis that would have, in turn, caused the Doctor to regenerate, mayhap?) in what would have been restitution: the knowing death she was asking for at the end of “Journey’s End,” which the Doctor denied her.
What we had to watch was not-alive Donna getting married in what Hanna and I swear was the same fucking wedding dress the Doctor had rescued her from in “The Runaway Bride.” On the surface happy, but visibly confused, slightly vacant, entirely absent in a performance that must have been the devil for Catherine Tate to play.
Let me repeat. The “happy” ending is the one that puts our heroine back where she was on day one, with no memory of the life-changing experiences she’s had.
The attitude of the writers, it seems to me, is neatly summed up in this ninety-second recap of “the Donna Noble story”:
So . . . Donna gets to go “happily” back to her pre-Tardis existence after being the most important-fucking-woman in the universe with absolutely no memory of the experience . . . and the character we’re supposed to feel sorry for is the Doctor who (boo hoo) has to spend his Christmas alone?
Sorry. Not buying it.
Possibly I have a little issue with memory wipes.
Call me crazy.
I find myself wondering: Did no one on the writing team see this? Did no one realize that for those of us who care about Donna, the End of Time was basically two hours of watching our wonderful, vibrant, life-filled Donna Noble suffocate to death in the life she never wanted in the first place? That we could see that haunted, bewildered look in the back of her eyes in every frame? That having to sit through the “happy ending” that saw her married to a stranger while her grandfather looked sadly on and the Doctor blessed the union and walked away was roughly the equivalent of driving red hot nails through the center of our eyeballs?
While I don’t agree with everything author Philip Pullman writes, I’m a longtime fan of his Sally Lockhart novels, a young adult series in which one of the major characters dies in the second book. I once read an essay (I’m sorry I can’t track it down!) in which he reflected on the decision to kill the character. In earlier drafts, he acknowledged, he hadn’t had the guts to do it, merely causing the character disfigurement. But a friend told him the character had to die.
Because people die. Good people die. And if fiction doesn’t deal with the death of people who we wish didn’t die, it’s not true.
And you end up writing a poorer story.
You end up doing more violence to your characters than you would have if you’d let them be true to themselves — even to the death.
Donna should have died. And Doctor Who was less true, as a piece of fiction, because she lived.
It’s going to be a while before I’ll be able to think about forgiving that.
And I’ll sure as hell never be able to forget it.
Hello Anna! I haven't visited your blog in forever, but I am glad I checked this out. Great analysis. My hope is that a new incarnation of the doctor will have to come to terms with what he did. I would have to think that a group of writers with any sense would have to see that the resolution to the character of Donna just does not work. But if they let the Doctor get away with the horrible way he left her, I will have lost a lot of respect for the series. I do hear that there is a new writer in charge, so we can hope.
Did you ever imagine your old Hope prof was a Doctor Who fan?
Fun to hear from you! Since I know you're a fan of Joss Whedon, I'm not at all surprised you've discovered Dr. Who as well :). Have you watched any of the earlier episodes? Hanna introduced Dr. Who to me and it's been fun to watch some of the earlier incarnations of the Doctor from the 60s and 70s and early 80s. Some of the earlier companions are awesome as well.
Have you watched any of “Torchwood” or the “Sarah Jane Adventures”? SJA is clearly geared toward a younger audience (the main protagonists, barring Sarah Jane (and old companion of the Doctor) are all middle school / high school age and the adventures are a little lighter. Torchwood, however, wrestles with some pretty dark shit — and has some really interesting characters when it comes to issues of gender and sexuality (Jack Harkness being only the most obvious example; the whole ensemble is really well developed).
We'll keep our fingers crossed for Donna's re-appearance in the new series, eh?
All the best from Boston! ~Anna