Choosing which wire to clip on a ticking bomb is probably much easier than choosing a favourite episode of Doctor Who. There are literally decades worth of stories and episodes to choose from, all those different Doctors and their
companions friends. You have the Era you grew up watching (for me The McCoy Era), then you have the Era you’re currently watching (The Whittaker Era) plus the Eras you’ve watched over the past decade since Doctor Who returned to British television (Eccleston/Tennant/Smith/Capaldi). If that wasn’t enough, there are plenty other Doctors to enjoy from Hartnell to Baker. Confused? You obviously aren’t a Whovian.
Okay, even for me it changes. On a Monday I might rank The Parting Of The Ways as the finest Doctor Who episode ever. It’s epic, heart-breaking, intelligent, and thoughtful. It was the episode that reinvented the Daleks as religious fundamentalists. Really, has there been any antagonist as wholly remorseless and terrifying as The God Of All Daleks?
Or I might choose a classic from The Pertwee Era, one of my absolute favourite periods of Doctor Who. Pertwee’s first year is probably the most serious and grown-up period of the show’s history and none of his stories were more serious and grown-up as Inferno. Everything about Inferno is bleak. The Third Doctor – he’s the one that looked like a Tory but loathed pen pushers and officious cretins – looks absolutely broken by the final episode. He’s so damaged by his experiences watching a parallel Earth burn that he hysterically smashes up a control centre when he returns ‘home’ (Earth really was The Third Doctor’s home), finally putting an end to The Stahlman Project.
Yes, it has to be Inferno.
There’s another apocalyptic Doctor Who story that towers over all others.
It’s the one I always go back to.
This Doctor Who story seems to have more to offer than most. It is the writing? The writing is brilliant, so it must be the writing. Maybe the performances from the main cast elevate this story above the others? Yes, that helps too. The main actress gives probably the best performance of anyone in Doctor Who ever.
Turn Left takes a familiar sci-fi trope, the ‘What If’ concept, and plunges Donna Noble (still the best companion) into a nightmare. She didn’t save a grieving Doctor from his own destructiveness in The Runaway Bride, because she didn’t meet him. Why? Because she turned right instead of left, avoiding a traffic accident. This one action shifts everything. There’s also Billie Piper, the other serious rival to Catherine Tate in terms of acting. Billie’s performance is odd; the accent isn’t quite right, she seems threatening, her character not the weeping girl from Bad Wolf Bay we fondly remember. I’d argue that this askew performance helps the story, because everything is different to what we remember. Rose is a sinister presence. She knows what’s going on – and she isn’t telling.
Russell T Davies was often criticised for some of his less threatening aliens. He always liked to start a series with a light romp (not the kind of ‘romps’ wrote for his more adult shows) and that extended to the Christmas episodes too. The Adipose, The Empress of Rachnoss, The Starship Titanic and so on. In Turn Left, he gloriously subverts this criticism and shows us what would have happened to the world had The Doctor not been around to save us. No-one is laughing now. The Adipose (the cute little blobs of fat from the glorious Partners In Crime) take out America. The Starship Titanic crashes into Buckingham Palace. The Poison Sky is prevented by the sacrifice of Torchwood. Then, just when you think it can’t get any grimmer, it gets impossibly grimmer with the deaths of Sarah Jane Smith and Martha Jones. What a cheery story! Oh, children must have enjoyed this story, with the Doctor’s limp dead arm flopping out of a stretcher, his lifeless fingers dropping his Sonic Screwdriver on the ground.
In the midst of this darkness, Donna tries to remain upbeat, completely in her own little world which revolves around Pringles and bashing her lazy work colleagues. So when Britain begins to slide into a fascist state, it’s so gradual that Donna struggles to realise the absolute enormity of what’s happening. Wilf, her lovely granddad, absolutely realises. He’s seen it before.
There are two moments in Turn Left that absolutely push it above all other Doctor Who stories for me. Two scenes that make it something very special.
The first scene is between Donna and her mother Sylvia. It’s rare to see a nervous breakdown being portrayed on prime time British television, especially one as low-key and subtle as what happens with Sylvia. Jacqueline King is excellent here, absolutely praise worthy. She’s on the floor, staring into space. Donna tries to get some validation from her mother, a recurring theme that started in Partners In Crime. And everything she says is answered in a flat, broken voice. Sylvia has been crushed. It’s one of the most chilling moments ever on Doctor Who. A full-on mental collapse that is just a small moment in a story full of big moments.
The second scene that I can never ever forget is also Russell’s favourite scene. He said so in Doctor Who Magazine. He’s right. I’m referring to Donna standing alone in a circle of mirrors. What? How can this be such a special scene?
It’s in the writing, acting, and the relentless tension. Donna is the key between the two worlds and she has to go and change the past, make sure she turns left and not right. Rose is there too. She is UNIT’s scientific advisor. Rose speaks about the mechanics of time travel with confidence, showing the viewers how much she has changed since Doomsday. She’s also clearly setting Donna up, manipulating everyone to get what she wants. And for Rose to get what she wants…Donna must die.
That one scene with Catherine Tate standing with a plastic beetle backpack in the centre of some mirrors is the best bit of acting ever in Doctor Who. I’ll stand by that opinion. It’s perfect. Give her the Bafta, the Emmy, the Oscar, the NTA. Give her every prize!
Here’s the dialogue between Donna and Rose:
I’m ready, ‘cuz I understand now, you said I was gonna die but, you mean, this whole world is gonna blink out of existence, but that’s not dying, ‘cuz a better world takes its place — the Doctor’s world. And I’m still alive.
Rose says nothing. Donna continues:
That’s right, isn’t it?
Rose looks sad:
Donna looks devastated, but it’s too late.
The episode ends with a reset. Donna is alive! So is The Doctor!
Then this happens:
Turn Left is my absolute favourite because it never ever lets up. Everything is on point, though some people might find the plastic beetle slightly too ridiculous to enjoy, but Doctor Who fans can overlook effects gone wrong. Goodness, nearly every monster in The Pertwee Era had a yellow CSO outline. It did not put me off Invasion of the Dinosaurs.
For me, Turn Left is Russell T Davies – and Doctor Who – at their very best, the peak of a classic imperial era for the show.