It’s not unknown for the Doctor and his friends to find themselves in a situation where they have to tell robots from human beings. If you should ever find yourself with a similar dilemma, here’s the perfect test. Sit the subject down with a boxset of Season Four. Start at The Unicorn and the Wasp, leave it running, and if they want to switch off before the very last second of Journey’s End then I’m afraid you have your answer. No one human could do that. This is one of the most exceptional runs of episodes in Doctor Who’s history. Every story is a gem.
The Doctor and Donna are an especially strong partnership. There’s no confusion with romantic love – either reciprocated or unrequited. These are two people who are unquestionably good for each other. At the end of The Runaway Bride, Donna had understood that the Doctor needed a companion – “Because I think sometimes you need somebody to stop you”. She is strong enough, and compassionate enough, to challenge him at the right times and in the right ways – not just to stop him, as she’d initially said, but to enable him too, such as with the rescue of Caesilius’s family at the end of The Fires of Pompeii. We saw, in Turn Left, the horror of what would have happened if the Doctor and Donna had never met, but there would have been so many tiny, subtle changes for the worse alongside those huge, terrible, world-changing events.
Donna is, frankly, wonderful. She wasn’t universally loved in The Runaway Bride (I was, in the privacy of my own home, one of her doubters; by the second half of this season only Sarah Jane could rival her in my affections), but maybe that’s the point. “But she was better with you!” Wilf tells the Doctor in Journey’s End, and we know he’s right, because we’ve seen her journey. With the Doctor, Donna’s compassion and bravery were allowed to take centre stage and she was, unquestionably, made a better person by her experiences.
Back in 1963, the character of Susan was created to be an identification figure for the children watching. Now, for pretty much the first time, the middle-aged and ordinary had an identification figure of their very own. Donna was real. When she learns her Forest of the Dead existence is illusionary she exclaims ‘But I’ve been dieting!’ Such a human reaction. Donna was funny and caring, but you could hardly call her superwoman. Rose and Martha always seemed to know the right thing to do. Look at the end of the last season – Martha worked out how to save the entire world, and went ahead and did it, all by herself. Compare that with The Poison Sky, where Donna, stuck on the TARDIS, realises that the Doctor wants her to use Martha’s mobile – but hasn’t a clue what to do with it. ‘But what do I do?!’ she cries. Rose would have known what to do. Martha would have known what to do. But even though Donna doesn’t know – even though the adventuring business may be a lot more difficult for her than for her predecessors – she doesn’t give up and still saves the day.
Donna’s scenes are often played for comedy – why not, when you’ve got a comedian of the calibre of Catherine Tate on board? She takes her first steps on to an alien world, and is more concerned with the temperature than the wonder of the situation. Whereas Rose would’ve understood the Doctor’s charades instantly in The Unicorn and the Wasp, Donna gets flustered and her guesses are hilariously wide of the mark. It’s very funny stuff – and oh, how I feel for her. Put most of us in that situation and we’d be floundering around too.
There’s so much comedy surrounding Donna that it makes it even more poignant that her story is ultimately a tragedy. The Donna of Turn Left is astonishing – and remember, this is a Donna who hasn’t met the Doctor, this is the potential that’s always been there, that he enabled to come to the surface. Because here she sacrifices her life in the hope it will save the world. She’s an ordinary person doing something utterly, utterly extraordinary; this story, with its Nazi parallels, shows how low humans can stoop, yet Donna shows there’s hope for humanity after all.
If that wasn’t enough, our own Donna soon becomes something extraordinary too – the DoctorDonna. She’s magnificent. And it kills her. Donna’s end was more tragic than death. Not just because she would never remember all the amazing things that happened, would never know that she saved not just the world but the universe, but because all that potential was shut away again. “She was better with you.” And, Donna? The Doctor – and Doctor Who – were better with you.
1. “All right, it’ll all make sense, that bin there.” Donna entrusts a message to a woman in the crowd. At home, the audience gasps as one as the woman turns around to reveal her identity – it’s Rose Tyler! Partners in Crime.
2. “Transcription errors. Destroyed my face, did wonders for my intellect.” Donna meets the ‘poor copy’ of the once-beautiful Miss Evangelista who exposes the truth about her new world. Forest of the Dead.
3. “She’s taken her voice.” The voyage to the sapphire waterfall doesn’t go as planned. The hostess sacrifices herself to save the lives of everyone on board the shuttle – and they realise afterwards that they never even knew her name. Midnight.
4. “Donna, you can’t even change a plug!” The two-way biological metacrisis creates something the likes of which the universe has never known – the DoctorDonna. But this human/Time Lord can’t last long… Journey’s End.