...then Davies went and produced two of his finest scripts in a row - 'Midnight' and 'Turn Left.' And, in what seems a little more than a coincidence, they both challenge the 'galactic saviour' thing head-on.
How to do that? Once you've seen it done, it seems obvious. It's the result of asking another question, what makes the King the King? Crowns and robes, they're just accoutrements. What makes the King is followers, a bunch of blokes treating him like he's the King. In a similar way, what makes Jesus Jesus is disciples. Okay, let's divorce the two... Donna from the Doctor... and see how well they get on without each other.
'Midnight' Resets the Clocks
We start with the Doctor alone, or at least taking a shuttle trip with people he's never met before, in the tellingly titled 'Midnight.' Early on, he short-circuits the shuttle's cacophonous multi-entertainment system and the passengers resort to talk. We could easily take that as a signifier for the changes afoot, not an episode built on flurries of activity and special effects, but on that old stand-by - dialogue.
The subsequent reliance on 'tell not show' at times feels quite wilful. The antagonist is an unseen, largely unexplained force with the power to possess people. In it's native form it's only glimpsed once, briefly, by a crew member - and we don't see what he sees. Later, when it takes over it's first target, we see the victim head in hands. Slowly she starts to turn, we assume we're in for some shock prosthetics and we're wrong. Seeing the woman's own face, but with some malevolently urecognisable expression, is much more effective.
In short, the shuttered shuttle stuck on the planet Midnight was a breath of fresh air. It took the New right out of 'New Who' to take us back to classic drama. In contrast to Davies' dreaded ticklists, the plot is tightly and quite neatly packed around that one central concept. You'd never believe it was by the same writer!
All of which led some to speculate that this wasn't really a 'Who' episode at all. No Donna, no Tardis? Plus, in violation of everything said over 'Last of the Time Lords', this time the antagonist pretty much is pure evil. It's the malevolent outside force, trying to worm it's way in – no further information considered necessary. (Which is of course why it's such a smart move to leave it so mysterious and ill-defined. Not only is the unknown spookier, but any attempt to rationalise or analyse evil diminishes it, leaves it looking banal.) True, some found comparisons with the early story 'Edge of Destruction', but as that was another exception to the rule of the 'Who' canon that didn't change things much.
And in one sense, it wasn't like 'Doctor Who'. We've got used to the Doctor winning friends and influencing enemies by oratory and reputation alone. He carries with him a sonic screwdriver and all but his real power is, as Martha calls it in 'Last of the Time Lords', “just words.” Yet now he's lost his companion, and with her his connection with the human world. And the family group in particular seem oddly normal and everyday, not 'Who' extras so much as just plain extras, like they wanted a fortnight in Marbella but ended up on another planet by misbooking. They don't seem to cotton on that he's star of the show, but treat him like they would any stranger – with mistrust. Before, the Master didn't know what kind of show he was in. Now it's the Doctor's turn. The cosmic saviour gets reacquainted with his fallibility.
… all of which is what makes it effective as 'Doctor Who'. We call them “just words”, but of course those connected syllables are strong stuff. They're not just the building blocks of drama, but also pretty effective in our wider lives. As a small child it often seemed to me that much of my parents' power over me lay in their power over words. Not necessarily that they had a bigger vocabulary at their command, but that they somehow always seemed to know what to say. I can quite vividly remember wanting to marshall that sort of power.
But actually that's not quite it. His power of speech isn't absent, it's been quite literally stolen from him and used against him. And, in possibly the episode's most audacious move, it's not the powerless Doctor but the Hostess who spots this and has to save the day. Which she does by dragging the possessed woman out of the airlock - the very thing the Doctor had been so insistent could not be allowed to happen. The ending is downbeat, even morose. The other passengers have to face they nearly killed the wrong man, the Doctor that nothing he wanted came to pass.
Of course it's a bottle episode, scrimping on sets and effects to ease budgets. We later learnt Davies had rush-written it in a matter of days. (Much as 'Edge of Destruction had been.) But, as I'm always saying, in art restrictions often enable, and bottle episodes often utilise the dramatic unities to become firm favourites. This was no exception, even those claiming it wasn't a true 'Who' episode normally conceding they liked whatever it was. For me it wasn't just a surprise spike in quality, or even the antithesis of much that went before - it was pretty much the antidote. Just what the Doctor didn't want had become just what the rest of us did.
No Right Turn
...and then, if you'll forgive the term, Donna's back.
'Midnight' and 'Turn Left' make for an intriguing comparison. One that was never meant to be. Davies seems to have decided early on to have a 'Doctor-lite' then a 'companion-lite' episode, but mostly for production-oriented reasons. (Much as 'Blink' was built to be 'both-lite'.) But the two got shunted together in broadcast order relatively late in the day.
And if 'Midnight' was a last-minute replacement for a dropped script, 'Turn Left' was being seeded from the second episode. (Where a soothsayer describes Donna as having “something on your back.”) While one is a micro-episode, breaking into the schedule and taking place almost in real time, the other follows the length of the series right from 'Runaway Bride'. In complete contrast, this took Davies much longer than normal to write. And yet both were designed as budget episodes. (Part of the rationale of 'Turn Left' was it's ability to reuse existing special effects footage rather than require new stuff.) And both replace a travelling companion with an unseen, manipulating force, to end up exploring humanity at both its best and worst.
The conceit is that this alien entity has affixed itself to Donna's back, and trapped her in a parallel universe where she never became the Doctor's companion. Without her to save him, he dies during the events of 'Runaway Bride' and the Earth is beset by all the disasters he would have prevented. These are episodes which successively came and went, and for each of them we naturally assumed the Doctor would save the day. Piling them up on us like this effectively pulls the rug from under genre conventions, and is almost unsettling to watch.
Worse, we in the human race do not react well to any of this, and Marshall law falls over England. We don't just take the worst, we become the worst. The scenes set in a Leeds street may be designed to echo the Master's rule in 'Last of the Time Lords'. But it's at it's most explicit as immigrants are removed to labour camps, as Donna's grandfather comments “that's what they called them last time.” All the invocations of “wartime spirit” have come true, it's just that we've fallen on the other side of the fence.
The change is pivoted on a trivial-seeming moment, when Donna turns right instead of left, taking up one office job instead of another. At first she's the Donna of 'Runaway Bride', gobby and smallminded, oblivious to events outside her tiny world. She turns right at her Mother's instigation. But she receives another voice over another shoulder, in visitations from Rose. Rose is not the good fairy or the conscience voice. She explicitly tells her “I used to be you,” and just as she 'died' through being trapped on a parallel world, so must Donna suffer her own consequences.
“You could still turn right” she's told at the beginning. And we follow the results of that turn almost the whole way through, yet significantly the episode's called 'Turn Left'. Because ultimately what appears a coin-toss isn't at all. Donna can't turn right. It's just not who she is. The Doctor's episode explores his failings, while Donna's is about finding things within her she had no idea were there.
In 'Who' the role of the companion is of course to signify me or you. The Doctor does something brave or smart? Well that's what he's for. Extraordinary people doing extraordinary things, that's like being told ladders can be tall. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things, that's a story. Donna first fails to notice the world around her, then when she does she decides to change it for another one. Through all the bleak events, it's uplifting and empowering.
But then again...
'Midnight' was so neatly packed you're pretty much bound to accept or reject it wholesale. 'Turn Left' has a wider lens, which allows for problems to enter the frame. Notably, the focus on Donna doesn't quite mean the Jesus fixation is through. The series has never quite mastered the companion role, always making fresh resolutions it has trouble keeping to, and perhaps this is no exception. The focus is on Donna's bravery, but it can only be done by bringing the Doctor back to life. In a story whose central event is a woman sacrificing herself for a man, it's notable how all the main characters in this fallen world are women. It's even true of many of the minor ones, the UNIT chief, the stroppy official who assigns them to Leeds. (The only real exception being her Grandfather.)
There's also an undertaste, a suggestion that Donna was never really ordinary, never actually like you or me, but always somehow 'special'. What does this do to the the central message, that through our actions we make the world? The problem with a 'special' Donna isn't that her story no longer has a resonance for the rest of us. The problem is that it redefines that 'us' in a narrow and regressive way.
If she's simply ordinary, that suggests that all us ordinary folks have that capacity within us. But if she's 'special', if she's unlike the herd, then doesn't that 'us' shrink to become the viewers of this show? If she's special, we're special! After all, we're the smart ones who get all that stuff about alternate realities and parallel universes. Oh, we may work in the same offices as the norms who watch 'X Factor' and 'East Enders', but we know inside we're really different from them. Donna's the new temp who first looked like one of them, but turned out to be special like us. (Those who continued following the show after Davies may have noticed that the 'specialness' of the companion continued to be a thorn.) It also sets things up for the successor storyline. The one where Davies gave us his variant on the cosmic messiah schtick - the companion as God. Again.
Still, a parallel universe where everything went wrong... what better metaphor for a parallel pair of episodes where everything went right? The series didn't turn. These are just what might have been. A dream, a hoax, an imaginary story. Some of us tend to think the show was always an oddity, never quite fitting in either with the rules of science fiction or the patterns of TV programming. And it worked best when it played up to that oddity, taking its own eccentric path. Davies was always at his worst with his specials and big season finales. It may be he was at his best right here...