Tuesday, 4 July 2017

The Runaway Bride

Chapter The 58th, you wait ages for a Christmas special and then two come along in succession.

Just after his final ever pan-dimensional encounter (for a bit) with Rose, the Doctor is shocked to see a woman called Donna, in a bride's dress for her Christmas Eve wedding, appear in the TARDIS. She'd been halfway up the aisle and went all glowing and disappeared. The Doctor tries to get her back to the church on time, but due to confrontations with Santa robots and a high-speed cab chase, she misses the appointed hour. The robots turn up at the reception venue after our heroes, and unleash all sorts of festive paraphernalia that turns nasty (well, if something works one Christmas, it quickly can turn into a tradition).

The Doctor's investigations into why such an ordinary person as Donna is being pursued by this Santa squad lead him, accompanied by Donna and her fiancee Lance, to the HQ of H. C. Clements, the London company where Donna temps and Lance is the head of Human Resources. They find a secret entrance which leads to a vast chamber under the Thames flood barrier, where a giant Spider-woman called the Empress of the Racnoss has been plotting with Lance, to bring her child spiders back to life and rescue them from the centre of the Earth where they've been trapped since the formation of the planet. The Doctor goes all bad ass, flooding the tunnel containing the child spiders; Donna manages to persuade him to leave just before he gets drowned (but imagine if she hadn't?). The Empress transports up to her star-shaped starship, but a nice politician called Mister Saxon (whatever happened to him?) orders it to be blown up before she can escape. The Doctor asks Donna to join him on his travels, but she turns him down (she'll likely regret that decision after a while).

I thought it might be nice to sit down to view this with my eldest (boy of 11) as it was the first episode of Doctor Who he ever saw (see below); but, he couldn't be enticed. He still loves watching new Doctor Who episodes, but is a bit cool on old Who at the moment, even if it's old New Who, if you see what I mean. Instead, I watched with the Better Half and a glass or two of wine on the Saturday evening after the broadcast of The Doctor Falls. Following an hour of Who already that night, and with it getting late, I expected only to get partway through, but before we knew it we'd watched the lot. Maybe this means it is more watchable that I've given it credit for. Though it's certainly packed full of incomprehensible gobbledygook (see below), it had to cover a lot less detail than the story we'd watched earlier. One other difference between Ten and Twelve was that the Better Half commented on average once every ten minutes during the Runaway Bride about how handsome the actor playing the Doctor was; this has not yet happened during any Peter Capaldi stories.

First-time round:
My first-born arrived a few days after Fear Her, in June 2006. I had speculated in the run up to the event how that title may prove to be wise advice related to the Better Half if I'd even thought about bringing a TV into the delivery room to avoid missing Doctor Who. Luckily, Junior avoided arriving on the Saturday. Mother and child were back home from the hospital on the following Saturday, though, just in time to catch the BBC1 montage of England getting kicked out of the World Cup, set to 'Numb' by the Pet Shop Boys, immediately before Army of Ghosts. But the little one was slumbering by the time that episode came on, and similarly slept through Doomsday the following week. Six months later, Christmas Day 2006, marked the first time we ever watched Doctor Who together, with him sitting up in a Bumbo alongside his Daddy. A photo of this event should appear beside this paragraph, assuming the Better Half has permitted me use it. The boy is dressed as Superman, I'm dressed as John Nathan-Turner.

From the photo, I can see that  - as per this rewatch - I was drinking red wine. First time round, it being Christmas, I'd had a larger volume of red, and - for the first time in my history as a Doctor Who fan - I could not follow what was going on. I'm usually the one that has to explain it to others, but everything here from the reception scenes onwards was going over my booze-fogged head. Something about particles of something dragging Donna into the TARDIS? Maybe Sarah Parish's dialogue was explaining everything, but I couldn't understand a word she was saying. Get some new false teeth, Empress, and it would be easier to understand your evil plots .

A scene from The Runaway Bride was shown in advance of the story's broadcast debut, at the Children in Need Doctor Who concert at the Millennium Centre, Cardiff in November 2006. This was the black cab chase, which was projected to live orchestral accompaniment of Murray Gold's fabulous cue. Writer and exec producer Russell T Davies was quoted explaining that this scene, exciting as it may seem, was within the first 15 minutes of the episode and there was 45 minutes packed in after it. This is the problem of The Runaway Bride in a nutshell - it peaks too soon; the cab chase scene is the most exciting thing in it, and it's spunked away far too early, leaving 45 minutes to drag on after that, never to reach such heights again.

The chase itself has nothing to do with weddings or Christmas, and is clearly one of those set pieces that had occurred to the writer independent of a specific plot, and was found a home here. A lot of the structural problems seem to be down to certain scenes or visual moments in isolation were too attractive to resist, but couldn't easily be integrated. Donna's sudden materialisation in the TARDIS made for a great shock ending to the previous season, and an exciting opening to this special. But the hoops jumped through to shape it into some sort of post-rationalised sense make huge swathes of The Runaway Bride unwatchable: Huon particles that need to be fed to someone over the course of six months so their organic body catalyses their reaction with something or other, and traces of these same particles are found in the heart of the TARDIS and create a magnetising effect when the host gets anxious or excited. None of this makes scientific or real-world logical sense; that's never bothered Davies much, but it doesn't make emotional sense, either, and nor does it chime with the emotional theme of the story. Without the feels, Davies has failed on his own terms.

Donna's journey, her gradual realisation that she's missing the big picture by having too narrow and trivial view of the world, feels like it emerged from a second draft, but that there wasn't time for another go or two after that to bolt it down. Luckily, when Catherine Tate decided to return, Davies gets to do this theme properly, evidence of how key it was to the character, and to how underdeveloped it is here. Tate probably proved the most controversial new Who casting choice since Billie Piper in advance of airing, and - to my mind at least - she confounded expectations just as well as Piper did. There is the odd overblown mannerism to remind one of her sketch show grotesques, but generally it's a solid take on what's in the script. Again, she got to peel the onion more on Donna's inner vulnerability when she returned for a longer run.

Aside from Tate, the cast is the wedding party - who are essentially all giving extended cameos, even Don Gilet, though he is suitably nasty in the scene where he rips into Donna's lifestyle - plus Sarah Parish as the Empress. Oh dear. It's not her fault: there's no other way to play a role but large when your head's encased, your mouth's stuffed full of fake teeth, and and your body's strapped to a costume with the size and manoeuvrability of a children's climbing frame. The script overeggs things even more, though, rather than reining it in. I'd say it was the most panto villain the series has ever produced, but you'd never fit that costume on the stage of the Birmingham Hippodrome and have room left for John Barrowman's ego, let alone both the Krankies. As Sarah was unrecognisable, and as she has worked with Chris Chibnall recently, it might be nice to have her back to Who again in future for a part where she doesn't have to suffer quite so much. 

They're both set at Christmas time of course (the randomiser is a useful device but it lacks true discrimination), both contain baubles that are not what they seem, flying machines that get shot at, and a flashback to a 'meet cute' between the central female guest character and the man she's going to have a wedding with (although Donna's ceremony doesn't reach completion).

Deeper Thoughts:
Becoming The Establishment. It was during The Runaway Bride publicity drive, if I remember rightly, that Russell T Davies mentioned that contemporary listings and press releases were talking already about the 'traditional Doctor Who Christmas episode', even though they'd only done one before that point. Ten more have followed since his comments, and there are no signs that the multi-Doctor team-up currently being shot won't be broadcast on the 25th of December this year. So, the feeling expressed back then may have been premature, but it turned out to be correct. The non-special runs of the series arguably have taken longer to reach the same well-worn comfort level: there have been many years without any standard run of episodes, when nobody has yet dreamt of skipping a Christmas one. But, the signs are that the day's arrived where all aspects of current Doctor Who are unarguably a part of the televisual furniture. The ratings for the latest run - including the big season finale - have been in the same ballpark as those of another Saturday night stalwart Casualty, instead of the usual (but gradually diminishing over the years) cut above.

There's no shame in this size of audience, and no one's talking about Casualty being cancelled any time soon. But old school Doctor Who fans, including my good self, can't help but live under the long shadow of the 1980s cancellation crises, panicking that any dip might mean the show is taken off air. New series aficionados meanwhile, including my good self, feel a pang or two that the show isn't any more putting national mass bums-on-seats for its big tent offerings, or taking up a whole wall of Toys R Us with action figures and other merchandise. That popularity level couldn't last forever, and the decline to this point (if it can be categorised as such) would no doubt have happened earlier under young, floppy haired Matt Smith if it weren't for a coincident 50th anniversary boost. It is by some commentators however all being laid at the door of the actor playing the current TARDIS owner-occupier, Peter Capaldi, and the set of stories in which he has appeared.

With a key final episode yet to air, it seems too early for the retrospectives of the Capaldi era, but that hasn't stopped them. I was surprised by the reasonably consistent negative points being made: main actor too old and not good-looking enough, his first year had too may duff episodes like Robot of Sherwood, overall the character of the Doctor was never consistent, Clara stayed too long, and the great dynamic created by putting Capaldi's doctor with a fresh team came too late. I agreed with some points, and disagreed with others (I loved Robot of Sherwood - when did that become this century's Fear Her whipping boy? (I also love Fear Her, by the by)). But do I think any of this would have made a difference to the ratings, audience share or positions in the top 100 programmes? No. The programme's been going now for 12 years, there's only so much one can do to reboot. Maybe casting a non-white non-male Doctor might do it, but I doubt it. Mind you, I'm rubbish at predicting anything. I've only made two predictions about this current run, both wrong. The first was that the villains of 2016's Christmas special - brains transplanted into hinged heads, if you remember - would undoubtedly return: they're still awaited. The second was that the emotional theme of the season would be the friction of Bill's home life and studies against her travels with the Doctor: turns out it was instead a fight for Missy's soul. Still, as someone wise said recently, with one episode left it's too early for retrospectives. They still have 60 minutes to prove me right about either, or both.

In Summary:
Lots of different bits roughly stitched together: the Runaway Bride of Frankenstein.

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