Monday, 25 June 2018

Turn Left

Chapter The 91st, when a stupid decision followed by a series of avoidable events turns the UK into an impoverished fascist nightmare, which could never happen in real life. Oh.

In a bustling market on the planet Cultural Appropriation, Donna is attacked by a time beetle which creates a parallel universe around her in which she never met the Doctor, and so never saved him from the climactic events of The Runaway Bride. The events of Smith and Jones, Voyage of the Damned, Partners in Crime and The Sontaran Stratagem / The Poison Sky then play out devastatingly without the Doctor to help, and the UK bit-by-bit turns into a totalitarian state, where Donna and her family are refugees without voting rights, and non-UK born residents are rounded up and put in labour camps. Throughout this, Donna is visited by a mysterious blonde woman from another dimension, who keeps popping up and then disappearing, and drops hints about a coming threat that's even worse than the ones so far - this is Rose Tyler, Earth Defender. Using TARDIS tech and with help from UNIT, Rose sends Donna back to the crucial decision point - where she turned right instead of left in her car - and Donna manages to put events back to their original course, but only at the cost of her own alt-life. Back in her real universe, she passes on the final message from Rose to the Doctor: "Bad Wolf"- oooh!

Watched from the DVD on a Saturday afternoon with my three children (boy of 11 from the beginning, boy of 8 and girl of 6 wandering in halfway through and staying put). Randomly landing on a David Tennant one has finally done the trick, and I'm not watching on my own for once. My eldest remembered watching this before, sometime in the last few years when he caught up on all the new series episodes that he'd been too young to watch first time round. He also expounded intelligently on the butterfly effect as he viewed. The youngest kept asking of Rose, "Is that the new Doctor?", and we had to keep disappointing her by explaining that this was an old one, and that Jodie Whittaker's series hasn't started yet; I hope she's blown away when it finally lands. As I'd hit 'Play All' on the DVD menu, the following episode The Stolen Earth started up instantly that Turn Left finished, and my co-viewing buddies insisted on watching the next two episodes: I was physically prevented from touching the remote.

I won't be blogging those other two parts yet, but it was a tricky decision. Doctor Who since 2005 (with one exception) doesn't bother with labelling anything part 1, part 2, and so on; it also has lots of arcs running through multiple episodes. Sometimes, there's no right answer to how many of those episodes comprise one story and therefore equal one blog post in my currency. In Doctor Who's third new series since its relaunch, showrunner and Turn Left's writer Russell T Davies, had played a similar trick as he does the following year: Utopia, which occupies the same position in the season. also acts as something of a teaser to the final two episodes. But, a lot of fans, and the official magazine, treat Utopia and the two episodes following it as one three-part story (as will this blog when it reaches that point). Why is Turn Left different?

It's all down to personal rules of course, but to me Utopia is an essential part of the 'Mad Master's drums' saga. Without it as the first part, the true nature of the monster revealed in the final episode of the season doesn't make sense nor have any dramatic weight. Also, Utopia doesn't really stand alone - the plot about the reappearance of the Master and the plot about the future of humankind both remain unresolved at its end and are only tied up later. Turn Left, on the other hand, is a self contained story of a parallel universe version of Donna facing adversity and making the ultimate sacrifice. It chimes with the final events of 2008's finale thematically rather than providing any essential exposition. As I watched The Stolen Earth and Journey's End, and marvelled at so many bravura sequences, it didn't feel right to allow them to overshadow the just as brilliant but different Turn Left - it deserves to be judged on its own merits.

First-time round:
I remember this one pretty clearly; I watched it slightly time-shifted but more or less live on its BBC1 broadcast debut with the Better Half and my good friend from university days Phil, who's been mentioned a few times before in this blog. It was slightly time-shifted as Phil and I were on a last-minute mercy dash to the - now sadly gone - local Oddbins to get essential supplies, and got caught in traffic on the way home. The Better Half and I only had one of our three children at the time, and he was just a toddler, so was probably abed before we watched. This is all almost exactly 10 years ago to the day as I write; how time passes.

To my mind, Turn Left is Doctor Who's only counter-factual narrative to date. There have been a few parallel universe stories over the years, and they've invariably showcased fascistic dystopias, but they've never dwelt on nor even confirmed exactly what caused the divergence. Turn Left isn't a tale of the UK if the Nazis had won the war, it's just our world given one tiny nudge in a different direction at what looks like a meaningless point, and the Earth still ends up as a fascistic dystopia! It's a bleak but bracing experience watching ones own country, that one recognises and loves, turning incrementally but brutally and plausibly into a place where an emergency government have ruled that the displaced don't have voting rights, and immigrants - even those who've lived and worked here for many years - are treated deplorably.

Despite the bleakness, the story finds some lighter moments too ("Well, isn't that wizard!") and the mix is very satisfying with scene after scene delivering the goods. To pick a few memorable examples, and these are more of less contiguous: the collected inhabitants of Number 29 joined together singing Bohemian Rhapsody only to be interrupted by gunfire, the young squaddie levelling his gun at Donna while Wilf and Rocco are shouting at him to stop, the scene where those same two men salute each other as Rocco's family is being taken off, everyone putting on a brave face despite the terrible fate they are heading toward. Finally, and probably best of all, there is the scene that director Graeme Harper lets play as a close-up on Jacqueline King as Sylvia, barely moving, defeated, with Donna behind out of focus talking about being a disappointment to her mum. But ultimately, Donna proves herself: even without ever knowing the Doctor, she is a hero.

It's all the more miraculous that this is so good given it's the year's cheapo filler story. Every year, there was a 'double-banked' episode made at the same time as another, not always including as much of the main cast, some or all of whom may be needed on other sets. This time, they have split things neatly in two: David Tennant is making Midnight while Catherine Tate was making this. Davies makes this limitation a virtue, the story is all about the absence of the Doctor. Recycling clips, actors and plot points from previous episodes from the last year or two doesn't seem like a tired retread, but instead gives everything greater scale, a sense of foreboding, and a slow progression to the climax of the two-part finale to come. Many of the themes and memes of the season are paid off here (something on Donna's back, Rose reaching out across the divide between dimensions) but also nods to previous years of the new series, and its spin-offs too: Martha Jones, Sarah Jane Smith and her gang, Captain Jack and the remaining members of Torchwood, all are brushed aside off-screen, leaving only Donna and Rose to save the day.
One barely misses David Tennant, as there's so much performance power packed in to this 45 minutes. Billie Piper and Catherine Tate work very well in their scenes together, although - as was pointed out by many at the time - there's something off about Piper's vocal delivery, which she seems to fix by The Stolen Earth / Journey's End: it's like she's got someone else's false teeth in. Bernard Cribbins and Jacqueline King are amazing in this; Joseph Long too: is it possible for more than one actor to steal the same scene? If so, that's what happens with this three actor crew, executing perfect joint scene-heists all the way through.
It's so nearly perfect - I haven't got space to go too much into the peerless dialogue, the electrifying score, the Back to the Future inspired ending sequence. There are only a few tiny flaws: the wicked Fortune Teller is a bit too fairy tale and broad for this story, the time beetle when finally revealed is a bit fake, it looks like novelty backpack. But, I'm nitpicking; overall, it's great.

Another new series show that's part of a trilogy of episodes, and ends on a cliffhanger, but also just about works as a stand-alone story. Both story's feature Joseph Long (appearing in the "previously" sections of The Pyramid at the End of the World as the Pope, and making a memorable contribution in Turn Left as Rocco Colasanto. Both also feature UN personnel, if UNIT are still part of the UN since they've changed their name to Unified whatever.

Deeper Thoughts:
Politics again, naturally. Turn Left was written and produced in the last few months of 2007 when not much was well known about the scale of the global economic crisis - which would impact and influence pretty much everything for the next ten plus years to date - but some bad signs were gradually becoming apparent. The emergency at UK mortgage lender Northern Rock had only happened just over a month before Russell T Davies started writing. Flicking through the collected correspondence of this period between Davies and journalist Benjamin Cook in their essential and superlative book, The Writer's Tale, you'll mostly find discussions about the craft of writing, as you'd expect; later on, when 2entertain's budget input into Doctor Who production was in doubt because Woolworths UK was going to close, it got a bit closer to home; but, early on, Doctor Who is clearly too all-consuming for those making it not to be in a bit of a bubble.

Maybe just a little of the news seeped in to Davies's outlook when he was writing his counter-factual narrative, though. At the beginning of the season, in Partners in Crime, Sylvia berates Donna because "no one's unemployed these days except you", the last fading echo of the New Labour boom years; by Turn Left things are more desperate, as they were to become in real life. Russell would build in a minor subplot about Barack Obama's recession busting plans in The End of Time, and that's not aged very well; but, Turn Left in 2018 still resonates. If I can be so bold as to quote myself from a few paragraphs and sections earlier on this page: "It's a bleak but bracing experience watching ones own country, that one recognises and loves, turning incrementally but brutally and plausibly into a place where an emergency government have ruled that the displaced don't have voting rights, and immigrants - even those who've lived and worked here for many years - are treated deplorably". Does this remind you of anything?!

That Turn Left coincidentally chimes with Trump's or the Daily Mail's worst recent excesses, or the shameful treatment of the Windrush generation, is maybe not so surprising. Economic strife brings out the worst in people, and we're seeing a long tail of the impacts of inequality and the resultant (and wrong-headed) austerity to which that inequality gave rise. It wasn't so hard to predict, perhaps. Of course, Turn Left also features courage, spirit and heroism in the face of insurmountable odds. That's a nicer reflection of humanity. The longer the slow-motion car crash footage that is Brexit carries on, the more I'm hoping we, somehow, can get an ending where we're all happy and all together putting the planet back onto its correct axis, as opposed to looking out into the darkness as the stars go out, one by one.

In Summary:
About right.