Donna Noble more than lived up to her name, says Tony Fyler.
It’s fair to say that since Doctor Who came back in 2005, companions of the Doctor have rarely come to an ideal end. Trapped in parallel dimensions, made to live forever, hardened into soldiers, left stranded in the past, retained as a memory in a library’s data core, turned into a Cyberman (if you’re of the view that Danny Pink was a companion). But if you ask most Whovians for the most tragic fate experienced by a modern companion, one name comes screaming to their lips:
The reason Donna’s tragedy is often viewed as so much deeper than many others’ is because her character development as a result of her time with the Doctor is probably the greatest. When she first arrives in the Tardis on her wedding day, all mouth and no pockets, she seems to be the archetypal shallow celebrity-junkie. Even in her debut though it becomes clear that while, yes, she likes all the trimmings from the thin end of the cultural wedge – soaps, celebs, instant meals, gossip, scandal, blah blah blah – there’s more to Donna than just the surface. She’s looking, to some extent, for rescue. Rescue from loneliness, rescue from what everybody thinks of her. Rescue from the shell she’s had to grow. In the meantime, she’s drifting in a sea of the meaningless, looking for something, for someone to mean more, and to make her mean more by noticing her. That’s how love-rat spider-servant Lance is able to do what he does to her, by feeding her crumbs of the sensation that she matters, while dosing her morning coffee with lethal particles. When his nefarious scheme is revealed, her hope collapses, and she’s left to return to her horrible, ordinary, getting-by life. When the Doctor offers her the escape he thinks she needs, she has the strength to turn him down. She might need rescuing, but she recognises that in the aftermath of Rose, he’s too broken to do the job.
And then she wakes up one morning, realising that not the Doctor but the Tardis could give her that sense of meaning, of mattering. She determines to put her drifting lifestyle as a temp to good use, and goes hunting for…’weird stuff,’ on the admittedly faultless premise that where there’s weird stuff, there’s likely to be the Doctor. In the meantime, her dad dies, and her mother seems determined to remind Donna how small and useless she really is at every turn. By day, Donna’s able to tune her out as she hunts for the Doctor. But on some horrible, ordinary level, the words go in, as we suspect they’ve done for years, convincing Donna she’s no good.
When she finds the Doctor again, they’ve both changed. She’s blagging her way into a dodgy pharmaceutical company with aplomb, he’s had time to distance himself from the pain of losing Rose, and he’s ready to see the universe with ‘a mate’ without all the complications of emotional entanglement. So off they go, she having helped him save a million lives and waved at floating fat.
Immediately, Donna proves herself that thing the Doctor has always needed – a friend to see the wonders with, a hand to hold in times of trouble, and someone prepared to tell him he’s wrong and make him do the right thing. In Pompeii, she argues for compassion over history, she helps him not have to face the responsibility of mass murder alone, and she begs him, she begs him to break his brulee-brittle crust of objectivity. ‘Save someone!’ she cries. ‘Not everyone… just someone.’ And she makes the Doctor better by making him do what he’s scared to do – let the tragedy in and feel it. On the Ood-Sphere, she’s the one who works out why the Ood are so appallingly subject to domination, so pre-destined for peace. In the Sontaran two-parter, with the world going to chemical hell, it’s Donna, stranded, alone, with a mobile phone and a mallet, who steps up to the plate of necessity, and who also find the elusive clue to the weirdness in the factory. In The Unicorn and the Wasp, she’s a great foil, Tuppence to the Doctor’s Tommy, rather than Marple to his Poirot (Google it, folks – or wait for the upcoming BBC Tommy and Tuppence series – in a creepy moment of synchronicity, called Partners In Crime). When the shadows grow long in the library, it’s Donna’s ‘niceness’ to the intellectually-challenged Miss Evangelista that holds the key to a faulty reality. In Turn Left, we learn of Donna’s survival strength even in a world gone horribly mad after the death of the Doctor. And finally, when the Daleks move heaven and Earth to destroy all reality, Donna again comes into her own, inspiring the Doctor to find the Tandoka trail, and becoming that ultimate fusion of fan-hope and companion possibility, the DoctorDonna.
And there it is. Feel it hit you.
The sledgehammer of tragedy in the face.
Donna Noble was a woman who was drifting in a sea of meaningless pap, who woke up to the wonder of the universe, and who never lost the opportunity to make a difference. She saved people in Pompeii and Ood on the Ood-Sphere. She stepped up to save the world from the Sontaran Stratagem and even ‘off duty,’ she was nice to people that others thought beneath contempt – she put herself between the harmless people of the universe and the harm that others would do them.
But by saving all of reality, Donna Noble became a thing she couldn’t be. The DoctorDonna. There were only two ways forward: she could lose her life, or she could lose her memory. And as the Doctor reached towards her to take back all the wonder, all the knowledge of the universe, all the things she’d done and the joy she’d felt, we, like her, could only whimper ‘No, no, no…’
There’s a precedent for memory removal of course – Jamie and Zoe were robbed of most of their memories of the Doctor by the Time Lords, but in Donna’s case, the theft is so much more tragic, because we know that neither Donna herself, nor any of her family, would want it to be the way the Doctor decides it should be. River Song’s reaction was to become a standard response to the idea that times with the Doctor could be rewritten – ‘Don’t you dare!’ – and given her character as it had evolved, Donna would probably have wanted to ride her metacrisis to its natural end, rather than put the genie of the Doctor back in the thick dark bottle in her mind. But the Doctor’s decision that quantity of life is more important than quality robs Donna of all the amazing things she did.
After The End of Time, and with little of his Tenth incarnation left, the Doctor gives Donna and new husband Sean a wedding present – the time-traveller’s lottery ticket. And with her grandfather Wilf and her mother Sylvia, we nod, knowing her days of penury will be at an end, and that she’ll probably make do with that. But with Wilf, we also mourn for the Donna who had not pounds and pennies, not diamonds or jewels, but her own potential realised in the wider starlight of the universe. We weep for the Donna the universe has lost.
Donna Noble can stand proud among the first rank of companions – alongside Jo Grant’s compassion, Sarah-Jane Smith’s intelligence, Tegan Jovanka’s determination to stand up for the people no-one else wants to know. In the New Who universe, where the Doctor’s companions have been written as real people, she stands above and beyond.
The tragedy of Donna Noble is that she’ll never know how brilliant she could be, or how wonderful she was.
The triumph of Donna Noble is that we got to watch her be it.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk