Character: Donna Noble
Fandom: Doctor Who
Spoilers: For "The Runaway Bride" and the entirety of season 4.
Being Magnificent: the journey of Donna Noble
It's weird, I mean – you're not special, you're not powerful, you're not connected, you're not clever, you're not important...1
And for one moment... one shining moment... she was the most important woman in the whole wide universe.2
Donna Noble's story is heartbreaking. Of all the companions we've met so far in the revived Doctor Who, I'd argue that her arc is one of the widest and definitely the saddest. I was going to say “tragic”, but apparently Aristotle's theory of tragedy involves a reversal of fortune that is down to an action taken by the hero3. Donna, instead, is caught in the web of fate, tying her inexorably to the Doctor.
The Runaway Bride
Donna's first appearance on board the TARDIS came at the end of “Doomsday”. The viewers had just watched (and, if you're like me, sobbed over) the Doctor's goodbye to Rose Tyler at Bad Wolf Bay. Suddenly, here's Catherine Tate in a wedding dress. The moment came as a complete surprise; a casting decision that had actually been kept secret. It was, in some fannish circles, a controversial decision. Tate was best known for her comedy sketches and – perhaps more significantly – was several years older than Billie Piper, who had proved so popular as Rose.
The 2006 Christmas special, “The Runaway Bride”, takes us back a few moments before that “Doomsday” cliffhanger, to Donna's wedding. It's Donna that takes control of being walked up the aisle, and she's satisfied and happy as she makes her way up towards her groom; only to be whisked away to the TARDIS.
And so, Donna Noble, temp from Chiswick, meets the Doctor. It's not an auspicious beginning. She shouts at him and assumes that she's been tricked by her friend Nerys – in Donna's mind, used to the mundane, the extraordinary is not to be thought of. Despite that, she takes the news that she's actually in a spaceship, with an alien, pretty well. She even manages to slap the Doctor out of technobabble mode, which is quite an achievement. Maybe this reaction is the first hint that there's more to Donna than the shouty temp in a wedding dress.
To begin with, Donna does her best to get away from the Doctor. The early scenes showcase the humour of Donna's character, though most of the time the audience is invited to laugh at her rather than with her. I love the “pockets” joke and the way it's played. Of course, she ends up in a taxi being driven by a robot Santa, which leads up to a highly significant moment in Donna's life. To get away, she has to jump from the moving taxi into the TARDIS hovering nearby. She has to trust the Doctor. He's something she knows nothing about, but she makes that leap both figuratively and actually, and trusts him. That's the start of their real relationship.
As the episode progresses we learn more about Donna Noble. We learn that she's managed to miss the major alien-invasion events of the past two years. We find out how she met Lance, the head of HR at HC Clements, somewhere she initially found “all a bit posh”.
The flashbacks give us another glimpse into Donna's character too, by having her tell the Doctor one thing:
The Doctor – When was this?
Donna – Six months ago.
The Doctor – Bit quick, to get married...
Donna – Well... he insisted.
Donna – And he just wore me down and then finally, I just gave in.4
And showing us another:
Please? Oh, please? Please? Please, please, please, please, please.5
Donna's demanding. She knows what she wants. As her mum Sylvia remarks, she's bossy. At the reception, she has family and guests going from having a go at her to comforting her in ten seconds flat. Crucially, though, she keeps on trusting the Doctor in the aftermath of the robot attack and the trip to HC Clements. She's also beginning to enjoy herself – witness the lovely moment on the Segways in the corridor, an early sign of the “best mates” they'll become in series 4.
It soon becomes clear that Donna's not the sharpest 4B pencil in the tin; it takes her a while to cotton on to Lance's deception (though she's not stupid, exactly, it's more that her brain isn't yet making those sorts of connections). But the Doctor's a step ahead of everyone and whisks both of them away in the TARDIS. Here, in the creation scene, is I think one of the loveliest parts of the episode. Donna sees it, sees that there's so much more to life than a white wedding, and sees the potential of what might be. It's a simple character moment amid the whirlwind of the rest of the episode which soon resumes; she gets to shout a bit more at the Racnoss and at Lance, and we see her heart as Lance gets his comeuppance. Lance has been really cruel to Donna, but she still finds it possible to mourn him. And heart matters most in the closing scenes – it's Donna's very human response to the Doctor's destruction that makes him stop. It's because she's human, and has had a human response to him, that she refuses to come with him. She's been swept away by him but she doesn't lose perspective, and she realises that he's also terrifying. At the same time she's now seeing more possibilities for herself and her own life – she's ready to be magnificent.
Cut to several months later. At least.
Rejoining Donna at the start of series 4 in “Partners in Crime”, we are re-introduced to a confident and capable woman. She's bluffing her way through situations just as well as the Doctor, she's thinking on her feet, she's being pretty, well, magnificent.
But at home her mum sees her as a failure. Poor old Sylvia's had a bad rap with fandom, I think – and she's written quite narrowly canonically. I see her as hoping that Donna would achieve something with her life, something that perhaps Sylvia never managed. Of course she doesn't see the person Donna is when she's with the Doctor. Not that that means Sylvia doesn't love her daughter; I think she does, a lot, but she's not the sort of person who shows that. “The Poison Sky” shows that mother and daughter are cut from the same cloth when Sylvia grabs an axe to save her dad. No hesitation, just action.
Meanwhile we're also reintroduced to Wilfred Mott, who had popped up briefly in “Voyage of the Damned”. Her relationship with him is affectionate and loving on both sides. Wilf's the person she confides in about the Doctor, and he's her first thought when she leaves in the TARDIS. Their relationship undoubtedly benefits from that unconditional love you get from grandparents; they're not the ones who'll tell you off for not doing your homework or tidying your room!
We find out most about how Donna's developed off-screen in the scene where the Doctor is rigging up Miss Foster's computer, where she talks about walking in the dust and finding Egypt a disappointment. Before she met him, her world was confined to celebrity magazines and planning her wedding. Afterwards, even an exotic foreign holiday isn't enough. I also think maybe the excitement of the events of “The Runaway Bride” stuck in her mind longer than her fear of the Doctor, or that she decided being afraid of him or of what he can do was outweighed by the expansion of her world. And she's ready to go with him, she's been planning all along. Refreshingly, she's attracted to travelling with him because of the lifestyle and the opportunities and not because she fancies him. So off they go, best mates.
“The Fires of Pompeii” helps us build our impressions of Donna as a real companion to the Doctor. She's inquisitive, and thinks of new things:
If I said 'veni, vidi, vici' to that lot, what would it sound like?6
But what I think this second episode really shows about her is that she's compassionate, and brave. She strikes up an instant rapport with Evelina. She can't understand why the Doctor won't try and help the citizens of Pompeii, and she's not going to ignore her heart because he says she has to. There's also an echo of her final words to him in “The Runaway Bride” – she clearly still finds the Doctor, as Time Lord and alien, terrifying.
Is that what you can see, Doctor? All twenty thousand? And you think that's all right, do you?7
But she'll overcome that to help him when it's the right thing to do; and it's her compassion for the Caecilli that ultimately saves them. She makes the Doctor realise that he can save one family, and that maybe that is what should be done. He really does need her.
Donna's compassion and humanity are also highlighted in episode three, “Planet of the Ood”. She doesn't understand the dying Ood they find in the snow, but she's sorry for it. She wants to help it. Later on, when the Doctor opens her mind to the song, she's heartbroken by its sadness. Donna also sees what Halpen seems to be unable to see – the gentle nature of the Ood:
You idiot! They're born with their brain in their hands, don't you see? That makes them peaceful! They've got to be because a creature like that would have to trust anyone it meets.8
At the same time, the Oodsphere shows her again how scary travelling with the Doctor can be, and how morally ambiguous. Nothing's ever clearly right or wrong. Sometimes – as in the previous episode – the Doctor's decisions kill everyone. Sometimes they save those who should be saved. Donna is beginning to realise this, and it's a theme that'll get hammered home throughout the series, right until the conclusion of “Journey's End” where the Doctor tries to save Davros and the clone destroys the Daleks. First Pompeii, and now the Oodsphere, shows Donna this.
It's weird, being with you. I can't tell what's right and what's wrong anymore.9
It's during “Planet of the Ood” that Donna suffers a mini-crisis and declares she wants to go home. The crisis doesn't last long – she's changed her mind by the episode end – but I think it's all part of the general uncertainty and fear about the journey she's taking. For a moment she looks back at her safe, boring little world and feels it would be better.
The Sontaran episodes that follow also offer Donna a glimpse at what the life of a companion can be like. There's a delightful meeting between her and Martha, with zero antagonism but a lot of instant friendship – despite their differences. Donna goes on to prove her general awesomeness throughout the story. She's super-temp in the factory, has some gorgeous moments with her grandad, and is pretty brave when trapped alone on the Sontaran ship.
In “The Doctor's Daughter” Donna's particular brand of intelligence is highlighted. She might not have Martha's academic brightness, but as she herself declares, she mastered the Dewey Decimal System “in two days flat”10. It's Donna, not the Doctor, who figures out the timeline of events that are crucial to what's going on on Messaline. However she also gets on with Jenny – like Rose and Martha before her, Donna seems to have a talent to get on with whoever they meet on their travels. In the following episode she manages to strike a rapport with Agatha Christie, and there's a lovely quiet moment between the two of them in the garden, talking about husbands and lovers.
Donna's thrown increasingly into the spotlight as the season heads towards its big climax. In “Silence in the Library” she starts off by playing very much the conventional companion role – asking the right questions so the Doctor can give the technobabble answers. But when Miss Evangelista dies, Donna's once again shown as being the caring one. She's the one who manages to strike a chord with Miss Evangelista.
Stranded in the computer, we're shown Donna's fantasy world – a very ordinary world, really, with a nice man and two kids and a successful diet. She's happy there, despite the fact that in the real normal world, before the Doctor, she was drifting from one temporary job to another. I'm not sure really what that says about Donna's subconscious – she loves travelling with the Doctor, but perhaps a part of her also craves that stability and normality she lost when Lance betrayed her. She's bright enough to realise truths about herself, though:
Donna – I made up the perfect man. Gorgeous, adores me, and hardly able to speak a word. What's that say about me?
The Doctor – Everything.11
Though he quickly moves to correct himself, both of them know that he's right; or at least he would have been right before she joined him.
Donna is out of the picture for “Midnight”, but “Turn Left” is a crucial episode in her character development. At the start of the episode we're shown the two friends having a laugh on a strange planet, doing all the fun stuff that normally we don't get to see on the show. But soon we're taken back and sideways into the parallel world where she gave into her mum's persuasion and turned right.
Parallel Donna is not the Donna that we've come to know (and for my part, love) during the course of series four. Parallel Donna is the Donna who first arrived screeching in the TARDIS at the end of “Doomsday”. She counts successes as minor promotions in photocopying businesses. She hasn't got a bad life, but she's definitely not “being magnificent”.
She is, however, still gutsy and determined. When everyone else runs away from the Racnoss's web, Donna runs towards it – and meets Rose Tyler. When Mr Chowdry sacks her, Donna vents her fury on the whole office. She doesn't seem to care about the disappearing hospital, and she refuses to believe the stories about the moon. In the hotel at Christmas, she refuses to believe that the Titanic is a spaceship and not a sequel to the film. There's a sense already of some impending doom.
This Donna is still the person who believes that being loud and belligerent is the best way of coping with life:
Donna – Don't get all chippy with me, Vera Duckworth. Pop your clogs on and go and feed whippets.
Wilf – Sweetheart, come on. You're not going to make the world any better by shouting at it.
Donna – I can try.12
It's actually one of Parallel Donna's good qualities that she's prepared to keep on shouting. Sylvia's given up, but Donna's convinced that if she keeps looking for work, keeps complaining about things, keeps believing in the government, something will happen. She's wrong, of course, but her fortitude is admirable. But she's close to giving up. With her family she's generally quite strong, but she shows that she's at the end of her tether in the scene with Rose in the park.
Donna – Well, what do you keep telling ME for? WHAT am I supposed to do? I'm nothing special. I mean, I'm – I'm not – I'm nothing special, I'm a temp. I'm not even that, I'm NOTHING.
Rose – Donna Noble, you're the most important woman in the whole of creation.
Donna – Oh, don't. Just... Don't. I'm tired. I'm so... tired.13
This is the closest we've ever seen Donna to giving up on everything – and she's really close, I think, at this point. She feels she's let Wilf down because she can give him nothing but love, and Sylvia's sunk into an even greater depression. Rose manages to get a rise out of her, and we see a glimpse of the spirit that caught the Doctor's eye, way back in “The Runaway Bride”. It's a spirit that's strong enough to persuade Donna that she should go with Rose, and help, though in “Turn Left” this is tempered by despair. I think Donna thinks that death might perhaps be preferable than where she is at the moment.
She finds the thing on her back utterly terrifying; but that scene also returns to the theme of Donna not thinking she's anything special. She's said it a lot, especially in this episode, and it's crucial to the DoctorDonna dénouement in “Journey's End”. In her mind, she really is “just a temp”. It's never made very clear where she got that idea from, but I suspect Sylvia might have had something to do with it. Rose gives her a chance to be something more and she grabs it with both hands – she's scared to death, but she takes that opportunity, does the right thing, and time is reversed. In many ways it's far braver for Parallel Donna, who's never experienced the Doctor, to do this than it is for the “real” Donna to sneak about the Sontaran ship by herself. Parallel Donna is all potential, while real Donna has had much of that potential realised.
With the parallel world destroyed, Donna and the Doctor (and Earth) are whisked straight into the Daleks' invasion attempt. Much of this episode, going into “Journey's End”, is actually focused on the rest of the “Children of Time”, but when Donna's on screen her contribution is vital. It's her that solves the problem of the missing missing planets, and later on at the Shadow Proclamation she brings up the missing bees too.
The Doctor and Donna make contact with Jack and Rose; regeneration is avoided; the TARDIS captured. Donna's alone with the hand and reacts out of pure instinct, reaching out to touch it – prompting the meta-crisis. Amid the drama there's some moments of delightful humour between Donna and the new Doctor. But this is also where the strands of Donna's life get wound together. It's worth quoting this scene extensively:
Donna – I kept hearing that noise... that heartbeat.
The new Doctor – Oh, that was me. My single heart. 'Cos I'm a complicated event in time and space, must've rippled back. Converging on you.
Donna – But why me?
The new Doctor – Because you're special.
Donna – Oh, I keep telling you: I'm not.
The new Doctor – No, but you are, you... Oh... you really don't believe that, do you? I can see, Donna... what you're thinking. All that attitude, all that lip, 'cos all this time... you think you're not worth it.
Donna – Stop it.
The new Doctor – Shouting at the world 'cos no-one's listening. Well... why should they?
Donna – Doctor? Stop it.
The new Doctor – But look at what you did... no. It's more than that, it's like... We were always heading for this.14
The DoctorDonna is born, and later activated by Davros. Donna, with the Time Lord consciousness awake in her brain, is, simply, magnificent. It's interesting that she embraces her skills as a secretary here, showing that she's not just Donna with the Doctor's brain. She's got the best of both of them; her humanity and compassion and bravery with his intelligence:
Because you two... were just Time Lords! You dumbos. Lacking that little bit of human, that gut instinct that goes hand-in-hand with planet Earth. I could think of ideas that you two couldn't dream of in a million years! Ah, the universe has been waiting for me! Now... let's send that trip-stitch all over the ship. Did I ever tell you? Best temp in Chiswick? Hundred words per minute!15
She's brilliant. She's enjoying herself in that unfettered Doctorish way. All their travelling has come down to this, and Donna makes the most of it. As the TARDIS flies Earth home she's having a whale of a time. It's just too good to be true – and both she and the Doctor know it.
Back in Chiswick, Donna awakens, and it's like the whole series has been rolled back. This is the Donna who screams at the world and misses the big events. It's the saddest thing in the world to watch; especially as we, the Doctor, Wilf and Sylvia know there's all that potential inside her again, perhaps never to be realised. Fate has not been kind to Donna, but without her the universe would have suffered beyond belief. She might never know it, but she was completely magnificent.
Quotes sourced from http://who-transcripts.atspace.com/.
1) 3x00: “The Runaway Bride”, by Russell T. Davies
2) 4x13: “Journey's End”, by Russell T. Davies
4) 3x00: “The Runaway Bride”, by Russell T. Davies
6) 4x02: “The Fires of Pompeii”, by James Moran
8) 4x03: “Planet of the Ood”, by Keith Temple
10) 4x06: “The Doctor's Daughter”, by Stephen Greenhorn
11) 4x09: “Forest of the Dead”, by Steven Moffat
12) 4x11: “Turn Left”, by Russell T. Davies
14) 4x13: “Journey's End”, by Russell T. Davies