Turn Left is this season’s “Doctor-Lite” episode (filmed alongside the previous “Companion-Lite” episode for convenience, presumably), in which Donna relives an alternative life, a life that would have played out if she’d taken a different path and never met the Doctor, depicted in this case by a literal cross-roads situation. Turn left or turn right? How big a difference can one tiny decision really make?
As it happens, quite a big difference. Without Donna to save the Doctor’s life during the encounter with the Racnoss, he is no longer alive to protect Earth from all the other invading aliens. The episode is like a big recap of events, just with a different perspective on things. Without the Doctor, we learn that Martha, Sarah Jane Smith and her group of kids are killed protecting the hospital from the Judoon attack, the Torchwood Cardiff team is killed stopping the Sontarans from choking the Earth, and all of London is obliterated when the Titanic crashes into it.
We see all of this from Donna’s perspective, as her and her family are swept up in events and end up as refugees as Britain descends into fascism. There are some touching moments as they spend time with their temporary housemates, and sadness as said housemates are carted off to a “labour camp” with other immigrants, their resilient spirits finally crushed. It shows how messed up the world has become that we could descend to such a level, but it’s scarily believable, and it drives home just how important the Doctor is to the world, and by extension, how important Donna is to saving the entire universe.
The reappearance of Rose is disappointing because it takes the focus away from Donna’s character, and this is supposed to be Donna’s story, not Rose’s. Moreover, Rose has had her chance, she’s reached the end of her character’s arc, and that should be it. The wall between dimensions should be locked shut, rather than have Rose repeatedly cross over like it’s no bother at all. I don’t entirely understand how she’s able to exist in Donna’s altered timeline, or how she knows what’s going to happen to her in the future. I know more will be explained in the final two parts, and there needed to be some external influence to guide Donna’s actions, which is fair enough, but I feel it dilutes this episode with unnecessary mystery. And why “bad wolf” again? It was a meaningless phrase then and it’s a meaningless phrase now.
There have been hints about Donna’s ultimate fate sprinkled throughout this season, and in the Pompeii episode, the psychic was able to sense the alien beetle on her back (even though it wasn’t there in that timeline). I thought the presence of the beetle was fantastic; there’s something very creepy about not being able to see something attached to your back, particularly combined with the clickety-clack of insect noises. It reminded me of the giant spiders from Jon Pertwee’s final serial, Planet of the Spiders, and the Star Trek TNG episode, Phantasms, which featured small invisible insects feeding off the crew, invisible except under certain light. But, generally, big insects on your back are just creepy, man.
With the stars going out, Rose returning and universes colliding, Turn Left is a prelude to the finale of Russell T Davies’ last season as showrunner, but it stands on its own as a thematically and emotionally strong episode that would have been even stronger without such baggage. It’s a little bit self-indulgent in revisiting episodes through stock footage, but it’s a clever idea, well-written and the episode is better than I remember it being the first time around. In fact, season 4 on the whole has been better than I remember; I can only assume the finale tainted it!