Monday, 22 December 2014

The Runaway Bride written by Russell T. Davies and directed by Euros Lyn

This story in a nutshell: Get me to the church on time!

Mockney Dude: David Tennant gives an extraordinary performance in his second Christmas special, reacting to the delighted audience reaction to his first season. There is a definite shift between the squeaky voiced, bouncing puppy of a Doctor in series two and the more solemn and considered Time Lord of this story. He anchors the comedy in gentle tragedy, the Doctor missing his old companion and trying his best to cope with the latest mad woman to fall in his lap. The moment the Doctor puts his jacket around Donna's shoulders and she insults him pretty much sets up the template for their relationship. I love how this story is set up as a romantic comedy but it resists the urge to connect the Doctor and Donna in the obvious way. Their relationship constantly surprises like this. It's nice (in the new series) for the Doctor actually use his trusty device as a sonic screwdriver. You would imagine that Tennant would play this story to the hilt, a screwball comedy that allows him to play the goon but against type he goes looking for the darker moments and really sells them to the audience. When faced with a giant red spider that cackles you would imagine Tom Baker matching that level of lunacy or Colin Baker shouting his head off to be heard over the creature but Tennant plays those scenes with a quiet menace, gently breaking the bad news to Donna that her fiancé isn't who she thought he was and broodingly threatening the Empress. It restores a lot of sanity to the proceedings. The Tenth Doctor was often all mouth in his first season, talking the talking about retribution but rarely delivering on that promise. The Runaway Bride offers the first glimpse at the unforgiving part of his nature and it comes as a shocking moment when he stands back and allows mass infanticide take place. Water running down his face, a look of remorselessness and a companion begging him to stop the murder, this is a dark place to take the Doctor on Christmas Day. This ruthless Doctor would show up again in The Family of Blood and The Waters of Mars and these three points highlight him at his most powerful and shocking. To give him some credit he does offer the Racnoss an alternative. Donna's assertion that he can go too far and that he needs somebody to hold him back is valid and would be revisited to dramatic effect in series four.

Tempestuous Temp: 'The never-ending fountain of fat, stupid trivia!' I don't envy Catherine Tate in The Runaway Bride, having to fill in the gap of the extremely popular Billie Piper (whatever you might think of her, the response to her departure was overwhelming). What she does (aided by Davies) is quite smart, initially feeding on the audiences mistrust and lack of faith in the character and proving to be every bit as wretched and hysterical as we were imagining. The opening scenes with her screeching on board the TARDIS hardly enamour her to the audience and she comes as across as more like one of Catherine Tate's extreme sitcom characters. That's all part of the character comedy - how will the Doctor overcome his natural dislike for this woman and get her to the church on time. She's rude, overbearing, selfish and frightened. The antithesis of Rose. However both Catherine Tate and David Tennant are far too intelligent as performers to allow things to continue in this ilk and around about the time of their rooftop scene you start to see a relationship emerging between the Doctor and Donna (albeit a fractious one at this point) and it is a relationship that would go on to rival some of the best Doctor/companion partnerships in the history of the show. Her reaction to the TARDIS (the first companion to be beamed inside and experience the spatial discontinuity from inside to outside rather than the other way around) is to grab her mouth as if to be sick, utterly disoriented and completely natural. Donna failing to notice any of the alien threats that have struck the Earth over the past two years is a running gag that never gets old. Literally pursuing Lance down the stairs in order to secure his hand in marriage is hilarious - this is a woman who always gets what she wants through dogged determination. Watch as she pours on the fake tears to get away with murder, this is definitely somebody the Doctor wants on side. How can you help but feel for Donna as Lance vivisects her character so coldly and reveals what a shallow individual of the new millennium she is? 'Text me, text me, text me...' This is the point where she turns her life around, it isn't so much that she is ashamed of who she is but she knows that she is capable of so much more. You would imagine that at some point during this story that Donna would get changed but she obviously enjoys playing the action heroine in a wedding dress. Since when did the show pull off slapstick falls as confidently as Donna's as she swings across the set? The Racnoss' reaction is a scream. The final scene between the Doctor and Donna is quite beautiful and I can remember thinking at the time that it was a shame to have developed their relationship to such a point where they were delivery this kind of magic only to throw it away. Little did I know. When Catherine Tate was announced as returning to Doctor Who full time I was convinced that it was this Donna that would be back, the one who had learnt from this experience and learnt to restrain herself.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Skies over London full of Daleks?' 'I was in Spain.'
'We used to call him a fat cat in spatz!' 'My Christmas dinner!'
'This whole process is brilliant but only if it's being observed.'
'There's just one problem...we've drained the Thames.'
'You've seen it out there, it's beautiful' 'And it's terrible. That place was flooding and burning and they were dying and you stood there like...I don't know. A stranger. And then you made it snow, I mean you scare me to death!'

The Good:
* If you want a perfect example of how masterful Davies is with character then check out the opening scene of this story (the only Doctor Who story I might add to start with a wedding) and the number of reaction shots to Donna's walk down the aisle and subsequent kidnap. The director manages to get across the varying responses from the characters without a single word being uttered.
* Despite battling the fact that this has clearly been filmed in high summer (has Doctor Who ever looked this sunny when set on contemporary Earth?) Euros Lyn manages to brew up an energy to the scenes where the Doctor desperately tries to help Donna to get back to the wedding. Lots of inter-cutting scenes, moving cameras and reaction shots (I love the taxi drivers throwing insults at Donna) help to keep the pace up, cranking up to the glorious set piece where Donna is kidnapped and the Doctor affects his rescue in the TARDIS. You haven't seen this kind of elongated pace since The TV Movie's final set piece (and in classic Who, probably the final instalment of The Caves of Androzani). If you go with the flow, it is great fun to watch. The moment this goes from being frivolous to being frightening comes when Donna shakes the taxi driver and realises she is being driven by a robot. The switch in tone is very confidently done (Donna punching at the windows is quite dramatic) and then fluidly shifts again when the TARDIS bounces into view and the story becomes a heroic spectacular. The Doctor manages to prove his worth to Donna, pulls off an incredible looking stunt with the TARDIS (the two children watching coo in delight like millions of kids watching at home) and Catherine Tate hits some comedy highs ('Santa's a robot!' never fails to get me howling). It's easy to see why this sequence was chosen to trail to the special during the Proms. We've never seen the TARDIS used in quite such a frivolous way before and it is desperately exciting to see it bouncing off the rooftops of cars.
* I want to be the sort of person that isn't thrilled by a Christmas tree coming to life with exploding baubles and demolishing a wedding reception to the tune of Jingle Bells. But I'm not, I can think of several weddings that I have been to where this would have improved things exponentially.
* Check out my review of any season seventeen story to see that I like it whenever the show dares to do something a bit different when it comes to it's monsters. Erato the blob might not have been a success visually but conceptually he was a masterstroke, portrayed as a villain because of his size and his flattening of victims but actually an ambassador who has been trying (and failing) to communicate with people. Or the Mandrels, lumbering teddy bears that slaughter people that become an illicit substance once electrocuted. The Runaway Bride tries to do something different to the norm with it's central villainess, a full blown pantomime creature that the kids can hiss at and the adults can recoil from. A giant red spider that travels about in a Web Star, it is visually and conceptually about as crazy as Doctor Who can go with its monsters before it loses the audience completely to the madness. It goes to show how much of a committed audience that (there was barely a leap between the ratings of this story and the next) that it can get away with something quite this outrageously hammy in a culture that is obsessed with image and looking cool. The Empress of the Racnoss is one crazy mofo and Sarah Parish unleashes everything that she has.  The end result is something very funny and so extreme that she comes across as a credible alien threat simply because she is so different from anything we have seen before.
* Tying Torchwood into the story is a lovely touch, if there is one thing that Davies does very well it is developing his innovations once he has introduced them. And he loves a secret underground base as much as I do.
* People forget that there is a solid narrative in existence beneath all the frivolity of The Runaway Bride. Looking at the nuts and bolts of the plot reveals this to be one of Davies' more robust plots. Whilst distracting you with Bridezillas, igniting baubles and the exploration of Torchwood bases, Davies slips in Agatha Christie-esque clues almost invisibly (including Lance dosing Donna with particles when making her coffee explaining how it was done and making him the obvious culprit, the Doctor climbing out onto the Thames flood barrier and setting up the method of the Racnoss' downfall, the many visual and spoken allusions to keys and H.C Clements and the baubles wrecking Donna's wedding that allow the Doctor to create the flood). How all the elements come together (albeit with a greater amount of technobabble than usual) is really rather neat, in amongst all the comedy.
* If Doctor Who is about exploring the wonder of time and space and the Time Lord sharing that through the eyes of his companion then there are few scenes as perfect as the one where the Doctor takes Donna back to the creation of the Earth. Not only are the effects dazzling and the performances of Tennant and Tate pitch perfect but it introduces an important plot point too. It comes after Donna has received some devastating news and watching her tears vanish only to be replaced with an expression of wonder demonstrates to her the joy of what the Doctor is offering. It's dazzlingly emotive in a way that only Davies can deliver.
* Given that so much of Doctor Who is centred around the Earth it is a massive reveal that the Racnoss became the centre of our planet, causing its formation. It delivers a one finger salute to creationists. Let's be honest, it's no more ridiculous than the alternative offered in the bible.

The Bad: The bizarre segway sequence down the most gorgeously lit Doctor Who corridor in existence. At least Donna has the sense to laugh at the sheer daftness of it. Davies cannot resist a bit of spectacle and has the Web Star descend and begin attacking the Earth. Trouble is there is plenty enough drama taking place beneath the surface to satisfy and the realisation of these scenes feels like an afterthought. The most that we witness is a strobe of lightning cut up a high street which feels like a cut price invasion to me. It's worth it for the first mention of Mister Saxon, I suppose.

The Shallow Bit: I don't think there is a single point where David Tennant has looked more attractive as the Doctor. Charismatic, funny, dark and confident. He looks gorgeous too.

Result: I can remember being a little disappointed when I first watched The Runaway Bride and not entirely connecting with what Davies was trying to do. I don't think I realised it was a comedy until my second watch, which shows you where my mind was on Christmas Day (I think it was because I had come to expect another Christmas Invasion, which was quite dramatic for all it's attacking Christmas trees). However this story has been a real grower on me and I think with every subsequent viewing I have discovered more and more things I like and a rock solid plot that exists underneath all the frivolity. It's like the Peri of the Christmas specials, you don't expect an awful lot from it and quietly it manages to surprise and delight you when your guard is down. Catherine Tate starts exactly where you expect her to be; hysterical and annoying but over the course of an hour transforms into something quite unexpected - the perfect companion for Tennant's Doctor. Tennant himself is more confident than ever, feeding from the incredible response of his first season and searching out all the moments where he can add depth and darkness to his character. He goes on quite the journey too, starting The Runaway Bride as a hapless chauffeur to a mad harridan and closing as a mass murderer in desperate need of a friend. It is this pairing that makes this special work so well and as has been widely reported they would go on to become one of the most recognised and celebrated Doctor/companion pairings. All the groundwork is done here. I don't think this is Euros Lyn's best directed piece (that would go to The Girl in The Fireplace and Tooth and Claw) but he is attempting to pull off a Christmas special in one of the most glorious summers of recent years. The atmosphere is light and he maintains a great pace and some of the set pieces are thrilling (in particular Donna's abduction in the taxi and the Thames draining climax) - the only thing that spoils the mood is the persistent sunshine. Doctor Who was bold enough to go for the comic jugular and most of it works a charm (Donna's swinging pratfall makes me die) but what impressed me was all the dramatic moments that Davies slipped in (the creation of the Earth, Donna's tears at discovering Lance's betrayal, the Doctor realising that he has gone too far). Highlighted against the slapstick and farce, the darker moments standout even more. The Runaway Bride surprises me. It isn't the best Christmas special (The Christmas Invasion and The Snowman win out for me) but it has climbed the ranks consistently with my multiple viewings and now stands proud as a solid Doctor Who story (and not just a throwaway special as I first thought) with a great character pairing at its heart: 8/10

1 comment:

David Pirtle said...

How could you not have realized this was a comedy?! Well, I guess seeing as the last episode to air was Doomsday, and this literally starts right where that left off, I can see why you were expecting something more dramatic. Anyway, great review of a fun episode.