Spartacus and Spartacus Forever [WHO-50 2008]September 24th, 2013 at 7:23
The Doctor is a best friend floozy. We all know it. The Fourth Doctor in particular had a habit of passing the title ‘best friend’ around as lightly as jelly babies. (Charmingly, Lis Sladen’s autobiography reveals that the first time the Doctor bestowed this title on Sarah, it was an ad lib by Tom Baker)
Whenever the Doctor used the phrase, though, you never doubted that he meant it. He’s a fickle pal, our Doctor, but he’s genuine. If he says you are his best friend, then right in that moment you absolutely are, even if two episodes later he’s forgotten all about you and has moved on to the next best friend.
It’s basically like kindergarten, without consequences.
Not every Doctor-companion combination fit the ‘best friends’ mould. You wouldn’t call Ian or Steven or Dodo the First Doctor’s best friend (though, maybe Vicki). Likewise, you know that the Second Doctor would be far too polite to admit it, but however nice Victoria and Zoe are, Jamie is his favourite. The Third Doctor had colleagues, assistants and even a ‘best enemy’ in the Master, but you never got the sense that any Earthling could be considered close to an equal. Even if she had really cute go-go boots and a wicked set of skeleton keys.
But from the Fourth Doctor onwards, many of the most iconic companions really were the Doctor’s best friend, for as long as they were within hailing distance. I’d certainly argue that Four and Sarah, Four and Leela, Four and Romana II and even briefly Four and Adric (we all know K9 was his second best friend, and Romana I was less a friend than a business acquaintance), Five and Turlough, Six and Peri (and later Mel) and Seven and Ace were BFFs.
When Nine took Rose’s hand and said ‘Run,’ that old dynamic returned. The Doctor, more than anything, needed a friend, and he got that in Rose. Regardless of your opinions on shipping, flirting, and how much romance you want to read into their story, the most explicit relationship we saw depicted on screen between Rose/Nine and later Rose/Ten was that of a friendship – a friendship so important to them both that no one else, not Mickey or her Mum or Jack or Adam could make a dent in them.
Hey, I’m not saying it was a *healthy* friendship.
In The Runaway Bride, Donna was everything Rose wasn’t – abrasive, insulting, and not taking him seriously. Even then, the Doctor saw potential in her, and made her the offer to travel with him. Because the truth is, anyone has the potential to be the Doctor’s best friend.
All you have to do is say yes.
After Martha, and the Doctor’s colossal failure to be a good (or even frankly, adequate) friend to her; after Jack came back and the Doctor admitted what an appalling excuse for a friend he had been to him; after Astrid died… after all that, once again, the Doctor needed a friend, a best friend, someone to come along on his adventures and make it fun again.
He got Donna back, and for a while there it was the best thing that could have happened to him.
“I want a mate.”
“Well you’re not mating with me, sunshine!”
We watched The Fires of Pompeii the other week. I think, given the recent announcement about Peter Capaldi, the entirety of Doctor Who fandom did the same.
[Peter Capaldi’s role is essential but not particularly showy - it’s not surprising that many fans don’t remember him at all from this. It’s a gentle role for him, and he does what he needs to in order to serve the story - though I do like the way that the role of the paterfamilias is subverted here through comedy and occasional moments of angst. He feels very much out of time, a modern day Dad flung back to an era where men simply weren’t assumed to be all that sensitive.]
I’ve always liked this story, which I feel is seriously underrated. Too often, when celebrating the generally excellent Doctor-Donna season, special attention falls on the stories that come near the end – the marvellous Midnight and Turn Left, the ambitious but cheesy and flawtastic The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End, and even the rather divisive The Unicorn and the Wasp.
But the early Donna stories are great too, and The Fires of Pompeii is the first time we really see the strength of her character, as she faces off against the Doctor and his questionable morality when it comes to ‘fixed points in time.’
One of the aspects I love about this story is that it gets the comedy/drama balance absolutely right, something that writer James Moran would go on to perfect in his episodes of Torchwood: Children of Earth. There’s a darkness here, plenty of sinister action and death all around, but there’s also the splendid banter of the Doctor and Donna, AKA Spartacus and Spartacus.
The lack of romantic chemistry between the characters (as performed and as scripted) feels as much of a breath of fresh air as was the flirtatious vibe between Rose, Jack and Nine all the way back in 2005. The Doctor and Donna feel at times like they are in a screwball comedy, only without the promise of kissing and marriage after the credits roll.
Seriously, they do everything other than chase an unexpected black panther around the streets of Rome. It’s a romantic comedy without the romance – a platomance, plus time travel.
So not only do Catherine Tate and David Tennant have the comfortable, banterific chemistry down straight away, but in The Fires of Pompeii they also have a great script which plays off some clever and iconic elements of Ancient Roman culture, a whole bunch of linguistic jokes and wordplay (Veni Vidi Vici – sounds a bit Celtic!), a family straight out of Plautus (by way of Up Pompeii), and some suspicious Sybilline priestesses.
Oh, and a giant volcano monster. And awesome sets, borrowed from HBO.
It’s one of those Doctor Who stories where everything just works terribly well – enough tensions between the different perspectives of the Doctor and Donna to raise the temperature a bit, but ultimately they work together to save the world.
And, of course, to save one family. Just one, and it’s only through Donna’s pleading to challenge the “rules” that the Doctor is willing to make that change to the timeline, cementing his role as the future household god of a family.
He really needs Donna, or someone like her, to be his best friend and remind him about the value of the ordinary and the unassuming, of the little treasures you can save even on Volcano Day.
It wouldn’t last forever, but while it did, their partnership was magic.
ELSEWHERE ON 2008:
Why I Love Donna Noble [Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist]
If You Love Doctor Who’s Donna Noble You’ll Love This Video [The Mary Sue]
Watching New Who: Partners in Crime [TansyRR.com]
The Sontaran Stratagem [Mark Watches]
Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead (Radio Free Skaro)
Silence in the Library/The Forest of the Dead (The Angriest)
Watching New Who: Turn Left (TansyRR.com]
The Brilliant Donna Noble [Two Minute Time Lord Podcast]