Doctor Who's extended 60th anniversary celebration continues this week with "Wild Blue Yonder," as David Tennant's second turn through the TARDIS rolls on. To be fair, this hour doesn't actually feel all that much like an anniversary special. (Save for the cameo in the episode's closing moments which was just the right level of emotional gut punch.) That's not entirely a bad thing, but it is rather unexpected, particularly after the overt nostalgia fest that was "The Star Beast".
While, it's a delight to simply spend time with Donna and this particular incarnation of the Doctor, very little about this hour feels like a continuation of what we saw last week, or as though it'll prove a connecting bridge to next week's third and finale Tennant-led installment. No new information is forthcoming about why the Fourteenth Doctor is suddenly wearing the Tenth's face again or the reason behind why the entire universe was being drawn to Donna Noble fifteen years after the events of "Journey's End". "Wild Blue Yonder" often comes across like nothing so much as a traditional midseason episode — solid and entertaining but relatively standalone.
Granted, it's hard to complain but so much about the fact that, against all odds, we're getting to have another adventure with Tennant and former companion Catherine Tate and, if anything, their chemistry has only grown richer and warmer since the last time we saw them together. And few performers understand the dark emotional depths of the Doctor better than Tennant does, a fact which he uses to devastating effect at multiple times within this episode. (The man is both a wonder and a menace.) But how — or even if — the various threads of this hour will ultimately come to impact the end of Fourteen's story remains unclear.
"Wild Blue Yonder" will probably feel pretty familiar to longtime Whovians. A base-under-siege style story with serious claustrophobic vibes and occasionally unbearable tension that features a face-off with a monster who can copy their victims and knows entirely too much about who they are emotionally, it's an hour that certainly bears a lot of thematic and narrative similarities with the Season 4 episode "Midnight". (Which is, incidentally, one of Tennant's all-time best performances on the show.) Here, however, Davies shakes things up by making this installment a two-hander —or a four-hander, depending on your perspective — between Tennant and Tate, using their pre-existing bond to make things just that little bit more frightening. Though your mileage may vary about whether you think the giant Donna and Doctor-shaped monsters with overly stretched prosthetic body parts were as scary as the show seems to want us to believe they are.
Tennant and Tate get some meaty and emotional material to play, there's a tremendous amount of uncomfortable body horror, and the introduction of the idea that there's a literal Nothing that exists on the edge of creation speaks to the kid in me who loved everything about The Never Ending Story. And it's all frightening in ways that go well beyond simply being chased by an unexplainable monster, asking questions about trust, memory, and the frightening ordeal of being truly known for the best and worst things about who we are. Yes, there are certainly some things that aren't perfect (some of the CGI is peak early 2000s awful), and I'm not sure this is an hour that merited the insane secrecy and pre-release hype that surrounded it prior to its premiere, but on the whole, it's another installment that will make longtime Whovians feel excited about whatever Russell T. Davies has up his sleeve next.
The story is a surprisingly straightforward one: An accident aboard the TARDIS has sent Fourteen and Donna on an adventure they didn't intend. Stuck on an abandoned spaceship at the edge of the universe, left behind by a TARDIS struggling to mend itself, and without his trusty sonic screwdriver — it was still in the police box's keyhole when the ship disappeared — the Doctor and Donna are left to figure out where they are, what they're facing, and how to get home, using little more than their wits and the strength of the bond they've forged with one another.
When the pair are forced to separate to work on a set of repairs that will hopefully help them figure out where they are, an imposter version of the other appears to each of them. Though it's apparent fairly immediately to the audience, the fake Doctor and Donna are convincing enough in their role playing that neither real version realizes what's happening right away. These creatures, which the show refers to as "No-things", since they come from the vast Nothing at the edge of creation, have the Doctor and Donna's memories — at least some of their memories, at any rate — and are working to learn enough about them and the rules of their physical bodies to become perfect replicas. The goal? Escape on the TARDIS obviously, and a chance to spread their rage over the rest of the universe they've never seen.
What follows is an often uncomfortable and occasionally hilarious exploration of both the Doctor and Donna as characters, which asks them to face some difficult truths about themselves and the things they're keeping from those closest to them. The episode largely hinges on a handful of sequences that require the Time Lord and his former companion to prove who they are to one another, a twist that both relies on their long history together and underlines how much has changed for both of them in the years since they've last seen each other.
Donna, for her part, wrestles with her fear of never making it home to her family, of what it might feel like to be forgotten by them, the way she herself was made to forget so much of her own life. (Except by loyal Wilf, of course, who would naturally spend every day of her absence looking to the sky for her return.) Yet, we also see the strength in her, and how far she's come since the days when she truly believed she was nothing special. (That she now understands herself to be truly capable of incredible things is a key emotional linchpin around which the episode's conclusion turns.
But what we're all going to be talking about is the Doctor. During their first conversation, the fake Donna manages to confront him about his past, claiming to now know specifics of events from her time as the DoctorDonna, such as the whole Timeless Child mess and the calamitous destruction wrought by the Flux. Outside of confirmation that these events are still canon (which, ugh), Davies makes the smart decision not to try to explain most of them, simply adding them to the pile of immense guilt the Doctor carries about destroying huge chunks of the universe and all the lies it held. And Tennant, familiar as he is with the extent of the Doctor's emotional brokenness, makes the most of every second, allowing Fourteen to be fully vulnerable in a way Ten fought so hard to avoid. The way he wants Donna to know what he did, to know without him having to tell her, and see him for who he is and have missed him anyway, is heartbreaking in its sincerity. That he immediately reverts to old habits, and closes himself off rather than tell the real Donna the truth about the last fifteen years (likely so much longer for him than that) makes absolute sense from a character perspective, but goodness it was nice to see a version of this character that wishes that weren't the case.
Next week: The Toymaker! And Tennant's second farewell. Perhaps the best — and most unexpected — compliment I can give this anniversary trilogy is how much I wish we had more time.