The temp from Chiswick: why I love Donna Noble

River Song Spoilers*Major Spoilers for the relaunched Dr. Who*

Nerds like me know Christmas is Dr. Who season (I guess the UK doesn’t even pretend with “Happy Holidays”). I’m a huge geek for the show, one of those rare popular scifi/fantasy properties that (anecdotally speaking) has a more vocal female fanbase than male one. Which makes a lot of sense to me given the show’s format – the lead is male but an often inaccessible character, and usually accompanied by a woman who’s role is just as large and who’s much easier to identify with.

Some people prefer the last couple series’, overseen by show runner Steven Moffat. From what I can tell, most of those people are dudes. The current Dr. Who has great visual aesthetics, and great villains (though I got so over with The Silence). And it’s got a hero dude cowboy-type (except completely bumbling and actually bad at time travel) Doctor at it’s center. But what it doesn’t have is strong companion characters. Which means no strong women.

In fact, Moffat’s women are weak (even River Song’s lost a lot of her fire as the story’s gone on). I’d go off about The Girl Who Waited – hell, her defining character feature is inaction! But Lindsay Miller already said everything I’d say in a brilliant post about Amy Pond.

So I get to write a love letter to Donna Noble. Brilliant!

Donna Noble through a window, pointing to herself and grinning, from the series 4 opener

OH. MY. GAWD.

Donna was introduced in series 3′s Christmas special, The Runaway Bride. I thought she was written like a stereotypical nag character, and didn’t understand why my best friend Patrick kept telling me she would be my favorite. Well, I know why now! There are folks who think Donna lapses into nag in series 4, too, but I just don’t see it. Frankly, I wonder how much of that has to do with our difficulty accepting strong willed women. I don’t know exactly where the line is between a caricature of a nag and a powerful woman character, but for me it’s somewhere between The Runaway Bride and series 4.

I’ve always assumed Catherine Tate gave showrunner Russell T. Davies important input in the writing of Donna. She was already hugely successful – The Catherine Tate Show had run for three series on the BBC and won her numerous awards. The Donna of series 4 is an exceptional character – Dr. Who had featured strong women before, but nothing could prepare me for the feminist badassitude to come.

The Doctor and Donna in front of the TARDISFrom the beginning, Donna is the Doctor’s equal. Mostly because that’s how she sees herself. So this guy’s a Time Lord with a TARDIS – that doesn’t make him superior. Donna just doesn’t take orders. The Doctor has no choice to accept this, but what’s awesome (and one of my favorite things about my favorite Doctor, David Tennant) is he loves this. Donna’s no nonsense attitude and willingness to challenge him puts a twinkle in the Doctor’s eye and a grin on his face that we haven’t seen at least since he lost Rose. The Doctor’s never had so much fun with a companion.

Unlike practically every story with a dude and lady lead, Donna has no romantic interest in the Doctor. Zero. I love the Rose/Doctor storyline, but it is a fairly typical romance. And I honestly couldn’t tell you why Martha Jones crushes the Doctor (or why she ends up with Mickey for that matter, besides race, which is messed). Donna finds the idea completely ridiculous (though I actually think the Doctor crushes her, based on his reaction to the last screencap in this article).

Donna and the Doctor aren’t the same – Donna’s great at seeing what the Doctor misses when he’s distracted by all of space and time. But they are equals. And this makes for richer storytelling, with the two leads bouncing off of each other – offering the writers opportunities for more complex story lines and a nuanced, fascinating relationship that’s more real and more thrilling than any of the standard tropes out there.

Yes, I’m saying Dr. Who was a better show when (and precisely because) it was feminist.

I love the specifics of Donna’s brilliance. Martha Jones, the previous companion, was a medical student, and that’s how we were supposed to know she’s smart – she’s over-educated. Donna, on the other hand, is an office temp from Chiswick. She uses the smarts she developed in this job repeatedly in her adventures with the Doctor, consistently baffling him with her insight. Working class girl saves the universe!

Rose, Donna, and MarthaIn a media landscape where we too often see women competing for men, Donna’s lady-on-lady friendships rule. Female solidarity is Donna’s default. In her first time travel adventure, “The Fires of Pompeii,” Donna instantly jumps to supporting Evelina, who clearly needs a shoulder to lean on. There’s never any jealousy between Donna and Rose or Martha – and it would have been so easy to write the Rose storyline that way. But no, Donna just reaches out to them and makes them friends right away. Hell, she’s beyond thrilled to see the return of Rose, partly because the Doctor is Donna’s friend and she wants to see him happy. She even befriends the absurdly, stereotypically unintelligent pretty secretary Miss Evangelista in Moffat’s otherwise genius two-parter “Silence in the Library.”

(By the way, I love that the Doctor has companions who look like real women. Billy Piper is gorgeous, and she’s also thin, but in a real person way. I can’t imagine her being cast in Secret Diary of a Call Girl if it was produced in the US, yet she’s actually become a sex symbol. Freema Agyeman is fairly model-y, though a Black companion was certainly an important step. But Catherine Tate is an adult woman, and she’s beautiful, but a far cry from the hungry looking 19-year-olds who jump from the pages of Vanity Fair to the CW.)

Flying the TARDISDonna is extraordinarily empathetic. Empathy is a stereotypical female trait, and I get annoyed when it’s pared with a completely weak character. But empathy can also be a sign of personal strength, of confidence in yourself that let’s you see the humanity in others, instead of being about prioritizing others over yourself like it plays out in so much fiction. Donna’s certainly exposed to some pretty raw emotions, especially the song of the Ood. But she uses her compassion and understanding for others as a source of power, to build solidarity, which is ultimately how she saves the universe. Can you imagine the Doctor so happily sharing the burden of flying the TARDIS with all his companions if it weren’t for Donna?

And then there’s the funny. We’re so used to seeing 20-something models with limited experience cast opposite older men who’ve had the opportunity to hone their craft and win over an audience. No wonder some people think women aren’t funny. Catherine Tate and David Tennant are two actor/comedians at the top of their game in series 4. Getting to watch them play off each other is an absolute thrill. I mean seriously, “The Unicorn and the Wasp” (the Agatha Christie episode)? I actually died laughing during the poison scene. I am dead now.

Donna kisses the Doctor to shock his system in The Unicorn and the Wasp

It works cause it’s not romantic

Series 4 ended with the Doctor Donna storyline, when Donna takes on the Doctor’s abilities as well as her own. A story that highlights the strengths as well as the flaws of both characters (a human propensity to violence and the Time Lord’s growing god complex), and shows they, and the Doctor’s whole community of companions, are at their most brilliant when working together. I imagine there’s a feminist critique of the fact that Donna can’t maintain her grasp on all of space and time and must have her mind wiped. But honestly I can’t watch the series 4 finale without weeping straight through, so I’m not the one to bring critique here.

Donna Noble has become my favorite fictional feminist hero, someone who embodies traits I admire and is also hugely entertaining to watch. The Doctor and Donna really had the best of times. The best.

and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

12 Comments

  1. Posted December 22, 2011 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    Aw, I’ve been telling people all week (um, Doctor Who has come up a lot) that Donna Noble is my favorite Companion, and you nail all the reasons why. She doesn’t take any BS from him, and when he’s at his coldest and most alien, she brings compassion and humanity to their missions. And she’s hilarious. I know a lot of people like Amy, but she seems so flat to me in comparison.

  2. Posted December 22, 2011 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been catching up on doctor who this winter break and you’re absolutely right: Donna is amazing! I think she’s my favorite companion. great post!

  3. Posted December 22, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    I love everything this post chooses to be. <3 Donna is such a BAMF, and the comedic chemistry between Tate and Tennant is phenomenal. (Though I have to admit, Rose is still my favorite New!Who companion for reasons I can't quite understand. Donna is a very, VERY close second, however.)

  4. Posted December 23, 2011 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    I love Donna to little bitty pieces, but I am kind of tired of the “if you’re a woman/feminist you dislike Amy/Moffat, and if you disagree you’re either a dude or not feminist enough” thing that keeps getting trotted out in these discussions. I am a woman. I am a feminist. I am a fan of Doctor Who. I really, really, really, loved Donna- to the point that what happened to her turned me off the show- but I also love Amy, and the recent seasons of Doctor Who have been my favorite. I actually had more qualms about the depiction of women under RTD, but that is neither here nor there.

    So, I don’t know. I guess this comment is an “I exist! I have perfectly valid reasons for disagreeing, and I am not a weird outlier or secretly harboring misogynistic tendencies. I know many women who are huge fans of the show but who also love Moffat’s run a lot more than Russell T Davies’.”

    • Posted December 23, 2011 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

      I’m hearing this a lot! I’d love to read a positive feminist take on Amy Pond. Because I totally get loving the past couple seasons of Dr. Who (I still love the show! There’s a lot to love!), and even being a big Amy Pond fan. But I can’t imagine a feminist defense of Amy.

      • Posted December 24, 2011 at 5:00 am | Permalink

        Bear with me here, I’ve got a ferocious headache and am not sure fi this will make total sense. In some ways it is a contrast thing. I don’t want to say there aren’t problems, because there totally are. It’s just that the problems of Moffat’s series rasped against my soul a lot less than the problems of RTD’s era. So I was kind of surprised by the love that Martha and Rose get in comparison to Amy- or rather, that they are praised in comparison to Amy- because in many of the criticisms, I don’t see an appreciable difference (especially in the being saved vs saving…I’m fairly sure that on an episode-by-episode basis, Amy would be right on par). I was SO frustrated by the fact that Martha and Rose both seemed to fall into the role of the schoolgirls with a crush, pining away, following the Doctor around like lost puppies. This is part of the reason I LOVED Donna- she wasn’t the pining type. She said what she thought, went after what she wanted, and called the Doctor on his crap. And Martha became a lot more interesting when she showed up after walking away. They always seemed such thin characters to me, too. I never was able to get a sense of who they were outside a sort of checklist of traits that did very little to make the role anything more than that of the wide-eyed ingenue. They usually came off poorly in contrast to some of the one-off characters, at least to me: Cassandra (in the episode where she was played by Billie Piper), Harriette Jones, Reinette, Donna (who started out as a one-off) and even the reappearance of Sarah Jane Smith. Even when there was infatuation, they just seemed to be people beyond that.

        Which is not to write off Martha and Rose all together, just that these were things I thought about during those series, and why I loved Donna so much in all her brashness and manic ridiculousness and bravery and warmth. I loved her for her flaws, because they made her real. I loved that her dynamic with the Doctor was one much more of peers. I was deeply uncomfortable with the way her story was resolved, especially in that the show played it as tragic, but not wrong…and that when she does pop up again, it’s to fall unconscious so she can be rescued.

        So you must be thinking, “what the hell does this have to do with Amy,” and this is where I get to that. First, I love that Amy isn’t in love with the Doctor. He’s a fantasy for her, but not one of happily ever after. He’s like the equivalent of running away to join the circus. I love that she actually just tried to jump his bones, even if the scene was problematic in other ways, and that she’s portrayed as a sexual being, and while it’s sometimes used in displays of immaturity, it’s not…bad. She’s depicted as sexy, but it’s not, you know ‘accidental’, it’s clearly something she revels in, rather than just IS, if that makes sense.

        She’s not pining, she’s direct, and she she isn’t the chaste, lovesick heroine. I actually kind of liked her immaturity, because it isn’t static- it’s her story. She runs off to never-neverland but eventually realizes that she’s not afraid of growing up- adulthood isn’t something that is mutually exclusive with adventure. And then she starts to see the cost of the Doctor playing Peter Pan -I don’t mean the whole River thing, necessarily, but more the way he shies away from the consequences of his actions- and begins to grow beyond him. She learns she can’t always be waiting.

        I guess it is all in how you frame it. I’ve read a lot of complaints about the whole wedding thing with Amy, about the whole Rory vs the Doctor thing, but those aspects didn’t really bother me because… well, first, there was definitely a fairy-tale framing, and marriage is a very traditional symbol/marker/border/gateway-thingy of adulthood. More importantly, I didn’t really see it as actually being played as a love-triangle. It always struck me as more symbolic, especially in the way the show shifts its view of Rory and the Doctor. Their characters don’t really change, but are thrown into different lights. Staid turns into steadfast, footloose becomes faithlessness.

        I guess after all the meandering tl:dr the best way I can say it is that I sometimes felt that Martha and Rose’s stories revolved around making or attempting to keep the Doctor as the pillar around which their lives rotated…you know, trying to live up to the Doctor, to fulfill the role of companion….grr, I can’t think of how to put it, so let me just say it this way: I appreciated that Amy’s story has been about outgrowing the Doctor. She doesn’t need him to be awesome (like Donna, though Donna’s finale kind of broke that message a bit). Letting him become the center of her life, her hopes, her obsession is shown as a bad thing. I appreciated that. I also liked that despite the kind of women-cliches that crop up, she strikes me as having more of a personality than sometimes has been the case. And I really liked that when we saw her mom, she had a good relationship with her and her mother wasn’t a shrew.

        • Posted December 24, 2011 at 11:14 am | Permalink

          Wow, really fascinating take on Rose/Martha/Amy, thank you! Gonna think about that one.

          Oh, and since I didn’t get into it too much in the OP, let me add that I agree re: Donna’s mind wipe. If I may jump fandoms for a second, Buffy taught me just how fucked up that can be:

          Willow: Tara, I didn’t mean to-
          Tara: To what? Violate my mind like that? How could you, Willow? How could you after what Glory did to me?

        • Posted December 24, 2011 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

          I think you’ve said quite a lot of the things I wanted so badly to say. I don’t get the Amy hatedom, either. Yes, there are problematic aspects. I don’t count her sexuality as among them — one can be sexual and also a strong, independent woman. Let us please remember that the official word has Rory taking HER name, not the other way around. Let us also remember that, in her very first adventure with the Doctor in another time and place, Amy saw something CRUCIAL that the Doctor didn’t, something that prevented him from making a mistake that he would have regretted until the end of eternity. Let us remember that she was the one who talked a certain gentleman into embracing his humanity in defiance of everything else he was. Let us remember that the Girl Who Waited was shown, in a certain episode, to grow into more of an absolute badass than she already was. Sometimes she needed to be rescued — but sometimes she needed to save the Doctor, too.

          Is she the most feminist companion ever? No, I don’t quite think so. But she’s not quite as frustrating as early Rose (who I came to love as she grew) or poor, pining Martha (who I like quite a bit, looking back, most of all because she gave up her crush and moved on, and was actually the better for it) or even early Donna (who came off, as has been pointed out above, as a stereotypical shrew). But this is the story of all the companions: they meet the Doctor, and they learn from him, they grow…and as they do, he learns from them, too. The Doctor is the man who makes people better; he is also a man improved by the company he keeps. (And someday, I still hope, the Doctor will be a woman whom we can describe in much the same way.) In knowing the Doctor — and Amy — Rory became the Lone Centurion. And Amy? Amy became more than the Girl Who Waited: she became the woman who faced down impossible trials and emerged with her defiant, self-confident, good-humored spirit intact.

          • Posted December 30, 2011 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

            So I am also a Doctor Who nerd and a feminist, and I really love Amy Pond. I think a lot of the comments about Donna above can also be applied to Amy. Like Donna, we know she’s smart because we see her behave intelligently and thinks on her feet. In the Beast Below she figures out what to do when the Doctor couldn’t come up with a better solution than lobotomizing an innocent creature. Like Donna, her default mode is also female solidarity. When first meeting River she immediately takes a liking to her instead of reacting with jealousy like she easily could have. In other episodes, like The God Complex, she got on well with female characters who she could have chosen to view as a threat, but didn’t. In the episode with the Flesh people, she doesn’t react jealously when Rory takes an interest in helping out one of the girls there. Jealousy just doesn’t seem to be in her repertoire of emotions because she’s self-confident enough not to take other women as threats to her.
            Like Donna, she doesn’t take any crap from the Doctor. In The Doctor’s Wife, when Rory tries to reassure her that the Doctor will be fine by saying that he’s a time lord, Amy responds “That’s just what they’re called. It doesn’t mean he actually knows what he’s doing.” She does tend to idolize him, but this doesn’t feel like gender dynamic to me, but more just the dynamic that would naturally exist between a young woman and the man who was her childhood hero and imaginary friend. By the end of season six she has learned to stop idolizing him, and understands that he is just as deeply flawed as she is. Moreover, even when she’s still in her stage of idolizing him, she never blindly follows his orders or allows herself to be dominated by him. She always maintains her independence and integrity.
            I don’t think her marriage story was played in a stereotypical way, and I thought was much better handled than Donna’s. Donna openly admits to “only wanting to find a man” multiple times, and in Turn Left she turns down a good job opportunity in favor of a bad, temporary job where she might meet a rich man. She has three men she nearly or does marry over the course of the show, which is treated as an ultimate goal of hers. Amy on the other hand is engaged to a wonderful man who she loves very much, but she’s also aware of other goals in her life. She thinks she might want to sleep around and explore her sexuality more before settling down into a presumably monogamous marriage. She wants to see the universe. She holds off from the marriage precisely because she does have other things in her life besides wanting to be a wife. When she does marry him, it’s because she knows she can have both her adventuring and her husband, and she marries him only after being absolutely sure that he is what she wants. She knows that she can still explore and see new things while married. I hated how in Donna’s storyline, marriage seemed to be the happy ending, whereas for Amy, her marriage is just another part of her life, and not by any means the whole story.
            I love that she’s openly sexual, and is never once derided or demeaned for it. Rory always seems comfortable with her sexuality, despite her job involving her frequently kissing other men, and while he does suffer from insecurity, it doesn’t blame it on the fact that she’s a sexual person, he blames it on his own problems.
            Amy is also brave, often stupidly so. In The Time of Angels she insists on toughing through her problem until it becomes impossible to ignore. In the same episode she also tries to force the Doctor to leave her and let her die when she thinks her own death is inevitable. In the next episode the Doctor forces her to do something both terrifying and dangerous: walk through the forest with her eyes closed, surrounded by angels. She’s terrified, but he trusts her ability to do it, and she works through her fear and walks anyways. One thing I love about her, and most recent Who companions actually, is that they’re never forced to choose between femininity and strength/bravery. They are all, to varying degrees, both brave and feminine, and the show doesn’t feel the need to portray them as masculine or unfeminine in order to make them brave and strong.
            This last thing is what I love about her the most, and why I think she makes such a fantastic companion. It’s also a trait she shares with the Doctor, and one of the traits that I think is most fundamental to his personality. She holds the universe in awe. She goes with him because it’s a big beautiful place and she wants to see it. And it’s the same way with him. Despite nine hundred years of travel, despite seeing everything under the sun twice, he’s never jaded, never bored, never uninterested in what is out there. With Rose and Martha, their joining him felt more like a romantic attempt. With Donna it felt like escapism from her fairly horrible life at home. Amy on the other hand, had a good life that she seemed happy with. She joined him because she shares his love and awe of the universe.
            Am I saying Amy is always a wonderful role model or a feminist character? No. But I don’t think she’s un-feminist either. She’s written as a complete, whole woman, and I don’t think that any of the accusations being thrown at her apply to her any more than to any of the other companions. Yes, she has to be saved a lot. It comes in the job description. What I think is ultimately important is that she’s written as a real character who evolves and changes.

  5. Posted December 24, 2011 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Wanna know the official reason that Martha ended up with Mickey?

    RTD thought it would be *hilarious* that Martha ended up with the last name Martha Smith-Jones.

    That’s it. By that logic they would have married Martha off to Sarah Jane, and it would have made as much sense.

    Personally, I think the greatness of Donna was overplayed by RTD, much the same way as the greatness of Rose was overplayed.

    • Posted December 24, 2011 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

      …Martha/Sarah Jane is now my OTP. I love Mickey, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t see him working with Martha. Sarah Jane and Martha on the other hand…I love to think of them growing old together, still going on adventures and saving the world whenever the Doctor is out and Torchwood can’t be bothered.

      In related news, this all reminds me of how very much I miss Elisabeth Sladen. Our Sarah Jane. :(

  6. Posted December 31, 2011 at 3:29 am | Permalink

    I’m coming late to the Donna Noble party but I agree completely! I think she’s fabulous and funny and the perfect companion for the Doctor. She balances him and reminds him so often of all the reasons he loves humans and I think that’s precisely what the show needed after Martha essentially just let him drag her along for the ride. I love that Donna doesn’t take sh*t. If she doesn’t like something the Doctor is doing she just says something. I love the way these two play off each other. Really, it’s lovely.
    As for the new seasons I can say I love Matt Smith and I love Rory (I know, I know, a feminist who loves Rory? I can’t help it. He touches all those ooey gooey parts inside me and I honestly can’t move past that to give him a real good feminist looking at. I’ve tried. But it always comes crashing up against, “But he waited for her for thousands of years! And he’s got that great hair that you love so much! Don’t you wish you knew a dude with hair that did that and was all lanky?” and I pretty much derail myself right then and there) and I even love Amy (though I do also find her problematic, especially since her major character attribute is that she waits. She waits a lot. She’s basically always waiting. Except that one time where she was simultaneously waiting and being waited for…in a box). The newest seasons of Doctor Who have really hit a lot of buttons for me and as such I’m not ready to step back from them and offer any insights into how I square my feminism with the problems I see in the episodes outside of, “Matt Smith is funny. I like Amy. Rory still has good hair.”

189 queries. 0.537 seconds