I have been thinking about Donna Noble a lot recently. Ok, I think about Donna Noble a lot of the time. It’s not everyday that one is presented with so perfect a tragic character. And boy am I a sucker for tragic characters!
Recently, after having the opportunity to meet Catherine Tate at Awesome Con last month, I’ve been rewatching Doctor Who and reevaluating Donna’s character. There are a few key aspects to Donna that I had missed in previous viewings.
Donna is the empowering woman we should all strive to be. She does not treat other women as competition. As much as I love Rose and Martha, both of them fell into the trap of seeing other women as a challenge to their romantic interests in the Doctor. Because Donna doesn’t have any romantic interest in the Doctor, she does not exhibit the same jealousy. Instead, Donna takes joy in the Doctor’s potential reunion with Rose at the end of season four. Donna delights each time that she meets a new woman. She is thrilled to meet Agatha Christie, and goes out of her way to encourage her (The Unicorn and the Wasp). Donna and Martha become fast friends (The Sontaran Stratagem). Donna encourages Miss Evangelista (Silence in the Library) after the others insult the young woman’s intelligence. Donna encourages the Doctor to give Jenny a chance (The Doctor’s Daughter). Throughout her series, Donna Noble is an empowered woman that seeks to empower the women around her. It is a beautiful thing to watch.
Donna is not the ‘desperate to marry’ woman that I thought she was. All of the times that I’ve watched Doctor Who, I’ve always felt that Donna was that woman who was desperate to get married. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with having such a desire. As long as the characters are acting with agency I’m (mostly) happy. However, after Rose and Martha’s desires to be with the Doctor, I was worried that the show was pigeon-holing women as relationship-dependent. It is easy to think Donna fits into this mold. When we are first introduced to her, it is the day of Donna’s wedding. She spends the entire Christmas special in a wedding dress. Similarly, Donna’s last scene shows her finally getting married to a decent guy. When you consider the simulated-reality in “Forest of the Dead,” that’s three times that we see Donna Noble in a wedding dress. However, to dismiss Donna as a woman who is desperate to marry is to ignore a very important part of a characterization – a part that I’m embarrassed it took me this long to pick up on.
Donna doesn’t want to be married. Donna wants to be validated. The old Donna views marriage as the tool for achieving this goal. As soon as she meets the Doctor, Donna has no use for marriage or romantic entanglements. She even tells Martha “I’m going to travel with that man forever”. Since Donna shows no interest in romantic attachment while traveling with the Doctor, then it’s logical to assume that Donna had no intentions of marrying while she was a companion. Donna came into her own with the Doctor. She did amazing things and, in the very last moments, found her own worth (even though we’d seen it all along). This is evident when she tells the Doctor that she doesn’t want to go back to the way that she used to be.
In what is one of the saddest character endings I’ve ever witnessed, Donna’s memory is wiped and she’s reduced back to the woman she was at the beginning of the series – a woman incapable of seeing her own worth. It’s a rare day when I leave a show thinking that it would have been more merciful for them to kill off my favorite character.
In “The End of Time,” the Doctor visits all of his companions for a final farewell. We see Donna walking out of a church, having just married Sean. She is overjoyed, seemingly the happiest that she’s ever been. When the camera angle switches to the Doctor, he is visibly upset.
Because the scene is from the Doctor’s POV and not Donna’s, the Doctor’s emotions set the tone. We realize that Donna’s marriage is the consolation prize for her never being able to remember the Doctor. Sean will love and respect her – but she’ll never love and respect herself. Not the way that she did when she was with the Doctor. The theme is cemented further when you realize that the Doctor and Donna are separated by a cemetery (Donna’s figurative death).
Donna was never a woman desperate to marry. Donna is a woman restricted by the belief that she can only find value and validation through marriage. That is the second tragedy of Donna’s ending.