A fate worse than marriage

Spoilers for season 4 of Doctor Who

This is a guest post by the fabulous Carmen Maria Machado! It was previously paywalled, but now it’s free! Tomorrow, for subscribers: the divine Marissa Brostoff on HBO’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend.

We are introduced to Donna Noble in the Doctor Who reboot’s season three Christmas special, when the Doctor accidentally abducts her while walking down the aisle on her wedding day. The first five minutes of the episode are among the most deeply satisfying in the entire show, as an outraged Donna screams at the Doctor’s mopey wide-eyed muppet-face to take her back, take her home. She is furious and yelling and demands to know where she is.

“It’s called the TARDIS,” the Doctor says, unhelpfully.

“That’s not even a proper word!” she shouts. “You’re just saying things.”

It’s funny because so rarely in this show are the tables turned this way; the Doctor’s cleverness—which the male showrunners manifest as an arrogant and garbled linguistic grab-bag, so nonsensical it seems improvised—flummoxed by the bluntness of fact-stating and righteous anger. It is one of the most honest and hilarious lines in the entire show. He is, in fact, just saying things.

Anyway. During this episode, it’s revealed that Donna’s husband-to-be, Lance, who she has been viewing as the antidote to her otherwise miserable life, does not love her at all but was with her as part of a plot being orchestrated by the Empress of the Racnoss, a monstrous alien race of spider-beings bent—naturally—on world domination. Worse than that, he views her with nothing but contempt. (“God, she's thick. Months I've had to put up with her. Months. A woman who can't even point to Germany on a map… And then I was stuck with a woman who thinks the height of excitement is a new flavor Pringle. Oh, I had to sit there and listen to all that yap yap yap. Oh, Brad and Angelina. Is Posh pregnant? X Factor, Atkins Diet, Feng Shui, split ends, text me, text me, text me. Dear God, the never-ending fountain of fat, stupid trivia. I deserve a medal.”)

Even after they save the world, Donna is still wounded by this realization. She declines the Doctor’s offer to travel and returns to her existence as a single temp from Cheswick who lives with her mother and has shitty friends.

A full season later, Tate returns to the show, when the Doctor discovers that a weight-loss supplement company he’s been investigating—as it turns out, run by aliens who turn human fat into tiny baby aliens—is also being investigated by Donna. She is still the woman who cannot make love work, or work work but she is trying. This time, she goes with him.

Catherine Tate plays Donna hard and fast along the boundary of hilarity and tenderness. Donna is first companion in the Doctor Who reboot who isn’t incredibly young and doesn’t fall madly in love with the him. And she isn’t, at first, particularly kind or good or curious or thoughtful or self-actualized. She’s rude and afraid. More than anything, she’s afraid.  

But—as her and the Doctor travel time and space together—it turns out Donna has been seeking the part of herself that connects to other people. Season four of Doctor Who is transcendent; a near-flawless arc of character development wherein Donna faces down her choices and realizes she has been looking for a reason to care. She follows the Doctor to Pompeii just before its fateful explosion and implores him to save someone, anyone. He takes her to a planet where the Ood—a telepathic, Cthulhu-faced society who carry their brains in their hands—have been enslaved and turned into sentient Apple products by the human race. The Doctor gives her the ability to hear their mournful song, and horrified and overwhelmed by her own sadness she begs him to take it away. She follows him to an interstellar library with carnivorous shadows, where she becomes trapped in a computer and lives out a perverse and surreal version of her once-fantasy life until she is rescued. She misses the events of an entire episode (“Midnight”) because she’s at an alien spa and doesn’t want to leave. She becomes less afraid. She learns that a good life is not about achieving random milestones; it’s about realizing that you are a center puzzle piece, that we are all center puzzle pieces. (It’s also about occasionally eschewing FOMO and sapphire waterfalls for alien massages, the greatest lesson of all.)

I began watching the reboot of Doctor Who at a time in my life when I didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself. I’d just graduate from college and moved to California. I was lonely, sad, struggling to find work. I stayed inside a lot. This was before the days of streaming platforms; I downloaded episodes of the show from weird international websites and gave my computer more than one virus. That version of myself—twenty-two, miserable—loved her. In her I saw myself: selfish, imperfect, uncertain. Suspecting, no-so-secretly, that I’d failed. Wondering if I’d ever locate my purpose. Trying to locate my mind.  

*

At the end of her season, after Donna has grown and shaped the very universe, there is a terrible accident. She is filled with the power of the TARDIS, and a prophecy that has been echoing throughout her episodes comes to pass: she becomes part Timelord, “The Doctor-Donna.” But, the Doctor tells her, such a thing cannot be. Her human mind will not be able to handle it. If he doesn’t wipe her memory of their time together—and the person she became in the process—she will die.

The final part of that episode is, to my mind, one of the most traumatic minutes of modern television. Donna pleads with the Doctor. Not for her life, but for her mind. “Don’t make me go back,” she gasps, “please. Please.” She is begging him: Don’t make me go back to the way I was before. But it is, narratively speaking, the only cure. The Doctor does what she’d demanded he do the first time they met, when she showed up on the TARDIS unbidden: He sends her back. He reaches out his hand and unmakes what she became in between. He unmakes her.

The first time I saw this episode, I screamed. I didn’t even realize I was doing it until I noticed that I was standing up out of my computer chair, howling through great big ugly sobs.

I didn’t know what I was experiencing. Now, I do. It was grief. I was grieving.

*

There is, among the many sexist tropes that infect science fiction and fantasy, a particularly pervasive one that seems practical for dramatic and logistical purposes but when tilted to the side reveals a great ugliness about how we think about female characters: their minds are expendable, interchangeable, as long as their bodies are present. It happens twice in Joss Whedon’s Angel (another show I watched during that terrible and weird era of my life): Cordelia’s transition to supernatural baby incubator and Fred’s consciousnesses being scooped out of her body and replaced with a goddess. The actress continues working even though the character is, for all intents and purposes, dead.

As a trope it unsettles me for so many reasons, but I think mostly because I know that if such technology or magic was possible, it’s exactly how our cultural loathing of women would manifest: not just narrative suppression and senseless bodily harm, but literal mind-colonization. We are saved from brain-scooping and memory-erasure only because we live in reality.

I have watched female characters I love be cut down in all manner of ways. I’ve watched them be shot, blown up, die in childbirth, marry men. But I have never seen anything as singularly monstrous and cruel as what was done to Donna. Never. It haunts me. I can’t talk about it without crying. I can’t write about it without crying. I’m crying now.

The worst part, maybe, is how the writers of show placed the burden of Donna’s destiny on fictional circumstances; like they didn’t want to take responsibility for what they’d done. There is a kind of plausible deniability: It was necessary that Donna’s mind was erased. She would have died, otherwise! But it never occurred to anyone that killing her would have been more merciful because she could have died as herself. It never occurred to anyone to ask her what she wanted. 

In Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “I, Borg,” the crew of the Enterprise have a very similar dilemma about a Borg prisoner who has, against all odds, achieved individuality. “If we erase his memory, who he is or who he has become would be destroyed,” Dr. Crusher says. “Isn’t that the point?” Riker says, unconcerned. “He’d be re-assimilated back into the hive without any questions.” Geordi counters, “Does that seem right? To help him become an individual and then take that away from him?” Ultimately, they realize what they have to do. They give him—the Borg, called Hugh—a choice. They ask him what he wants.

We hate women. I don’t need to tell you that. There’s no other explanation for the world we live in.

*

After the murder of Donna’s mind, the Doctor returns her home. He instructs her mother and grandfather not to remind her who she really is, or else her mind will burn up (#metaphor).

“But the whole world's talking about it,” her mother says. “We travelled across space. “

“It'll just be a story. One of those Donna Noble stories, where she missed it all again.”

“But she was better with you,” her grandfather says.

“I just want you to know,” the Doctor says, “there are worlds out there, safe in the sky because of her. That there are people living in the light, and singing songs of Donna Noble, a thousand million light years away. They will never forget her, while she can never remember. And for one moment, one shining moment, she was the most important woman in the whole wide universe.”

Then, the woman who was for one shining moment the most important woman in the whole wide universe bursts through the door. “I was asleep on my bed, in my clothes, like a flipping kid!” she shouts. “What do you let me do that for?” She pulls out her phone and begins to check it. When she sees the Doctor out of the corner of her eye, barely registers him. “Don't mind me. Donna.” She brandishes her phone to her family. “My phone's gone mad. Thirty-two texts. Veena's gone barmy. She's saying planets in the sky. What have I missed now? Nice to meet you.” And she walks out, texting.

A year later, they brought Donna back for another Christmas special, “The End of Time,” and I was certain that it had occurred to someone on the writing staff that her character’s outcome was monstrous and unforgivable. Maybe, I thought, they would work some Doctor Who plot-artifice—parallel universes or alien technology or ancient magic—to undo what they had done.

Donna does, briefly, begin to access her old self. She experiences flashes of her adventures: a giant wasp, an Ood’s eyes, the face of the Empress of the Racnoss). But then a failsafe kicks in, and she falls unconscious. “It’s fine,” the Doctor assures her grandfather—did I mention that her grandfather is, inexplicably, going on all of her adventures now? (#anothermetaphor)—“She’s all right, she’s fine, promise. She’ll just sleep.”

Later, when Donna wakes up on the couch at the end of things, she blinks and says with soft, post-Oz faintness, “I was—what happened?” Then, her voice sharpens to a Donna-ish point. “Did I miss something? Again?”

*

The other companions did fine without the Doctor. Even when they got stuck in parallel universes or the past, or when they died, they still got to be themselves. They became doctors and authors and travelers. They got to see the universe; or, at the very least, retained their memories of seeing the universe. One of them, Clara, almost has her memory wiped by the Doctor, but ultimately she wipes herself from his memory so she can continue on her adventures.

But Donna. Donna got an ending, kind of. In that Christmas special, the second one, she married a kind man and had the wedding she always wanted. The Doctor secretly gave her a winning lottery ticket so she’d never have to work again. The single temp from Cheswick didn’t have to be any of those things anymore.

But she—the woman who had to grow into herself; like me, like all of us—never got her mind back. That was her fate, worse than anything that could be done to her body. She had to remain who she used to be.

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