Close Reads

Why “Partners in Crime” Is the Perfect Episode of Doctor Who

Welcome to Close Reads! In this series, Leah Schnelbach and guest authors will dig into the tiny, weird moments of pop culture—from books to theme songs to viral internet hits—that have burrowed into our minds, found rent-stabilized apartments, started community gardens, and refused to be forced out by corporate interests. This time out, Tor.com’s own Books Editor Christina Orlando looks back at an episode of Doctor Who.

To be honest, I am positively feral over David Tennant and Catherine Tate returning to Doctor Who.

Normally, I’d be a little skeptical of this sort of thing. Logically I know that Doctor Who is a show that thrives on a certain amount of fan service and is indebted to a loyal audience that spans generations, which means that faces from previous seasons are going to pop up every once in a while. But I’ve been burned by these sorts of homecomings before. The 50th anniversary episode, featuring some icons of the “new Who” era (David included, and my main girl Billie Piper), was …fine, I guess, with a lot of loose ends left and a lot of timeline fuckery that I, personally, was disappointed by. We’re also in an era where a lot of reunions and reboots are happening. Everything from Gilmore Girls to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is on our screens again. I mean, they’re rebooting Glee for godssakes. When will it end? It makes me want to throw myself into a black hole.

But that’s not the point of this.

Ten and Donna are fan favorites, due in no small part to the chemistry of Tennant and Tate, whose friendship shines through each episode. You can see it whenever they’re on screen together, from David’s turn as the English teacher in The Catherine Tate Show’s iconic Red Nose Day skit to their production of Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare’s hot-annoyance-to-lovers comedy. They just seem to have so much fun together, matching each other with a fast-paced repartee and a sense of sibling-esque teasing. So much of that is brought to their characters, and it’s that sense of fun and camaraderie that makes the DoctorDonna relationship stand out from the rest.

There is no better showcase of that than “Partners in Crime”

We first meet Donna in “The Runaway Bride”, a holiday special that takes place after the brutal loss of Rose Tyler. But the Donna of this episode is very different than the Donna we eventually travel with. In “Runaway Bride”, Donna is suddenly transported aboard the TARDIS in the middle of her wedding, a result of her being dosed with huon particles by her husband-to-be, who is secretly working in conjunction with the Empress of the Racnoss. In her first meeting with the Doctor, Donna is a bit naive, distrustful, and ignorant—she admits to having missed the major events of the previous season, including the alien invasion of the last Christmas special (“I had a bit of a hangover”) and the Battle of Canary Wharf (“That big picture, Donna, you keep on missing it”). She insists on calling the Doctor a Martian, even after he corrects her. And Donna is headstrong to the point of near-abrasiveness—and I’m not going to get into “is she an unlikeable female character” territory because these qualities prove to be strengths—but I do think it’s important to note that Catherine Tate had a long and beloved career in British comedy before coming to Doctor Who, and not everyone would have gotten away with yelling at the Doctor like that.

But Donna changes after meeting The Doctor. Because that’s what an adventure with the Doctor does.

When we meet Donna again, she is actively seeking out potential alien activity in the hopes of finding the Doctor again. She’s investigating Adipose industries, a company selling a diet pill and promising “the fat just walks away”. As it turns out, so is the Doctor. The two of them are on parallel paths just waiting to crash. Quite literally. In the farcical opener, we watch them just barely miss each other—while Donna sits for the Adipose press meeting, the Doctor is in the projection room above. They bother employees just a few cubicles away, popping up over the partitions like time-traveling Whack-A-Mole set to a jaunty score. They interview people on connecting streets, and just as they’re about to reach the corner, they turn and go opposite directions. It’s a sequence that makes you go, wow, look at these two dummies being so dumb together! I love them. And later, we see the Doctor park the TARDIS just behind Donna’s car, a matching blue. Of course, this twinning of their characters is no accident. “Partners in Crime” is subtly preparing us for the rest of the season, in which the Doctor and Donna’s fates become intricately intertwined. Here though, they are simply and beautifully two of a kind, with Tate and Tennant showcasing the very British art of banter.

But the real gem of this episode is The Door Scene.

Having come to Adipose Industries at night to snoop around, the Doctor lowers himself down the building on a window-washers platform to find our antagonist, Miss Foster, interrogating a journalist. Across the way, our Donna stands at the door, listening to the same conversation. Slowly their heads turn. They meet each other’s gaze. And Donna’s face says it all:

The excitement of having found the Doctor again radiates from her as she mimes “oh my GOD, this is BRILLIANT”. In that moment, Donna is finally getting something she has been longing for—her eyes light up, her face is expressive and openly emotional. She forgets all about the Adipose investigation because in that moment, there is nothing more important than the Doctor. And he meets her joy with 50% you’re so weird and 50% what have I gotten myself into, which is pretty much what anyone feels when coming to a new season of Doctor Who.

It is that joy and excitement that transcends—Donna is fucking ELATED to see the Doctor, and so are we as an audience. She’s been waiting for him all this time, chasing leads in the hopes their paths will cross. And now, finally, it’s happened. It is the thrill of endless possibility, the knowledge that quite literally anything could happen from here on out. Because life with the Doctor is unpredictable in the most wonderful way, and all of time and space is now at Donna’s fingertips (and consequently, ours as an audience). She is hungry for something more, something astounding, and wiling to be struck by the beauty and wonder of the universe.

But it’s not all fun and games. Because we see both of them lonely, too. Donna looks up at the stars, wishing for a sighting of the little blue box. The Doctor talks out loud in the TARDIS, only to look up and realize there’s no one there to talk to. They need each other. After the heartbreak of losing Rose and the emotional turmoil of both his encounter with The Master and breaking Martha’s heart, the Doctor needs someone like Donna—a friend, a best friend, someone who can remind him that there is fun yet to be had, and laughter is still possible. We see the Doctor and Donna promise each other friendship right from the start:

Donna: Would you rather be on your own?

The Doctor: No. Actually, no. But, the last time, with Martha, like I said, it got complicated. That was all my fault. I just want a mate.

Donna: You just want to mate?!

The Doctor: I just want A Mate!

Donna: You’re not matin’ with me, sunshine!

The Doctor: A mate, I want a mate!

Donna: Well just as well, because I’m not having any of that nonsense! You’re just a long streak of nothing, alien nothing!

And it’s fucking beautiful.

In “The Runaway Bride”, we see Donna beg a man to marry her, because all her life she has been wanting to be chosen, wanting someone to see how special and worthy she is. Later, in “Partners in Crime”, we see her berated by her mother for wasting her life, for not living according to societal expectations. But Donna knows her time will come. She is waiting, as she tells her grandfather, for “the right man”—not just any man, but the right man, the man who can give her what she needs. Donna knows, deep down, that she’s amazing, and needs only be given the opportunity to shine. When she finds the Doctor again, Donna is the one doing the choosing—she says see how good I am, how worthy, Donna Noble Super Temp, a woman taking charge. She is no longer a passive participant in her own life.

And while she mentions that the promise she made to travel at the end of “Runaway Bride” didn’t exactly go as planned (travel is expensive, so she’s not at fault there), going with the Doctor isn’t simply traveling. She is making the decision to forcibly shove herself out of her comfort zone, to engage with the universe, to open her heart. She can finally see the bigger picture: “I believe it all now, you opened my eyes. All those amazing things out there, I believe them all.” The Donna of “Runaway Bride” was afraid of traveling with the Doctor and the potential danger that might bring (and let’s be honest, the Doctor was in no fit state. He needed to nurse his heartbreak for a while, eat some ice cream straight from the container. He like, fully committed genocide in that episode). But the Donna of “Partners in Crime” knows that the danger is worth it for the wonder.

Donna’s bags are packed. It isn’t just a yes, it is a FUCK YES, with her hat box and running sneakers ready to go. And we, as an audience, are ready to say FUCK YES too.

This is the reason viewers keep coming back to Doctor Who. Our story is Donna’s story—we come to Doctor Who for the endless possibilities, to get rocked out of our mundane little lives, to be scared and thrilled, to be taken to the furthest reaches of our imaginations. The Doctor is a hero for the nerds—he is endlessly curious, his superpowers are his intellect and his capacity for love and acceptance. No matter who his companion is or where they’re at in their lives, the Doctor helps people realize that they’re special, that their skills are useful, and that the brains they have and the bodies they’re in matter. And while the companion is always meant to be an audience stand-in, there is no skepticism or trepidation when Donna enters the TARDIS like there is with other companions. It is simply joy, and wanderlust, and pure, unbridled fun.

When “Partners in Crime” aired in 2008, I was at the height of my Doctor Who fever. I was a freshman in college, incredibly lonely, and in desperate need of escapism.  I suppose this isn’t unusual for a person in their early twenties, but pile on top of that an yet-undiagnosed anxiety disorder, no friends to speak of, and disordered eating habits, and you’ve got a recipe for someone ready to run from home at the slightest nudge. I used to close my eyes and imagine that I could hear the beautiful sound of the TARDIS and I’d finally be able to get out of my stagnant life and travel all of time and space. Cringe? Maybe. But look me in the eye and tell me you’ve never done shit like that. (You’re on Tor.com, you nerd. I know you’re out there cosplaying and roleplaying and fanficing. I know my audience.) And I always felt so jealous of the those who got to travel in the TARDIS. I yearned for more out of this life, like so many of the Doctor’s companions do. The allure of the Doctor as this great mysterious man who will come swoop you up and take you away is part of the appeal of the show, and part of why I clung so tightly to the show’s mythology. When I was alone and unsure, he was always there, reaching a hand out for me to take.

I didn’t realize it then, but Donna is aspirational as a companion. Because actually, it takes a lot of character growth to get to the point Donna is at in this episode: confident in what she wants and feeling capable of going after it. It isn’t ever that she needs emotional support from him, but rather that he’s a means through which she can become the woman she wants to be. It’s clear that Donna has done some work on herself between “Runaway Bride” and “Partners in Crime”, and it is only through that that she is able to approach her time in the TARDIS with such joy and wonder. And isn’t that the way the universe should be experienced?

If there’s anything that the Doctor teaches us, it is that there is so much more out there to experience, if only we’re ready to say yes.

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