Anyone who is a fan of Doctor Who knows how exciting and nerve-wracking it is when the Doctor regenerates. We never know what to expect from the new actor, and it’s hard to let go of our feelings for the old ones. Most Doctor Who fans I know have very strong feelings about who ‘their’ Doctor is and why he’s the best (Tennant… just saying).
But I get equally attached to his companions and their journeys. The Doctor’s companions completely transform by the time they leave him, in the way that only traveling through space and time can transform a person.
And most of the Doctor’s companions also graduate from him in a sense. They are always sad to leave him, but they move on to lead fulfilling lives, and often have amazing opportunities presented to them because of their time in the TARDIS. They are able to become better because of their travels.
Except for Donna Noble.
In order to really understand the tragedy of Donna’s story, you have to compare it to those of the other companions. I should mention that I’ve only seen through Season 7 of the Doctor Who reboot, so I can’t speak to the original series or anything that may have happened in Season 8. But even just comparing her to Martha and Rose, it’s clear how far behind them Donna fell.
I think that Martha is Donna’s antithesis. Where Donna is likable despite her abrasive personality, Martha seems to be the most criticized companion even though, as Amber’s article points out, she’s badass in a lot of ways. I think her positive attributes actually contribute to why viewers get frustrated with her. She moons over the Doctor in the same way that I moon over YouTube clips of Benedict Cumberbatch on talk shows – it’s pathetic. Even though she proves over and over again how capable she is, she is stymied by her crush on the Doctor.
So the way she leaves him is pretty incredible. She realizes that staying with him is keeping her from fulfilling her potential, and allows herself to move on from being his companion to a skilled agent in control of her own life.
Donna, on the other hand, becomes stronger through the Doctor. When you first meet her, she’s rude, loud, and selfish. And while she keeps the brashness that is essential to her personality when she becomes a companion, her travels with him prove that she is smart, quick in a crisis, and capable of much more than she thought possible. It’s hard for her to have faith in herself – I lost count of how many times she said some variation of “I’m just a temp from Chiswick” – but you can see her grow under the Doctor’s confidence in her. It becomes clear that her loud personality was a thin cover for insecurity, which the Doctor helps her peel away.
Rose’s graduation from the Doctor is the most romantic – in fact, it’s fairytale-like. She gets to stay with the human version of the Doctor who has all of his memories and thoughts – and only one heart so they can grow old together. She gets what we all wanted for her – a Doctor to love who can love her back and make a life with her. Rose graduates to get it all: a life with her mother, father, and new baby brother, her very own human Doctor, and a job where she can use all the skills she learned while time-traveling. Putting aside the slightly troubling (or awesome, depending) idea that her Doctor is part-Donna, Rose’s future seems pretty perfect.
But even though Donna develops a closer relationship to the Doctor than even Rose – she actually gets access to the inside of his vast brain – she’s forced to forget all of it. She doesn’t get to stay with him forever, sharing his knowledge and helping him save worlds.
Throughout her last episode, Journey’s End, the crazed and evil Dalek Caan keeps laughing about how one of the Doctor’s friends will die. Anyone watching the episode for the first time will bite their nails to the cuticles worrying over who it’s going to be. But at the end of the episode, everyone is alive. Once the Doctor explains that Donna cannot live with a Time Lord brain, though, it becomes clear what Dalek Caan meant. The crisis that allowed Donna to become part-Doctor and save the Earth also killed her, in that her body cannot handle being part Time Lord. She doesn’t have a second heart or regenerative power, so unless the Doctor wipes her memories of all her travels, her brain will fold under the stress. The Donna that travelled with the Doctor has to disappear forever or all of Donna will die.
So when we leave her, she’s alive and home on Earth, but back to seeming rude, loud, and selfish. But that’s tragic not just because we now know what she is capable of, but because we’ve seen that the rudeness stems from insecurity and an inability to believe that she could ever be the most important person in all of space and time – even though she was.
So even though I cried when the Ponds left the Doctor, and I ached for the Doctor when he left Rose with the human copy of himself, to me, Donna’s story is the most tragic of the companions’. All of her growth and transformation is erased, and rather than graduating from her role as one of the Doctor’s companions, she regresses to being the best temp in Chiswick. As the Doctor says, “[the people she saved] will never forget her, but she can never remember” that she was once the most important woman in the universe.
That, to me, is even worse than being shut off in a parallel universe like Rose or being forced to abandon the Doctor like Amy. Because even though they’re sad, they’ll always remember everything they’ve done.
And Donna is left behind, alone.
Laura Jewell writes for Girls in Capes and has a BA in Theatre from Miami University. She currently lives in Chicago and enjoys many fandoms, including her favorites Harry Potter and Doctor Who. Her favorite weekend pastime is curling up with a book and her fifteen-pound orange cat, Orange Cat.