It's entirely possible that my entire view of The Runaway Bride was different to that of most UK viewers simply because of one simple thing. I'm an American (and let me take a moment to apologize for the entirety of our foreign policy since... I don't know... let's say 1978), and prior to The Runaway Bride I had never heard of Catherine Tate and wouldn't have known her if I had tripped over her in the street. (Although I would, of course, have stopped to apologize. I was just raised that way)
In any case, I had absolutely no preconceptions about who Catherine Tate was or the kind of things she did. Therefore, whereas most of the UK viewers seemed to watch her in this and think "Oh, Catherine Tate is doing her comedy shouty character", I didn't have that point of reference to start from and just watched her as I would any actor. I think that if you can watch The Runaway Bride without any preconceived ideas regarding "the kind of things that Catherine Tate does" than you can't help but see some incredibly touching and quiet moments. That beneath the shouty exterior that Donna (not Catherine Tate) puts up there is a woman who is sweet, and kind, and very, very alone.
I'll just say it right here and get it out of the way. I adored Donna, and I'm thrilled that we get to see her again.
The plot of TRB is... well, it ain't Shakespeare. The Mean-Santadroids kind of mulled around looking menacing without ever really needing to be there and when you come right down to it there's really absolutely sod-all rhyme or reason behind the Christmas Tree of Death (a possible title for the Christmas special 2008?) The Santas and the Christmas Baubles are there... well, they're just decoration, aren't they? They're pretty, and they make the kids feel all Christmas-y inside, but they aren't really what Christmas or the Christmas special is ultimately about. When you get right down to it this episode is all about the smaller moments. The little moments of kindness that are so easy to miss when you're distracted by knowing Catherine Tate well before you met Donna.
The story, when you come down to it is: the Doctor is lonely and alone (and yes, I know we're all sick to the teeth already of the mooning over Rose even by this point, but it's important for the heart of the story) He meets Donna, who is even lonelier and alone, even though she's about to get married and it should be the happiest day of her life.
Because you see, on some level Donna KNOWS that her chance of happily ever after is built on lies. You can see it in the scene on the roof when she relates the story of how she and Lance met. It's all self-deception and "put on a happy face and pretend it's all OK." Donna is a woman who's been very alone for a very long time and has learned to be pushy and aggressive as a way to show people that she matters. That she can take care of herself. That she's even in the fucking room, for Christ's sake (and we get SO many clear examples of how her family and friends just really, fundamentally, don't give a shit when it all comes down to it. And every time it happens you can see in Donna's eyes - thanks to Catherine Tate's performance - that SHE sees it very clearly.) Catherine Tate's performance is really very touchingly nuanced, but if the shouty side of Donna's personality is similar to a comedy shouty character that she traditionally does (I'm guessing it is; I honestly don't know) then it's easy to see how one would be so used to that character that you wouldn't even look for the details.
So yes, the incidental music is a little bit brash, and the villainess is a little bit bwa-ha-ha. And the Doctor's ultimate solution to the problem is a little bit convenient and relies entirely on a completely pointless side plot of the villainess earlier on. The pedant in me also feels the need to point out that according to Inferno the entire planet should be melting to slag well before Boxing Day... Not that that matters, but I do fully expect a novel at some point which reveals that it's really super-energized spider shit from the dawn of the Earth that turns nice scientists into ape-men as it seeps up through the ground. Actually, there might be a Big Finish script in that...
But set against all of those things that might write this one off as "lite entertainment with no real depth", you also have to remember the little moments that make the whole thing MEAN something. The little moments are what actually make life mean something, when you get right down to it.
- At Donna's darkest moment, when all the lies she's told herself to pretend she's happy and loved are stripped away (in what is really one of the cruelest scenes that Doctor Who has ever done... And the look on Donna's face as she's forced to just stand there and listen... heartbreaking) At that moment, the Doctor goes out of his way to show her a moment of kindness, and it's so easy to not even notice at the time. Certainly Donna misses it, but it's there all the same. It's right there in the words "Oh well. Maybe your way is best" as he leaves the scanner screen which has always been perfectly adequate to him and goes to the door. That moment is in no way about having a better view or a neater special effect. It's about the Doctor saying to Donna "hey, you had a really good idea earlier, and it's better than my way of doing things, and we're going to do it your way." It's pretty subtextual, but it's definitely there.
- When Donna could very justifiably give in to anger and take a moment of schadenfreude (which I may not have spelled correctly) at the ultimate come-uppance of the one who done her wrong, she can't do it. Or more accurately, she won't do it. She's too kind and too good a person to take the moment. She tries... you can see she wants to. But instead we get a very quiet "No, he didn't" which very nearly makes me cry every single time I watch it because it's just such a beautifully selfless and self aware moment for her.
- When Donna turns down the Doctor's offer to travel with her (which isn't a spoiler as we all knew about Freema already at the time - and as a side note, wasn't Freema fabulous as well?) she gets every opportunity to sidestep a difficult conversation as the Doctor tries to brush off her refusal casually and just move on with his life. But she can't let the moment go unsaid, because she likes him, and she knows that he needs and deserves the truth. So she insists on telling him why. She isn't cruel, she seems to go out of her way to avoid hurting him as she tells him, but she respects him too much to not be honest. The range of things that she expresses just with the words "And then you make it SNOW" is just off the charts.
- "If I'm lucky."
It's these quiet little moments of genuine love, respect, compassion and friendship that make The Runaway Bride for me. Just as it's those same little moments that really make Christmas. And life.