Donna Noble: How to Be Shameless and Take Up Space (In Space!)
It’s a Saturday night in 2010 and I’m sandwiched between two fellow “nerds” on an overstuffed couch at a friend’s house. Their mom is making a family sized pan of nachos in the kitchen, while they queue up Doctor Who on the TV. I’m fifteen, bad at math, overexcited by new interests, and louder than I mean to be.
The refuge fondly named “Nerd Night” is an opportunity to escape for a few hours into the BBC’s beloved sci-fi series, Doctor Who. (Currently available to watch on HBO.) Here, we’re not awkward high schoolers who are plagued by acne and changing voices. Here we are bonded by shared love of the wibbly-wobbly, timey-whimey chaos of a 900 year-old alien and his spaceship disguised as a 1950’s police call box. Here, loving geeky space adventures make us cool instead of strange.
Enter Donna Noble (played by the amazing and underrated Catherine Tate). She explodes onto the screen during the 2006 Christmas Special episode, “The Runaway Bride.” Loud. Rough. Abrasive. A woman, accidentally snatched from her wedding by alien science and thrust into the adventurous shenanigans of The Doctor. Little do I know, the redhead, who is entirely unimpressed with the Doctor’s charm, is the fourth season’s companion. My friends begin to moan at the screen.
“Why is she yelling so much?”
“Oh my god, she’s so annoying!”
“Ugh, just be quiet already!”
I nod and roll my eyes when they look to me for agreement. But she commands my focus as she howls and demands, utterly uninterested in the clever remarks typical of the Doctor in situations like this. So loud. So annoying. Just like me. I feel a tightening in the center of my chest, as if this woman has reached inside and gripped me by the heart. She takes up too much space, her volume control needs work, and nearly everyone in the episode thinks she’s pathetic. So, why do I like her so much?
Nerd Night proceeds and I’m quiet, convinced that my friends must be right, and I must be mistaken. The show continues and I make it my comfort show, repeating the series once a year or whenever I feel particularly stressed. Though Donna Noble graces my screen on a regular basis, I ignore that tight feeling in my chest.
It’s my junior year of college. I’m still bad at math. Luckily it doesn’t matter: I’m an English major. My self-awareness has moved from “unbearable” to “healthy and grounded” (or so my therapist assures me). My crushes are still iffy, but hey, I’m trying. Once again, it’s a Saturday night. I’ve been invited to a party, but my introversion is getting the better of me. Rather than cancel, I turn to my trusty comfort show. I hit play and settle in for an hour of peace before I’ll enter a sea of red solo cups.
The 2008 opening episode, “Partners in Crime,” begins. The Doctor is back to his usual antics—investigating odd occurrences that only he would be clever enough to notice. Except he isn’t the only one to notice. Miss Donna Noble, mimicking the Doctor’s own investigative methods, is working at the problem too. Soon, purely by accident, both are eavesdropping on a secret conversation from windows on opposite sides of a room. They see each other, and—
That tightening in my chest returns. Only now, looking at Donna Noble as she and the Doctor pantomime absurdly through the glass at each other, I understand why. Why I loved her so much, why I took it personal whenever people said they hated her.
She’s unashamed to take up space.
She’s middle-aged, full figured, obstinate, loud, and entirely uninterested in being swept up by the Doctor. Yet they develop a deep and honest friendship anyway. When they see each other again, there’s disbelief, but there’s also joy and excitement. Their reunion is a culmination of the Doctor’s natural flow from crisis to crisis, and Donna’s ability to treat herself as a main character despite thinking of herself as unimportant. Her personality is a set of skills that allows her to care deeply for everyone and everything. It gives her the confidence to actively pursue her own character arc, outside of the Doctor’s storyline, in the time between their first meeting and their reunion. She continues that journey throughout her season, refusing to become smaller, refusing to be quiet, and always, always caring.
I am in shock from the bombastic woman who is so clearly proud of herself for doing what the main character has done, all without the help of a time travelling phone box or almost a thousand years of knowledge. Unlike the other companions, she seems to carry on as a whole and complex woman even when she’s on her own. She isn’t waiting for the Doctor to jump start her life. She uses her boldness and empathy to do it herself. Her attention to the things that are ordinary, small, unimportant to the hero’s eye, often prove to be the very things that save the day. Her emotional vulnerability gives her the ability to be compassionate, and even reveal her own desire to be loved and understood, to make her family proud of her. She takes what could be embarrassing, and makes it into a strength, knowing it’s part of what makes her deserving of love. She does all of this without dissolving into the background of the main character’s development arc. She is a temp from Chiswick, who is too much too often, entirely ordinary, and constantly takes up space in the wonderous sci-fi universe. And, for her season, she is also the most important woman in the world.
Everyone’s first response was “why is she yelling?” Wasn’t that people’s response to me when I was excited about something? She wasn’t a size two, unlike every heroine on the CW back then, and neither was I. Her thighs rubbed together. So did mine. Her arms weren’t toned or thin. Neither were mine. And Donna wanted to be loved. So. Badly. Wasn’t that what I wanted too?
She was me. Without the shame.
I loved her because I didn’t understand how to love the high schooler with the too-loud voice, a passion for books, and an excitement for life that was just “too much.” I could see my flaws in her but also a magnificent shameless version of myself. That recognition seized me by the chest, pulling me towards bravery. I didn’t understand, but seeing Donna Noble’s demand to be loved without being less—I loved her for it.
I slip on my shoes as the episode concludes and head out to join my friends.
It’s time to be me, shamelessly. Allons-y!
Kat McClain is a queer fiction writer from the Pacific Northwest. She earned her B.A. in English from Western Washington university before moving to California to earn her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University – Los Angeles. She now resides in LA with her cat, Thackery Binx, where she works as a freelance copywriter and is writing her first novel.