Despite the fact that Donna Noble is, in my estimation, one of the best companions from the Doctor Who revival, I admit to a certain amount of scepticism at Big Finish’s announcement of Donna Noble: Kidnapped!. Yes, I love Donna, but in this era of Lady Christina, Jenny: The Doctor’s Daughter, Tales from New Earth, and The Churchill Years, it’s easy to feel oversaturated on unrequested new series spin-offs, even if their focal characters are good ones.
Kidnapped! is set during Series Four, after the library episodes, as Donna spends some time with her mother to recuperate. While the Doctor attempts to give her some space, Donna goes speed dating with her friend Natalie and (of course) discovers an alien plot that sends them both across time and space. It’s thoroughly entertaining stuff, anchored by a cracker of an opening episode. Jacqueline Rayner’s blend of comedy and character is perfectly suited to writing Donna Noble and family and friends in Out of this World, with some great jokes (Donna’s made-up bios during speed-dating), great character moments (Donna’s discussion with Sylvia about why she needs space from the Doctor), and both at once (Sylvia fending off a home intruder with a golf club). The way the alien speed-dating plot unfolds is the perfect Doctor Who mix of the mundane and the fantastic, and really fits the Russell T Davies-era vibe this set is going for. It’s directed by Barnaby Edwards, so of course the casting is immaculate: nothing will convince me that a man is irresistibly sexy on audio like him being played by Anthony Howell.
The middle two episodes send Donna and Natalie off into time and space. These are a mixed bag; John Dorney’s Spinvasion has a clever concept but the overly broad comedy never lands. One feels that had this actually been an RTD-era script, it would have been quite pointed because RTD would have made you feel these characters were real, but the supporting characters in Dorney scripts are often one-dimensional, and this one is no exception. On the other hand, I did quite enjoy James Goss’s The Sorcerer of Albion, a Donna-light story in the middle of a Doctor-light story! Nat has to figure out how to be Donna figuring out how to be the Doctor, all the while contending with a hologram of her obnoxious husband.
The finale by Matt Fitton is fine, though its alien plot never really lands, and neither do the big character moments between Donna and Sylvia. But it has a lot of clever thinking from Donna and Nat, and a quick cameo from James Joyce as a young version of UNIT lead Josh Carter surprised me by being a total delight, as Donna is smitten right away, flustering the poor lad.
The set overall has some conceptual strengths and weaknesses. Too many Big Finish spin-offs seem to do “Doctor Who without the Doctor”, converting their leads into ersatz Doctors and insufficiently differentiating themselves, but Kidnapped! makes that into a virtue, as it’s all about Donna struggling to embody the Doctor. Tate does well with this kind of material, of course, which lends itself to comedy and pathos simultaneously. Niky Wardley is good as Nat, though I find it hilarious that Wardley – previously Bex, Stacey, and Tamsin – has now played a temp for Big Finish four different times! (It does make you wish Big Finish had actually given Tamsin a go in the New Eighth Doctor Adventures, instead of pushing her around in a story arc more focused on Lucie and the Monk.) I did wish, however, that any two of the writers had had the same conception of Donna/Nat relationship, as they oscillated between friendly sibling rivalry and sharp critics of each other in a way that didn’t ring true. In some episodes it seems as though they’re on the same page about how in-over-their-heads they are; in others, Nat is angry Donna hasn’t told her she’s in over her head!
But, I will be honest, I have a lot of affection for this period of Doctor Who, and it’s clear that Catherine Tate is more able and willing to spend time recording for Big Finish than David Tennant (who does put in a quick cameo here). Tate always manages to impress and delight and make something of even the weakest of scripts. Given that, I was more than happy to spend four hours listening to Kidnapped!. I don’t want Big Finish to make a succession of “Donna Noble”-branded box sets a thing, but this is a solid expansion of a solid era, and well worth the time of anyone who’s enjoyed Catherine Tate’s performance as Donna.
Donna Noble: Kidnapped! (by Jacqueline Rayner, John Dorney, James Goss, Matt Fitton; starring Catherine Tate) was released by Big Finish Productions in March 2020.