Big Finish really did save their best for last. "Death and the Queen" is definitely the best of the three Tenth Doctor Adventures. It allowed the first two adventures to establish the characters and bring the audience back to the era of the Tenth Doctor, then took the opportunity to delve into deeper themes like so many of the Series 4 stories did. And, it did all this while maintaining a strong sense of fun and snappy dialogue.
It was no surprise at all that Donna was getting married in this story - the previews of the episode proclaimed that loudly - and knowing her story, there was no way this was going to end well. The question, therefore, was how she fell in love and what would cause that turn to sour. She meets Prince Rudolph and, as they fall in love immediately, is whisked away to his homeland of Gorutania, a country that the Doctor has never heard of. Once there, she proceeds to mold the tiny country to her image, until Death himself comes to the door, demanding entrance and threatening to destroy the country. They discover that long ago, the country had made a deal with Death - peace and protection from the rest of the world, in exchange for a bride provided to him at specified intervals; thus, Donna must surrender herself to Death to preserve the peace of her new country. Though Rudolph does love her dearly (he proposed to her sincerely, and only discovered upon returning to Gorutania that Death had come to collect his tribute), he gives her to Death, saying that a king must sometimes do terrible things to protect his people. Of course, it's up to the Doctor and Donna to find an alternative.
The story is rather straightforward, though there are some very delightful twists at the end, but where this story shines is how it handles the complex relationship between the Doctor and Donna. At first, Donna loves Rudolph and is excited to have finally met a worthy man and have her fairy-tale ending, and in running into her future, tramples the Doctor quite thoroughly, treating his concern for both her and the fact that this Gorutania sounds mighty fishy as quite the joke. The Doctor, for his part, realizes that he's keeping his best friend from her happiness, and in a very uncharacteristic move, pours his hearts out to her, telling her how much it hurts him that she's leaving but assuring her that he can let go and that he wishes her the best. (This scene is one of the best, as the Doctor bulls ahead trying, and often failing, to articulate his thoughts, talking over Donna who's trying to get him to shut up for just one moment so that she can tell him something important.) But in his flailing, the Doctor admits (between the lines) how much Donna means to him, and his quiet "Goodbye, Donna" as she's leaving is heartbreaking.
As the story progresses, it becomes an exploration of the sacrifices a person must make to protect everyone else. Usually, this theme is explored with the Doctor being the one making the sacrifice, but this time, it's Rudolph, who is sacrificing the woman he loves. As the audience, we sympathize with Donna, first because she's the beloved companion and second because she doesn't have a choice and it feels like she was conned into the situation (she wasn't, as I noted above, but you can't help feel that way), and it doesn't help that once the sacrifice is necessary, Rudolph is resigned to go through with it and treats her quite callously. This story presents the theme from a different direction than usual (after all, the idea of "sacrificing one for the many" is the same basic idea behind the dilemma of firing the Moment) and manages to convince you that choosing the "one" is the wrong choice - it does help that the characters choosing the "one", namely Rudolf and the Queen Mum, are largely unsympathetic. Luckily, the Doctor figures out what's really going on and how to stop it, assisted by Donna's ingenuity.
As with the first story in this series, "Technophobia", the dialogue is witty and fast. The Doctor is serves as the major source of comedy and he does it well - his interruptions of Rudolf's and Donna's courting and his comments on Hortence's suitability as a companion are some of the most enjoyable scenes. (Hortence, by the way, is another jewel in this brilliant piece.) All in all, "Death and the Queen" is a fantastic story. It doesn't have the importance or impact of the best of Series 4, but it certainly ranks up there.
My rating: 8/10