Still bemused as to why his regeneration resulted in a familiar face, the Doctor doesn’t have much time to consider the implications before a walk in Camden Town sends him straight into the path of his old companion Donna Noble. Fearful that recognising him may result in her death, the Doctor is delighted and confused that she doesn’t seem to know him. But when a spaceship crash-lands across the city – and once again Donna misses it completely – the Time Lord has no choice but to investigate.
Meanwhile Donna’s daughter, Rose, makes a discovery of her own, an alien hiding in her shed… and soon the Doctor finds himself, once again, slap in the middle of a conflict between hunters and hunted…but will it cost Donna her life?
Okay, then. I will admit that I was not a fan of the Chris Chibnall as showrunner era. I was fine with a female Doctor and Jodie Whittaker is a talented actor when given the right material, but the three series largely felt broad stroked, first-draft entries and by the time Chibnall went down the rabbit hole into core Whovian mythology it seemed to be to rewrite it rather than add. But opinions vary and one of the constants in the show is that there will always be a different interpretation along in a while.
Ncuti Gatwa steps in to the role at Christmas, but these three specials are a milestone celebration of a concept that has evolved over its sixty years lifetime, much as the Doctor has done over his millennia of existence. Thus returning showrunner Russell T. Davies, who revived the show in 2005 for its modern run, brings back two of the most popular elements, David Tennant (last seen as the Tenth Doctor) and Catherine Tate (as Donna Temple-Noble). It’s hard to argue the chemistry between the leads, proven time and time again inside and outside of Doctor Who and in many ways it’s a smart move if you’re wanting to attract both die-hard fans and those who drifted away since.
But the three specials and the Christmas entry have to be more than a love letter to the past, they must act as a springboard and pirouette from the old to the new, reinvigorating rather than memoralising and that’s not an easy thing to do. While it may have lacked the sheer epic feel of the 50th Anniversary, it really doesn’t intend to reach for such. However, The Star Beast is an assured statement of intent – rather than slouching towards Gallifrey, it’s simply a funny, dramatic, a little cheesy, broad-strokes of exposition for the very few who need to catch up, yet barreling along as if there’s no time to spare and all tied-off with a bow that neatly celebrates the spirit of Doctor Who.
I’m old enough to remember the first issues of Doctor Who Weekly, the UK magazine launched during the heydays of the Tom Baker era. The Star Beast was one of the earliest stories (illustrated by Dave Gibbons of Watchmen fame and written by Pat Mills) and it contained all the best bits of the show’s heart(s): the Doctor arriving in a mundane urban setting and suddenly being plunged into a life-or-death situation between an apparently cute bundle of fluff (the Meep) and well-armed clawed soldiers determined to catch him. The artwork was great, the writing was fun and there was a nice twist at the centre of it all. So the show choosing to do it’s own take on the classic story feels somehow bizarre and appropriate. Many of the beats are the same and there’s something to be said for watching it with someone who didn’t known the source material and is initially charmed by the cute bundle of fluff… only to be shocked when it turns out to be the villain. Miriam Margolyes is an inspired choice for voicing the character – somewhat known for her give-no-shits attitude and who was probably delighted at the narrative misdirect.
The Star Beast is an assured statement of intent – rather than slouching towards Gallifrey, it’s a funny, dramatic, a little cheesy, broad-strokes of exposition for the very few who need to catch up, yet barreling along as if there’s no time to spare and all tied-off with a bow that neatly celebrates the spirit of Doctor Who…
Catherine Tate slides effortlessly back into the role of Donna Noble, she of the sardonic snark and ‘take no prisoners’ stance and her description of the Meep as ‘Mad Paddington‘ is a laugh-out-loud delight. Yes, the whole meta-crisis story (Donna will die if she remembers her previous time with the Time Lord) seems like a big hurdle but it’s handled with a ‘and with a bound she was free’ solution which you can’t really begrudge if it keeps her around a little longer.
Yasmin Finney debuts as Rose (no, not Tyler, but perhaps inspired by) and makes a quiet but strong impression. The fact that the character is trans (as is the actor) is not side-stepped but nor is it the be-all-and-end-all of the entire episode, it’s simply another analogy of sometimes feeling alienated and misunderstood. There’s some pointed talk about pronouns later on – Davies was never going to avoid moments to give the audience a teachable/preachable moment – but if you can’t handle that topical and inclusive aside, you may be too delicate for family-drama and should probably tune in and tune out elsewhere. It’s interesting that Rose handles the occasional abuse, but it’s Donna who is more defensive – if she can’t quite place her own feelings of ‘otherness’ then she’ll sure as hell protect her daughter’s right to be whomever they want to be, even with her life.
Jacqueline King returns as Sylvia Noble with Karl Collins reprising Donna’s husband Shaun Temple, each reacting in their own way to the Doctor’s return. So far there’s no Wilf here, despite the late Bernard Cribbins being able to film scenes before his passing, so one hopes that he’ll make an appearance later. Ruth Madeley also debuts as UNIT’s latest scientific advisor Shirley Anne Bingham with a wheelchair that’s more ‘Rolling Thunder’ than the average chariot.
The monsters, faithfully reproduced from the comic, will likely never trouble Lucasfilm, but they deliver on a family-viewing level. There’s a fancier sonic screwdriver (now with projection abilities, about time!) and the new Tardis finally makes its debut… and even if you caught tome of the leaked images ahead of time, the sheer scale of the interior is another statement of intent. It has elements of everything that has gone before: the central console, the roundrels, walkways… but all on another scale entirely. Certainly it must have cost a small planet’s economic deficit to build, so it’s likely that it’s going to be sticking around and the changes in lighting offer all sorts of variations with which to play. The new title sequence, reminiscent of old but more colourful (thank God the ink-splats are gone) also appears and apart from the heavy-breathing backing-track over the closing credits, it’s all delightful.
It’s not perfect – and likely collective Who fandom could never settle on what that would be – but all in all, this feels more like the Doctor Who of old, or – at least – over a decade ago, readily formed for and from a different decade and ready for three rounds rapid and will do nicely as a course-correction. As a gentle nostalgic, broadstroked remit to embrace the things Who has always done well, it does everything it can to simply make the audience feel ready for Saturday nights once more.
Of course, there’s two more Specials to go and then it’ll be Christmas…
Here’s the new title sequence…
… and here’s a look at next week’s entry, with very clues on its ‘spooky’ nature, as we head into the Wild Blue Yonder…
- Production Design / VFX9
- Nostalgia factor9