Yes it’s a show about time travel. But viewers of the Doctor Who 60th anniversary special The Star Beast – the first of three extended episodes leading up to the debut of 15th Doctor, Ncuti Gatwa, at Christmas – could be forgiven for feeling like they too have fallen through some portal leading back in time.
Warning: this review contains spoilers for Doctor Who special The Star Beast
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It’s not just that David Tennant, perhaps the most successful Doctor of the modern era and certainly its first rock-star, heartthrob leading man, is back as the wandering Time Lord, with Catherine Tate as his plain-speaking companion/foil Donna Noble. Nor that Russell T Davies, the showrunner who regenerated the dormant series with huge success back in 2005, has returned too. Both were surprise hires, especially the signing of Davies which some fans likened to Steve Jobs returning to restore order to a chaotic and failing Apple Computer in 1997. Never before has Doctor Who called in past favourites to restore the show during one of its periodic slumps.
Yasmin Finney plays Donna’s teenage daughter Rose, who finds cutesy creature The Meep (Credit: BBC)
And it’s not even that the plot of The Star Beast revolves around questions of Who lore, which are helpfully spelled out in an ominous pre-credits scene in which both the Doctor and Donna directly address the audience. Back in 2008, we’re reminded, the Doctor accidentally infused Donna with an overload of Time Lord knowledge, and then had to wipe her memory to save her from death. Now, if she ever remembers her adventures in the Tardis, she will die. So how can Donna and the Doctor possibly reunite? And in any case, what has made him regenerate (degenerate?) into a face he’s worn before?
You expect plenty of nostalgia in anniversary specials – past editions have corralled former Doctors and monsters together in laps of honour and halls of fame – but The Star Beast does something different. It skilfully plays off multiple levels of Who-stalgia both internal and external to the plot, some reaching back decades, in order to summon up a warm glow around not just what’s happening in the show, but how it feels to be a viewer of this strange and unique TV institution.
A plot with a half-time twist
The plot is a simple one which, to the absolute delight of the hardest of hardcore fans, closely adapts a story from a 1980 edition of the Doctor Who Weekly comic, whose creators – Pat Mills and Dave “Watchmen” Gibbons – Davies clearly reveres. A ship crashes to Earth in flames. Its passenger, discovered in hiding by Donna’s daughter Rose (Yasmin Finney), turns out to be a terrified furry ball of cuteness called The Meep. Who could deny this poor, talking plushie protection from the horrors that are hunting it: giant, heavily-armed insectoid monsters called the Wrarth Warriors? Least of all Rose, a trans girl who identifies with The Meep’s loneliness and sense of difference?
The half-time twist is that the Doctor discovers the loveable Meep to be in truth an evil, manipulative galactic war criminal. The hideous Wrarth are the goodies, space police with polite, Received Pronunciation speaking voices and a scrupulous respect for the law. Naive sentimentality gets a kick in the shins, human aesthetics are no guarantee of moral qualities, and the monsters are never who you expect them to be.
Director Rachel Talalay whips it all into hectic, epic, action-packed fun, in sharp contrast to the often leaden Jodie Whitaker/Chris Chibnall iteration of Doctor Who. On top of Tennant’s kinetic antics, Tate’s comic bluntness, and the comfortably most convincing UNIT-vs-rayguns street battle that Doctor Who has ever attempted, The Star Beast offers a full deck of crowd-pleasing Davies tropes. There is colossal destruction across London which everyone forgets five minutes after the crisis is over, comic technobabble (“brandish the gravity stanchions”?), titbits of continuity for the fans (psychic paper! The Shadow Proclamation!) and domestic comedy too. The first time Donna’s mother Sylvia (Jacqueline King) encounters the Doctor again, she punches him. “Ooof…” wheezes the winded Time Lord, “here we go again”. In 2005, Davies’s genius insight was to connect the haplessly asocial Doctor to the one thing he couldn’t handle: a busy, messy human family. The centuries-old hero now stood in a new light. He could do things and go places we could never imagine – but he could never have what we have.
There are flaws, inevitably. The denouement’s attempt to connect Rose’s trans identity to Donna’s psychic predicament lands clunkily. Murray Gold’s music remains blunderingly obvious, to the detriment of many scenes. But what makes the whole experience truly satisfying is the undertow of melancholy behind Tennant’s slapstick, Tate’s affronted bewilderment – she gets some truly great lines, not least furiously denouncing The Meep as “Mad Paddington” – Davies’s repartee and Talalay’s sturm-und-drang. Tennant’s Doctor ended his previous stint alone, having ruined everything around him. Now, trapped behind an old face that evokes old memories, he no longer knows who he is. In an exquisite little moment Donna is handed the Sonic Screwdriver and glances at it in puzzlement, as if she half-remembers what it means. “Sometimes I feel like there’s something missing,” she tells her mother. “Like I had something lovely, and it’s gone.” Don’t we all?
Nostalgia is the phantom limb ache for what is lost, the desire to return to a home that no longer exists. And Doctor Who represents the best of childhood in all its vivid possibilities, its curiosity and guileless idealism. Unique among TV shows, it endlessly refreshes itself, always different, always the same. In The Star Beast Davies weaves the nostalgic aches of his characters and his audience into something genuinely moving, something that could only happen on this particular show.
Doctor Who always prospers when it is a show watched by all the family, and withers when it retreats to the comfort of the nerdy bedroom and the continuity-obsessed sci-fi forum. If you are a child of the 2005 reinvention, then The Star Beast is Doctor Who as you remember it from your childhood: warm, inclusive, funny, busy and dramatic, with a rich and relatable human supporting cast. If you’re older it’s a return to the show you might have watched with your own kids, when you saw their eyes light up like yours did at their age. Flaws and all, it’s Who the way it used to be. It turns out you can go home again after all.
Doctor Who: The Star Beast is available to watch in the US and internationally on Disney+, while the second and third 60th anniversary specials will launch on the platform on 2 and 9 December
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