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  • Writer's pictureJames McCleary

Doctor Who: The Star Beast // Episode Review

So, where were we?

There are a great many reasons behind the immortalising success of David Tennant’s first run as The Doctor, most of which can be traced back in one way or another to his head writer, Russell T Davies. For one thing, Davies had an uncanny ability to bait tabloids for coverage week-after-week, and for another his industry reputation played a key role in attracting A-List guest stars like Sir Derek Jacobi, Simon Pegg and, of course, Kylie

He also wrote some damned good scripts, knowing nearly always how best to balance the naff and camp sci-fi with the real, earnest melodrama of our favourite two-hearted Time Lord in his private life. Tune in one Saturday and you might see the Judoon, a race of intergalactic police rhinos relentless in their pursuit of justice, only to come back six weeks later and witness the agonising dilemma of a Doctor forced to become human, then longing to stay that way. The series was spontaneous, shocking and consistent in bringing its viewers back for more. “Voyage of the Damned” - the Kylie episode - yielded a remarkable 13.8 million live viewers on Christmas Day 2007, while Tennant’s Doctor has continued to top audience polls on the regular since his regeneration more than 13 years ago on New Year’s Day 2010.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise then, that the announcement of Davies’ return to the showrunner position in September 2021 instantly drew eyeballs back to a show that had unfortunately started to dim its lights. The Jodie Whittaker era of “Doctor Who”, as penned primarily by Chris Chibnall, certainly had its fans but they were relatively few, with press and audience engagement at an all-time low. To many, the rehiring of Davies coupled with the casting of “Sex Education” star Ncuti Gatwa as The Doctor was exactly the shot in the arm that “Doctor Who” needed, both narratively and publicly. Davies and his fellow producers would restore the show to its former glory and Gatwa, already a known element, would be moulded into the next Tennant. The future could not have seemed clearer.

Except that not a week later, news broke that Tennant was to be returning to the series not as his former Tenth Doctor, but as the next in-line after Whittaker, before Gatwa. Stranger still, his former co-star Catherine Tate was slated to join him as the undominable Donna Noble. This twist was met with excitement, but also uncertain eyebrows and hundreds if not thousands of panicked tweets. Was this new Davies era (or ‘RTD2’) going to be a bold step forward, or a cash-in on past triumphs (ala “Spider-Man: No Way Home” - released not half a year earlier)?

The ultimate answer as revealed in “The Star Beast”, the first of three Tennant & Tate specials prior to Gatwa taking over at Christmas, is a blazing, resoundingly confident… bit of both. The hour-long episode is focused primarily on reuniting the Doctor and Donna, wasting no time bringing them together before getting to work on addressing the memory wipe that marked Donna’s previous exit from TARDIS life. For an episode marketed as standalone, there is quite a bit of continuity to work through, with two separate recaps not doing quite enough to clarify the terms and stakes of Donna’s condition for anyone not as tragically nerdy as us hardened fans. 

What sells it instead are the characters and performances involved. Jacqueline King’s turn as Donna’s mum Sylvie threatens to steal the show as a woman who has clearly spent the past fifteen years dreading this reunion, while Tennant does some darkly fascinating work in his reluctance to get away from Donna in any sort of hurry. Tate is the real star though, playing at once the Donna we used to know and one who has the slightest piece missing, her eyes occasionally glazing over or welling up for reasons she can’t explain.

Their doomed relationship understandably makes for the meat of the episode, though surrounding it is some of the more inventive and absurdly madcap “Doctor Who” to hit screens in some time. The Meep, as played deliciously by Miriam Margolyes, is a surefire hit character - a perversion of the Baby Yoda-type destined to become a thing of gifs and reaction memes online. The Meep is a testament to Davies’ savviness as a producer; the creature was originally conceived for a comic strip in the 1980, but fits perfectly here as a demonstration of “Doctor Who”’s ability to tap into current pop culture phenomena and dial the camp right up to 11. 

This camp factor is critical to any incarnation of “Doctor Who” (though it is not to be mistaken with cringe - a recurring issue faced by Whittaker’s Doctor and her “fam”), but what Davies has always uniquely thrived at was the interweaving of science fiction farce with something far more fundamentally British; the soap opera. In “The Star Beast”, the Doctor faces an alien skirmish which threatens to eradicate London, and yet much of the middle act is set in Donna’s cramped kitchen. 

That’s not to say the threat is in any way lacking, with some cracking monster designs (see: the Wrarth Warriors, as brought to you by stuntmen on stilts) and appropriately naff action (the sonic screwdriver does force fields now) keeping things nice and visual. But all of this is mere embellishment for the drama between the Doctor and Donna, and then with Donna’s daughter Rose, played by trans actress and “Heartstopper” breakout Yasmin Finney.

Davies is an out-and-proud gay man whose list of credits might doubly serve as a Bible for queer television, and yet it is surprising just how focused his grand return is on platforming ideas of transgender identity. In just a handful of scenes, Davies turns Donna Noble into a symbol of parenthood for trans people everywhere, while equally acknowledging the struggled those parents can face through Sylvie. A bullying incident early in the episode might feel brushed over if not then reinforced by the episode’s villain at the tail-end of Act 2, consequently rendering them more despicable than what any number of murders could achieve.

What’s even more refreshing is the concentrated interest evident from Davies in getting elements of terminology and definition across to viewers at home. The result is a promising sign ahead of Gatwa’s series next year, and while there are parts that might make one’s brow furrow, particularly when it comes to wordplay around the phrase “non-binary” at the story’s climax, Davies’ commitment to progressive ideals is as exciting as any castings or sci-fi plots for the era to come.

In that sense, “The Star Beast” can be understood as a statement of intent for the tone and purpose of RTD2. Unsurprisingly, Davies has not lost his touch in the 14 years since he last wrote for “Doctor Who”, and if anything successes like “It’s A Sin” appear to have galvanised him like never before. The show is cleaner and crisper than in eras past, thanks in large part to the immaculate direction of Rachel Talalay and her team, and while these 60th Anniversary Specials may well be a shameless trick to get front page attention for the show, there are so many inspired gags, thrills and vital themes here that it is difficult to imagine the show falling back out of the limelight any time soon.


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