The Star Beast
‘Tennant strides back in and takes over as the Doctor as if he'd never been away.’
Review by Daniel Tessier
After thirteen months, Doctor Who is back on our screens, and after almost fourteen years, Russell T. Davies has delivered a Doctor Who episode starring David Tennant and Catherine Tate. It's an odd way to launch a new era of the programme, one intended to bring in a whole new audience through the BBC and Bad Wolf's deal with Disney, by leaning so heavily on the programme's past. Yet it's also a canny move, calling back to one of Doctor Who's most popular periods, drawing back older viewers who have drifted away during the interim.
Since his final episode as the lead, The End of Time – Part Two on New Year's Day 2010, Tennant has returned before, opposite his successor Matt Smith for the fiftieth anniversary special The Day of the Doctor. That was quite a different thing though; a Doctor returning as a guest alongside the current star is a favourite way to celebrate a milestone. Ten years on, this is something new: a former lead stepping back in to star in the show once again, with the Doctor regenerating back into an old form.
It's a backward-looking step for the normally forward-moving series and one that has previously been dismissed. (Many people called for perennial favourite Tom Baker to return to the role to revamp the series in years past, and the programme's original creator Sydney Newman even pushed for Patrick Troughton to make a one-season comeback when consulted on the series' future in the 1980s.) It's something they can only really get away with on this one occasion, for a short run marking the sixtieth anniversary.
Fortunately, Davies is too canny a writer to simply wring this for nostalgia without constructing an absorbing storyline to justify it. The Star Beast is an exciting, funny, and moving tale in itself, but also the beginning of a short arc that explores the mystery surrounding the return of the Doctor's old face and his fated reunion with Donna Noble.
Tennant, still a popular and familiar face on our screens thanks to hits such as Good Omens, Around the World in 80 Days and Staged, strides back in and takes over as the Doctor as if he'd never been away. Based on this first episode, the new Fourteenth Doctor is a little different to the Tenth, displaying the same quirks and style, save for his sudden emotional honesty. He even openly admits to loving several people, something that had been anathema to him in his earlier life. Otherwise, there's little to set the two incarnations apart so far, although we have another two specials to further explore the character.
Just as impressive is Catherine Tate as Donna, always the most real and believable of the Doctor's companions, now older and happier, but always trying to shake off a sense of profound loss. Tate's performance is moving and hilarious by turns, reminding us just how far her character has come since her first appearance in the 2006 Christmas special The Runaway Bride. Her original exit, in the otherwise overblown fourth season finale Journey's End in 2008, was heartbreaking. Naturally, it can't be expected that the audience will be familiar with or remember the story, which saw Donna become, briefly, part-Time Lord, absorbing some of the Doctor's personality and knowledge. With this threatening to burn out her mind, the Doctor was forced to wipe her memory of him, erasing everything she had learned and experienced over her travels. The episode recaps this, first rather clumsily in an in-character introduction by Tennant and Tate, and later more naturally through the story itself.
The End of Time had rather unsatisfyingly skirted the issue when it included Donna in its story. The Star Beast faces it head on, with the threat that Donna will join the dots and match up this strange man and the extraterrestrial goings-on with her suppressed memories never far away. Her death as her mind gives out seems inevitable towards the episode's climax, even though we know she's going to be in the next two. It's a testament to the writing and performances that this is sold so well.
Donna's family return as well, with the wonderful Jacqueline King (55 Degrees North, Adult Material) as Donna's mother Sylvia, and Karl Collins (The Bill, Hollyoaks) as her husband Shaun Temple, finally getting some actual character after his brief appearance in The End of Time. Most important, though, is the introduction of a new member of the family, fifteen-year-old Rose Noble, played by twenty-year-old up-and-comer Yasmin Finney (Heartstopper). Finney gives a warm, likeable and sympathetic performance as Rose, who is, unknowingly, named after the Doctor's earlier companion Rose Tyler (Billie Piper). Both Finney and Rose are transgender, and this is a major focus of the story. It would be enough for the programme to feature a trans character and explore her experiences as an end in itself. In this case, though, Davies has crafted a story where Rose's gender identity is crucial to the resolution of the plot. It culminates in one of the most unsubtle yet powerfully affirming moments in the series' history. After Chris Chibnall's controversial era as showrunner, there were really fans who thought that Davies would tone down the “wokeness” of the series. As if Davies would ever knowingly make something less woke.
The same people who have a problem with a prominent trans character in their favourite show will likely have similar issues with the new character Shirley Ann Bingham, played by Ruth Madeley (Years and Years, The Watch, Then Barbara Met Alan). A wheelchair user, Shirley is one of the most competent and cool characters in the episode, being the heavily-armed new UNIT scientific advisor. (The Doctor claims to have been the first such advisor. I think Liz Shaw may have something to say about that.)
Perhaps the most surprising move on Davies's part is his decision to adapt a 1980 comic strip story into the opening special. Doctor Who and the Star Beast, by Pat Mills and Dave Gibbons, ran over several issues of Doctor Who Weekly (the predecessor to today's Doctor Who Magazine). A beloved story for fans, the strip forms the basis for the new episode, albeit with some quite significant changes, not least the new central characters. The eponymous Star Beast is the Meep, a cute, cuddly and seemingly harmless creature from the stars, here voiced with some brilliance by Miriam Margolyes (Blackadder, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, Monkey). It's surely no spoiler to reveal that the Meep is more sinister than it first appears, and Margolyes gives a fabulously entertaining performance. The visual and practical effects that bring the Meep to the screen are some of the best ever seen on the programme (the Disney-backed increased budget is readily apparent throughout), and its enemies, the insectoid Wrarth Warriors, could have stepped straight from the pages of that original comic. Still, the sheer weirdness of seeing Beep the Meep as a primetime drama villain is hard to get over.
The plot is fairly slim, and Davies does occasional fall victim to some of his perennial dialogue issues, with some unnatural exposition and a reliance on meaningless technobabble to stand for intelligence. It is, however, thoroughly entertaining, coming to a climactic resolution that not only relies on Rose's identity and involvement but also satisfyingly resolves Donna's story, which is no mean feat. Two further specials will explore the Doctor's mysterious return to his old appearance, leading into the introduction of the eagerly anticipated Fifteenth Doctor, played by Ncuti Gatwa.