4 out of 5 stars

Doctor Who’s major anniversaries typically involve the return of past Doctors to aid the current incarnation in saving the universe. This was certainly the case for the show’s most recent significant milestone, “The Day of The Doctor” (2013), which featured the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) teaming up with his predecessor, David Tennant, alongside John Hurt, portraying a previously undisclosed ‘War Doctor’.

It’s highly uncommon for an anniversary event to follow such a recent change in lead actors, with Jodie Whittaker departing as the Thirteenth Doctor only last year, and for the show to celebrate by bringing back a single past Doctor as the focus. For a series built on maintaining generational freshness through continuous change, one might even be inclined to view it as an imprudent decision…

However, concerns seemed rife that Doctor Who’s grip on the public’s imagination had been waning, not helped by the lukewarm critical reception to Chris Chibnall’s tenure as showrunner. Therefore, this trio of 60th-anniversary specials are designed to rekindle the enthusiasm of lapsed fans while luring in curious newcomers, given that David Tennant is arguably more popular today than when he hung up his sonic screwdriver in 2010.

So, despite Ncuti Gatwa (Sex Education) poised to assume the mantle of the Fifteenth Doctor for a new season in 2024, for now, we have a three-part celebration with its eye on past loose ends. Writer Russell T. Davies, who revived Doctor Who in 2005, has even returned to retake the reins, making “The Star Beast” feel like the 50th anniversary special he never got to do a decade ago.

“The Star Beast” is very much a continuation of the fondly-remembered RTD era, which ended with the Fourteenth Doctor dying after erasing the memories of his companion Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) in “Journey’s End”, because she’d absorbed all of his wisdom at the risk of frying her human mind.

The final line of the Tenth Doctor, “I don’t want to go”, has never felt more ironic, considering he’s since returned twice. While technically this is a new Fourteenth incarnation, he just so happens to look exactly like the Tenth because it doesn’t make sense to get Tennant back to create a new personality for such a short span of time. However, it’s surely a missed opportunity that Tennant was not even allowed to use his natural Scottish accent to subtly differentiate the two Doctors.

The Doctor lands his TARDIS in present-day London, immediately encountering his former companion Donna, who still has no recollection of him, and catches up on the changes in her life. She’s now married to taxi driver Shaun Temple (Karl Collins), won millions on the lottery but generously donated most of it to charity, and is raising a transgender daughter named Rose (Yasmin Finney).

Coincidentally, a spaceship is spotted zooming over the city, and The Doctor curiously investigates the landing area, now teeming with UNIT soldiers under the command of Shirley Bingham (Ruth Madeley). Meanwhile, unbeknownst to The Doctor, the ship’s furry pilot — Meep the Beep (voiced by Miriam Margoyles) — has made its way to Donna’s garden shed, where Rose discovers it, attracting the attention of two alien Wrarth soldiers who’ve been pursuing Meep across the cosmos.

The episode’s story and significance for the show’s diamond anniversary celebration didn’t strike me as particularly unique, as “The Star Beast” is more like a long-lost instalment from Tennant’s era. Its runtime of 57 minutes even falls short of feature-length, and only the production values hinted at something outside the norm. But even that is only a byproduct of Doctor Who’s current status as a co-production between BBC Wales and Bad Wolf, a company founded by RTD’s team after the show’s revival in 2005. A global distribution deal with Disney+ has increased the show’s budget, too, as there are some wonderful moments that showcase the extra money — such as the scale of the landed spaceship, the impressive VFX for The Meep’s facial expressions, a street-bound action sequence from director Rachel Talalay that didn’t feel as humdrum as the show’s usual set pieces, and the truly remarkable new TARDIS interior —-which finally does full justice to the concept of the inside being much larger than the outside.

While a tad disheartening that Doctor Who has reverted to Russell T. Davies’ leadership, this episode exemplifies the advantages of having an award-winning writer and ardent fan at the helm. The most compelling aspect of “The Star Beast” is the characters and the script’s unwavering emphasis on their interactions and dialogue. The previous era with Jodie Whittaker frequently struggled to strike the right balance between narrative and character, so came to rely on controversial changes to Who lore and unchecked nostalgia-bait, but now everything is once again working in harmony.

Additionally, there are encouraging signs that RTD has refined his skills while working on other projects, possibly due to watching Who as a fan during Steven Moffat and Chibnall’s runs, allowing him to identify strong elements that should be carried forward and what pitfalls to avoid. The excessive use of deus ex machina to end stories plagued RTD’s original run, but “The Star Beast” discovers a (mostly) understandable and enjoyable way to simultaneously address Donna’s amnesia and have her save the day. Of course, Doctor Who has never been a show that can withstand excessive scrutiny from fans of hard sci-fi logic, but I was pleasantly surprised by the satisfying conclusion here.

RTD is also a progressive writer who often used Who as a means to normalise attitudes toward gay and bisexual people, and this continues with “The Star Beast” by making Donna’s daughter a trans character in an understated yet meaningful way. This aspect of Rose felt naturally woven into the story and added an intriguing dimension, including honest scenes about her family adjusting to her gender transition — such as her grandmother Sylvia (Jacqueline King) worrying about using the correct pronouns. The concept of being “non-binary” is further alluded to in the resolution of Donna’s so-called ‘Metacrisis’, though one could argue this moment felt clunky and unnecessary.

There was much to enjoy about “The Star Beast” — an adaptation of a 1980 Doctor Who comic strip by Pat Mills and Dave Gibbons — which deftly restored the show to its former glory in under an hour. While it’s not my intention to dwell excessively on the mistakes and problems that plagued Chibnall’s era, there’s a refreshing lightness of touch here that’s been missing for a long time now, coupled with genuinely humorous moments (the Doctor’s psychic paper hilariously misgendering him, prompting the retort “Catch up!”), and scenes where The Doctor isn’t reduced to dumping plot exposition on us. Instead, information is conveyed through clear action and fun character moments, with RTD righting the ship in that regard. Whether more sweeping creative changes will accompany Ncuti Gatwa’s Doctor remains to be seen, as these specials could merely be a way to ease casual audiences back with a nostalgic and entertaining experience.

Ultimately, “The Star Beast” delivered a rollicking good time for Whovians and served as a promising indication the show can once again captivate casual viewers who lost interest along the way. The return of composer Murray Gold is a welcome addition (albeit another example of a backward step), as his orchestral themes perfectly complement the show’s fizzy tone. 

Tennant seamlessly slips back into the role that made him a household name, despite a more weathered appearance now he’s in his early-fifties, while Tate demonstrated why Donna was always his best companion —even if some of her line deliveries occasionally grated on my nerves. I’m eager to see what unfolds for them both in the next two adventures, but it’s peculiar these specials don’t seem to be weaving together one grand narrative. Mind you, the revived Doctor Who’s strength has always rested on its ability to condense a lot of lighthearted nonsense into a frenetic and action-packed hour, rather than give us enough thinking time to nitpick it to death.

UK | 2023 | 57 MINUTES | 16:9 HD | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

writer: Russell T. Davies (from a story by Pat Mills & Dave Gibbons).
director: Rachel Talalay.
starring: David Tennant, Catherine Tate, Yasmin Finney, Jacqueline King, Karl Collins, Ruth Madeley, Matt Green, Jamie Cho & Miriam Margolyes (voice).