Doctor Who is back! And I mean back, back. Fun, lively, challenging, and (appropriately) nostalgic… It’s been 15 years since David Tennant and Catherine Tate lit up the screens as one of the very best Doctor and companion combinations (not counting the brief return for The End of Time specials). Just think, that’s almost as long as the ‘wilderness years’…
But what was remarkable was how natural it felt to have the Doctor and Donna back together. And returning showrunner, Russell T Davies, didn’t waste time. After a rather clunky (but necessary) exposition-heavy recap, it was straight into the action. Less than 30 seconds pass after the TARDIS lands before the Doctor and Donna are reunited (a reversed riff on their protracted near-misses from their previous reunion in Partners in Crime).
Another 30 seconds and we hear that (now iconic) name uttered, ‘Rose’. This is where it pays to be a longstanding but not obsessive fan of the show. For me (and you probably), we knew Donna was calling her daughter, not the Doctor’s other faithful parallel universe-stranded former companion, played by Billie Piper. That, along with the revelation about Beep the Meep being a baddie and Donna surviving for two more adventures, meant that I probably enjoyed those moments less than casual viewers.
I didn’t read Doctor Who Weekly in 1980, but I did read the original Doctor Who and the Star Beast comic (by Pat Mills and Dave Gibbons) when it was reprinted in Doctor Who Classic Comics in 1994. And, for due diligence, I reread it a few weeks ago to inform this review. I know, above and beyond… RTD has taken the essence of that story but, like the TV adaptation of Human Nature, it does not slavishly replicate the source material. However, Beep the Meep and the Wrarth Warriors have been reproduced faithfully to Gibbons’ original drawings. As well they should.
RTD has gone on record saying that these early Tom Baker comics are basically the way he writes Doctor Who. And you can see how Doctor Who and the Star Beast has influenced his writing: spaceships crash landing in city centres, urban environments and ordinary family life interrupted by aliens, even the Doctor escaping in a double decker bus happened back in the pages of Doctor Who Weekly 40+ years ago. In fact, the bones of the plot of Doctor Who and the Star Beast is essentially the same as Smith and Jones in 2007: a harmless-seeming alien is pursued by monsters who turn out to be galactic police seeking a dangerous fugitive hiding on planet Earth.
If you have read my previous reviews from the Jodie Whittaker era, you will know that I gauge part of the success of an episode by the reaction of my children: my son (12) and daughter (8). Frustratingly, the Thirteenth Doctor’s adventures were regularly characterised by both of them fidgeting, playing with other things, forgetting to follow the story, and asking questions about the logic of what is happening on screen (and me not having a suitable answer). Not so with The Star Beast. Their attention was wrapped — they laughed, gasped, and shouted ‘no!’ at appropriate moments, staying pretty-much glued to the action the whole time. This was meant to be a welcoming romp, so there were no behind-the-sofa scares in evidence. Hopefully next week…
So, what do I say? It was a glorious return to a golden era of Doctor Who, enough nostalgic call-backs to be a worthy 60th anniversary special, but pushing things forward in the development of the characters and visually more impressive than ever, thanks to the Disney+ funding… I could go on and on about how wonderful it was. And that lovely cute furry alien was so delightful… meep meep!
Oh, to hell with this. It was a steaming pile of tired tropes and laughable storytelling. The dreadful episode was a terrible missed opportunity, resorting to desperate fan service rather than pushing the boundaries of the show’s potential. Plus all that Woke nonsense about gender and sexuality, which has no place on a science fiction programme for children. The ‘Most-High’ has an uncontrollable desire to kill Doctor Who! But the ‘Most-High’ must control himself. Business before… PLEASURE!
Sorry, I don’t know what came over me… The Star Beast was always going to be in safe hands with Russel T Davies back at the helm, ably supported by veteran director Rachel Talalay, returning producers Julie Gardner, Jane Tranter, and Phil Collinson, and Murray Gold’s glorious music. It felt nostalgic rather than naval-gazing; familiar but fresh. On the whole, not the most intellectually challenging of episodes, but the most fun, thrilling adventure for many a year.
We are left with a few questions — hopefully the answers will unfold in the next two specials, or form part of the ongoing arc for the Fifteenth Doctor. First, who is the Meep’s ‘Boss’? The obvious choice would be the Toymaker, and I can’t help but think we haven’t heard the last of the Psychedelic Sun/solar psychedelia. And the Doctor’s ‘face’: why has the Tenth come back, and older? Unlike the Timeless Child ‘arc’, I suspect RTD has some suitable answers to share. What about the gonk-obsessed woman from the United Arab Emirates (Dubai or Abu Dhabi?) who buys Rose’s creations? Just a throwaway line or is RTD planting a plot seed…?
And Wilf! We know some scenes were filmed with Bernard Cribbins in a wheelchair, shortly before he sadly died. Was the footage incomplete and Ruth Madeley introduced as UNIT scientific advisor, Shirley Bingham to replace those sequences? Or will Wilf make a final appearance in The Giggle when the Doctor and Donna return to Earth? Stay tuned, as I suspect you will (I definitely will), to find out… as we head towards the Wild Blue Yonder. Allons-y!