There has never been so much behind-the-scenes BBC coverage of Doctor Who. “The Star Beast” ran for a single hour, but already has an in-episode commentary from David Tennant and producers Phil Collinson and Vicki Delow, a half-hour instalment of companion show Doctor Who: Unleashed, plus a half-hour official accompanying podcast. And that’s on top of all the interviews, features and in-depth looks from Doctor Who Magazine. Seekers of nerdy insights – our cup runneth seriously over.
For each of the three anniversary specials, and then continuing through Christmas 2023 and series fourteen, we can watch the episode, watch it again with the commentary, listen to the podcast and catch up with Steffan Powell’s exclusive Unleashed coverage. Do all that and you’ll probably need some kind of energy drink and a biscuit, but the fun titbits below are a taste of what you can glean.
1. “The Star Beast” shoot began on May 9 2022, and the first scene shot was Donna, Sylvia and Rose talking in the kitchen. The Noble Temple house and garden were built in a studio, and the exterior for No. 23 was filmed at Axminster Road, Penylan, Cardiff, CF23. Axminster Road were the only residents’ association approached who were happy to welcome an exploding van and Wrarth Warriors on stilts at 4am over several night shoots.
2. The Camden Market scene in which the Doctor reunites with Donna was filmed during a 2022 heatwave but it rained at night – look closely and you can spot raindrops appear and disappear on the cardboard box Donna is holding.
3. Camden was chosen because it’s a little-seen part of London on screen, but also because filming took place in the run-up to Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations, which meant much of the rest of central London was unavailable for filming.
4. Comic legends Pat Mills and Dave Gibbons, who wrote the original “Doctor Who and the Star Beast” comic strip, visited the set at Uskmouth Power Station in Newport Wales (which stood in for the London steelworks where The Meep’s ship landed). They met The Meep in person, and David Tennant had them sign an original copy of the Doctor Who Weekly magazine in which the strip had featured.
5. The Meep was a physical puppet inside of which was dancer and martial artist Cecily Fay, and it took six people to operate it. Fay wore a replaceable, remote-controlled animatronic head that stopped her from seeing, so she received directions from the animatronics operator through a microphone in her ear.
6. The Meep’s dialogue was performed on set by its animatronics operator, which was later replaced by Miriam Margolyes’ performance recorded in a sound studio. Elements of her performance were also mapped onto the moving Meep head using CGI, to give The Meep the character she created.
7. In the original script, writer Russell T Davies had the Meep reveal itself to the viewer as evil almost immediately, hoodwinking Rose but showing its real self in violent asides (which is closer to what happens in the comic strip) but the producers asked him to delay the reveal to extend the surprise.
8. Around 15 – 20 feet of the Meep spaceship was really built in the studio, and the rest was added in digital extensions.
9. Ruth Madeley’s UNIT Scientific Advisor Shirley Anne Bingham is “a new semi-regular” who will appear in later episodes, producer Phil Collinson confirms. Madeley’s character is the 56th to have the job, previously occupied by Ingrid Oliver’s Petronella Osgood. Can you name the 54 others? Could anybody?
10. No, nobody else has heard of a Tuna Madras (which Sylvia cooks for Donna and co.) but it’s a speciality of Russell T Davies’ family, apparently.
11. The Doctor’s Sonic Screwdriver has always been able to create screens in mid-air and conjure up protective shields, jokes producer Phil Collinson, “the camera was just not pointing at it when it did.” It’s downloaded a new App with increased functionality, jokes David Tennant.
12. The scene between Shirley and the Doctor was originally written with them looking at the Sonic Screens throughout, but all that VFX work made it too expensive, so to stay in budget, RTD moved the diagrams to Shirley’s folding tablet.
13. David Tennant didn’t deliberately change his performance from Ten to Fourteen, as he explains on the in-episode commentary: “I just sort of figured, well, I’m older, so it’ll come through a slightly different filter. Russell writes it with the same kind of brio, but then Russell’s older, so he will be writing a slightly different version of the character as well. That was the thinking: we’ll come at it as the different humans that we are as writer and as actor. I suppose you could argue I could be dressed completely differently, I could have a new hat and a funny voice, he could have been a completely different version but that seemed to defeat the purpose of coming back.”
14. A Russell T Davies script trademark? He always specifies that there should be things on the stairs in family homes – shampoo bottles, clean laundry, toilet rolls. It makes it more realistic.
15. Bernard Cribbins, who plays Donna’s grandfather Wilf, returned to film scenes for a later episode that turned out to be the final scenes he ever filmed, as he sadly passed away in July 2022 at the age of 93.
16. The Wrarth Warriors were supposed to fly using wirework, but there wasn’t a way to attach the wires and harnesses through the stilt-walkers’ costumes, so when we see the Wrarth fly, the performer is pinned to a see-saw rig that has somebody jump on the other end so they suddenly ascend into the frame, and the wings were added in VFX.
17. The CGI and VFX budget for an entire 13-part series back when Collinson and Tennant were last making Doctor Who, is what they now spend on VFX for a single episode. Thank you, Disney+.
18. The moment when the Doctor dons the barrister’s wig is an homage to Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor having done the same thing in 1978 season 16 story “The Stones of Blood”. The wig “played havoc with my hairdo,” says David Tennant. “You’ll see as the wig comes off, it’s a very quick cut, because you don’t want to be looking at the mess that’s left.”
19. In the scene where Rose is bullied outside her house by local boys and deadnamed (called by her birth name after transitioning to her gender and new name), we learn that Donna called her Jason as a baby. RTD explains on the Official Doctor Who Podcast: “The interesting thing about ‘Jason’ is that it actually means ‘healer’ or ‘Doctor’, which means that Donna actually named her child after the Doctor without realising it, subconsciously, which is a nice fact to get in there.”
20. When The Meep’s soldiers are transporting the Doctor and the Nobles in the van, the vehicle isn’t moving but being jiggled around outside by crew. Similarly, when they go ‘up’ in the lift, they don’t move at all, the camera does. “They were doing things like that in 1963 and we’re still doing them!” laughs Phil Collinson.
21. Originally more scenes were filmed with Rose’s young friend Fudge on Donna’s street as The Meep ship’s flames spread through London but they were cut from the final edit for reasons of pace. Fudge Merchandani, played by Dara Lall, is a new character based on ‘Fudge’ Higgins from the original Star Beast comic strip. There were also more shots filmed of Fourteen climbing up The Meep ship console and sitting high up on a ledge but they were cut for time.
22. When the DoctorDonnaRose Metacrisis split is revealed, they originally included clips from past episodes of the various Doctor Who monsters represented by Rose’s handmade toys, but realised it was enough just to include the sound and not the actual footage.
23. When the Meep’s plan is thwarted by Rose, the script described its muttering as “cursing like Muttley from Dick Dastardly and Muttley” – an old Hanna-Barbera cartoon.
24. At 49:15 in the episode we get our first glimpse of UNIT Tower. “It won’t be the last!” promise the producers.
25. Two extras in the Camden Market scene at the end were played by producer Vicki Delow’s mother and sister.
26. Canonically, there have been adventures between “The Power of the Doctor” and “The Star Beast”, as detailed in the Fourteenth Doctor comic book strip in Doctor Who Magazine, and in a series of audio drama Doctor Who: Redacted written by podcast host Juno Dawson.
27. And finally, David Tennant apparently still doesn’t know the meaning of Meep’s cryptic reference to “the boss”, but of course the producers do (“You’ll get to find out with all the viewers. Who’s the Boss, David? Who is the boss?”) That suggests elements of the three anniversary stories will continue into series fourteen, and that The Toymaker might not be the big bad behind it all…
Doctor Who continues with “Wild Blue Yonder” on Saturday December 2 on BBC One and iPlayer in the UK and on Disney+ around the world.