Warning: this review contains plot spoilers for “The Star Beast”
What have you been up to this week? Myself, I’ve been watching a lot of Doctor Who; flitting back and forth between eras, staring bemusedly at a colourised version of “The Daleks” with its bewildering new edit and shouting in excitement when Ncuti Gatwa winked at David Bradley, before popping off to revisit “Partners in Crime” ahead of this – the main event.
From an era when the show was an international phenomenon, the leading lights of Doctor Who have reunited, both in front of and behind the camera. Their unspoken mission statement is clear: do whatever is needed to make the show, which has demonstrably declined in popularity in recent years, a certified smash once again.
And so, with the band back together, they’ve chosen to begin by playing the old hits. Familiar Doctor, familiar catchphrases, familiar London. We’ll need to wait a while until we can say for sure whether or not this nostalgia-heavy approach is wise, but there is one thing we can ask right now: did they succeed in bringing us what is, in essence, a new Tenth Doctor and Donna story?
There’s no pre-title sequence, and what we get instead… isn’t great. The Doctor, superimposed over space. Donna talking directly into camera. Lots of old footage and sweeping, melodramatic metaphors about storms. It feels clunky; a safety rail for impatient new viewers who might not stick around without a cheat sheet instead of trusting the story to bring them up to speed.
But then that theme tune kicks in, and there’s the TARDIS barrelling through the time vortex, swooping past the camera and bursting out of clouds in a serious of spaceship glamour shots that feels more like the opening to a Star Trek series. Doctor Who’s back on the telly, everyone! Hoorah.
This might not be a Christmas special, but watching Tennant saunter through the oddly-festive streets, you could be forgiven for expecting killer robot Santas. Instead, the story wastes no time in running the Doctor into Donna Noble and her now-teenage daughter Rose, some fifteen years after “The End of Time”, and reminding us that even without her memory wiped, Donna specialises in missing every mind-blowing intergalactic revelation the universe has to offer.
In this case, the revelation is a spaceship crashing over London, which itself is straight out of Russell T. Davies’ old playbook. A brief taxi ride with Donna’s husband Shaun briskly ticks off the rest of our lingering questions – are they still married? What happened to Donna’s lottery money? How’s Nerys? – and when the Doctor arrives at the crash site, we get a sense of the increased location shooting and bespoke sets that the show’s bigger budget permits.
Elsewhere, we’re reintroduced to the underrated Jacqueline King as Donna’s Mum, Sylvia. Davies’ first tenure had a running theme of suspicious, overtly hostile mums who saw the Doctor (often correctly) as a threat to their daughters’ safety. By the time we got to Sylvia it was easy to overlook her because the archetype was so familiar, but there were a few important differences with the Nobles’ family dynamic.
Without meaning to be, Sylvia was frequently a negative influence on Donna, damaging her self-confidence by displaying a lack of trust in her daughter’s prospects and abilities. Here, that relationship is re-examined. Sylvia is still a limiting force on Donna in many ways, swooping in to take charge of dinner because Donna’s lost another job, waving away talk of spaceships and missing memories, but now it’s clear that she’s playing the role of guardian. She knows her daughter’s hurting and clearly wants to help – but she must behave dismissively, so that Donna will put the deadly truth out of her mind.
Thanks to these conversations, we also see how Donna has calmed down and matured thanks to the presence of Rose in her life, even though she expresses doubt at her own parenting abilities – directly challenging Sylvia to display some parental positivity towards her once in a while, which she’d never have done fifteen years ago. The buried hatchets are evident in these domestic scenes, Davies writes them as well as ever, and it’s part of why we still care about these characters after so much time.
But back to the Doctor! As Fourteen sneaks inside to get a look at the ship, we get a fresh take on the sonic screwdriver when he draws himself a holographic display and then uses the sonic like a stylus to manipulate it, presumably giving him a clearer look at what he’s been scanning. I really like this; it’s very Doctor-ish, and feels a lot more appropriate than just waving the sonic around until something blows up. It’s easy to imagine these screens playing the part of Capaldi’s chalkboard and sonic sunglasses in future adventures.
Here’s where the Doctor encounters Shirley Bingham, UNIT’s Scientific Advisor and possible Petronella Osgood successor assuming Ruth Madeley sticks around, which I hope she does. Via Shirley, we get a far more gainly explanation of the Doctor-Donna metacrisis, and learn that the Doctor doubts regaining his old teeth and then running straight into Donna is just a coincidence…
And let’s not forget Rose, distracted from an evening in her Etsy shed first by news of an alien escape pod and then an encounter with the Meep, who’s hiding from pursuing Wrarth soldiers. We meet two of these in short order; literal bug-eyed monsters with snapping claws and wings. They look cheesy as anything, and while that’s clearly a deliberate choice (this episode is based on a Doctor Who comic from the 80s) your mileage may vary as to whether they fit the aesthetic when everything else is so lavish.
Rose is unaware that her Mum’s not supposed to see anything alien in case her head explodes, but she is a teenager in an all-ages sci-fi show, so naturally she decides to hide the Meep from her family for no particular reason. Thankfully, this E.T. ruse only holds up for about ten seconds before Donna gets all pokey, so it’s not long before the Meep’s presence is revealed to the other Nobles and the Doctor lets himself in to help.
Sylvia is very much against this, reminding the Doctor how dangerous his presence might be to Donna. Fourteen, however, suddenly seems to forget all of his prior concerns now that there’s a Meep to interrogate. Oblivious to Sylvia’s protestations, he starts to throw around references to two hearts, alien civilisations, UNIT, his friendship with Wilf… Fortunately, the rest of the cast choose that moment to converge on Donna’s home and shut him up, trapping everyone in a crossfire.
Out comes the sonic again, and this time its use is more contentious. Being able to magic up force fields feels pretty overpowered, frankly. Yes, it took him a bit of time to make them and we saw one of them shatter after a while, but letting the Doctor throw down portable shields like he’s mates with Master Chief feels pretty wild, even for a tool that’s summoned its fair share of deus ex machina over the years.
What is worth praising in this sequence, because it’s especially evident as we transition from a long shot of UNIT besieging Donna’s street to a top-down view of the Doctor and company sneaking away, is Rachel Talalay’s confident direction throughout the episode. These larger locations and sets give the camera room to roam free and roam it does, tracking the full length of Donna’s house as Sylvia charges around, gracefully changing elevation in the steelworks and lending a genuinely cinematic feel to proceedings.
Also worth mentioning is the clever story beat that comes as they escape. I was halfway through writing future-me a note, reminding myself to comment that the Wrarth are such stereotypically bad shots, they couldn’t even manage to dent Shaun’s taxi. Before I could finish, the Doctor promptly rug-pulled me by making the exact same observation to advance the plot, turning an age-old Doctor Who trope into a plot twist that reveals the malevolent nature of the Meep – not that we didn’t see that coming a mile away.
With the Meep’s spaceship threatening to burn a good chunk of London, there’s now a ticking clock and Donna chooses to stay with the Doctor and try to save the day. This results in the duo separated by a sheet of glass and Tennant screaming at the heavens (a very “The End of Time” moment) and soon there’s only one choice left: restoring Donna’s memories so that she has the knowledge she needs to help, even though that knowledge will kill her.
Donna, of course, will do whatever it takes to protect Rose and her family. The pair succeed in saving London before Donna collapses in the Doctor’s arms and seemingly dies, though it rings a bit hollow when we know that Catherine Tate will be in upcoming episodes. Personally, I was still grimacing at how the streets of London miraculously glued themselves back together – had there been a less catastrophic level of damage caused, there’d have been no need to hit the undo button, and seeing a genuine aftermath would have put a bit more weight behind the threat of the Meep’s revenge.
That threat, however, is ended by Rose, who comes out of nowhere to flip switches and spout technobabble at a rate of three hundred milli-Pertwees. Thanks to her, our heroes escape the ship, the Meep is taken into custody after delivering this series’ Ominous Portent of a Returning Villain, and the world is saved.
There’s still the issue of the Doctor-Donna to tie up, mind, and this leads to the revelation that Donna can now survive the metacrisis because part of its energy has passed into Rose, whose non-binary identity is in some way an extension of the Doctor not being limited by gender. Together, she and Donna choose to surrender the Time Lord knowledge of their own will.
Now, there are going to be people that take to social media to call this scene ‘preachy’, ‘woke’ or whatever. I guarantee you that Russell T. Davies knows they’ll do this. I also guarantee that he doesn’t give a damn. The message here is overt, yes, and it will hopefully mean a lot to the people actually it’s intended for. Doctor Who sees you, even if there are those who refuse to.
With Donna’s memory back in one piece, the next logical question is “so, back into the TARDIS then?” It’s Donna who initially resists that universe-sized temptation because she’s got a daughter to raise, but the plot also demands she be coaxed inside for one last trip. And what an inside it is! With Thirteen’s cramped crystalline control room visible during the Children in Need short, it was only natural to assume any TARDIS redesign would wait until Gatwa’s at the controls, but nope.
This interior is massive, with spiralling ramps and plenty of tantalising doors – more than large enough for Tennant to run around in. He could probably jump on a bike if the fancy took him. The only part I’m not personally sold on is the colour-changing roundels that give the effect of being surrounded by one large LCD screen. This is a very digital TARDIS, and if you didn’t know that the ship was alive, you’d probably never guess it from this new design.
I’m not sure whether or not the coffee machine built into the control console’s a riff on the custard cream dispenser or just an excuse for Donna to break something, but break things she does. It’s the inciting incident to send the pair off “anywhere in time and space”, as the Doctor puts it, just in case the Disney+ audience didn’t get the memo, and the episode ends.
Fans hoping for a markedly different performance from David Tennant might be disappointed. At least this week, the Fourteenth Doctor is very much trapped in Ten’s shoes; there are no unexpected choices being made, no twist on his character – except maybe the slightest sense that his recent experiences have made him slightly less gregarious and a touch more thoughtful. (Although not thoughtful enough to grasp that Donna gave away her lottery money because he was on some level still inspiring her, which felt odd. When does the Doctor ever question kindness?)
There’s still doubt over whether fate really did conspire to give Fourteen his face just because the universe-shaping event, the Doctor-Donna, was returning but if that is the explanation, it might be the end of the matter. With only two episodes left, I don’t get the sense that Davies is interested in subverting our expectations of how this skinny man in a tight suit behaves now that he’s here. Donna, on the other hand, is markedly changed. Older, more grounded, but no less ferocious.
Did the team pull off a 2008-style script in 2023? Yes, on the whole, but there’s more to the episode than that. For all its call-backs and catchphrases, the obligatory allons-ys bandied about, “The Star Beast” definitely has higher ambitions than trying to act like a lost script from back in the day. Ultimately, this is a reunion episode, not a reset button.
While it’s hard to deny that the battle with the Meep is a little bit ‘vanilla’ Doctor Who and lacks the anniversary scope of something like “The Day of the Doctor”, that’s because the episode’s focus is on catching up with the characters and how the last fifteen years has weighed on them, which is fitting. After all, it was the first Russell T. Davies era that started exploring the question of what happens to you, and how you have changed, when your time with the Doctor is over.
And besides, next week’s special looks like it’s going to be properly bonkers.
Doctor Who continues on Saturday December 2 with “Wild Blue Yonder”, airing on BBC One and iPlayer in the UK, and Disney+ around the world.