Doctor Who – “The Star Beast”
Doctor Who returns with old faces in front of and behind the camera to begin the 60th-anniversary celebrations with a spaceship crash in London and all cosmic signs pointing to one of the Doctor’s old companions.
The previous era of Doctor Who overseen by Chris Chibnall starring Jodie Whittaker as the first female incarnation of the Doctor was a show in trouble. Ratings were plummetting as was the critical reaction. If the show was going to survive drastic changes needed to be made and the return of Russell T. Davies to steer the ship is certainly one way to do that. He was in charge when the show was at its peak so it makes sense that he would be brought back to usher in a new and hopefully more profitable era. Bringing back David Tennant and Catherine Tate for three stories before handing the keys to the TARDIS to the upcoming Ncuti Gatwa also seems to be a no-brainer given their popularity among fans. There’s a real sense of getting back to the roots and rebuilding from there which isn’t a bad thing when trying to revitalise something.
Russell T. Davies had his issues as a writer, particularly when it came to resolving his blockbuster plotlines. Oftentimes the solution would make little sense, come from nowhere or introduce a brand new element at the last moment that neatly resolves the problem at hand. He’s very much a master of setup and falters somewhat when it comes to payoff. Whether the years since his tenure have improved his approach remains to be seen though there’s evidence of the old habits in “The Star Beast”.
The episode opens with the Doctor (David Tennant) arriving in present-day London and almost immediately encountering his former companion Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), her daughter, Rose (Yasmin Finney) and her husband, Shaun Temple (Karl Collins). A hasty recap of the conclusion of Donna’s adventures with the Doctor reminds returning viewers and informs new ones why Donna being drawn back into the Doctor’s world is a bad idea. The threat of Donna’s death should she remember her time with the Doctor hangs over the entire episode with constant references to reiterate the consequences of her reconnecting with him.
In many ways, it feels like Russell T. Davies is picking up exactly where he left off. He handed the show over to Steven Moffat upon David Tennant’s regeneration into Matt Smith and his final story featured Donna and her family to put something of a bow on his time with the show. There’s a comforting symmetry to the return of Davies as showrunner picking up that thread and expanding it. It’s familiar in that it’s David Tennant and Catherine Tate bouncing off each other again but also different in that Donna’s life has changed massively in the meantime. The Doctor has also changed significantly since those days and folding those differences into the narrative prevents it from being meaningless fanfiction regurgitating what fans remember. There’s a sense of progression and growth which serves the episode well.
It moves at a good clip, never feeling like it’s rushing to get to its conclusion or sacrificing characterisation for the sake of the plot. Moments are allowed to linger, character interactions have weight and plot developments have more significance because effort is put into making them personally significant to those experiencing them. The narrative is also kept simple with the impact on the characters being the priority.
Change is the most significant theme that ripples through all of the major characters. Donna has changed in that she’s a mother who looks out for her daughter above all else, Rose is a post-op transsexual trying to feel at home in her own skin and the Doctor is post-regeneration with an old face combined with an altered personality so is also trying to feel at home in his own skin. Even the antagonist, the Meep (Miriam Margoyles) has undergone a change that is being processed. The episode pivots around these characters and explores how those changes have affected their lives.
Much has been said in the marketing about David Tennant returning to play the fourteenth Doctor rather than a reprise of the tenth so expectations were set for him to deliver a different take on the character. Of course, there’s only so different the Doctor can be as each actor is putting their own stamp on the same character with different traits amplified or reduced depending on the incarnation. David Tennant’s fourteenth Doctor so far seems very similar to his tenth but that forms part of the confusion he wrestles with. For one thing, he has no idea what this old face returned and that uncertainly shatters his confidence in his identity.
He confides in Shirley Anne Bingham (Ruth Madeley), a member of U.N.I.T., about that uncertainty and his concerns that cosmic forces are once again converging on Donna. Being drawn into an adventure so soon after regenerating means that he has no time to process what has happened to him and has to try to define himself while puzzling out the problem in front of him. It makes for strong emotional stakes while contributing to the satisfying pacing of the episode. The Doctor is lost but his instincts kick in and he throws himself whole two heartedly into the situation at hand with his emotional niggles taking a back seat.
Tennant evoking his tenth Doctor persona in his performance as the fourteenth is comforting for those familiar with that era of the show but there are hints of differences such as being more emotionally honest with a total stranger and being surprised that he would act in such a way. Only two hours remain with this incarnation which means there is limited time to fully characterise him so making him similar with a few differences is probably the right approach. Ultimately, viewers will tune in to see David Tennant back as the Doctor and for the most part that’s what they get.
The Doctor feeling adrift and unsettled links neatly into him reconnecting with Donna as he is craving something comforting and familiar but knows that he can’t embrace it because remembering him will kill her. The stakes are significant whenever he’s in her presence as there’s a sense of urgency to solving the problem quickly so that he can leave once he’s sure Donna and her family are safe. It’s clear the Doctor craves friendship and support but can’t get it because of the unique circumstances. That explains why he reaches out to Shirley after she offers him a sympathetic ear. He’s so desperate to contextualise his thoughts that any sounding board will do and Shirley represents a compassionate voice who will allow him to vent. It’s a nice scene and establishes Shirley as a character with potential who should be a fixture of present-day adventures.
Donna’s memory loss has affected her significantly. She makes reference to dreams about creatures and fantastical places that are intensifying. Reference is also made to a persistent feeling of emptiness associated with that missing time. She feels like she lost “something lovely” and wants it back even though she has no tangible idea of what has been lost. Her mother, Sylvia (Jacqueline King) keeps steering her away from thinking about it because she’s aware of what will happen if Donna remembers her time with the Doctor. Sylvia was always one of the more challenging parental figures in the modern era of Doctor Who. She offered Donna little in the way of support or encouragement which contributed to the hard edges that partly defined the character. Sylvia has softened slightly and is more supportive than she once was with her harshness being channelled into protecting Donna. It’s a compelling shift in her character and one that feels natural while also being relevant to the plot at hand.
Throughout the episode, Donna instinctively behaves in the way she did when she was the Doctor’s companion. Her innate compassion is always present and she feels an irresistable desire to involve herself in the situation despite being told to run in the opposite direction. Once again, it raises the stakes as it signifies the return of her memories and associated death getting closer. Amusingly, the lottery winnings that the Doctor facilitated for her were given away to charity because she couldn’t silence that selfless desire to help and express how she had been influenced by her time with the Doctor by donating that money to those more in need. Once again, it shows growth and change rather than having Donna simply reset to the person she was in her first appearance.
Donna does end up having her memories restored as a last resort when the choice is either Donna dies or millions are killed when the Meep’s ship launches. David Tennant perfectly plays the anguish of the realisation that there is only one option left and Donna’s consent adds a new dimension to this very long-form story as she is now allowed to choose her fate rather than having it imposed on her. When her memories are restored she remarks that it was “the best 55 seconds of her life”. She regrets nothing and delights in being her full self however briefly. The scene where the Doctor and Donna are separated by a transparent barrier that allows them to talk but not physically engage with each other is impressively tense and both of them having to play a part in stopping the launch organically builds to Donna’s memory restoration being necessary. It’s reminiscent of “Partners in Crime” where Donna had to contribute in order for the Doctor to be able to save everyone.
That isn’t the end of Donna though as her death isn’t as certain as the Doctor feared. Having a child allowed part of the Meta-crisis that threatened her life to be inherited which means that the load is shared between mother and daughter. This allows Rose to feel more confident and complete within herself as the confusion she has lived with her entire life fades away. Just as Donna was exhibiting behaviour that became part of her when she travelled with the Doctor, Rose is building things into her life motivated by those inherited memories. She works in a shed that evokes the TARDIS and has an Etsy business where she makes toys inspired by the things encountered during the Doctor and Donna’s adventures. The name Rose was also something she chose influenced by the memories she didn’t quite have access to.
Rose’s identity confusion is a major fixture of the episode that leads to a poignant resolution. She is trans and still far from confident in her own skin. It isn’t helped by her peers mocking her and Sylvia’s well-intentioned yet accidentally clumsy attempts to offer support. It’s a brief yet effective example of the challenges that exist in using different pronouns and worrying about saying the wrong thing. It’s an acknowledgement of reality and makes the family dynamic feel more real as a result.
The Meta-crisis trickling down to Rose and her complete acceptance of who she is makes for a truly inspiring moment. Donna, the Doctor and Rose simultaneously articulate that the Doctor is “male and female, and neither, and more”. It’s a clever way of summarising the complexity of the Doctor as a character due to the changing faces, gender shifts and personality alterations. Rose has undergone a similar transformation without regenerating and now understands who she is as well as where that lifelong uncertainty came from.
There’s also a strong display of perspective linked to the identity that Rose now fully understands. The Doctor points out that the Meta-crisis remains a threat that has only been slowed but Donna and Rose simply let go of the power that comes with the threat and it saves their lives. A comment is made about a male presenting Time Lord being unable to fathom giving up the power. The Doctor didn’t see letting go as an option where the answer was obvious to the women. Donna even points out that the previous incarnation would have understood. It’s a resolution that feels too neat given the gravity afforded to the threat repeatedly over the course of the episode but it lands from a characterisation standpoint.
The episode suffers in its handling of the Meep. A cute alien that turns out to be vicious and tyrannical is an expected subversion and it’s handled competently if unremarkably. The Meep isn’t all that interesting a character and the pursuing Wrath soldiers are an underwhelming addition. The design is overly cheesy and the whole Meep scenario doesn’t have the impact that it needs to in order to heighten the overall threat level. It’s a standard blockbuster plot with a ticking clock and the promise of major loss of life. Fortunately, the character work is strong so the villain threat doesn’t matter as much but it’s still by far the least interesting thing the episode has to offer. The set pieces are entertaining enough and a notable visual upgrade thanks to the extra money Disney bring to the production but giving the sonic screwdriver the ability to create force fields -albeit slowly- is an upgrade too far for an already overpowered device. All told, the blockbuster elements don’t match up with the strength of the characterisation so there is a detectable imbalance to the episode but not enough to overpower all that it does well.
An entertaining episode with excellent characterisation and a strongly explored theme that brilliantly mixes the familiar with the new.
- excellent characterisation
- impressive pacing
- meaningful fanservice that seamlessly weaves in new elements
- keeping the bulk of the stakes personal to the characters and paying them off in satisfying ways
- the inspiring exploration of gender identity through Rose and how she relates to the Doctor
- the Meep failing to be an interesting character
- the underwhelming blockbuster elements creating an imbalance in the storytelling
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