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Doctor Who - The Star Beast (2023 special)

For Doctor Who Whovians and anyone else interested, one mighty long wait is over, as the sci-fi hit's 60th anniversary specials have at last arrived! Two years ago the man who brought the Time Lord into the 21st century, Russell T Davies, was announced as coming back to run the show again. Soon after, a Doctor and companion for the ages followed suit: the beloved David Tennant and Catherine Tate, reunited for three hour-long specials. Ncuti Gatwa is in the wings, playing the Time Lord from this Christmas onward.


There's lots to learn but fret not if you are new to that blue phone box show. New special 'The Star Beast' – based on a comic like E.T., before E.T. was a thing – will welcome you in...or will it? Is Doctor Who as good as its old days? Is it fresh? Are Davies' new tricks up to scratch?


Three rrramble writers give the answer:


Catherine Tate as Donna and David Tennant as the Doctor Credit: BBC


Elena


Doctor Who is back with a bang in all its cheesy CGI glory. To me, the most important returnee for this era is showrunner Russell T Davies. Having switched off in recent years because of the writing, I couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief at the return of RTD, something I imagine felt by occasional fans and hardcore Whovians alike.


Still, I had my trepidations going into this special. Would it live up to the glory days of David Tennant, the Doctor who defined Who for so many? Could it be that, even with returning faces, Doctor Who might just not be for me anymore? Also, why not get on with it and let Ncuti Gatwa shine?


My worries were quickly assuaged. While Tennant’s hair looks suspiciously demon-red (like a certain Good Omens character), he is still incredibly light on his feet in his distinctive Converse, bringing the same energy almost twenty years after his first run. Catherine Tate’s Donna is just as quick-witted, with neat one-liners and fiercely protective of her transgender daughter Rose, whose name makes the Doctor’s heart skip a beat. Played by Yasmin Finney (of Heartstopper fame), Rose joins the show alongside fellow new character Shirley Bingham, a scientific adviser which brings on board Ruth Madeley, a wheelchair-user. In Shirley’s case, her wheelchair use is thankfully not overemphasized. These diverse casting moves are welcome on a show where the Time Lord has been traditionally played by white men.


Doctor Who hasn’t changed wholly, however, it choosing to bring Davies back after an unpopular couple of years. So, some of Rose’s dialogue is characteristically unsubtle, possibly pitched for an audience younger than me. I’m also unsure about the Marvel-esque ‘Whoniverse’ opening titles, and the Doctor and Donna’s clunky exposition dump at the beginning, delivered straight to camera.


Nonetheless, Who’s charm remains: the gremlin-furry-E.T. hybrid Meep looking like it escaped from a Spielberg movie, and the plastic-y Wrarth Warriors very Star Trek. With an increased Disney-sponsored budget, I’m glad these haven’t been given too much of an upgrade. Our heroes’ repartee returns too, as does the iconic “vworp” of the TARDIS, neither overshadowed by some Who lore.


While the resolution features magical technology reversals and the notion of letting it go, I’m not ready to let go yet – this era of Doctor Who has only just begun.


Yasmin Finney as Rose Noble Credit: BBC

Amy


I want to get my two nitpicks out of the way, because this episode was otherwise incredibly fun and entertaining!


Firstly, the recap that opens ‘The Star Beast’ felt a little shoehorned in. It’s important to set up the story for new viewers, but perhaps there was a better way to do this than having the Doctor awkwardly copy and pasted into space.


The ending didn’t sit quite right with me either, an unresolved plot thread conveniently explained away in an instant. Suggesting that a male-presenting Time Lord wouldn’t understand how to let things go? Was the implication that men can’t let go of power, whereas women can? If so, this feels a bit simplistic and sexist. It also doesn’t make sense directing such an idea at the Doctor, considering his recent female incarnation.


This all said, how amazing were the opening credits?! When it came on, I wanted to punch the air – Doctor Who feels epic again. It's like we’re going back in time, back to the show’s golden era.


I loved the inclusion of the trans character, Rose Noble. Representation is so important to progressing society, as Russell T Davies says of casting – everyone deserves to have their story told. The way Rose became central to the final plot was a moment of pure joy. I also appreciated the down-to-earth depiction of Rose’s grandma, slipping up when referring to Rose’s identity, and being given the chance to correct this. Ultimately, the portrayal of the Nobles’ acceptance of Rose felt sensitive and genuine.


Speaking of genuine, David Tennant slots back into playing the Doctor with ease, while it’s interesting to see he’s not the same incarnation as before, now someone who is more open about his feelings. This surprises even himself, and it’s touching to see this proven in his expressions of love for Donna and Wilf. Our socially awkward Doctor hasn’t always been so candid, and opposite this, Catherine Tate remains a queen of balancing the serious with comedy. Her energy was brilliant when becoming TheDoctorDonna, and her reasoning for giving up the lottery money was both hilarious and sad.


‘The Star Beast’ has a strong and snappy script, this a nice contrast with the more explanatory dialogue of recent episodes. The action is well-balanced with softer moments and the jokes hit just right. The adorable Meep looks incredible (it reminding me of those old WereBear toys!), as does the shoot-out between the Wrarth Warriors and UNIT. The new TARDIS interior is fantastic too, especially its snazzy, colour-changing mood lighting. I’d love the chance to run around all those ramps.


Overall, this was a thoroughly enjoyable watch – a solid 8/10. I’m so excited to see the next episode, although I've heard it's not as family-friendly as this one was!


Allons-y!


Meep Meep! Credit: BBC

Wayne


It feels like 2005 and proving old is the new new, Russell T Davies’ return to Doctor Who a timely regeneration for this raggedy franchise.


‘The Star Beast’ is a frothy, appetite-whetting romp that gets so much right. Here, Davies gleefully flips a sonic screwdriver at those still choking on their jelly babies over the Doctor’s time as a woman. And in this episode, he pits the Time Lord against their biggest foe yet: pronoun deniers.


Sci-fi – particularly Star Trek and Who – has long been at the forefront of progressive thinking. A clip just surfaced from 1972’s 'The Curse of Peladon', where the Doctor and companion Jo meet the hermaphrodite hexapod Alpha Centauri, prompting a discussion about how to address them. Right now, parts of society are being weaponised as the government hopefully heads towards its own regeneration, so it’s great Davies made trans issues an important element of this era’s debut story.


Yasmin Finney – transgender themself – is wonderful as Rose (no, not that one). That her mum, and returning companion, Donna embraces their identity is so affirming, particularly when Rose’s schoolmates deadname her, this a brave scene to feature. And the worries of Rose’s grandma about saying the wrong thing felt very current.


How this all played into the final act appeared clunky, though; like taking a mallet to the back of a Sontaran’s neck. Some of Ruth Madeley’s scenes were cringeworthy too – her character is more than her being a wheelchair-user.


I’d also call the episode’s execution familiar: there’s a problem, some banter, some showy SFX, a twist, and a nonsensical solution. The attic walls our heroes flee through wobbled so much that using the sonic to break them felt redundant. Trying to pass Finney off as 15 was a bigger stretch than the Earth being towed home in 'Journey’s End'. And the in-character bits to camera at the start makes me want to exterminate someone.


Davies gets Who though. There’s a ballsy-ness and ease to how he uses the absurdity of the concept as a metaphor to tackle everyday struggles. Fellow showrunner Steven Moffat was similarly caught up in who the Doctor was, making the show too big, too noisy, whereas Chris Chibnall retreated into small, insular, stories, these almost sidelining the Doctor and the show entirely. Chibnall’s flaws make me wish Davies had written for Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor. To quote her Doctor quoting Dennis Potter, I do hope she gets to savor the “blossomest blossom” in a future multi-Doctor instalment.


As for the current actor in post, I really don’t want David Tennant to go (again), as he no doubt will. As Davies once said, there’s a lack of boring machismo about him – he skates and dances over the dialogue. Perhaps Tennant’s is the most human of the Doctors, and I love that in this outing he wears his barrister wig from The Escape Artist. It’s a moment reminiscent of his Casanova jacket in 'The Christmas Invasion'.


Catherine Tate shows more range as Donna than in her own projects. As Tennant’s best companion, their chemistry sparks like a Cyberman in a microwave. The new TARDIS might feel influenced by the House of Mouse, but it remains terribly British in the best way. And the Wrarth look very 70s, once a Blue Peter competition winner.


Overall, this was a Time Lord triumphant.



Review edited by Tom



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