Doctor Who anniversary special review

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By Neil ArmstrongFeatures correspondent

BBC Studios David Tennant and Catherine Tate in The Star Beast

BBC Studios

(Credit: BBC Studios)

David Tennant and Catherine Tate return in The Star Beast, the first of the Doctor Who 60th anniversary specials. Neil Armstrong tells fans what to expect.

As the long-running UK science-fiction show about the eponymous Doctor, a Time Lord who travels through space and time, celebrates its 60th anniversary, writer Russell T Davies is back for another stint in charge. It is effectively the third new beginning for the show, following the original run, from 1963 to 1989, and the revival, which began in 2005. A huge fan of the original series, Davies was largely responsible for its Noughties return, presiding over the Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant eras. His comeback has been greeted with jubilation by those fans who felt that recent seasons had not been among the best.

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The Power of the Doctor, the final episode of Chris Chibnall’s stint as the most recent showrunner, pulled off something of a coup de théâtre at the very end of the episode by having the latest (and 13th) incarnation of the Doctor, played by Jodie Whittaker, regenerate as the 10th Doctor, played by David Tennant, rather than as the newly-announced Doctor Ncuti Gatwa (the Rwandan-Scottish actor who broke out with his role as Eric Effiong in Sex Education).

So now we have Tennant, one of the most popular incarnations of the Time Lord, back in the saddle for three 60th-anniversary specials before Gatwa gets the keys to the celebrated space-and-time machine, the Tardis.

The Star Beast, the first of those three specials, is loosely based on a comic strip that appeared in Doctor Who Weekly magazine in 1980.

In it, the Doctor is as much in the dark as we are as to why they’re back to their old self (Tennant bowed out of the role in 2009). And Tennant is not the only returning veteran. One of the Doctor’s companions, their “best friend” Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), is back too.

For complicated reasons, when they were last hanging out together 15 years ago, the Doctor had to wipe Donna’s memory to save her life. If she ever remembers him, she will die.

The story that Donna has accepted is that she had a bit of a breakdown that caused her to forget everything. But she still has the vague sense that “something’s missing”, as she puts it. “Like I had something lovely and it’s gone… some nights I lie in bed thinking ‘what have I lost?'” She is happily married, with a teenage daughter, Rose (Yasmin Finney) – but this domestic peace is now firmly disrupted…

The Doctor, soon after arriving in London, is distracted by a spaceship crashing, and races to the scene. One of the escapees is the Meep (voiced by Miriam Margolyes), a cute, furry, big-eyed alien. The Meep says it is being pursued by “monsters” who want to kill it… and plot-wise, that’s about all we’re allowed to tell you.

A big change since the last season is the fact that Disney+ is now the distributor for Doctor Who internationally. A deal between Disney and the BBC was announced last year and it presumably means the show has a much bigger budget than in the past; Davies told GQ it was “more than I’ve ever had to work with”. So can we see that money on the screen? Well, no, not really. Not yet. There might be a few more extras in the battle scenes but the special effects are unremarkable.

In fact, it’s difficult to imagine even the most fervent fan being anything other than a little underwhelmed by this first special. If you can measure Who episodes on a scale that runs from “whimsical” to “terrifying”, this is very much at the whimsical end of the range. There’s a twist you can see coming from galaxies away, and the comedy consists mostly of Donna shouting “What the hell…”.

If you love Doctor Who, you’ll probably enjoy it. Tennant’s Doctor is still a charismatic charmer and still makes liberal use of the firm-hold hair gel. As Rose (old companion Rose, not new character Rose) once remarked, he has “great hair… really great hair”.

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There’s a lot of fan-pleasing stuff. The sonic screwdriver seems to have had a serious operating system upgrade. A promising new character, Shirley Ann Bingham, played by Ruth Madeley, is introduced – she’s scientific adviser number 56 to the Doctor’s one-time employer, military organisation UNIT. “I was scientific adviser number one,” says the Doctor.

But if you’ve been indifferent to Who, this won’t be the episode to convert you. And if you’re altogether new to the show, you’ll probably wonder what all the fuss has been about.

And although the show has always been progressive – look at the number of stories over the decades about, for example, threats to the environment – this special is preachy, and by the end, little more than a delivery system for The Message.

So what does this bode for the future of Doctor Who and the new season, which will begin next year, following these three specials and a Christmas special introducing Gatwa properly? It’s difficult to say. But let’s hope the imminent appearance of Neil Patrick Harris as classic villain the Toymaker in the third and final special will really kick-start the new era with a bang.

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