The Star Beast, the first of three specials to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of Doctor Who, instantly shrugs off comparisons to the show’s fiftieth anniversary extravaganza. That episode was huge and spectacular but ten years later that’s not what Doctor Who needs right now. Instead, the episode is content just to be a blast to watch. And it was. I had so much fun watching it. It remains to be seen what the next two specials have in store but The Star Beast was a proper, solid, entertaining hour of Doctor Who when the franchise needed it most.
Normally, the special is not what I would want. A desperate grasp for the old ways and days, relying on nostalgia, bringing back a previous showrunner in Russell T Davies and a previous Doctor and companion in David Tennant and Catherine Tate. Usually, I would rather chart a course forward than back but after the past few years of a substantial dip in quality, we needed this. The series needed this and the fans needed this. The episode is a reminder of how fun Doctor Who can be.
It’s a very Russell T Davies episode, which is good thing in my book. His original tenure on the show, the first four series of the rebooted series, was the era of Doctor Who I grew up watching and fell in love with. This was a return to the style I love: very silly, funny, charming, warm, and heartfelt. The Star Beast is also gloriously simple. It’s straightforward, focused, and a well-paced episode of television. It’s been a while since any of those words could be used to describe an episode of Doctor Who. It’s not trying to reinvent the wheel but instead is just a strong classic episode. And I’m glad these three specials aren’t overly serialised but instead are allowed to breathe as their own adventures.
Things have changed since Davies first ran Doctor Who, including the budget. The Chibnall-era of the show desperately wanted to be a blockbuster, bombarding the viewer with massive visual effects and scale that had no charm. Thankfully, The Star Beast utilises VFX in a much better way. There’s a good balance between big budget moments and classic Doctor Who cheapness. There are still high stakes and big CGI laser battles, but they take place on a regular London street. The Meep looks great yet the hunters chasing the Meep look so fake and flimsy, I love it. There’s such a charm to the visuals of the episode.
David Tennant is ever reliable as The Doctor, falling back into the role like on old pair of converses. Ecclestone always holds a special place in my heart but Tennant is so good in the role. From the first second he was so naturally back in character, I didn’t question it at all. The Star Beast also reminded me why I like Catherine Tate. To be honest, it’s been a long time since I enjoyed her in anything. Earlier this year, an advert for her show Queen of Oz kept being shown and it was incredibly annoying. Just her shouting for ten seconds, I couldn’t imagine watching the actual show. But I guess it’s the quality of writing because here she’s shouting plenty and I found it pretty funny.
Much of the drama ultimately hinges on a trans non-binary story, which is sure to piss some people off but I thought it was handled well. It worked as both a sci-fi story and a very personal human one. Usually it’s either one or the other, which rarely pleases. Either it’s a third gender alien representing a human identity issue in a sightly too removed way to actually explore anything or just a trans character drama with no metaphor at all which feels too much like a diversion for the show, like Star Trek: Discovery patting itself on the back for doing very little. Here, Russell T Davies made it work on both levels. It felt like a real, positive trans story, brimming with humanity and relatability, yet there was still a Doctor Who sci-fi aspect weaved into it, of the Doctor’s impact on Rose’s life, the hereditary metacrisis, leading to a kind of subconscious maleness that could have been awkward as hell but was written in well. I thought the twist of the Doctor’s influence, with the TARDIS shed and cuddly aliens, was a great reveal.
The only questionable moment was perhaps when Rose told the Doctor not to presume the Meep’s pronouns. It stopped the episode dead with the bluntness of a hammer. But you know what, this is Doctor Who. Since when has this show been subtle? Largely, I appreciate the injections of ‘woke’ progressiveness into the show. That’s just the way Russell T Davies has done things since he originally rebooted the series. As a kid watching that first series air in 2005, I don’t think I had ever seen a gay character like Captain Jack on TV before. It made a huge positive impression so I’m not going to begrudge the show doing the same for a new generation of viewers.
But not everything worked for me in The Star Beast. The big stakes of the danger of the Timelord energy metacrisis thingy and Donna’s impending death fizzled out a little unsatisfyingly. I loved the hereditary twist of the energy being shared between mother and daughter and that could have been the fix. It was shared and dissipated between them, letting Donna live, but then the Doctor says it only slowed the danger, not eliminated it. So instead, in a weird girlpower move, they just let it go. Milage may vary but it was too silly for me, and I like silly Doctor Who. It’s been such a big dramatic point for years, Donna’s fate, and all this time she could just shake it off. And that clearly glued-on, added-after-the-fact opening of Tennant standing in front of a green screen explaining the backstory to camera was very strange.
Ultimately, balance is the word that comes to mind to describe what made Russell T Davies’ return to Doctor Who work so well. The Star Beast managed to consistently do two things at once. It was a 2023 episode ushering in the new era of the show while also throwing back to the past. An expensive Disney-involved big budget Whoniverse episode that also felt charmingly cheap and flimsy and British. A sixtieth anniversary celebration that’s also just content to be a regular episode, both silly and sincere. And a meaningful, human trans story that is also a crazy sci-fi tale.