(A note before we begin: This was written on Nov. 27th of 2023, to accurately capture a true "first impression" of The Star Beast before the airing of any subsequent episodes of the 60th anniversary specials. It has been deliberately withheld to await the results of the SAG-AFTRA vote on Dec. 5th, as an abundance of caution and paranoid anxiety over a strike resuming and maintaining the principles I held myself to during the duration of the previous 2023 strike. If you are reading this, it is either just after that vote or after subsequent striking has been resolved. Whenever you are reading this, I hope you enjoy.)
Remember 2008, when this show was good?
In some ways, though, the logical endpoint of the Chibnall years happened before they even ended. First it was the announcement of Russell T. Davies returning as showrunner once Chibnall was done. Then it was David Tennant and Catherine Tate coming back to reprise the Doctor/companion dynamic duo from that era. The final terror of the Chibnall era, revealed: Why just cover 2008 with winks and nods when we can actually bring it back? It horrified me. It terrified me. The final breakdown of this thing I loved into warm oozing ichor and ectoplasm, retro-regenerating the entire goddamn show as... what? The final form of Chibnall's nostalgia baiting? An apology for those years, a desperate plea to please come back, look, we undid all of it, it's the Good Doctor Who that YOU like? Gag me with a spoon. Let me grow up, leave this cloying desperation behind, and move on to horizons which challenge me instead of flailing about in a sad bid to appease me. Wake me when Ncuti Gatwa is on and you're doing something actually new.
That is the apprehension I grappled with for almost two years, and most of it melted away upon watching The Star Beast. I'm not a total convert who's pleased to be back here or anything, but it is only for three episodes. I endured much much worse going through Chibnall. Fine. It may be 2023, but tonally we are back in the world of 2008. It has a whiff of that legacy sequel vibe, the whole "Look! It's your faves, and they're back!" and I still must grapple with that. Begrudgingly, however, I have to admit it. This is a good episode of Doctor Who, one that I enjoyed watching and have nice things to talk about regarding it. After the Chibnall years, this is such a breath of fresh air that it results in me grading the thing on a curve. Let me finally sink into this thing and say some nice things about it.
For starters, the acting is pretty stellar all around and I enjoyed everyone in it. They all play off of each other well, and all the returning folks play their parts how you'd expect for the most part. There's a certain gravity and poignancy to the way they play some parts, though. Catherine Tate is boisterous and fiery as ever, but she has tinges of sadness and regret as well as channeling that bold energy into being a fiercely protective mother. I really loved Tennant's slow and mellow scene with Ruth Madeley (and I really love Ruth Madeley in this, period, what a badass) where he sits and ponders why in the hell he, the 14th numbered Doctor Who, has turned back into this particular face. The actual space alien plot itself, an adaptation of a famous Doctor Who comic from the late 70's, works well here. It hits all the good spacey beats you want it to, as well as following the framework you'd expect if you read the comic. It's all good stuff. I don't want to laser focus on it.
No, what I want to talk about is the bit which really spoke to me. I briefly relitigated all of that stuff about my horror over the return of Davies and Tennant. All of that came to a head a year and a half ago, in June 2022, when I wrote it all out as part of my introduction post to talking about Quantum Leap. Quantum Leap then proceeded to give me everything that Chibnall's version of Doctor Who left me wanting for. It gave me a show about travelling in time, dealing with microcosmic issues that resonate with the real world, and a good man just passing through and doing his best to make a material difference in the world. I have yet to write about it for the blog, but I want to briefly mention an episode of the 2022 Quantum Leap called "Let Them Play". It is a story about helping to create a better future for a trans girl, one where she gets to play the sport that she loves. It is one of my favorites in the new show's run thus far, a beautiful piece about fighting for real material social progress that also lets one of its supporting cast members, a nonbinary character and actor, share their story of the hardships and challenges of being who they are. It is a wonderful 45 minutes of television that has something to say about the state of the real world we live in, and makes one pay attention to these issues.
Yes, The Star Beast is basically a story about a David Tennant Doctor Who and Donna Noble and rekindling the memories of 2008. By comparison to last year's Power Of The Doctor, which was a macrocosmic mess of cameos and references, this is a downright microcosmic story about Doctor Who helping one family out during a wild alien crisis. The most interesting of these, Donna's trans daughter Rose Noble, causes the show to do something that even the best of Chibnall era Doctor Who did in spite of itself. With the deft and talented hand of Davies, Doctor Who manages to have its cake and eat it too. It is a fun space adventure with Beep the Meep vs. the Wrarth Warriors, with UNIT soldiers, with lasers and explosions and rockets and alien mind control. It is also imperious in its swagger as it is about a real something that matters in the world today, planting its flag and forcing the viewer to think about it. That something? Trans rights, baby.
There are scenes which have given cause for much discussion and debate. Rose being deadnamed in the street by passing bullies. Sylvia Noble slipping up with her pronouns while talking to Donna and correcting herself. The whole "did you assume their gender" bit with Rose calling Doctor Who out on using "he" for Beep The Meep before asking the alien for their pronouns. All that "binary binary non-binary" stuff, and the resolution of the Donna trolley problem being one that a "male-presenting Time Lord" could never figure out and we needed two women to do it. Lots have been said about them, and I've paid particular attention to the voices of trans Doctor Who critics whom I admire and respect. They're on board, for the most part, though there are reservations which vary here and there. That last line about the male-presenting Time Lord is the one which has caused the biggest reservations, but look. It's muddled, yes, but let me remind you that we're grading on a curve here. The implications of the line are there, but it's nowhere near as ethically cratering as, say, "The systems aren't the problem" or "Now they'll see the real you". (And while we're dunking on the Chibnall era, let me just say that the fact that the 13th Doctor could have figured out how to save Donna is laughable. This woman couldn't even be bothered to fix Dan's house for Christ's sakes, or even a half-splintered universe from the Flux.)
[INTRUSION FROM THE FUTURE: There's an irony in me having said that, like half a week before Wild Blue Yonder aired and had the Doctor briefly grapple with Flux angst.)
Davies does indeed take a cue from Hell Bent, and has brought Donna back to admit that the memory wipe from 2008 was wrong and so it gets undone. The fact that he actually, for a few brief moments, sold to me that he was going to kill Donna off and I bought it says a lot. (It deeply amuses me that the climax of this episode involves a Noble stuck behind plexiglass while David Tennant agonizes over whether or not to save them.) It was dramatic, but this is better. Donna gets to remember Doctor Who again, and remember how she grew and changed from her time with the Doctor. I am surprised to find myself caring much less about that that I expected to. Don't get me wrong, it's good. but it's not exactly revelatory. A fictional character gets a happy ending after having a bummer one for 15 years. That is good, but I'm still worn down enough from Chibnall that this in-universe stuff does little to spark joy within my heart.
What does spark joy is the symbolism and power of the way Donna gets restored. There are a million plausible ways to write yourself out of the Journey's End mindwipe. The one Davies chose just happened to resonate with the imperious confidence of being trans positive in Doctor Who. The technobabble Metacrisis thing passed down to Rose as well, and together with her mom they use girl power to willingly let it go. For Donna, it is a rejection of the macrocosmic, an embrace of the microcosmic family that she loves and is fiercely protective over. For Rose, it's a chance for her to become a more true version of herself, discovering who she is and being proud of the woman she's growing up to become. There's a real beauty to it, a beauty which not only heals a rift in the show but is proud to have it come from trusting in, loving, and accepting your trans daughter. Fuck. That's beautiful.
That's where I want to leave off with The Star Beast. The magic of Doctor Who returned to me, and all it needed was a good fucking writer with a deft hand who had something to say about the world we live in. Who got trans positivity on Disney+, of all things, and who used it to patch up a past regret. Hell, I don't blame him for mindwiping Donna and wanting to walk back his choice. I've done shit like that in my NaNoWriMo projects. In 2010 or so, I decided to kill off a character and I regretted it. I spent 2019 through 2021 building up to a great undoing of that, a redemption that healed a bit of sin from the canon of my own little multiverse. Davies did that while also making it about something, which is more than I can say for my little story, but that's why he's the current writer of Doctor Who. I can live with that, and I can live with this small run of neo-Tennant if it means writing of this caliber.
To end this with a quote from another prominent Doctor Who critic, writing on Davies' very first episode of the show? Doctor Who has returned to television.