THE STAR BEAST
Well, here we are again. It’s been a while. Oh, and happy sixtieth.
Last time, Chris Chibnall was stabbing Doctor Who through the heart and we were bailing out. Just as well there was a gap before things cranked up again, because ugh. When you have to watch the final episode – a regeneration episode – of a showrunner’s tenure in fast forward, something has gone spectacularly wrong.
But that’s all over now, and we’re back to the future, with modern Who’s first showrunner Russell T Davies back in the chair.
Is it a mistake bringing Davies back? Well, it depends how you look at it. From one viewpoint, absolutely not. After Chibnall finished savaging it, Doctor Who was on life support. Davies is a populist, and appealing to the widest possible audience is what Doctor Who needs after that. Basically, Davies is desperately applying CPR to stop Doctor Who slipping away like it did in the eighties. And after the wildly slithering audience numbers under Chibnall, Davies might be the only one who can do that.
On the other hand, we’re going to put our cards on the table: we just don’t like RTD Who. So we’re not exactly overwhelmed with rapture seeing him back.
Can you believe it’s been fifteen years since we last saw the Tenth Doctor and Donna? It seems like yesterday that we were trashing their final story. So how does RTD get on with his retreaded Doctor?
The worst thing about The Star Beast for us is that absolutely everything about it is predictable. The supposed twist and turns of the plot couldn’t have been more obvious if the Doctor and Donna had shouted them at us in that cringey bit at the beginning where they caught us up on the plot to camera. (Shudder.) The adorable fluffball who’s actually a villain. The evil insects who are really forces for good. Even the coffee which is clunkily highlighted until Donna inevitably spills it on the console.
It’s not just the plot that’s predictable, either. Forcing Donna to forget the Doctor was a dark and gutsy move, but fifteen years ago we said this:
“Why bother with the high-impact stuff at all when you're just going to turn round and neutralise it? '"But that's impossible…!" "And yet he succeeded."' The story of modern Doctor Who.
“And that's why we'd put serious money on not seeing the last of Donna. Yes, one mention of the Doctor will make her brain trickle out of her ears. Until it won't.”
And with ghastly inevitability, in Star Beast “until it won’t” has arrived. With a dollop of handwavium, the tragedy that made Donna’s fate so touching and memorable is casually flicked away.
What about the Doctor? RTD has promised that his new Who is going to be outrageously innovative. So seeing him write the new Tennant Doctor as a carbon copy of the Tenth is... a disappointment. Is it a smart thing to do for ratings given how popular the Tenth Doctor was? Probably. Does it improve the episode? Yeah, nah.
None of this is helped by other shows recently doing things better. When The Meep first announced itself, we all said in unison “Moopsy!”. Lower Decks did the plot of the cute and adorable creature actually being a bone-drinking hellion only this September. And that was both funnier and more effective than The Meep.
The other factor not doing Star Beast any favours is the second series of Good Omens that showed this July. For us, David Tennant’s Crowley is the role of his lifetime. His loucheness, the way he talks, the way he walks: it’s a tour de force. He’s absolutely stellar.
So seeing Tennant again so soon after that as the Doctor just underlines the disappointment. Is Tennant a bad Doctor? Nope. At the time, and especially in contrast to the Ninth Doctor who just never gelled, we thought the Tenth Doctor was pretty good. That is, until we saw Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor and the sheer ordinariness of the Tenth Doctor fell sharply into focus. This isn’t a criticism of Tennant: he throws everything he’s got at it. It’s the writing that never allows the Doctor the magic they can have at the show’s best.
So what else? Well, of course the other big news of the season is that the wobbly sets of yore are just a memory, because Disney, yes Disney, is fronting the cash. And man, is that obvious. How does this work out? We’re really not sure we’re the right people to ask, because we find endless action scenes pretty dull. But we know lots of people do like them, which is why Marvel is such a money printer, so it’s not like we’re saying they’re wrong to do it. If you like that stuff, you’ll like this, we guess. We wouldn’t know. What we will say, though, is that none of that feels even remotely like Doctor Who to us, so as far as we’re concerned the pumped-up budget was uttterly thrown away.
What does feel like Who is entirely in the small character moments. Donna insulting the Doctor’s suit. Her mother trying to convince her the Doctor and all his works are a figment of her imagination. David Tennant and Catherine Tate together are a delight, and Donna’s husband and mother are also terrific. It’s in there that we can see glimpses of genuine Who.
But there’s so much else that’s bad. The pacing is horribly off: it’s all action action action, and then whurp! Eveything grinds to a halt for a lengthy explanation. And the plot is just lazy: remember when the Doctor got out of impossible situations with clever solutions? Here that’s jettisoned in favour of randomly flipping switches. As for the metacrisis being passed down? No. Just no.
And RTD has made it impossible for us not to have to discuss the wokeness. Not because it’s in there at all, but because of the way it’s wielded like a sledgehammer. Hooray for representation, but it doesn’t require that you drop every other consideration in the writing in order to wedge in big chunks of earnestness. We felt sorry for Yasmin Finney, who when all around her were getting great comic moments instead had to struggle under the weight of being there to get across the difficulties of being trans. Is it really representation when the character is a cipher with no other distinguishing characteristics?
Oh yeah, and guess who else is back? The dreaded Murray Gold and his buckets of musical slush. Sigh.
Overall, 20% Who, 80% Disney. Not great.
Is RTD Who better than no Who? On this showing, no. Not for us it isn’t. But we’re keeping an open mind. After all, these are anniversary specials, and they’re traditionally appalling. It’s probably going to get better. Right?
NOW YOU SEE IT PART ONE
There’s a white box on the top of the stack Donna’s holding. Where does it go?
Shirley seems remarkably incurious about UNIT clattering downstairs and rapidly fecking off, doesn’t she? Bit of a shame given that they’ve got a nasty case of possession.
LOOK LEFT, LOOK RIGHT, LOOK LEFT AGAIN
All that budget, and they still had to recycle the kid’s reaction shot when he’s looking out the window.
NOW YOU SEE IT PART TWO
It’s a big reveal at the end that Rose’s plushies are actually Doctor Who monsters. And how do they manage the surprise? By cheating. In the earlier scenes in the shed, you can’t see any of those plushies at all.
SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER
That incredibly tidy, efficiently lit disco TARDIS misses the point by about three hundred parsecs. It's the very definition of Disneyfied.
Every time they change the theme tune it gets further away from the brilliant electronic original and therefore worse, and this version’s no exception. But the closing theme is just weird. What’s with the heavy breathing?