Here we go: the second Russell T Davies era of Doctor Who gets underway, with David Tennant back in the TARDIS. Our Doctor Who: The Star Beast review…
“We’ve got a bloody Martian in the shed”
Well, you don’t need me to tell you that there’s lots on the shoulders of The Star Beast, the first new Doctor Who episode in nearly a year. It arrived on BBC One with more anticipation than we’ve had for the show for some time, and a feel from the off of a brand new era, just in reliable old hands.
The basics are well known. It’s the episode that marks the (surprise, but welcome) return of Russell T Davies to the Doctor Who overlord chair. The story that kicks off the 60th anniversary celebrations of the show. The first time that Disney movie has given the show an effects budget that didn’t require a whip round in the office (well, sort of).
Oh, and David Tennant’s back as the Time Lord, with the question being: why is he the 14th Doctor as well as the 10th?
Ah, it’s good to be back writing this stuff. Let’s get down to it.
Posh Whoniverse logo out of the way (I mean, that’s new), it’s immediately apparent that The Star Beast is designed as a jumping-on point for the show, as you might expect. The Disney backing means the show is getting the kind of global push it’s never quite had to the same degree, and thus this episode needed to serve different audiences: those who know, those who don’t. A recruiting exercise, if you will, whilst not sending everyone else scuttling in the other direction.
The way to tackle this? The logical one: a bit of set-up narration duly fills in necessary backstory, as Tennant’s Doctor tells us that “I can never see Donna again”, making it thus entirely certain that he’ll be seeing Donna again.
Straight after the flash opening credits as it turns out.
But for those of us who know Donna Noble of old, there’s a key change: now she has a daughter. A daughter who we meet in an sequence at Camden Lock that’s absolutely swimming with human beings. Tons of the buggers. Immediately, the signs that resources have been upped are in evidence. Not just the (blimey, is that really Doctor Who?) visual effects, but the number of people physically on screen.
Well, that and a bloody big crashed spaceship. That actually looks like a bloody big crashed spaceship.
I have to approach all this from the viewpoint of an older Who fan, given, well, that’s what I am. I was brought up knowing not to judge the effects too harshly, and to go with it. Always did, no grumble there, but oddly, it does mean all this fancy stuff took a minute or two to get used to. Just look at the Meep, a CG character voiced by Miriam Margolyes. CG! Where’s the dodgy puppets of old?!
Still, like most watching, I settled back quickly and had a perfectly nice time.
I’ve been going back to the 2005 and 2006 episodes of the show over the last few weeks, and what Russell T Davies’ first run of Who was strong at was matching the domesticity of everyday life with the overarching threat of us all potentially going to die.
Those foundations haven’t been compromised, just because we’ve all gone global: you get a line about having to put the bins out, next to a conversation with the aforementioned Meep (“mad Paddington”) about far more pressing matters. Even when the Doctor’s fashioning a protective shield using a fresh feature of the trusty sonic (not the only one, either), it’s just so they can run upstairs in a two up two down British suburban house.
On the flip side, Davies’ imagination is happily firing, and thus we get to The Meep.
With a bit of Toy Story 3 to it, we get the ten minutes or so to set it up as a sweet piece of merchandising before out comes the gun and plan for galactic domination (and dinner). Scary? Not in our house (my ten-year old still insists The Meep is cute, but he guessed what was coming). Fun? Certainly. A good villain? Well, fine. Nothing monumental, but then the story of The Meep (a creation of Dave Gibbons and Pat Mills in The Star Beast comic strip) isn’t quite finished. There’s enough of a tease for more around the corner.
There’s also that difficult balancing act here that Davies knows well, of throwing in nuggets for people who’ve followed the show, whilst not putting off the newcomers. The Shadow Proclamation is wheeled out, but offset by Tennant putting a wig on, for instance. The return of Jacqueline King as Sylvia Noble meanwhile is also welcome, but I sense the character works either way whether you’ve met her before or not. No easy thing, that.
Foreknowledge certainly helps though, not least when the heart of The Star Beast is really the reunion of Donna and the Doctor, with Tate’s Donna very much taking the limelight. A woman whose memory of the Doctor seems to be somewhere at the edges, until, well, it isn’t.
If the first half of The Star Beast is fairly shy about overtly digging into what’s come before with Who, the latter half has now such problems. Particularly intriguing is the new Rose, played by Yasmin Finney, giving a strong debut performance and leaving us in little doubt we’ll be seeing her again (and how much she means to her mother). Lots more to come from her, and a few things seeded even before we get to the bit where the TARDIS console sets off a firework display.
After all, who is The Meep’s boss? You can probably guess if you’ve followed the casting announcements, but still: that’s something for the next two episodes. Furthermore, just why does the Doctor have David Tennant’s face again? That remains a question asked, with no answer given. Start your speculation, if you haven’t already.
Still, given the pomp and hype, I did think The Star Beast was a fairly low key return for the show. A good, solid, strongly-directed episode (hello Rachel Talalay!), rather than a vintage one.
I enjoyed it, it certainly went fast (Davies’ writing for Who was never shy when it came to pace), but given what it was shouldering, a case of job done rather than top grade Who. Certainly a very different feel and ‘event’ to 2013’s The Day Of The Doctor, appreciating that this is just episode one of three specials.
And that’s how I saw it. An hour getting us into the new ‘Whoniverse’, preparing us for the bigger adventures ahead.
It’s good to have Tennant back, of course, if only for a few weeks. Catherine Tate’s Donna too, with the added responsibility of a daughter, remains a good companion for him (even if Donna might be less convinced). Towards the end, as Donna starts ranting about her money and Murray Gold’s exciting score kicked in (he’s been missed), it did feel like old times.
But it’s new times, and it’s foundations laid for what’s to come. Enough here to interest new viewers. Enough to keep the old guard close. Both groups looking forward to a bit more in the weeks ahead.
Still, the absolute highlight? The fancy new TARDIS now has a coffee machine. About bloody time. Get the merchandising team on one of those, and they’ll have my order in the morning…