Doctor Who #1042: The Star Beast

"You can wear a suit that tight up to the age of 35. And no further."

TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Nov.25 2023.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor meets up with Donna Noble and her family to deal with the Meep - now in live action!

REVIEW: This is going to be a rough one, kids. I'm sure there's an audience that feels David Tennant's Doctor is THEIR Doctor and they're quite happy to see a retrovision episode that feels of a piece with that specific era, down to the green and purple lighting and all the same tropes and tics in play. I am not a member of that audience. No matter the episode's strengths (and we'll get to them, I promise), I was violently taken back to an era that I personally felt had played itself out a year before it actually ended, and the RTD-isms I disliked were all here, in FORCE, to make me wary of the post-specials Ncuti Gatwa seasons. No kidding, by the third act, my eyes had rolled to the back of my head so far, I was getting a headache. Not to mention that strategically, the big comeback, which RTD is calling a new Season 1, springing forth from a major American streaming service, is laden with past continuity, which isn't quite the barrier it was when the TV Movie did it in 1996, but is still an impediment for the new audience it is trying to reach and seduce. This is Doctor Who for Whovians, resolving a story we didn't need resolved from ±15 years ago.

Part of the problem is that Davies was adamant that this was NOT the 10th Doctor returned, but the 14th Doctor. Like Tennant was going to craft a different version of the personality, which I would have been 100% into. But no, not at all. He's exactly the same, allons-y and all, aside from being able to reference the past three incarnations' worth of adventures. Disappointing, knowing what Tennant is capable of. His brooding, calm manner when he meets UNIT gave me some hope though, as did the restrained "court" scene. Much happier to catch up with Donna, of course, even if it diminishes the great tragedy of her (then-) final story (and this one's too). For most of the story, she's the "reset" Donna who never catches sight of the aliens and shouts at the world, but by the end, she's be restored in a deus ex machina and hops aboard the TARDIS for a few more adventures while Rose is RIGHT THERE, only nominally playing the Sharon Davies role from the comic strip The Star Beast was based on. Donna throwing the coffee on the console is way too telegraphed for it not to be on purpose, but we'll have to see about that.

Oh, let's talk about that before getting to what I think is the REAL biggest problem of the episode. Yeah, The Star Beast - Beep the Meep - got its start as a comics story written by Pat Mills and drawn by Dave Gibbons back in 1980. I love that they're given credit at the top of the show - in the cool new opening (will it carry over for the 15th Doctor, or do they have TWO new sequences prepared for us?) - rather than buried in the back credits. Of course, fans who HAVE read the comics (which have been reprinted many times - I have it in several formats myself) are going to know what the big twist is. Friends who didn't have told me it worked for them. Certainly, both the Meep and the Wrarth Warriors were well realized, and it was great to hear Miriam Margolyes voice the main alien. In the original story, the whole town of Blackcastle is sucked into a (survivable) black hole when the Meep's black sun engine fires, taking us to new adventures. In this version of events, it's London, and it will be destroyed as fuel unless the Doctor and the Doctor-Donna stop it from firing at all.

Ah yes, the Doctor-Donna, one of those nonsense phrases RTD loves to "coin" and that absolutely do NOT roll off the tongue. He loves a meme, but for every Bad Wolf there's a couple of Timelord Victoriouses that I absolutely hate. And the entire climax here is infused with that sort of "coinage". The Doctor-Donna, born of the meta-crisis (another coinage) is brought back (so you're telling me the Doctor put a password in her head in case he ever needed to bring her back and see her "burn"?) and the two of them happily spout the most insane technobabble ever conceived. But of course, they're just flipping switches and with the time it took to restore Donna, the Doctor could just have directed her to the correct buttons and managed the same thing. Never mind the contrivance of that room have a glass screen that drops down in the middle. She dies, and it falls flat. Neither the music nor Catherine Tate's acting are into it because she wakes up from it and is fine. How? Well, when she gave birth, part of the metacrisis went to the baby, so now the Time Lord energy is survivable, and further, the two women can "let it go" entirely, something a "male-presenting Time Lord" could never understand how to do, never mind that those were the 12th Doctor's last words. When RTD "coins" language, it doesn't always mean what he thinks it means or how it will resonate.

Case in point: Rose. First of all, demerits for freaking out when Donna calls Rose on the street. Is it meant to make the audience wonder for a second if Rose Tyler is present? He doesn't know Rose is her daughter at this point, so he shouldn't be shocked that an amnesiac Donna would name her child that (though as it turns out, Rose named herself). Rose is a trans woman who according to the story can't be much older than 14 (The Stolen Earth was 15 years ago, but let's give her time to grow in the womb). There's no way she's 14 (the actress is 20, possibly 19 during taping), so why not just say it's been longer? You need to pick up the clues, because they don't come right out and say she's trans - kids shout her dead name on the street, her grandmother is awkward around her - which is how it should be. True representation doesn't need to call attention to itself, and everyone else treats her like a teenage girl, which is what she is. The true "woke" move would have been not to make it an issue in the climax, and even woker would have been to give has a fate more like Sharon Davies of the comic strip - the first black companion when taking the entire canon into account - and made HER, not Donna, follow the 14th Doctor on some adventures.

But let's talk about that climax again and how they get out of the metacrisis. I'm sure RTD thinks he's really clever about connecting the Doctor-Donna's last word (binary) to the term "non-binary" as it apparently relates to Rose. I found it amply confusing and judging from all the no-prizing being done on the internet by RTD stans, I wasn't alone. Let me say this: You can be non-binary and still refer to yourself as "she/her". I have a friend who uses "they" and "her" based on how they are presenting that day. You can also use non-binary as an umbrella term that catches transness. Fair enough. But in the context of the episode, it's all rather muddled. They make a point of showing how Rose is sensitive to pronouns (as to how to speak to the Meep), and that she definitely subscribes to "she", and her family's acceptance of her identity is almost stridently stated. Suddenly revealing she identifies as non-binary doesn't feel right, especially since it's used as a pun. The metacrisis is meant to explain why she chose the name Rose, why she makes Doctor Who monsters in her shed (which is vaguely styled on a TARDIS), but the language gets weird after that. "We are binary."She's not. Because the Doctor's..." "Male." "And female." "And neither. And more." It's the language of gender identity, but what are they talking about? The Doctor can't say he's "binary", then turn around and say the Doctor's not. HE'S THE DOCTOR. But when Rose says that she's finally herself now that the Doctor's mind has been expunged, that's where it gets really hairy. A lot of audience members have seen this to mean that she was only trans because of a male Doctor in her head, and that's the wrong message to send. I'm sure RTD means she now isn't haunted by the creatures she feels she needs to make into stuffed animals, or something. Or does he mean she would have been born female if not for the metacrisis? These lines confuse the issue and are really problematic.

I also think it's pretty shitty to include a line about Rose not being a good actress when a few minutes previous, I had myself frowned at a line reading or two. Yasmin Finney hadn't perfected "Doctor Who acting", which involves saying some pretty crazy things. Just, generally, don't do that unless the character is played by some great Thespian. Then the joke flies. To finish with my problems with The Star Beast, first, stopping the ship's ignition REPAIRS the cracked pavement like time is going in reverse? Come on. Second, I do think there was too much gunfire in this episode - good ol' UNIT, albeit possessed by the Meep - but we also meet their new scientific adviser, Shirley Bingham, the 56th holder of that position (the Doctor claims to have been the first, but he's robbing Liz Shaw of her credit - she was recruited first!). I hope we see her again. Ruth Madeley also played a Big Finish companion and is not "acting" differently-abled, she actually is. In terms of diversity casting, at least, RTD is doing it right.

It's worth repeating that the scenes with Donna tend to be pretty great (at least until she adds the "Doctor-" prefix), by turns funny and touching. She makes a good mum and OF COURSE she gave her lottery money away, showing that her adventures with the Doctor, though forgotten, still changed or inspired her. Or maybe she was always that kind of person, justifying the Doctor's faith in her. Shaun Temple is a nice addition to the family. Sylvia is Sylvia and that's what we want. Rose has potential, and her shedful of custom stuffed creatures is a treasure trove of Easter Eggs (is the man with a goatee in Dubai buying them up who we think it is?). Wilf rates a mention, but not an appearance quite yet.

I don't think it makes sense budget-wise, but who knows, the "new stuff" introduced in this special might just be FOR the specials. Either way, the new sonic's capabilities are interesting, at least when they allow the Doctor to create a computer screen for himself (this isn't unlike what the crew of the USS Discovery can do in Star Trek's super-future), but I kind of want to draw the line at creating force fields. I guess RTD never tapped into the common criticism that the screwdriver was too powerful. Now it's an out for a whole new brand of problem. Haven't mentioned the Doctor's new suit, because it IS different. Just noticed the checkered pants, more colorful, but in a style not unlike Doctors 1 and 2. That jacket is a bit Captain Jack too. The barrister's wig is a reference to the 4th Doctor. Why have these elements come back? It's not just the face, is it? And then there's the new TARDIS interior - it's HUGE! A bit spare, like we're inside the World's Fair Perisphere, but multiple levels to play with ramps perfect for Dalek home invasions. The colors are those of the original, but it still feels fresh and new. See? I told you I'd end on a more positive note.

THEORIES: The Doctor may not like "cryptic", but fans do love to discuss theories and so "cryptic" has a place, even if it IS another "meme". Who is the Meep's "boss"? (Not entirely sure the tyrannical leader of a people - the Beep of the Meep - would follow a "boss", but that's a separate issue).  Likely the Celestial Toymaker, since he's an old foe who appears in the third special. The fact that Rose MAKES toys is perhaps a piece of foreshadowing. Hopefully, even though the Meep hasn't told on him yet, the CTM will also be responsible for the Doctor's unusual regeneration and explain away the problem with regenerating clothes and, apparently, sonic screwdrivers (unlike the past instance where a new screwdriver popped out of a newly-regenerated TARDIS, the Doctor has it before he sees the new console room), though you can believe the Liberation of the Daleks comic if you like, where he loses the previous sonic and builds this one. What manipulative scenario he's running can't be fathomed yet, but this harks back to the original CTM episodes in which he ALMOST changed the actor playing the Doctor - the whole bit with the Doctor becoming invisible was to bring him back as another actor, as the producers were trying to get rid of Hartnell smoothly. Has he finally succeeded? And if so, to what end?

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - I wish I liked it more, honestly, but the RTDisms really drained my enthusiasm. Once you've seen it (we ARE talking about Rewatchability), then it doesn't matter if you have the comic in your head or not, but it might still feel familiar because Davies has played this card before (the cute alien who turns out to be dangerous/evil). Not QUITE the new era I wanted, but it'll have to do.


Doug Adamson said…
I've said elsewhere that I actually don't think RTD is good at sci-fi. That he's running Doctor Who is actually a concern to me as much like the old ||Timelord Victorious|| scheme I fear that RTD might be "unleashed" without the internal constraint he had on the previous run in terms of throwing concepts around and doing whatever appeals to him rather at the time. I hope he proves me wrong on that front, I really do, but some of stuff he dreams up and puts on screen in the past seemed to be all about creating drama by whatever technobabble he wants.

Don't get me wrong Doctor Who is all about adventure and crazy technology and weird ideas - but to me it works best on the concept and what follows from it rather than focusing on the drama and fixing the sci-fi to fit.

I'm reminded of the JMS story about the V revival meeting he attended when some studio head said that they didn't need any more sci-fi in the show as they already had space ships and laser guns and that's enough for the sci-fi audience to tune in. For me I like when things make sense or at least internally consistent... which this episode did not in large sections.
Jeff R. said…
I honestly have no faith whatsoever that we're going to get a Watsonian explanation for the clothes regeneration from Davies, and expect that the Doylean not wanting tomatow David Tennant in 13s outfit (which isn't really that feminine in the first place: Robin Williams pulled off the same look as Mork) will be all we get until someone drops a line in secondary media to close that out.
daft said…
One word, stewardship. Given the desperate requirement for BBC Studios to find a suitable, international partner a few years ago to help keep their foremost brand alive, it seemingly was always going to come down to a choice between; Stephen Moffat/Hartswood Productions or RTD/Bad Wolf Ltd, as that enabling third party force. Although the fanboy in Moffat might eventually be tempted back to helm an open slated, short-run spin-off series, his every utterance since leaving the show has suggested life is fundamentally too short. Whilst, RTD has seemingly been away long enough to have forgotten co-penning those production diaries, or at the very least, felt obliged to assist his good friends over at Bad Wolf.

And so, deja vu...

Although I do give RTD far more credit for his V1 show-running abilities with its specific, oft contradictory targets which it needed to hit, 'all things to everyone' a phrase coming readily to mind, I always, indubitably favour the new. I initially suspected that a talented young writer would be groomed in-house to potentially become the next showrunner, RTD probably moving upstairs to assume an Executive Producer role, his recent unguarded, rather unflattering comments about young writers alongside the recent announcement of the former Loki showrunners being hired to pen an upcoming series episode, seemingly indicative that the net will be cast quite a deal wider the next time around.

Who knows, it just might be time for another Canuck, it didn't work out too badly the last time. Know anyone who's up to the hotseat challenge? :D
I'm certain that Ncuti's first proper story will be a "proper" newbies intro ep that everyone will freak out over and recommend on social media, with these specials in their own category on streaming; while this is continuity lockout, I think us fans have been so conditioned to expect that the exact start of an era be a refresh that we haven't considered that likelihood.

Agreed on this being extremely flawed and one of RTD's weaker scripts, plagued with all of his usual issues... but, without trying to be petty, it's an oasis in the desert after the last few years. To get a story where we're trusted to notice things before they become relevant (the stun lasers), where character interactions are woven into the action instead of being scenes of sitting around telling each other how much they've gotten to know each other off-screen, where I can tell the script went through at least a second draft... it's the absolute bare minimum, and I've been starved for it since Demons of the Punjab. I don't care how much that's damning by faint praise, I can finally sit down and watch Doctor Who stories that don't feel like their goal is to make you forget about them an hour after watching. (Sides, with how much S12 onwards just reheated old tropes, emotional beats and even the what gag to little success for no reason, it's a MUCH lesser evil to see them repeated in a big anniversary story deft to keep audiences' attention until we get to the first headlining non-white Doctor.)

Of course, the climax was crap, and the gender stuff clearly well-intentioned but clumsy as hell (the male-presenting line is so gender-essentialist that it feels a hundred times worse than any similar sit-commy line that Moffat ever wrote)... buuuuut I ultimately can't help but respect RTD for making the giant, big budget indulgent anniversary that millions of people will tune into end on "and then the person belonging to a hot-button, oppressed minority group heroically saves her loved ones because her identity is so concretely legit that it interfaces with the technobabble" in the current political climate. The flaws should be discussed (such as how it seems to play the idea of her being non-binary as either obvious or a twist when the rest of the episode presented her as if she was implicitly binary), but it's all ultimately something that'll cause a lot more material social progress among the not-we (to steal a phrase) than all of me and my friends debating about it.