A Familiar Face Returns
Doctor Who (2005): "The Star Beast"
It's been a while since we last saw David Tennant as the Doctor. His time as the Time Lord ended with the last of the Series 4 specials, "The End of Time - Parts 1 & 2", and while that was a lackluster adventure, Tennant was the part that made the adventure work. His leaving the series, ending his tenure as the 10th Doctor, was a hard day for fans, many of whom considering him "their Doctor". He's still ranked highly among all the Doctors, old and new series, and many still consider him the best.
We did get one more adventure on screen with Tennant's 10th Doctor, when he starred alongside Matt Smith's 11th Doctor and John Hurt's War Doctor in the 50th anniversary special "The Day of the Doctor". That special is, without a doubt, one of the very best episodes of the entire franchise, and it's in small part due to the fact that, even with time away from the role, Tennant was still able to bring his easy charm and charisma as the Doctor, slipping right back into the role with ease. It feels natural, then, that Tennant would come back again for the 60th anniversary, another ten years under his belt and he gets a chance to please fans once again.
That said, his return to the role as the Doctor was not without contention. Although it was hinted that a much older Doctor would "revisit faces of his past", but that was just a nice little prompt so Tom Baker could come back to the series for a cameo. But having an actor return to the role for any kind of extended period, on his (or her) own as the Doctor (and the only Doctor on screen), that had never been done before. Fans were torn. Did this wipe away all of the continuity of the Smith, Capaldi, and Whittaker? Would this diminish the power of the new doctor coming in, played by Ncuti Gatwa. I mean, sure, the Capaldi run wasn't great, and the Whittaker run is considered one of the worst for the series (but that's no reflection on the actors, who did what they could with what they were given). Still, the series had never gone down this road before. What did it mean for the character? What would it mean for the series?
Well, the first of three specials we'll get with Tennant's 14th Doctor, "The Star Beast", doesn't really address this. Although characters question, "why do you have this face again," Tennant's 14th brushes them off. "It just happened," he says, and seems to move on. But at the same time, this first episode gets set things right, not for Tennant but for a character many fans wanted to see get her due: Catherine Tate's Donna Noble, who got rather screwed over in her last big adventure, "Journey's End", which forced the Doctor to wipe her memory of her time on the TARDIS lest she have a Time Lord metacrisis that would kill her... Honestly, that time period for Doctor Who did get rather silly in places.
Fans loved Donna. Although not all the stories for her character were great (case in point, "Journey's End"), she had easy, natural chemistry with Tennant's Doctor and the two of them had the kind of friendship on the TARDIS that few companions are ever able to forge. Having her back, to help fix the reasons she left the TARDIS, and to give her the fair shake she really deserved -- to leave the TARDIS on her own terms -- was a big deal. Consequently, the biggest reason to bring Tennant back was, simply, so the series could fix the awful way it wrote Donna off in the first place.
Well, "The Star Beast" absolutely does that. The episode sees the Doctor (Tennant) coming to London, just out of curiosity, and he almost immediately runs into Donna (Tate), who is out Christmas shopping with her daughter, Rose (Yasmin Finney). While Donna is distracted, a spaceship comes crashing down to Earth, clearly seen by the Doctor and by Rose. The Doctor goes off to investigate, and what he finds is a spaceship parked in a steel foundry, with UNIT soldiers already investigating. Meanwhile, Rose goes home with her mother and discovers a very cute, and cuddly, fuzzy alien, on the run and looking for help.
Naturally, Rose takes the alien, called "the Meep", into her backyard workshop so she can bandage him up and give him shelter. But then Donna comes in and sees the creature and, when it moves, she immediately freaks out. It's alive, it's an alien, and its in her home. Well, the Doctor is already coming back around at that point, and while he can't let Donna know who he is (lest she remember him, and then die from the metacrisis), he can try to help her and her family as other aliens show up, looking to hunt down the Meep and kill it. It's up to the Doctor, as always, to stop a crisis of aliens on Earth, causing untold amounts of damage. You know, just how he likes it.
The return of Tennant's Doctor and Tate's Donna aren't the only important parts of this special. This also marks the return of showrunner Russell T. Davies to Doctor Who after he left the franchise at the conclusion of Series 4 (when Tennant left) and the end of Torchwood. The Davies era relaunched Doctor Who after the series had been out in the wilderness for, effectively 20 years (barring one enjoyably goofy 8th Doctor movie), and the showrunner deserves much credit for that feat.
But, at the same time, Davies's tenure on the series was marked by plot lines that often ended in goofy and unsatisfying ways. It was clear the writer would setup plot lines that were meant to increase the danger, to up the peril, to one-up what had come before. And each time, the writer would put himself into a deeper corner that was hard to write out. He often let problems resolve in the worst ways (how about that time Martha Jones saved the Doctor by getting everyone on Earth to believe in him?), as the writer didn't really seem to care much about the ending, just the journey. Bombast and silliness were the order of the day and, well, we have that same issue cropping up a bit here as well.
Because of Donna's metacrisis (and spoilers for the rest of this paragraph), a solution had to be found to make sure she didn't die when she regained her memories of the time on the TARDIS. The solution: the metacrisis was shared with her daughter, and between the two of them they could (temporarily) share the power without it killing them. And then, because the energy still needed to be eliminated somehow, Donna and Rose simply "let it go", as if that was a solution all along. It's goofy, and silly, and really makes it feel like Donna's exit from the series wasn't required at all. She could just give it up? That's it? Again, Davies simply didn't care about the end once he wrote himself into a corner.
Davies's weird artist flourishes aside (and you're safe on spoilers now), there's a lot to like in this episode, and that's all thanks to the reunited leads. Tennant and Tate have their easy, natural chemistry chemistry once again, and it's clear neither actor has lost a step as their characters. It's amazing how easily both could simply get back into the Doctor and Donna after all these years, but they do and there's utter joy seeing them back on screen, as their famous characters and together as well.
Meanwhile, the show is able to give us a classic Doctor Who story, with weird aliens, goofy costumes, and a lot of running around. Despite Disney's extra money thrown in, which does help to make for a handsome show, the low-budget aesthetics of the series show through and, frankly, I wouldn't have it any other way. This is a proper Davies's led story, and I mean that mostly for the better and it's a fun, silly, enjoyable romp. It's a delight to have the show firing like this, back in classic form and ready to take us swinging off on another set of high-flying adventures.
The worst thing is that I can already tell once Tennant's 14th Doctor and Tate's Donna leave the TARDIS again after three episodes, we're all going to miss them and wish we'd gotten more time. Three specials is too short an amount when you have such grand characters as these.