Much rests on the shoulders of 'The Star Beast', the first of a series of specials which celebrates the 60th anniversary of Doctor Who. Not only is it marking a milestone year, but it also welcomes back beloved showrunner Russell T Davies 12 years after he left the show. On top of that, it sees streaming service Disney Plus bring the series to a wider international audience for the first time. Oh, did we mention that actors David Tennant and Catherine Tate have also returned to once again portray The Doctor and companion Donna Noble? As if things weren’t exciting enough already.
The question is then, does it deliver on such a promise, despite the hype being at an all-time high? Thankfully, the answer is a resounding yes! 'The Star Beast' kickstarts a whole new era of Doctor Who with style, providing a warm embrace for the already dedicated Whovians and welcoming with open arms those who are new to the widely adored show. Much like how Davies gave the show a new lease of life in 2005 with that exciting relaunch, with the first of the anniversary specials we are on a similar trajectory.
Alien but human
Admittedly the episode does get off to a strange start, with both The Doctor and Donna addressing the camera directly, breaking the fourth wall to speak to the audience. Whilst certainly unusual, the pair briefly recapping previous events works well, giving newcomers everything they need to know going into this special episode. And if you happen to be an expert on Doctor Who lore, this history lesson doesn’t overstay its welcome; instead, it immediately captures our attention, setting the scene in a curious manner, hooking us right in.
It’s a risk that pays off, but that’s Davies’ filmmaking in a nutshell. Whilst fans celebrated the announcement of his return, describing the showrunner as a safe pair of hands, that’s actually one thing Davies never does - play it safe. He’s one of the best in the business due to how much he pushes boundaries and breaks the rules, which is what he does again with The Star Beast. Sure, we do see The Doctor and co. fighting off aliens, but the story dives much deeper than that, exploring more complex themes relating to identity, all of which are beautifully handled with a sensitive touch. Many of the characters may be otherworldly, but Davies understands that, ultimately, Doctor Who is a very human show.
Central to that is new addition Yasmin Finney, the trans trailblazer from beloved drama Heartstopper who portrays Rose, daughter of Donna and Shaun Noble. From the moment she appears on screen, Finney brings warmth to the episode, fitting right in with the Noble family (who remain as endearingly hapless as ever). Tate steps right back into Donna’s shoes like she never left, chattering away at a million miles per hour, delivering the exact right level of sarcasm and comic relief. This is an incredibly fun episode, with much of that coming down to Tate’s quick wit as Donna.
And then, of course, there is The Doctor himself, with Tennant’s addictive energy radiating from the screen the minute he steps out of the TARDIS, all wide-eyed, ready to jump right into action. As charismatic as ever, you are reminded why Tennant is a fan-favorite, but crucially here he is playing the Fourteenth Doctor, not the Tenth Doctor, and so there are new edges to remind us that this isn’t quite the character we know. It’s an interesting challenge that the actor has been presented with, but one that he more than rises to the occasion for.
Another notable change this time around is the budget, as Doctor Who now has that sweet, sweet Disney money to play with. The special effects and visuals have therefore never looked better, with all the stops being pulled out to bring Meep to the screen. Adapting the comic story The Star Beast, it’s Meep who drives this tale forward as the creature who lands on Earth causing chaos. Wonderfully voiced by the always brilliant Miriam Margolyes, who ensures her character is both cheeky and adorable, Meep is one of the most meticulously crafted Doctor Who aliens yet, looking entirely realistic.
Whilst it is glossier than it has ever been, The Star Beast never once forgets the humble beginnings it came from. The love the filmmakers have for Doctor Who is ever present, especially with the numerous Easter eggs and nods to previous stories that are scattered throughout, celebrating the show’s long history. It’s a shame then that the ending does feel rushed, almost like they were racing to the finish line, which ultimately does take away from the emotional impact of the tender conclusion. Perhaps it would have been better to trim away at the middle acts, so the gorgeous finale could have more room to breathe.
However, it’s a thrilling start, and perhaps what is most exciting about The Star Beast is that it feels like Davies and the team are only just beginning, leaving us on the promise that what lies ahead will be truly something special. The bar has been set high, but all signs point to remaining specials Wild Blue Yonder and The Giggle somehow surpassing that. And that’s before we even get to the upcoming Christmas Day special which will see Ncuti Gatwa step into the TARDIS for a new season as the Fifteenth Doctor. For now though, Tennant’s Doctor sums things up pretty neatly himself - “Allons-y!”
Doctor Who's 'The Star Beast', the first of the 60th anniversary specials, arrives on BBC One and BBC iPlayer in the UK and Disney Plus in the rest of the world on November 25.
While you wait, check out our guide to all the best shows on Disney Plus to fill out your watchlist.