Sunday, December 03, 2023

Review: Doctor Who: The Star Beast (2023)

It's back! With a blaze of promotion from BBC Studios, Doctor Who is back on our telly screens ... it's the sixtieth anniversary, and while there has not been perhaps quite as much visible celebration as the fiftieth anniversary, when Matt Smith was piloting the TARDIS, and Peter Capaldi was waiting in the wings (ten years ago ... goodness ...) there has been an awful lot of celebratory fare on BBC iPlayer (including making the entire back catalogue of Doctor Who available, for free, to anyone in the UK who has a TV license) and BBC Sounds (several great archive radio presentations and a pile of new documentaries and explorations of all things Who).

But all of this takes second fiddle to the actual show itself ... and here we are ... 2023 ... and the Doctor has regenerated ... into a past face ... why?  This question is asked a couple of times in 'The Star Beast' so I assume it has some importance ... Jodie Whitaker as the 13th Doctor, has regenerated into David Tennant, previously the 10th Doctor, and also the Metacrisis Doctor, who is now the 14th Doctor. With an even more bouffant hairdo, and perhaps less manically introspective, Tennant makes a good fist of differentiating this version of the Doctor with the one that came before. It's subtle, but there are variances.

Which is just as well, as he's been teamed up again with Catherine Tate as Donna Noble (now technically Donna Temple as she married, but she still goes by the Noble name). Now poor Donna, the last time we met her, had taken the Doctor's regenerational energies inside herself and become a sort of hybrid Time Lord, the Doctor-Donna. The only way the Doctor could save her was to wipe her memory of ever having met the Doctor, and for her to live her life back on Earth as plain old Donna once more ... ah, but the Doctor also arranged for her to win the lottery so she had millions of pounds to keep her going as well ... it seems she gave all the money away ...

And that's where we sort of enter 'The Star Beast'. There's quite a lot to unpick here as the background is as interesting as the telling ... it all started back in 1979 in several issues of a newly launched Doctor Who Magazine, where a comic strip called 'The Star Beast', written by Pat Mills (and also credited to John Wagner, though Wagner didn't actually write this story) and drawn by Dave Gibbons, ran. This strip was very popular and it was later adapted as an audio by Big Finish ... and obviously Russell T Davies also remembered and liked it, as he got permission to adapt it as a television episode to launch the 14th Doctor's series of adventures.

The idea that Donna must never meet the Doctor again or she will die is laboured by the Doctor several times in the teleplay, and yet fate seems to keep bringing the Doctor into her orbit. First in Camden market where she is shopping with her daughter Rose (Yasmin Finney), 15 years old it seems but with the look and smarts of someone much older. Actress Finney does a great job with Rose though, making the character real and relatable. Then a spaceship crashes overhead and plunges to the ground at an old steelworks, but Donna is picking up her packages and misses it all (as usual).

The Doctor gets a lift in Donna's husband's (Karl Collins) cab to the crash site where Shirley Anne Bingham (Ruth Madeley) is introduced as UNIT scientific adviser number 56 and the Doctor says that the Doctor was the first ... what was Liz Shaw then? I thought she was the first Scientific Adviser engaged by UNIT ... hmmm ... is this some timey wimey thing going on ...

It seems that Rose is being bullied by the kids at school, they taunt Rose with Rose's 'deadname' of Jason, and Donna's mum, Sylvia (Jacqueline King) has trouble getting her head around the fact that Rose is now presenting as a girl - all this came over as very realistic to me ... it's the sort of thing we see and hear day after day in 2023. But back to the plot, and it seems that the spaceship didn't crash, it landed, and it's pilot had ejected, the escape pod landing close to Rose's home, where Rose and her pal Fudge (Dara Lall) - a hangover from the comic strip. In the episode he barely does anything - go to investigate.

And so we meet the Meep (performed by Cecily Fay, voiced by Miriam Margolyes) ... a cute white fluffy alien creature looking like a rather large bush-baby. The Meep seems hurt and scared and so Rose takes the Meep in.

Meanwhile some UNIT soldiers are 'infected' by something from the ship and go all blue-glowey-eyed ...

Before you can turn around, there are large insect-like things hunting the Meep (the Wrarth Warriors) and the infected soldiers are hunting the Wrarth Warriors, and they're all at Donna's house ... and so is the Doctor ... so how can Donna be kept apart from him ... OR SHE WILL DIE!!!

Of course she can't be kept apart and the group escape from the war-like carnage of the battle by use of several new sonic screwdriver functions - handy that device - and head for an underground car park where the Doctor convenes a council of war ... just what IS going on here?

Seems the Wrarth Warriors are not evil - they are using plasma and stun bolts - but the Meep is of course totally corrupt and evil and out to use Earth as the Meep's own larder. 

A word on pronouns. There's an awkward scene were Rose has a go at the Doctor for mis-gendering the Meep ... The Meep it seems is always just The Meep, rather than he, she, they or, I suppose, it ... and this just doesn't work. It gets in the way of the action, and just isn't necessary. I guess they felt it was to tie into the whole Rose is trans vibe they wanted to go with, which up to this point was subtle and well handled. The Doctor comments that the Doctor too doesn't have pronouns and is just 'The Doctor' ... hmmm (again).

Anyway ... the Meep takes everyone prisoner and they are locked up in the ship until the Meep can decide which to eat first ... and so the Doctor takes matters into the Doctor's own hands, and ushers everyone else out so the Doctor can start flicking switches and the like ...  but Donna, to whom realisation is coming, insists on staying behind to help ... so they both start flicking switches as a partition comes down between them (I'm not sure why this happens ... it seemed like a McGuffin to force Donna to full realisation before she could help the Doctor, but it also reminded me of the Doctor and Wilf when Wilf was trapped in the radiation machine and will die ...)

So the Doctor and an 'awoken' Donna flick switches and turn off the spaceship which has been causing lava-filled fissures to open up across London. The fissures close up and everything is ok again. Shades of the attack by the giant Racnoss in 'The Runaway Bride' where the Thames is completely drained of water, and is then put back right again with no ill effects!

But Donna is again full of the metacrisis regeneration energy ... and SHE WILL DIE!!

Except ...

Do I need a SPOILER TAG here?  Not sure ... so if you've not yet seen the episode ... stop reading here.

It's clever. Donna was GOING TO DIE!! from the metacrisis regeneration energy but she had a child ... and because of that, the energy could be shared with Rose ... and Rose can cope with this much better than Donna alone can do ... and so Donna and Rose ultimately don't die because they can LET IT GO ... something apparently a man cannot do ... a bit of cringe-worthy sexism thrown in because why not.

It's a good job that the episode as a whole is so enjoyable and visually rewarding. From the Meep, to the Wrarth Warriors, to the spaceship, to the battle of Donna's street, to the new TARDIS interior we see at the end (and that's interesting as the Doctor acts like the Doctor has not seen it before - the Doctor even mentions that it's changed - so what did it look like at the start of the episode - when the Doctor emerges from the TARDIS we don't see the inside ... maybe it was still like Jodie's? Ahhhh ... another mystery ...) everything looks amazing and moves at pace. You barely have a chance to take in all the detailing which is going on ...

The jeers at Rose from the lads from her school is a blink and you miss it moment - if you happened to sip your tea at that point! I also liked among many other things here, that Rose was making toys based on Doctor Who monsters that Donna had met - proving their shared metacrisis-ism ... we had a Judoon, an Ood, a Dalek, a Cyberman ... stand by for merchandise overload! Also that the little shed which Rose uses as a workshop is also a TARDIS ... subtle but the clues are there.

It's something of an exhausting episode, doing many things simultaneously ... introducing the tenth Doctor and Donna, summarising their backstory, introducing Rose as Rose is important to the outcome, introducing UNIT as seemingly fully in control of the alien spaceship incursion - even if Shirley seems a little out of place in her wheelchair. I get that UNIT's scientific adviser may well be wheelchair-bound, but in that case, should she really be physically taken to the front line ... to a warehouse full of stairs and hazards that she might not be able to navigate ...? Wouldn't she have an assistant to help with that perhaps while she stays in a mobile HQ? Even the Brigadier didn't physically attend every UNIT activity! Having said that, she seems a mean hand with her augmented chair with integrated darts and rocket launcher, so who's to say that the chair can't also hover and allow her to go wherever she pleases ...

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed this episode. It told a proper story, and was exciting and thrilling at all the right places. While I also really enjoyed Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi's episodes - and some of them I love to pieces! - with Jodie's stories there was always something missing, some spark, some depth ... and now we have Russell T Davies back at the helm, the spark seems to have returned in spades.

But we only have (allegedly) three episodes of this new 14th Doctor and Donna combination before it's all change again ... and next week ... well ... there wasn't a trailer at the end for 'Wild Blue Yonder', a story they have been keeping so tightly under wraps that one wonders if anyone has actually seen it at all ... including Davies!  Only one week to wait ...

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