Donna Noble is back on Doctor Who — and so is David Tennant as the titular Time Lord. The past few years of the series were a narrative flatline, but in The Star Beast, the first of three 60th anniversary specials, the long-running genre show explodes with new life, as if freshly regenerated like the Doctor himself.
Russell T. Davies begins his second stint as showrunner with a familiar Doctor and companion, yet nothing about The Star Beast feels stale or safe. Together with director Rachel Talalay, he blows the doors off with a fun, thrilling cinematic adventure.
Tennant, who played the 10th Doctor from 2005 to 2010, returned in a shock cliffhanger at the end of 2022’s “Power of the Doctor,” when the 13th Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) transformed into a version of her past self. The Star Beast hits some similar beats from post-regeneration stories, in which the new Doctor questions their identity, but this time the regeneration is steeped in mystery.
Why does he look like David Tennant again? And why does he immediately bump into the 10th Doctor’s former companion Donna (Catherine Tate) when the TARDIS lands on present day Earth? If Donna remembers the Doctor, she’ll die, and now after three very different faces, the Doctor is recognizable to her again.
The 14th Doctor is not the 10th. He’s older, which Donna calls out when, not yet realizing who he is, she advises him that skinny suits are acceptable on men only until they’re 35 and not a second later. There’s no pretending that this familiar face hasn’t aged. He still looks great, of course, but even this one story beat reveals that he’s far less vain and full of himself than he often was in his 10th incarnation. He’s more openly vulnerable while still maintaining that unique swagger that defines the Doctor. Tennant easily slips back into his Doctor’s famous Chuck Taylors while delivering a performance that’s compelling and raw. He might still shout “allons y!” but he also surprises himself when he admits how much he genuinely loves Donna.
Throughout Tate’s sole season on the show in 2008, the Doctor and Donna were simultaneously the best of friends, a bickering old married couple, and a genuine family. Tennant and Tate easily maintain this inspired chemistry in the new special, which is streaming now on Disney+.
The Star Beast also corrects a problematic aspect of Donna’s departure. In “Journey’s End,” Donna becomes part Time Lord and saves the universe. Tragically, her human body can’t withstand the change, so the Doctor wipes her mind of any memory of him to save her life. While we might appreciate his motivations, he nonetheless did so without her consent. It’s clear this has traumatized her, even if she’s not fully aware why. She feels as if "something's missing … like I had something lovely and it’s gone… some nights I lie in bed thinking, ‘What have I lost?'"
Donna had the most fulfilling character arc in Davies’ run. She’s self-centered and abrasive — though still hilarious — when she first appears in the 2006 Christmas special, “The Runaway Bride.” Initially conceived as a one-off character, she turns down the Doctor’s first invitation to travel with him. Davies leaned into this decision with Donna’s return in Season 4’s “Partners In Crime.” She regrets letting fear hold her back from her full potential, an ongoing problem throughout her life that had kept her in meaningless rotating temp jobs. When she seeks out the Doctor, she’s not looking for a fairy tale or for the dashing Time Lord to sweep her off her feet. She wants to explore the universe and make a difference, all the while conquering her fears and insecurities.
That made it all the more disappointing to have all this growth erased for the sake of a bittersweet season finale (and a now-classic mopey 10th Doctor meme). This was classic “fridging,” as Davies would spend the remainder of Tennant’s first era focusing on how Donna’s absence impacted the Doctor (e.g., “The Waters of Mars”).
Before the 10th Doctor “died,” he stopped by Donna’s wedding with the gift of a winning lottery ticket. That was supposedly Donna’s “happy ending,” but Davies seems to understand now that it was only guilt wrapped in kindness. It’s revealed that Donna gave away all her money, perhaps subconsciously rejecting this payment for her incalculable loss.
However, while not materially wealthy, she’s rich in all the ways that matter. She has a loving and devoted husband, Shaun Temple (Karl Collins) and a wonderful daughter named Rose (Yasmin Finney). Tate effortlessly reprises Donna’s quick wit and biting sarcasm, but most impressive is how she makes the audience feel as if she has lived every day of the past 15 years with this family.
Rose is a young trans woman, and Davies wisely doesn’t shy away from how horrible some people can treat others who are different. Rose has apparently transitioned recently and her classmates cruelly dead-name her. Donna adores Rose and will unleash hell on anyone who mistreats her. This is such an effective way of reminding us that while significant time has passed, Donna herself hasn’t changed — she’s as compassionate and fierce as ever.
Donna’s mother Sylvia (Jacqueline King) is also back, and, as often true in real life, she is more considerate as a grandmother than she ever was as a mother. She accidentally misgenders Rose but immediately regrets it — a nice touch that shows that caring family members won’t always get it right, but they demonstrate their love by trying and doing better.
The episode is very loosely based on the 1980 comic strip “Doctor Who and the Star Beast,” written by Pat Mills and John Wagner and drawn by Dave Gibbons. The insectoid Wrarth Warriors are in pursuit of the seemingly adorable Beep the Meep (a delightful Miriam Margolyes). Hardcore Whovians might’ve already known the Meep’s true nature, but there are plenty of clues laid for everyone else, so that when the twist occurs, it’s both shocking and makes perfect sense.
Tennant is in rare form when the Doctor exposes the Meep’s villainy. There’s a great moment when the Doctor pulls out a barrister’s wig from his Mary Poppins coat pockets and interrogates the Meep and the Warriors before the Meep loses patience to homicidal effect.
The Doctor can’t stop the Meep alone — it’s why the TARDIS dropped him right next to Donna. He must restore Donna to her part-Time Lord self to save London, but this time he does ask her consent. “If I do this, you will die,” he warns, and without blinking, Donna responds, “OK.” She’s a mother who won’t let her family die but she’s also a hero who won’t let six million strangers perish. One of Davies’ weaknesses was deus ex machina endings (the less said about “Last of the Time Lords,” the better), and it’s a pleasure to report that Donna avoids death in a way that is completely satisfying and consistent with her character.
Davies’ script is enthralling and well-paced with real human stakes. “The Power of the Doctor” was big on spectacle and obvious fan service, yet it lacked heart. The Star Beast welcomes new and old viewers as effectively as Davies did when he relaunched the series in 2005. Davies saved this series from oblivion once before, and now he’s done it again.
Doctor Who: The Star Beast is streaming on Disney+.
Stephen Robinson is a staff writer at Wonkette and theatre maker at Seattle’s Cafe Nordo. Follow him on Twitter @ser1897.