Spoilers from the outset for this review of the Doctor Who 60th-Anniversary Special, “The Star Beast.”
In 2008, Donna Noble lost her memory of the Doctor. Wilfred Mott (Bernard Cribbins) saluted the Time Lord from his doorstep as the time traveller returned to the TARDIS in the rain, once again, all alone. Tears fell, and hearts broke. That was fifteen years ago. With time, we moved on before those once shattered hearts inevitably soared again following the confirmation that three brand-new specials to commemorate the 60th-anniversary of Doctor Who, featuring Tennant and Tate, would land on the BBC in 2023.
Serving as a closing denouement to the DoctorDonna arc (following Tate’s fleeting return in 2010’s The End Of Time), the Doctor Who fandom punched the skies with delight, scarcely capable of containing their excitement in much the same way David Tennant zipped around the gantries of his new TARDIS with childish glee in this first hour-long special.
As a recap, the game-changing clifftop cliffhanger of the Thirteenth Doctor finale saw Tennant return for a second time, earning him the surprising title of the Fourteenth Doctor. The beautiful final moments with Whittaker beckoned the beginning of a brand-new age as Tennant returned to the TARDIS, promptly setting up a long-awaited reunion with Donna Noble-Temple (sorry, just Noble, since the former sounds like an old ruin).
An explanation for why Tennant is back is forthcoming and almost certainly connected to the Toymaker (Neil Patrick Harris). For now, fans will need to wait a little longer – since the villain fails to appear in Episode 1. For now, we pick up where we left off. The Fourteenth Doctor, free from regeneration fatigue, materialises into Camden Market and immediately bumps into Donna with an expression as shocked as his hair, as if destiny continues to bring these two together, time and time again.
Without a second to lose, the episode shifts through the gears, introducing daughter Rose (Yasmin Finney of Heartstopper fame), a plush toy designer, spouse Shaun Temple (Karl Collins), a London cabbie, and the imminent crashing of a spacecraft onto London, an event that typically, Donna remains oblivious too. Market-goers snap up the spectacle on their smartphones as the former temp from Chiswick stacks boxes and ridicules men with goatees.
She remains as loud-mouthed and brilliant as ever before. Having donated the winnings of a lottery ticket to charity (a wedding present worth £166 million on a triple rollover), Donna seeks to help those less fortunate in the world, proving her power to possess the heart and soul of the woman she used to be, despite the memory loss. The former companion teeters ever closer to remembering her adventures with the Doctor as Sylvia Noble (the magnificent Jacqueline King) struggles to rein in Donna’s imagination from the concept of aliens and UFOs). The sharp-tongued matriarch of the Noble clan further contends with the struggle of accidentally misgendering granddaughter Rose before apologising to Donna.
The transgender identity storyline is worthy of the highest praise (higher than the Meep) for its delicate approach to tackling the topic of pronouns and sexuality and neatly threading it into the plot (more on that later). The Noble family is missing, quite notably, one face, Wilfred Mott, following the tragic passing of the late and great Bernard Cribbins in 2022. Donna’s grandfather and arguably second-best companion behind Tate is revealed to be alive and living (off-screen) in sheltered accommodation under the protection of Kate Lethbridge Stewart and UNIT.
Following a ride in Shaun’s London taxi, the Doctor infiltrates the UNIT investigation into the crashed ship, spearheaded by Shirley-Anne Bingham, or UNIT advisor 56, (Ruth Madeley). Collectively, they ascertain the ship, damaged in battle, corrected its course to land inside an abandoned steelworks, with two warring alien species loose in London. We need to mention the sonic screwdriver in this scene, since the latest iteration of the Time Lord tech can generate holographic screens and bulletproof shields.
As an escape capsule belonging to Beep the Meep lands away from the crash, Rose meets the adorable, white-furred critter (voiced by Miriam Margoyles and inspired by the iconic 1980 comic book strip of the same title) and offers the alien refuge in a garden shed at the back of the Noble household, right until Donna walks in and mistakes the creatures for one of Rose’s new plush toy designs (note the toys – since they’ll be crucial to the plot later).
Hunting the last of the Meepkind are the Wrarth Warriors, led by Sergeant Zogroth and Constable Zreeg. Despite appearances, the Meepkind are far more than the seemingly harmless, loveable furballs under pursuit by the Wrarth than we first assume. In reality, the Meep were turned maniacal by a mutated alien sun (a phenomenon known as solar psychedelia) and transformed into savage conquerers. After inciting a war against the Galactic Council, the Meepkind were pursued by the Wrarth. The same solar psychedelia infects a band of UNIT soldiers, enslaving them as a protection detail for the Meep, before more UNIT patrols and the Wrarth converge on Donna’s street to engage in a firefight.
The Doctor and the Noble household navigate through the attics of adjoining houses and escape, but not before the Time Lord makes a discovery – the Wrarth are not killing, merely stunning, UNIT soldiers with their weapons. As attention turns to Beep the Meep, the charade crumbles, and the sole surviving critter of Meepkind reveals its true colours before killing Zogroth and Zreeg. The Meep intends to escape Earth in the alien ship (under repair inside the steelworks), destroy London with a dagger drive and start a fresh conquest across the galaxy.
All hail the Meep, as the fang-filled furball is fond of saying. With support from Shirley-Anne Bingham (who packs rockets and knockout darts in her wheelchair – a feature that comes as standard in all UNIT-issued wheelchairs), the Noble family prepare to make their escape from the steelworks. To Sylvia’s horror, Donna stays behind to assist the Doctor (referring to him by name).
Aboard the ship, with time running out and a glass partition separating the Doctor and Donna in a control room (mirroring the Doctor and Wilf in the radiation chamber), the Doctor requires the long-dormant, Time Lord aspect of her mind to stop the ship launching. As we know, Donna will die should she remember her adventures with the Doctor after suffering a human-Time Lord metacrisis.
The Doctor awakens (or activates – more appropriately) the inactive part of her mind, enabling her to prevent the Meep masterplan before the effects of the metacrisis kills her. As the collective hearts of the Who fandom begin to shatter across the world, showrunner Davies delivers a nifty twist. An unquantified amount of the power from the metacrisis passes into the ‘non-binary’ Rose, since the Doctor and Donna identify as male and female, or otherwise, binary.
Rose takes the stage, severing the solar psychedelia manipulating the UNIT soldiers under instruction to kill the Doctor and reversing the damage from the dagger drive, having retained memories of the past through her plush toy collection, stylised after Daleks, Judoon, the Racnoss, and even the Ood. To further resolve the metacrisis, Donna and Rose join hands and “let it go.”
With the metacrisis resolved (somewhat slightly anti-climatically, if we need to be picky), the Doctor and Donna prepare to embark on two brand-new adventures aboard the reimagined TARDIS console. With gantries galore, slick white walls, and a coffee machine as standard, the Doctor and Donna speculate why the Time Lord regenerated with an old face. Moments later, Donna spills coffee on the console and sends the entire place up in flames. So, where do they end up next?
On another, more musical-related note, we need to herald Murray Gold for his tantalising new theme and sweeping score. Together, the music supports excellent writing, characterisation, production values and glorious FX (both practical and visual).
As Donna Noble descends, Doctor Who ascends.