There’s a moment, about halfway through the episode, where the Doctor observes something about a seemingly dead soldier. We don’t immediately see what, but it’s clear that it surprises the Doctor, and we watch him draw a conclusion and take on a new course of action. It’s an extremely small thing. But it’s tight, logical storytelling. And it’s followed up immediately by having the laser beams failing to affect the taxicab—a moment that’s subtly foregrounded specifically to get the audience to go “ooh, that looks a bit cheap actually” in amidst a scene that’s otherwise showing off that Disney+ money—become an actual plot point, a modern day “the man in a rubber suit is secretly a man in a rubber suit.” All of this in service of keeping the audience engaged and thinking through the premise as the episode navigates its showpiece reveal. It’s good, sharp writing, textbook both in its mastery of the basics and in how good an example it makes of what competence looks like.
Let’s leave it at that and move on to actually discussing the first new episode of Doctor Who in, what, six years?
It is, obviously, backward looking. I mean, of course it is. It’s the 60th Anniversary Special. It was going to be backward looking even before you factor in the return of Davies and company. This isn’t a criticism, and if you think it is then you need to unplug your brain from the hot takes competition that is Doctor Who discourse on social media—a phrase that’s frankly as dated as “DoctorDonna”—and remember how utterly ephemeral this two week bubble of neo-Tennant is and how very different a place Doctor Who fandom is going to be in just a month. The job description here is “remind people what they loved”—reawakening the pleasures of 2008. That’s clear from the direct-to-camera intro that all the advance reviews weirdly fixated on as if it’s particularly innovative. (It is, but the clever thing is juxtaposing those 4K shots of Tennant standing over a lushly colored space background and, subsequently, Donna on a laptop in a kitchen with the 480p flashback clips, subtly announcing progress even as they stoke up the fires of nostalgia.) The episode starts with thirty seconds of Rachel Talalay delightedly twirling the camera around David Tennant and then running him smack into a physical comedy bit with Catherine Tate. The hits keep coming: Rose, what x3, Donna missing a crashing spaceship, “your great great granddad,” and then cap it all off with a joke about David Tennant being old. (Added comedy—he was already thirty-five in 2006 when he first took the job.) If you had any love for the era in question—and the record plainly shows that I do—then you’re back in the saddle and loving it before he’s even gotten in the taxicab.
From here Davies plays it two ways at once. On the one hand he’s in deeply familiar territory on multiple levels. It’s not even that Davies does these giant comedy-action curtain raisers better than anyone. Nobody else even really does them except as imitations of what is as much his signature form as much as villainous bureaucrats are Holmes or timeline shenanigans are Moffat. Likewise, no one but him would ever attempt Beep the Meep, little yet in such a prominent spot. It’s not that it’s a bad idea—the central reveal was a stone cold classic of visual storytelling when Pat Mills and Dave Gibbons did it, and it had the entire room wheezing with joy here. It’s just that nobody but Russell T Davies has a brain whose shower thoughts are quite so frequently exhaustive lists of the most adaptable moments in Doctor Who spinoff media.
And then there’s the consecutive scenes in which we’re introduced to the mysterious new UNIT figure in a wheelchair and see Rose being bullied with her deadname. It’s not a coincidence we go straight from the Tennant and Tate nostalgia tour to this. It’s a thesis statement. Establish the past, then update it. Indeed, it’s a structural inevitability given the paratext (and ain’t that the sort of sentence you back my Patreon for). Given that this is the launch of a new era and not simply a nostalgia tour, whatever scene came first after the initial nostalgia hit was going to be read as “here’s what we’re doing now.” In which case the most striking thing is how confrontational it is. I don’t even need to fucking look at X to know how it’s playing, and I’m about as likely to bother doing so as Davies is. The episode opens with “here’s everything you love” and then immediately pivots to “and here’s everything you’re going to hate.” That’s its dramatic engine.
This is in places dicey. “Something a male-presenting Time Lord will never understand” is outright bathetic, though Davies’s style has always had a high bathos tolerance through its embrace of camp—the real problem with it is that it can accurately be described as “Davies’s The Doctor the Widow and the Wardrobe.” But that cringe has to be taken in concert with the fact that this is Davies taking a massive pile of Disney money and screaming “trans rights” on BBC One so loudly that Saudi Arabia won’t be able to edit it out. There’s something to be said—quite a lot really—for making your point. At the end of the day, the irony is that this isn’t for queer people.
What’s more instructive is the pronouns scene. In four lines—and contrast that with the nearly minute long bit about Wilf right before it—Davies accomplishes the necessary virtue signal, drops the quite funny “my chosen pronoun is the definite article. I am always the Meep” joke, then ups it with the at once funny, poignant, and emotionally revealing “Oh. I do that.” Yes, this is overtly progressive and making itself about those politics, but it’s also actually doing things with those politics. (See also Shirley’s “don’t make me the problem,” a bit of dialogue that feels vividly pulled from knowledge of actual disabled people.) This is telling a story for which “socially progressive” is one of several accurate descriptions. Anyone objecting to that while being perfectly fine with cop shows is just a fucking bigot and should be treated accordingly.
In which case there are two bits here that really matter. The first is, in fact, Shirley, who’s clearly forward-facing, a step too cool for school, and given the big hero moment with the wheelchair rockets. It’s the sort of introduction that means you don’t have to know too much about the set reports and announced returns for Season
Fourteen One to know we’ll be seeing more of her, and it’s no accident that she’s the one who gets the scene where the Doctor grapples with the fact that he’s the Fourteenth and not the Tenth. And as an advertisement for the future she’s a compelling one—charismatic and with an interesting relationship with the Doctor. The woman who says “you wish” to the idea of waiting around her whole life for the Doctor but who’s hypercompetent and we love her anyway is not something Davies has written before. It’s frankly not something he would have written before—it’s notable how much more nuanced Sylvia is as well. As tea leaves go, it’s compelling.
And then of course there’s the TARDIS set, and the prolonged beat of Tennant and Tate ecstatically gawping at it. Again, we know that it’s not really theirs—they’re playing around in Gatwa’s iconography. But what a set to play in. And it’s given real weight. Talalay luxuriates in the space (that wide shot that ducks below the console and back up as Tennant wheels about the background is exquisite) before the “one more thing” reveal of the lights and a final ostentatious display of Disney+ money as they set the whole thing on fire just minutes after introducing it.
So yes. Tremendously fun, and if it’s flattered by the last few years, well, the next few years sure look pretty exciting so that’s pretty OK. Right now, it’s just nice to be looking forward to next week.
- OK, I know I said I wasn’t going to spend time ragging on Chibnall, but it’s very satisfying to read the lengthy scene of Tennant and Tate rattling off effortlessly consonant technobabble as Davies staring baffledly at the words “Ranskoor av Kolos” and going “how did this even happen?”
- Speaking of “how did this even happen,” Pat Mills and Dave Gibbons in the opening title sequence of a Doctor Who episode. What a world we live in.
- Let’s also have one more round of praise for Rachel Talalay, who does a magnificent job of delivering “the one of the specials that isn’t trying to be impressive” in the most quietly impressive way possible. This just plain looks phenomenal. The warm orange lighting rippling over a full and vibrant spectrum of colors, the magnificent use of space in that circular spaceship set, the way the big action sequence in the middle keeps upping the scale, first spectacularly detonating the house set then opening up into those massive panning drone shots. Over and over again she makes the episode’s biggest flexes look casual, so that they feel like setting the tone instead of like a massive blowout.
- A quietly great beat is Rose discovering the Meep and just rolling with it. Not only does it nicely excise some boring bits the story can’t handle—Donna’s the one who needs to be grappling with the existence of Martian ferrets, and wasting time on anyone else doing so detracts from that arc—it’s just a great way to instantly sell her character. Screen time is extremely precious in this—it moves with even more jaw-dropping efficiency than the original four page episodes. Getting the audience on-side with Rose in one move is necessary. (Relatedly, “she had lots of names at school. And I should know, I invented them” is secretly the best line of Donna Noble dialogue Davies has ever written.)
- The implication that being a Time Lord is a conscious decision is actually quite interesting, building in neat ways upon the formalization of the Time Lord/Shabogan distinction and, frankly, the relationship between “Time Lord” and “Timeless Child.” I’d quite like to see this line of thought followed up on, actually.
- The most unexpectedly nostalgic moment for me was the return of Flavia’s Theme. Sure, Gold is still Gold—he tramples all over the Doctor declaring that he’ll still have to fix Donna and Rose by laying in a triumphant crescendo too early. But the things he’s good at he’s very good at. And hey, who’s gonna complain about the music when the middle 8 is back.
- Speaking of which, the new opening credits are a lot of fun, using the classic tunnel to bookend the more expansive use of space. There’s a lot of expansive use of space here. I’ll bet the tone meeting was something like “bigger and better.”
- This marked only the third time I have ever been able to watch Doctor Who live upon its premiere, the previous two being the TV Movie and the cinema screening of Day of the Doctor. And gosh, it’s just plain nice to finally have that. Sure, it looks I’ll have to go back to the old dark arts for Unleashed (is that what it’s called?) and the In-Vision commentary, but it was still wonderful to get to experience transmission, and doubly so to know that’s quotidian now.
- Also got my first proper Yeti-in-a-Loo moment—Penn and I were in Camden Market so that he could buy a second bomber jacket from a little boutique vendor there just last week, and we giggled with genuine delight at seeing the gloriously trashy Cyberdog in Doctor Who. Better still, the original’s a K-9 story.
- I’ve got Sean Dillon and Ritesh Babu lined up for what looks like it’s going to be the Patreon-exclusive podcast, in which we’ll be having a lot of fun with the comics adaptation angle. We’re recording that on Monday, and I’m excited.
- As I finish this off the Patreon is still $45 shy of where I post this publicly. I expect what will happen is that I’ll post an announcement of that on the blog under the title “The Star Beast Review” and shortly thereafter edit the post to include this review. Either way, I’d like to very sincerely thank all of my Patrons, both the ones who have been with me since I had to frustratingly relaunch it earlier this year and the ones who stepped up over the last month to help close about half of the financial loss that caused. It’s Thanksgiving weekend here, and there’s little in life I’m more thankful for than all of you.
- In fact, just as a little Patreon exclusive I’ll go ahead and announce the title of the eventual Power of the Doctor post: [redacted]
- Which just leaves one little order of business.
- The Star Beast