Well gosh, that was nice, wasn’t it?
More than anything, I’m just delighted that Davies bothered. Like, the three specials structure could have been all big ones. This slot could have been a big scary Cybermen one or something, and the Fourteenth Doctor era would still feel complete and varied across the three. By most reckonings that would have even been the better idea. But no, instead he decided that this should actually feel like a season of Doctor Who and have a weird one in the middle. There’s something absolutely decadent about spending a third of your big Tennant-Tate reunion trilogy doing something that feels as though it’s overtly striving to be described as “proper Doctor Who.”
I remember, way back on the Forest of the Dead podcast commentary, which is legitimately one of the best forty-five minutes it is possible to spend on being terminally That Sort of Fan, Davies, Tennant, and Moffat enthusing about the first episode of The Ark in Space and how you could just shoot it with no changes to the script and it would still sparkle. And now here we are, with Davies doing an episode that begs for comparisons to Heaven Sent and Listen in its “a cheap one proving I can still write” ostentation—a weird spooky two-hander on a spaceship.
Well. “Cheap.” Obviously this continues to luxuriate in the stupidity of its budget from the moment they step out into that corridor set, which of course looks fantastic. The CGI body horror is genuinely startling. You suspect it still did come out cheaper than The Star Beast, but it’s still being ostentatious in its quality across the board. There’s ambition and confidence in every shot of this, and like Isaac Newton it’s frankly sexy as fuck.
What shines for me is the character work. The parallel scenes of the Doctor and Donna trying to figure out who the fake is (and note the very sly decision to do a deceptive shot-match so that the fake Donna comes out of a green corridor like the one we just saw Donna in) in which Donna gets it and the Doctor doesn’t, which sets up the subsequent beat of the Doctor IDing the fake Donna based on the fact that she volunteers to insult her own intelligence. Or even just the ways in which the not-things (as the subtitles charmingly call them) work—the grinning sadism with which Tennant delivers “when something is gone it keeps existing” is beautifully chilling. Davies has always been strong when he lets his nihilistic streak shine, and he uses it here—along with two phenomenal leads—to make cosmic horrors feel at once convincing and charismatic.
It feels significant, then, that it’s the not-thing version of Donna that relates so emphatically to the devastation Flux. And I don’t mean that as snark about Chibnall. For all that I deadpanned “yeah man, I felt that way about the Chibnall era too” during the Doctor’s frustrated tantrum, the thing that’s really striking about Davies astonishingly gracious salvage job on the emotional desolation of his predecessor’s tenure is the not-thing’s awed “you have owned it” and the way it sells the horrified tumult of this new version of Tennant, reeling from a trauma to rival the Time War. It works, right down to giving the Doctor a reason to seek the comfort of returning to this face. And it’s a point that’s clearly going to carry through into The Giggle given the precise structure of the cliffhanger, the TARDIS landing just in time to get the Doctor out of talking more about it. You can just about see the precise contours of the line that’s being drawn under all of this. More to the point, the ones that aren’t quite clear yet feel terribly compelling.
Which brings us back to the sense of relief that Davies is actually trying. The thing about the late career Moffat stories this is trying to edge out in the 2033 Doctor Who Magazine poll is that they’re the creative renaissance of a man who’s decided that he has something to prove. And frankly, that remains the only reason any of this would be worthwhile. For all that I’m insistent that Doctor Who should be forward-looking, that’s never only meant new voices, and it’s never precluded skilled veterans. I mean, for heavens’ sake, that kind of thinking would have meant no Caves of Androzani. Fifteen years is more than enough time to become a new person with new ideas on a topic. I’m certainly not the same person I was when I started writing about this show, and that wasn’t even thirteen years ago. Once the hazy bliss of novelty fades away and it’s not enough to just have competence again, what this is going to come down to is whether or not Davies is still hungry for it. And frankly, this isn’t the episode you make if you’re here to fuck around. If Davies is willing to push himself this hard during the big frothy nostalgia tour—the part of his return that’s aimed at a BBC One audience that fondly, if vaguely, remembers Journey’s End (where it’s a smash hit, btw, with overnight ratings on The Star Beast rival the +7s for Power of the Doctor)—then one shudders to imagine what he’s going to do when he’s aiming for a Disney+.
- If you’re not one of my Patreon backers, the bonus podcast on The Star Beast has gone up for them. This one’s got Sean Dillon and Ritesh Babu, and is a good time. We manage to get off topic and into Phineas and Ferb so early on that it might be in the five minute preview. Next time I’ll be joined by Christine and Jack, who should be a grand old time for this one.
- Obviously the “superstition at the edge of the universe” thing is about letting the Toymaker in, which will also surely hinge on the fact that Rose makes toys. And I assume they’re going to pay off the otherwise inscrutable “Wild Blue Yonder” thing. But I honestly can’t tell whether “mavity” is supposed to be setup for something or is just Davies shitposting, nor can I decide which one I hope.
- I can’t say I’m especially persuaded that a non-white Isaac Newton is meaningful or productive representation, but it’s hard not to enjoy the trolling. And I suspect that making “Doctor Who is woke now” old news before Gatwa shows up is a savvy approach.
- Speaking of the promotion of the show, interesting that this is the episode where Davies adopted a sharp no-spoiler policy—something I’m on record as not usually being a fan of. In one sense there wasn’t actually anything to hide, and there’s surely a chunk of jilted fans upset that we didn’t get Matt Smith or whatever. (Which, of course we didn’t—David Tennant is the past Doctor here.) But there wasn’t anything to promote either—none of the headlines are here. Knowing it’s a two-hander with evil doppelgangers wasn’t going to bring anyone new to their television. More to the point, this is an episode about exploration of a mysterious place—one where real effort has been expended on the procedural aspects of the Doctor and Donna figuring it out. It invites the viewer to play along—to see when they notice that something’s wrong with the Doctor that’s just come in to talk to Donna, or that the Doctor’s real plan is to get the TARDIS back. That’s one of the things that actually does benefit from secrecy. The opening sequences would be robbed of something if the entire audience knew that the thing peering at the Doctor and Donna through the grate is a shapeshifter from outside the universe. Which is to say, hats off to Davies for writing something that was actually worth avoiding spoilers for.
- I quite liked the way the episode follows the by now cliche “no sonic screwdriver this time” as a way of flagging “the Doctor and Donna are on their own with nothing but their wits” with taking the TARDIS translation away too.
- Hats off to Chrissie at chakoteya.net—a resource I have used countless times for countless things—who is going to have an absolute time of it getting the transcript of this together tonight.
- Delightful to see that, however poorly he may have been faring, Cribbins was still clearly sharp and able to play his character to a tee. It sounds like this is all we get of him, alas, but it’s a solid use of him—a comforting delight that goes eerily wrong, nicely setting up next week.
- Which… so, we’re the Toymaker. I note that we’ve dropped “Celestial” from his name in all the promotion, along with the Mandarin trappings. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious what Davies is doing with him. And, for that matter, if I said “evil clown played by Neil Patrick Harris” wasn’t a compelling option. But more on that next week.
- We all knew Davies was adapting “The Star Beast,” but who saw “Tlotney Throws a Shape” coming?
- Wild Blue Yonder
- The Star Beast