Doctor Who: The Star Beast reminds us that money isn’t everything

The following discusses spoilers for “The Star Beast” and references transphobia.

If there’s one thing the rebooted Doctor Who always tried to do, it was avoid cliches about its predecessor’s small budget. The 1963 – 1989 run was made on a shoestring, leading to lazy gags about wobbly sets and bad visual effects. The 2005 revival was well-budgeted compared to its British TV peers, but still had to work hard to not “embarrass” itself. Now, the show is back, armed with bags of cash from Disney in exchange for its international broadcast rights. And, for the first time in possibly forever Doctor Who can boast about how rich it is.

But, much as we fans may feel inferior when comparing their love to those glossy Treks and Wars, money isn’t everything. For all those wobbly sets and dodgy effects, Doctor Who is a writer’s and actor’s medium first; great writing and acting can go a long way. It can make you believe an alien parasite consuming a person inside out is real, . It’s also the reason Doctor Who never succeeds when its creative team tries to ram it into the same cult-sci-fi-TV pigeonhole as its supposed American counterparts. This show thrives on taking left turns and playing on the fringes of the epic rather than aping the SyFy-industrial complex.

So what happens when Russell T. Davies returns to re-reboot the show with a big pile of Disney dollars? He writes a kitchen sink drama about a struggling family that’s thrust into the middle of an alien conflict. He writes a script that hinges not on an extended battle sequence with plenty of practical effects, or a lavish CGI moment of London being torn apart. But one where the big blockbuster moment is when Catherine Tate is locked in a tiny room across from David Tennant. This is the story of a mother who loves her daughter so much that she opts to sacrifice herself without a second thought. The Star Beast says, both in its production and dialogue, that there are better things to have than money, including love. And money was never the thing that made Doctor Who good.

The Star Beast has a difficult job, serving as a 60th anniversary special and as a jumping-on point for new viewers. Doctor Who is already a global hit, but its arrival on Disney+ means it’ll no longer be something people need to seek out in order to find. But beyond a short prologue where the Doctor explains why Donna can’t get her memories back, or else she’ll die, you’re dropped in cold. Keep up. The episode is an , where the alien Beep the Meep lands on Earth, pursued by the Wrarth Warriors.

The Doctor (David Tennant), with his new / old face and a new sonic, arrives in Camden in time to bump into Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) and her daughter, Rose (Yasmin Finney). He’s anxious to get out of their way since, if Donna remembers him or their time together, she will die. (In the resolution to 2008’s , Donna absorbed a bunch of the Doctor’s regeneration energy, becoming a human-Time Lord hybrid. But in doing so, nearly burned out her own brain until the Doctor wiped her memory in order to save her life.) But while she’s packing a box of shopping, a falling spaceship streaks across the sky, crashing into a nearby steel works. The Doctor hijacks a taxi driven by Shaun (Karl Collins), Donna’s husband, and asks him to drive to the steel works while finding out what Donna has been up to in the last 15 years.

Last time we saw Donna, the Doctor as a gift to celebrate her marriage to Shaun. But beyond paying for the house they live in, she gave the rest of her £160 million windfall to good causes, leaving them on the poverty line. Rose, her daughter, has set up a sewing business selling handmade toys to rich people in Dubai, to help earn some extra money. And as they walk home Rose, who is trans, is deadnamed by a bunch of kids from her school, much to Donna’s ire.

The Doctor investigates the crashed spaceship, avoiding the UNIT soldiers who are swarming the plant. But he is spotted by Shirley Ann Bingham (Ruth Madeley), UNIT’s new scientific advisor – the 56th – the latest in a long line of advisors to follow the Doctor. Rose, meanwhile, encounters Beep the Meep (Miriam Margolyes), a cuddly alien who is on the run from some giant green bug-eyed monsters with laser gun hands. Her compassion sees her hide Beep in her sewing room in the garden shed, which is eventually discovered by Donna. And then the Doctor turns up, followed soon after by a squad of UNIT soldiers who have been hypnotized by some glowing form in the spaceship.

A pitched and lengthy battle ensues where the Doctor fashions an escape by breaking through the walls between houses to get around the warring factions. It’s here, in a set piece that drags out far too long, that you can feel the show reveling in its supersized budget. Doctor Who of old could have probably staged something like this in its late-noughties heyday but not without a lot of cutting elsewhere. But we’re allowed a moment or two of self-indulgence when you get so much money you can flip a Land Rover onto a parked car and have them both explode in flames, right?

After escaping, the Doctor pulls out a judge’s wig from inside his coat and beams in two Wrarth Warriors. He’s not so sure that the cute and cuddly Beep is as innocent as it initially claimed – as fans of the comic will already know – instead being a genocidal maniac. It was Beep that possessed the squad of UNIT soldiers, and plans to wreak more havoc on the universe as soon as their ship is repaired. Meep kills the two Wrarth Warriors and is about to do the same to everyone else but the Doctor convinces them to take them hostage instead. Marched back to the steelworks, where they’re saved by Shirley who has a set of hidden guns and a rocket launcher hidden inside her wheelchair. Beep’s spaceship is ready to go, whereby its Dagger Drive engine will burrow into London and burn the city, and its nine million or so inhabitants, to fuel its takeoff.

The Star Beast reminded me of a lengthy email, written by Russell T. Davies, in the tail end of Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale. Towards the end of his first tenure running the show, Davies wrote to Benjamin Cook discussing his process. But the email also had the tone of someone addressing the criticisms that had perhaps dogged much of his initial tenure on the series. I’m paraphrasing, but his point was that structure was far less important to him than emotional catharsis. A Davies story is often messy and disorganized, much like life, in contrast to the Swiss Watch formalism of his successor, Steven Moffat. It should come as no surprise that The Star Beast doesn’t quite gel on the structural level, and is instead a series of big, emotionally cathartic set pieces.

But Davies’ instincts are right, and while many shows would build to a wide-frame and glossy climax, Davies shrinks it down. Catherine Tate leaps onto the spaceship to help the Doctor, willingly risking her life to save her daughter and the rest of London. Here, when it’s just David Tennant and Catherine Tate in a small, round room, separated by a glass partition, that things get intense. The whole episode, in fact, hinges on Tate’s acting as she makes the decision to die to save her family, a bigger and better moment than a thousand flipped Land Rovers.

And to fix things, the Doctor has to unlock those memories, sealed away inside Donna’s brain, of when her mind had merged with the Doctor. With it, she is able to help destroy the ship’s launch mechanism in a big moment of heroism before dying in the Doctor’s arms. But, when rescue arrives, she’s not actually dead, and it’s all thanks to Rose, who was helping outside all along. The hidden memories, and the Doctor’s power, were passed down to Rose in the womb who diluted their intensity enough not to overwhelm and kill Donna. It’s a seemingly sweet way to resolve the story, but I’m not sure if the implication the show makes is the one Davies intends. But I’m going to leave the nature of the episode’s resolution, and how it relates to Rose’s gender in the hands of infinitely better-qualified writers.

The episode ends with the Doctor and Donna cruelly preventing Rose from taking a look at the new TARDIS. Which, much like the rest of the episode, is a big money moment, with what feels like the biggest console room set ever. Again, there are probably too many beauty passes over the architecture as the show reminds everyone what it can do with some extra cash. Sadly, the coffee machine gets just one run out before Donna spills a cup all over the console and the TARDIS is engulfed in flame. Man, it feels good to be excited about the next episode of Doctor Who, and that’s a feeling I haven’t felt since March 1st, 2020.

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