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Doctor Who special review: Tennant is back, but the Woke Police still aren't going to be happy

“What? …What?” were David Tennant’s first words when, to everyone’s surprise, including his, he regenerated out of Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor, and not Ncuti Gatwa, as we all expected. For three episodes the 10th Doctor is back as the 14th, before Gatwa takes over at Christmas, and in his first proper episode – after a neat appearance in a Comic Relief sketch – he has moved onto “Why?”

Allow me to help you there, David: falling ratings.

Oh, you feel bad for Jodie Whittaker, a great Doctor unfortunate to be trapped in a wormhole of so-so episodes and constantly under attack from galactic sized fury-bots, slamming down their GB News mugs (filled with good, white tea, love) and taking to the social medias to cry about the bloody woke mob at the BBC filling our children’s heads with stupid ideas about tolerance and being nice.

But really, the problem, to my mind, was that while showrunner Chris Chibnall threw everything at Whittaker’s Doctor, he didn’t truly hit upon a transcendent stone-cold classic episode, and the whole thing felt like it was trying too hard; it lacked a bit of easy-to-watch magic. Something which is immediately back with “the one in the skinny suit”, under returning showrunner Russell T Davies.

As Dr Who’s 60th anniversary approaches, this should turn into something of a celebration of Davies, the man who kickstarted the new Who back in 2005 with Christopher Ecclestone as the Doctor, before hitting absolute gold with Tennant. While Chibnall was working on multiple meta-levels leaving us all trying to keep up, Davies pitches this first episode as more like E.T. in Eastenders. This sense of bringing things down-to-earth is helped further by the return of Catherine Tate as Donna, easily the funniest of his companions.

Taking place in London – and I do love Davies’ London, he was a pioneer in showing positively, and accurately, a city remarkable for its peaceful diversity (don’t believe the hype) – The Star Beast sees a cute little Furby-like alien called The Meep ‘crash’ into the city, which falls under the protection of Donna’s daughter, Rose, as some other ant-like aliens hunt it down.

The Doctor is back to help, with the catch being that he has to prevent Donna from remembering who he is, otherwise She Will Definitely Die. Without getting too bogged down, the last time we saw Donna, she basically had to have her mind wiped for her own protection, after she took on Time Lord powers that were too strong for her human body – her tragedy, heartbreaking at the time, was that she’d have to live her life without remembering her time with the Doctor.

However, as we all know in post-Marvel entertainment, there’s always a way around She Will Definitely Die – but the particular way this episode plays out is really going to upset the Woke Police. For Donna’s daughter Rose is trans, people – cue GB News mugs smashing against flat screens – and her trans-ness is very much central to the plot as well as the thematic ideas of identity crises and Otherness (not least with regards to the Doctor) and what do we do, attack these people or rally around them. Oh boy, is it going to drive people mad.

It's actually an almost touching move by Davies in the way it backs up the seriously upfront progressive humanism of Chibnall’s tenure, and comes in defiance of those who thought featuring Rosa Parks in an episode was the end of the world. What people seem to forget about Doctor Who, both the Woke Police and those other furrow-browed joy deniers, the Fanboy Police, is that it is a family show, designed to be watched with kids.

David Tennant, Karl Collins and Catherine Tate in The Star Beast (BBC Studios/Bad Wolf/Disney)
David Tennant, Karl Collins and Catherine Tate in The Star Beast (BBC Studios/Bad Wolf/Disney)

Yes it should be clever and mind-bending but it’s not supposed to be careless or cool. You need a bit of Horrible Histories, you need a bit of future thinking around humanity, because, well, this is science fiction – it’s the nature of this game even more than dressing up as Klaatu.

Anyway, the truth is this episode is a little bit thin, the big twist around The Meep pretty obvious (though not to my shocked 8 year old), and the saving of Donna does end up being really quite clunky. But it doesn’t really matter.

It’s about the magic: the chemistry between Tennant and Tate is winning, the laugh out loud moments hit double figures (I particularly like Donna’s repeated disses to the cutesy Meep – “space rat”, “ferret from Mars”), the Tardis has had a rather natty Modern House renovation, and the Disney money now coming into the show is well spent on set-pieces that manage to be Spielberg-ian in uniting the spectacular with the suburban.

It’s a hoot, and as a way to drum up attention and goodwill towards the series in the run-up towards Gatwa taking over, it’s quite irresistible.

Gatwa will certainly have a lot to live up to, mind. For Tennant truly is the best Doctor ever. Yes, yes, I know you liked Tom Baker when you were a kid, but really, you're wrong: Tennant is the best. Like a Tex Avery cartoon trapped inside Camus’ Meursault, he’s an existentialist hero for all the family. Saturday night must-watch TV is back, and it’s Woker than ever, folks...

Doctor Who is on BBC One and iPlayer from September 25