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27 November 2023

Doctor Who goes back in time

David Tennant’s return as the Doctor in the first of three specials restores relish to the series.

By Rachel Cooke

As an ageing proposition myself, I’m very much here for Doctor Who’s 60th birthday celebrations – and all the more so since the mildly boring era of Jodie Whittaker is at last over (NB, this is not internalised sexism, but the result of Chris Chibnall’s reign as showrunner, during which the series’ scripts were purest oatmeal). On BBC iPlayer, there are now dozens of vintage episodes of Doctor Who waiting to be cracked open – and what better excuse to do so than in honour of the Timelord’s bus pass? Over Christmas, I intend to force my small niece, E—, to watch my favourite series, “The Time Warrior”, which features not only a Sontaran warrior called Linx, but also marks the debut of the character who was my principle role model as a child: the Doctor’s assistant, Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen).

Very soon, Ncuti Gatwa will take over as the 15th Doctor. In the meantime, Russell T Davies, now running things once again, is to give us three specials starring David Tennant (the tenth Doctor – and, it seems, the 14th, too) and Catherine Tate, who returns as his sidekick, Donna Noble.

Before I watched the first of these – “The Star Beast”, based on a 1980 Doctor Who comic book – I worried slightly that I was about to be bullied by whizzy special effects: a partnership with Disney+ means the producers can suddenly afford all the CGI they fancy. But while it’s true that the new-look Tardis might have been designed by Renzo Piano (its control console comes with a coffee machine) and the sonic screwdriver is now an Etch A Sketch for the Apple generation (the Doctor uses it to draw bullet-proof panels he can then plonk in front of any monster that happens to be armed), the feeling overall is still pleasingly Airfix-and-Bostik. The tall, green, red-eyed Warriors of Wrarth, just landed from somewhere, look like outsize plastic action figures, while the Meep, a furry creature Donna describes with some accuracy as “a ferret from Mars”, is voiced by Miriam Margolyes.

The plot is… complicated. The Tardis lands in Camden Lock, where, among the market stalls, the Doctor bumps in to Donna, who long ago saved the world by absorbing all his wisdom, a feat that would have melted her brain had he not also wiped clean her memory. It isn’t a good idea for them to hang out: if she now remembers who he is, she’ll die. But on the other hand, London is about to be caught up in some kind of alien civil war – think plasma bombs and a spaceship the Doctor nicknames Delusions of Grandeur – and in the cause of its salvation, they will once again partner up. In my day, the Doctor didn’t really experience human emotions. Lately, though, he’s on the mushy side. The way his jaw keeps jutting suggests that he might actually love Donna. Tennant seems hardly a day older in this comeback (incredibly, it’s 13 years since he departed the series). He’s all energy and hair. His limbs fold and extend wildly, almost insect-like; the fringe is as high as a cliff.

Davies has thrown a lot at this episode: it’s both knowing (I loved Zogroth and Zreeg, two Warriors of Wrarth, whose voices are very Seventies-sitcom-posh) and full of relish (Tennant races around his new Tardis with all the ecstasy of the fan, to the point where you worry his famously tight trousers might split). On social media and in the press, however, it’s the place Davies has given to Donna’s trans daughter Rose (Heartstopper’s Yasmin Finney) that has so far drawn most of the attention. Personally, I’m not sure being trans is in itself some kind of super-power, as it’s determinedly presented here (though, like the Meep, my “chosen pronoun is the definite article”: please address me as the Warrior Queen). But I also thought Finney’s performance disappointingly stilted, a stiffness that may be the result of the fact she’s too old to be playing a 15-year-old schoolgirl.

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More inspiriting is Ruth Madeley as Shirley Anne Bingham, a scientific adviser at Unit. Bingham may not be able to climb the stairs to the spaceship that has unaccountably landed in a London steelworks – as if there are steelworks in 21st century London! – but her wheelchair fires explosives and more at the touch of a button: to me, both righteous and splendid.

Doctor Who
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[See also: Netflix’s The Crown turns tawdry]

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This article appears in the 29 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Being Jewish Now