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Gender lectures can’t spoil a Time Lord treat

Doctor Who: The Star Beast

Television BBC One By Anita Singh

Russell T Davies has said that Doctor Who is not a children’s show. But The Star Beast, the first of his three 60th anniversary specials, is tailor-made for a young audience.

That’s partly because it’s a rollicking, family-friendly adventure with a cute villain and no real scares.

And partly because there’s nothing today’s kids like better than educating their elders about gender pronouns, a running theme in this episode.

Watching it is like trying to enjoy a conversation with an old friend, only for their eye-rolling 13-year-old to keep interrupting.

The main event is the glorious reunion of David Tennant and Catherine Tate as the Doctor and Donna Noble, and the special begins with a quick recap of their relationship.

Donna’s memory was wiped when these two were last together. She now lives an ordinary life with her husband, mother and teenage daughter, until fate brings her face-to-face with the Doctor again and a furry alien called the Meep crash-lands near her house.

This special marks the start of two things: Davies’s return as showrunner after a 13-year hiatus, and Disney’s £100 million injection into the Whoniverse. The tone is magical and faintly Christmassy (yes, I know it’s not Christmas yet, but people do like to start early), and the production values are clearly several notches higher than before.

In appearance, the Meep stirs memories of E.T. and the Mogwai from

Gremlins, and the episode plays out like an homage to Spielberg.

Tennant is pure delight, bringing warmth and faultless comic timing, plus a hit of nostalgia.

He still has a cracking chemistry with Tate, whose acting is at its best when she’s being shouty, bossy Donna, and at its worst when she’s playing the lobotomised version (it reminded me of Victoria Beckham trying to be natural on camera).

Elsewhere, Davies has listened to criticism that the show became too preachy in the Jodie Whittaker years. Listened, snorted and said: “Didn’t like that? Well, get a load of this,” and gleefully jumped in.

He is determined to make the show diverse and inclusive, which is a laudable aim. In a great touch, Ruth Madeley plays a scientific adviser for UNIT in a wheelchair fitted with weapons and missile launchers; Davies has said that he hopes children in wheelchairs will watch it and cheer.

The cast features a variety of races and ages on screen (hello to Major Singh, no relation).

Donna’s daughter Rose is trans, and played by a trans actress,

Heartstopper’s Yasmin Finney. This is dealt with in an early, nicely done scene between Donna and her mother, Sylvia (Jacqueline King). Sylvia is still navigating this new world and accidentally refers to Rose as “him” and worries about telling her she looks gorgeous: “Is that right? Is that sexist?”

Donna has fully accepted her daughter and is immensely proud of her. “You have a kid. You think, ‘Good, I’ve got it, that’s mine.’ Then she grows up into this extraordinary, beautiful thing, and you think, ‘Where the hell did she come from? How lucky am I?’”

A lovely exchange, but Davies doesn’t stop there. He stuffs in gender references in a sometimes excruciating fashion. “I promise I can help get him home,” the Doctor says of the Meep. “You’re assuming ‘he’ as a pronoun?” says a peeved Rose. “Yes, sorry, good point,” apologises the Doctor.

To be fair, the Meep, voiced by Miriam Margolyes, says: “My chosen pronoun is the definite article. I am always the Meep.” At least children are getting a grammar lesson thrown in.

It goes on. “It’s a shame you’re not a woman any more,” Donna tells the Doctor. Rose refers to “something a male-presenting Time Lord will never understand”. And the episode takes Tate’s use of the word “binary” in her last appearance in 2008 and retrofits it as a springboard for a reference to being non-binary. It’s clunkily didactic for a writer of Davies’s talents, so can only be because he’s sticking two fingers up to the critics.

Set that aside, and The Star Beast is a perfect re-entry for a franchise that needs to win back the public’s affection, a return to Doctor Who as a teatime treat with a gentle plot twist everyone over six could see coming but was happy to indulge anyway.

People who appreciate the darker, unsettling side of the series may have been disappointed, but Davies has promised that the next two instalments will be weirder and more frightening. And, hopefully, less of a lecture.





Daily Telegraph