A fantastic and fun return for both Russell T Davies and David Tennant and an exciting introduction for Ncuti Gatwa, the Doctor Who 60th anniversary specials were less about celebrating the long-running show but more of an epilogue to the old era making way for the new.
I decided to group these specials into a single review because I felt they were telling the same story over the course of three adventures. I’ll begin with my SPOILER-FREE opinions on each one and then proceed to a separate overall discussion that will contain SPOILERS.
Special One: The Star Beast
A fun and familiar re-introduction to Doctor Who as it eases us (and the filmmakers) back into the groove of things.
This special worked well as a way to set the mood for what’s to come by looking and feeling like a “traditional” second era episode of Who even with the Disney budget. It was a fun little adventure with twist upon twist that plays on the viewers preconceived notions. And while some might feel it on-the-nose when the episode basically said “Trans rights”, if you’ve ever been on the internet and seen the discourse surrounding any long-time progressive media then you know full well why it needed to be so heavy-handed.
It was fantastic to see the Doctor and Donna together again, both Tennant and Catherine Tate are so comfortable with one another their chemistry is just on-point as it ever was. Everyone in the cast was great and the introduction of new characters including Shirley (Ruth Madeley) and Rose (Yasmin Finney) was just wonderful to see, especially as a statement of intent. I expected more swearing from Miriam Margolyes as the voice of The Meep but in any case she was great as always.
Special Two: Wild Blue Yonder
Sticking with the feeling of “traditional” and “familiar”, this was a great “bottle episode” that really brought out the best in these two actors.
Bottle episodes that focus on one or two characters to carry an entire story can be tough especially when they’re the only two in almost every single scene. But Wild Blue Yonder was a great meditation for both Doctor and Donna to have some breathing space (of sorts) after the excitement of the previous special to slow down and begin to analyse the why’s and how’s of their characters.
I’m not sure the special was as creepy as it could’ve been if that was the goal at all (there have been much more unsettling episodes of Doctor Who before) yet I don’t think that takes anything away from the majority of the special. The surprise at the end was most bittersweet.
Special Three: The Giggle
The climax to the 60th anniversary delivers in both spectacle and heart and is also a fantastic passing of the torch.
A lot was packed into this finale and yet I’m not sure it was to any detriment of the overall story. It hit the ground running and barely ever let up and provide room to breathe and that heightened the emergency of it all. There was a nice balance of matter-of-factness about certain things – like UNIT and the Vlinx for example. I’m not familiar with past companion Mel Bush (Bonnie Langford) but her character was a computer programmer (who never apparently worked one in all 22 original episodes she appeared in) so in hindsight it was nice to see her get to do just that. And she was a delight as a character too!
I appreciated the changes made to The Toymaker (more on that later), he was a suitably threatening villain that matched perfectly with The Doctor and if you get Neil Patrick Harris to do something it better be that. I’m not certain I liked the ultimate resolution as it was another “having your cake…” sort of solution from Russell T Davies, though it did offer up a great and fresh new way to approach something so iconic in the show. Come to think of it, this special doesn’t just have callbacks to RTD’s previous work in terms of lore but also actual plot ideas when you really think about it.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the 60th anniversary specials, they were fun and exciting adventures full of heart and reflection, delightful moments, and cute callbacks and references. In of themselves, they made for a wonderful time and a confident return for Russell T Davies as showrunner… I’m just not sure they were fulfilling the potential of what an anniversary special could be. Now I fully submit to the idea that perhaps my expectations were a little high considering past efforts, then again these three specials weren’t exactly slouching either. I felt that maybe a more direct approach in honouring the show’s past might have been on the cards.
I don’t think these specials are bad nor do I think they’re perfect, although they convey the latter sense in certain instances (I’m being vague for the moment), despite my lack of complete satisfaction, I did loved these specials and it all gets me very excited to see the Fifteenth Doctor’s adventures going forward.
This is going to be word spew as I attempt to refine my thoughts so SPOILER DISCUSSION FROM THIS POINT FORWARD…
Admittedly, I wasn’t sure what to think when I first saw Jodie Whittaker morph into David Tennant at the end of her tenure as The Doctor. I originally thought it was some sort of fake out and we’d find out it was still all in the Doctor’s mind or The Master up to his tricks again and after some hijinks the real regeneration would finally get us to Gatwa. I was a touch resentful when it was confirmed that Tennant was officially the Fourteenth Doctor and that it was a real regeneration.
You see, when it was announced that Davies was returning to the show, all the manbabies and misogynists who would constantly complain about Whittaker and supposed “wokeness” all celebrated the news… none of them realising that Davies is a gay man, creator of the series Queer as Folk, and spent his original tenure sprinkling queer characters throughout the relaunched Doctor Who. So to have Davies’ favourite actor and, some say, one of the original choices for Ninth Doctor (apparently making Tennant the Pierce Brosnan to Christopher Eccleston’s Timothy Dalton), it felt like the small minority of incels would get their way instead of just going straight (Ha!) to Gatwa’s Doctor.
I quickly got over my resentment (mostly) because I knew the above things about RTD and I was reassured that whatever they had in store was going to be great anyway. And having seen the specials now, my eventual confidence was rewarded.
Set aside for a moment the casting of Ncuti Gatwa as the Fifteenth Doctor. Earlier I mentioned that The Star Beast was a “statement of intent” for the show going forward with characters like Rose Noble and Shirley Anne Bingham. Rose is the bi-racial transgender daughter of the very protective Donna Noble, so not only do we have intersectional representation in Rose but also an example of how those with privilege can channel their energy into being an effective ally (think about the “Karen-ness” of both Donna and her own mother in past episodes and see how they try their hardest to get things right in regards to Rose – it’s basically instructional).
I know of at least one trans creator online who is frustrated with transgender characters being “dead named” and highlighted said frustration at the first special because she doesn’t think transgender characters need to always be propelled by their struggle against bigotry, which is an excellent point. On the other hand, I’ve seen a number more folks express appreciation at that brief moment when kids from Rose’s school pass by on bikes shouting her dead name because it exactly illustrates the casualness of the hate trans people experience on the daily.
Actress Ruth Madeley was born with spina bifida, so while she can walk and stand for brief periods she does rely on a wheelchair to get around most of the time. Some folks complained that Shirley was able to cross her legs in the first special not realising her condition but those complaints were far outweighed by the praise at representing ambulatory wheelchair users. The moment in the third special where Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) has a go at Shirley about being able to walk is a not so subtle illustration to the ignorance that so many people with disabilities face.
This type of representation is further amplified by the new design of the TARDIS. The exterior police phone box is still the same from Thirteen’s era, however, the interior console room looks like the TARDIS popped by Professor Xavier’s mansion and had a fling with Cerebro. Not only that, there are ramps everywhere including the front-entrance as revealed at the end of The Giggle. It’s almost certain we’ll see Shirley again but also I suspect Wilfred Mott (Bernard Cribbins) was going to ride in the TARDIS one more time.
RTD did reveal that there was a “little more” of Wilfred originally written in the third special but sadly he passed away before filming of those scenes could commence. So Cribbins’ final ever performance is as the surprise reveal at the end of Wild Blue Yonder and it’s definitely bittersweet.
The only speculation I did about these new stories was how they were going to resolve Donna’s predicament: she previously took the mind of a TimeLord into her brain, which resulted in the Tenth Doctor having to wipe her memory of everything she had experienced with him or else it would kill her.
My prediction was simply that The Doctor was wrong about that because he’s a man now (again) and that Donna regaining her memory would simply fizzle out as a way to subvert expectations (we got a few of those of those moments later on). I really like the actual resolution and technically my gag was used but in how both Donna and Rose would get rid of their “timelord powers” as not to harm them,.. because as women they can simply let it go. Very elegant solution and again thumbing their nose at the complainers.
Again, from something I mentioned earlier, I appreciated the changes made to the rather controversial The Toymaker. Because it was a villainous character from the 60s, the then named “Celestial Toymaker” was depicted as an “oriental” despite being played by a white actor. And unbeknownst to me, the term “celestial” was, for a time, considered a slur because it was in reference to how China used to be called the “celestial empire” (don’t worry if you didn’t know this, perhaps it’s a good thing most of us have forgotten it and its usage fallen by the wayside too). According to RTD in Doctor Who Unleashed (which I hope an official version is uploaded somewhere), although he didn’t want to “whitewash” the character, he did so as to not villainise an ethnicity but reinterpreting and morphed the Toymaker’s insensitive sensibilities as being overtly racist because after all he’s the bad guy.
Now this becomes a bit of a double-edged sword: on the one hand an Asian actor potentially misses out on a paying gig (and a major one at that). On the other hand, it does avoid all the stereotypes that come with “orientalism” and “yellow peril”. Honestly, RTD has a couple blind spots when it comes to a few things (“Chantho” anyone?) but I can appreciate the effort and so for the moment, I am comfortable with this choice, in a similar way that I was comfortable with the handling of “The Mandarin” in Iron Man 3 (the actual bad guys used stereotypes to play with the public’s bigotry and preconceived notions). Like so many of us, he’s learning too!
Also, if you’re going to make the Toymaker a song and dance character then Neil Patrick Harris is certainly the one you cast for that role. And by their own admission, even though it wasn’t written with Harris in mind, he fits so perfectly considering all the skills he has as a physical performer that can go toe-to-toe with the likes of Tennant. Although it looks like RTD recycled “villain using pop song to illustrate how unhinged they are”, which wasn’t unwelcome because it was certainly fun to watch (remember Saxon Master using the Rogue Traders’ “Here come the Drums”) although in fairness previous showrunner Chris Chibnall did the same thing too (The Master using Boney M’s “Rasputin”).
For me, one of the things I felt was lacking in the 60th anniversary specials was a more direct honouring of the past. There were plenty of references, the return of characters including a past companion in Mel, even the return of a long dormant villain. But most of the callbacks were off-hand references like the name dropping of Sarah Jane or teasing a discussion about The Flux (which Davies has confirmed did happen during the in-vision commentary only available on BBC iPlayer – people are uploading snippets to TikTok). And I’ve admitted that perhaps my own expectations may have set me up for “disappointment” that previous Doctors didn’t appear to celebrate the anniversary. Sure, technically speaking, we got a “multi-Doctor” story but you know what I mean.
Speaking of which, I’m a little torn about “bi-generation”. By RTD’s own admission he just wanted to do something different and positive with the regeneration this time because the iconic tradition of the show was almost always handled as a tragedy. I do actually love that 14 and 15 get to meet in such a way, their interactions at the end of the third special are wonderful and heartfelt. But to give 14 his own TARDIS and then revisiting the well of another Tennant Doctor out there in the world (remember the one that left with Rose Tyler who grew from the Doctor’s severed hand – oh boy did Martha miss out) just feels like “been there, done that”. Sure, there’s potential for some interesting stories about how UNIT no longer need to wait for the Doctor to come back if they have a Timelord on the books locally, what’s to stop someone from grabbing this second TARDIS now? People are already theorising this is how we get The Curator (as played by Tom Baker in the 50th anniversary special). And so on and so forth.
Also, in that previous clip, I don’t know if Davies has a grasp on the concept of “multiverses” so that may be cause for concern or maybe I’m not understanding him properly?
There’s probably something I missed, there’s probably something I got wrong, but despite my nitpicks I very much enjoyed these 60th anniversary specials. As I said, they offer up confidence in the show going forward, they were a statement of intent to the naysayers and manchildren, and based on his brief performance so far, I am excited to see Ncuti Gatwa having adventures in the TARDIS.
The Doctor Who 60th anniversary specials can be watched on BBC iPlayer in the UK and on Disney+ internationally.
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