‘Doctor Who’ forges fresh start by recapturing its glory days

By Kirk Boxleitner
Posted 12/6/23



Welcome to the Disney era of "Doctor Who."

Once upon a time, there was a globally popular, decades-spanning sci-fi TV series about a mythic alien trickster figure, who …

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‘Doctor Who’ forges fresh start by recapturing its glory days




Welcome to the Disney era of "Doctor Who."

Once upon a time, there was a globally popular, decades-spanning sci-fi TV series about a mythic alien trickster figure, who changed into different lead actors every few years or so, and who traveled through space and time, in a disappearing blue box that was somehow bigger on the inside than it was on the outside.

As the ongoing narrative became less accessible to casual viewers, due to the compounding complexity of its multiple backstories, it only took a handful of ill-considered revisions to that established canon, presented during less-than-deftly written episodes, to diminish the fandom enough for the show to go on hiatus.

And then, a showrunner named Russell T. Davies brought "Doctor Who" back, with a big heart and some big-screen-sized stylistic ambitions.

That was how "Doctor Who" returned to the BBC in 2005, following a 1996 TV movie on FOX that failed to restart the series after its end in 1989, and it appears to be how RTD (as he's abbreviated by fandom) is revamping the show now, with a trio of weekly streaming specials on Disney+, after its last regular season in 2021 trailed off into a string of specials during 2022.

The original "Doctor Who" that aired from 1963 through 1989 was admittedly limited by a modest production budget, occasionally hastily written scripts and a touch of over-reliance on since-dated contemporary genre tropes.

When Davies reintroduced "Doctor Who" in 2005, he received praise for injecting it with a fresh sensibility, similar to that of Joss Whedon's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" TV series, by turning a more in-depth focus on the personal lives and relationships of the human characters whom the Doctor adopted as his traveling companions.

In retrospect, what Whedon and Davies wound up doing, between them, was to roughly outline what became the subsequent Marvel Cinematic Universe formula, by mixing snarky, self-aware comedy and shamelessly emotionally manipulative familial drama with staggeringly apocalyptic stakes, well-suited for widescreen visuals.

For better or for worse, that's what Russell T. Davies' "Doctor Who" was all about for five years, until he amenably ceded custody of the series to other hands in 2010, and based on "The Star Beast" — the first of Davies' three "Doctor Who" specials on Disney+, which began streaming Saturday, Nov. 25 — that's the RTD who came back for this go-round.

Davies is joined in all three Disney+ specials by his primary incarnation of the Doctor (played by David Tennant, who remains one of the most popular "Doctor Who" lead actors in the series' history) and Donna Noble (played by Catherine Tate), who still ranks among the most beloved of the Doctor's companions in the post-2005 era.

After watching "The Star Beast," I can reassure my fellow fans of the Doctor/Donna pairing that not only has Davies retained both characters' distinctive voices while writing their dialogue, but Tennant and Tate spark off each other as if they'd never left the show.

For those who have never seen "Doctor Who" before, I can likewise reassure you that Davies' storytelling briskly brings new viewers up to speed on the key points of who the Doctor and Donna Noble are, what they mean to each other, and what the stakes of their reunion will be.

Even if you have no taste for fantasy-flavored adventures, the Doctor's chaotic interactions with Donna, and her family, should appeal to those who relish the rapid-fire farce of Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd's verbal duels in "Moonlighting," albeit without any of David and Maddie's more adult-rated chemistry (the Doctor and Donna really are just very good friends).

Beyond that, "The Star Beast" should serve as a fairly effective litmus test for the degrees to which you'll find RTD's "Doctor Who" either endearing, or difficult to endure. Like George Lucas and Ray Bradbury, Davies is a "science-fantasist," rather than a "hard-SF" storyteller, who uses the genre as a vehicle for social commentary and (mostly) well-done melodrama.

If you love cryptic but blatantly telegraphed teases for multi-episode story arcs, playfully gratuitous strings of meaningless but semi-scientific-sounding jargon, and well-intended but not-infrequently vague "Power of Love" resolutions, that lean on the cosmic equivalents of "Care Bear Stares," you are going to adore Russell T. Davies. I'm not even criticizing. When measured out correctly, his tropes make for great ingredients.

However, if you head into RTD's "Doctor Who" expecting it to be free of what you might consider "woke" messaging, then as the "South Park" ski instructors would tell you, "You're gonna have a bad time." Davies is openly gay, and his stories have always been unabashedly inclusive of not only LGBTQ, but various other spectra of diversity.

Davies' outlook reveals itself in the most basic aspects of his tales, because when you begin from the premise that it's totally okay to be different, then it naturally follows that appearances aren't always what they seem, and what might look like scary monsters are actually good guys.

For those new to "Who," I'd add that the black-clad paramilitary-uniformed troops we see on the scene are part of U.N.I.T., a.k.a. the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, and in spite of their sinister attire in "The Star Beast," they're typically allies to the Doctor (when they're not being manipulated by villainous forces). Ruth Madeley is a very welcome new addition as Shirley Bingham, the group's latest scientific advisor (a post the Doctor himself once held).

For fellow longtime Whovians, the new central console room of the TARDIS is already my all-time favorite, as it combines the pristine, streamlined futurism of the original series with the open-ended complexity and expansiveness of the modern TARDIS interiors, most notably the Eleventh Doctor's "elegant mess" of a jack-o'-lantern.

I love the spiraling catwalks and the multiple portals, as much as writer Pat Mills and artist Dave Gibbons have told the press that they appreciate how well "The Star Beast" adapted what was originally their 1980 comic strip story for "Doctor Who Weekly" magazine.

Look for parts two and three of this trilogy — "Wild Blue Yonder," which premiered Saturday, Dec. 2, and "The Giggle," which is scheduled to air the following Saturday, Dec. 9 — on Disney+, which should culminate with Ncuti Gatwa taking over as the newest "Doctor Who."