Can you guess Who’s back (and looking pretty good for 60)?
A trio of Doctor Who specials are coming to Disney+, reteaming David Tennant and writer Russell T Davies to commemorate the iconic Time Lord’s 60th (Earth) birthday. Adam Fresco peers into the future, with a spoiler-lite look at what to expect.
Has it really been sixty years? Amazingly, yes. The first season of BBC sci-fi television staple Doctor Who aired in the UK in 1963, and ran almost continuously until 1989. Then, aside from a best-forgotten 1996 television film, the show was left for dead. That is until the good Doctor was resurrected in 2005 by Queer as Folk writer Russell T Davies.
The Welsh showrunner nursed the Doctor back to life, first in the form of Chris Eccleston, and then in the guise of hugely popular fan favourite Scottish actor David Tennant. After Tennant and Davis left the show, Matt Smith took up the titular role, playing a much more kid-friendly character than his current role in House of The Dragon.
Now, to celebrate the Doctor’s sixtieth year, both Tennant and Davies are back for three ever-so-special shows. Screening for the first time on Disney+, all three are written by Davies, but each has its own director, with Rachel Talalay kicking things off with The Star Beast, then Tom Kingsley helming Wild Blue Yonder, and finally Chanya Button in the director’s chair for The Giggle.
For those new to Who, The Doctor is a time traveller, but rather than a Back To The Future-style souped-up DeLorean, The Doctor’s preferred mode of temporal transport is the TARDIS (an acronym for Time And Relative Dimension In Space). It’s a time machine that takes the form of an old-school British police box. These blue boxes, once common on British streets, housed a telephone for law enforcement use, long before mobile phones were invented by Star Trek Captain, James T. Kirk (seriously, check it out).
An extraterrestrial from the planet Gallifrey, The Doctor is a Time Lord tasked with guardianship of our solar system. Along with various human companions, The Doctor has safeguarded Earth and its surroundings against all manner of one-off and recurring foes, from deadly Daleks to clanking Cybermen and scary Sontarans, to arch nemesis The Master.
One of the last of his kind, The Doctor has two hearts, and a rather nifty way of escaping death by regenerating in a new body each time he dies. Sixty years, and thirteen actors later, Tennant replaces the last Doctor, Jodie Whittaker, as the first actor ever to resume the role (although, thanks to time travel, there have been several past episodes featuring multiple incarnations of the titular character). As for whether Tennant is back as the tenth Doctor, or is now also the fourteenth, I’ll leave for Whovians (the show’s superfans) to argue over in comments sections and sci-fi conventions.
Regular fans might be surprised to see Tennant back in his former role, but so’s The Doctor, asking as he reappears at the start of this new adventure: “But now this face has come back—why?” This being the flagship show of BBC Wales, London is actually played by the thinly disguised Welsh city of Cardiff, and whilst the special effects have certainly improved over sixty years of production, the plots, characters, and actors in rubber suits playing aliens, remain resolutely kid friendly. Because, no matter what your Who-loving grandparents say, Doctor Who always was, and remains, family TV with its sights set firmly on younger viewers.
Hence the introduction, at the start of the first new episode, of a fluffy puppet alien saying “meep meep”, who actually turns out to be called The Meep. Fortunately, The Meep, like the glowing red-eyed, human-sized, green-rubber-encased, locust-like creatures hunting it, speaks perfect English. The Meep is voiced by none other than much-loved eccentric British actor Miriam Margolyes. If you’re a kid, The Meep resembles a huge-eyed, fluffy, cute cat. If you’re a bit older, The Meep is more reminiscent of a creature designer copy-pasting the image of Gizmo the Mogwai from Joe Dante’s Gremlins.
It’s The Meep’s spaceship that kicks off this new adventure when it crash-lands in London. Lost and lonely, The Meep is taken in by none other than Donna Noble’s teenage child, Rose. It’s a plot turn played very close to Spielberg’s E.T., right down to Rose’s mum entering her child’s room, where the cute alien hides amongst piles of kids’ toys. Fans will doubtless flip out seeing British comedian Catherine Tate back as the now-married Donna, but her cockney accent and pantomime acting have always struck me as wildly over the top, especially next to Tennant’s boisterous yet still believable Doctor. But hey, it’s a family show, aimed at kids, so forget the subtleties of well-defined characters, and surrender to the show’s sense of fun. After all, it’s hard not to enjoy Donna’s descriptions of The Meep, calling it everything from “Mad Paddington” to “The ferret from Mars.”
No spoilers for these three new episodes, but those who followed the adventures of Tennant’s Doctor the first time around will know that Catherine Tate’s Donna was his beloved sidekick, who got brain-invaded by a Time Lord, and had to have her memory of her time with The Doctor wiped, lest she die because, um, reasons. So the big question hanging over Donna meeting The Doctor this time around is can he prevent her remembering him? Because if she does, she’ll drop dead.
So, when the two meet at the top of episode one, there’s a delicious mix of nostalgic warmth, and tense dread, which writer Russell T Davies injects with delightful humour as Donna, taking in Tennant’s slim and sprightly Doctor, says: “Word of advice—you can wear a suit that tight up to the age of thirty-five—and no further.”
There are lots of things to criticise about Doctor Who, from some Tommy Wiseau in The Room level acting, to the 1950s drive-in B-movie costume design, clunky direction, and the sometimes outrageously unsubtle politically correct posturing of the scripts. But it’s all done with a knowing wink and sense of humour that save it from disappearing up its own supermassive black hole’s event horizon.
As Donna warns Rose when she asks about going inside the TARDIS: “You don’t wanna go in there. You’ll only end up on Mars with Chaucer and a robot shark.” But, if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief, and embrace a fun family-friendly sci-fi that’s pushing sixty, then you’re in for a treat, because if you dive into these new Doctor Who specials you really just might end up on another planet, with a dead poet, and a robotic fish—and that would just be the start of the crazy adventures in store.
I won’t reveal whether the specials reveal the new Doctor, to be played by Ncuti Gatwa, star of Netflix series Sex Education, and one of the Kens in Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie’s smash hit movie, Barbie. However, I can say that former sidekicks, villains, and cast do pop up with appearances from the likes of Neil Patrick Harris, as well as Bernard Cribbins, Jemma Redgrave, Karl Collins, and Jacqueline King.
With all this, and a 2023 Christmas Special still to come, it’s going to be a busy year-end for fans both old and new of the latest regeneration of Doctor Who. So, charge up your sonic screwdriver, find the telly in your TARDIS, gather the family, young and old, and get ready to celebrate sixty years of the sci-fi stalwart, following the ongoing adventures of a Doctor with not one but two big warm, fuzzy hearts beating beneath all the funny business, scary monsters, kooky comedy, sci-fi shenanigans, and time-hopping hoopla.