Sunday 26 November 2023

Doctor Who: The Star Beast

The Star Beast ushers in a new era of Doctor Who with Disney+ bringing the beloved BBC sci-fi series to an international audience under the auspices of returning series showrunner Russell T Davies.

This year is the 60th anniversary of Doctor Who and the 30th anniversary of befriending Nick Smith at university. Without further fanfare, Nick, our US-based veteran Whovian, has a close encounter with a space gremlin. Meep! Meep!

Guest post by Nick Smith

I was snagged by one of the oldest marketing tricks in comic books, a big Number One on the cover. There was also a competition to win a trip to Blackpool, a copy of the Genesis of the Daleks LP and an invitation to join UNIT, the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce. My stubby little eight-year-old hands held a copy of Marvel UK's Doctor Who Weekly and once I opened it up, I never looked back.

The issue was actually Number 26, but since this was a First New Look Issue it justified the big old one on the cover. I wasn’t duped. I could read. And read I did – an editorial written BY THE DOCTOR HIMSELF, signed off, ‘Happy Times and Places.’ A backup strip about the Sontarans, who I remembered from an early Tom Baker adventure. There was a Fantastic Fact about Harry Potter (not a wizard but a gardener from Northumberland), a special offer to get a free Boba Fett action figure (with a non-functioning laser rifle), and a Tale From the TARDIS adapting The First Men in the Moon.

Best of all – the story I kept going back to, and the reason why I reread the issue until the back page fell off – was The Star Beast, a cleverly written, beautifully drawn comic about a cute little alien called Beep the Meep who crashes to earth and needs the Doctor’s help. All was not as it seemed, and that O. Henry twist was what really kept me coming back and made me a lifelong fan of Doctor Who comics.

A whopping 43 years later, imagine my delight when that little alien appeared on my TV in a tightly woven show with high production values, sincere performances from its main cast, and the kind of acknowledgement of minorities that the strip strove for with its companion of colour, Sharon.

This time around there is a non-binary character who has a reason for being in the story beyond social commentary, and the envelope-stretching never gets in the way of the adventure, capping it instead.

Although original writer Pat Mills and artist Dave Gibbons get a credit at the beginning of the special, there’s no mention of co-writer John Wagner. Some of Wagner’s ideas and nuances are lost in the rush to tell not just Beep’s (Miriam Margolyes) story but also that of the Doctor (David Tennant) and Donna (Catherine Tate) as they are reunited in the first of three specials.

New viewers are not spoon-fed the whole ‘cosmic Time Lord hero’ premise of Doctor Who. Instead, the focus is on the Doctor and his feisty companion, her family and even characters who are mentioned but not seen, such as Kate Stewart of UNIT. Those newbies are encouraged to seek out the answers by watching and/or reading about previous stories, to dip into the Doctor’s 60-year history.

UNIT is now a bland, black-clad paramilitary band of peacekeepers. They are not secret (they’re mentioned on the news!). There is a new scientific advisor but no distinctive leader, no Sergeant Benton or Captain Yates. Benton, Yates and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart were what made UNIT special (apart from their raging gun battles with alien gargoyles). A new UNIT spin-off series will hopefully redress this lack of personae.

This story made me laugh in some places and choked me up a little in others, the kind of emotional ups and downs I expect from Russell T Davies’ best work. After the silly skit that was Destination: Skaro, the Children in Need special, The Star Beast has enough weight to warrant repeat views and bodes well for the new Season One – which isn’t really Number One. The more things change…

If this new special makes kids think, appreciate storytelling and use their imaginations as much as that old comic strip did with me, it will be very special.

Have you seen The Star Beast? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below.

Nick Smith's new audiobook, Undead on Arrival, is available from Amazon (affiliate link).

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