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David Tennant as The Fourteenth Doctor, leaning against the entrance of his TARDIS in the special episode The Star Beast Image: Disney Plus

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Doctor Who time traveled back to 2008 to save the show in 2023

It will shock you how much the last 15 years didn’t happen

Joshua Rivera (he/him) is an entertainment and culture journalist specializing in film, TV, and video game criticism, the latest stop in a decade-plus career as a critic.

The hero of BBC’s long-running sci-fi series Doctor Who is, famously, not a real medical doctor, but they have been a bit ill. What should have been a promising changing of the guard in 2018 — with new showrunner Chris Chibnall and the first woman cast as The Doctor since the series’ 1963 debut — only served to accelerate a gradual downward slide that began in the latter half of previous showrunner Steven Moffat’s seven-year tenure.

In response, the BBC has decided the cure to The Doctor’s ails lies with the man who revived the show from a 15-year coma in 2005: Russell T. Davies. And with his first episode, last weekend’s hour-long special “The Star Beast,” Davies has delivered the goods. “The Star Beast” isn’t quite the reboot Davies is here to deliver — that’ll come in 2024 when Ncuti Gatwa takes over as The Fifteenth Doctor. Instead, “The Star Beast” is meant as catnip for lapsed and disappointed fans that were introduced during Davies’ first Who revival. It’s a blatant nostalgia play that, hilariously, carries on as if nothing has happened since Davies left the show in 2008. And you know what? It kills.

Loosely based on “Doctor Who and The Star Beast,” a comics serial by Pat Mills and Watchmen co-creator Dave Gibbons, the new special pulls triple duty: delivering a snappy, classic Doctor Who adventure, introducing an overarching mystery that will tie “The Star Beast” to two more specials coming in following weeks, and briefly introducing the Doctor to newcomers. It excels at its first two tasks, and stumbles pretty extravagantly at the third. Luckily, there’s so much charm here that “The Star Beast” never feels anything other than delightful, even at its clumsiest.

That charm is essential, because Davies’ first Doctor Who episode in 15 years is lampshading what, in most circumstances, would read as desperation. The mystery at the center of “The Star Beast” and the specials that follow is why — and how — did The Thirteenth Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) regenerate back into the same body she had as the Tenth Doctor (fan-favorite David Tennant). For a show built around a time-traveling humanoid alien who never dies but instead “regenerates” into a new body with a new personality so the show can explain away recasting its lead, “continuity” has always been more a suggestion than a rule. But Davies bringing back Tennant as the newly-christened Fourteenth Doctor and also Catherine Tate as beloved companion Donna Noble is extravagantly cheeky, even for this show.

Donna and Rose stand in front of their shed looking at The Meep, a large weird Furby lookin alien from the Doctor Who special The Star Beast Image: Disney Plus

What reunites them is the eponymous Star Beast, a giant Furby-lookin’ guy called The Meep, who crashes on Earth and befriends Donna’s daughter, Rose. The Meep is being hunted by insectoid soldiers who look like Power Rangers villains, catching Donna and her family in the crossfire and bringing The Doctor back into their lives again.

It’s all very silly, and an astonishing display from two actors who do not seem to have missed a beat since they last played these roles in 2008. Even with its messy exposition and open, lavish courtship of fans that grew to love the show during the first Davies era, “The Star Beast” is a good reminder that Donna and The Tenth Doctor were popular for a very good reason. Doctor Who has never had the biggest budget or the slickest sensibilities; it was and remains a childrens’ show that fans happily carried into adulthood. The most beloved of Doctors — Tom Baker, Matt Smith, David Tennant, and a few wild card picks — made this text, imbuing the character with a childlike whimsy, playing a very old man who never stopped believing there was magic to be found in the universe.

David Tennant is still remarkably good at this, and “The Star Beast” makes as good a case for The Doctor as any. He’s endlessly curious, always a little odd, and trusts that kindness and intelligence will win the day over violent antagonists. Tennant’s Doctor is not afraid to treat every square inch of ground as a stage from which he will play to the back of the room. There is no line too silly for him to bellow with conviction. There is no creature too strange for him to care about.

The Doctor and Donna in the 60th Anniversary Doctor Who specials Image: Disney Plus

“The Star Beast” takes a little bit longer to recapture what makes Donna Noble such a great presence, but when she finally gets going, Catherine Tate is a force of nature: Never that impressed with The Doctor, happy to argue with him even with armageddon on the line, and fully capable of steamrolling anyone who looks askance at her or her loved ones.

It is hard not to love these two characters, to not want to travel all of time and space with them again. In a way we have, from 2008 to 2023, in a transition so seamless it’s shocking. Perhaps this shouldn’t be such a surprise. When Doctor Who is at its best, it’s like The Doctor has always been there: an old imaginary friend that still charms you as an adult. The earnest wonder and curiosity the character represents never really gets old. This is why the show endures: You don’t need a season of Doctor Who to be won over, you just need a moment. Those moments can come at any time, during runs both maligned and excellent. The Tenth Doctor and Donna Noble were incredibly good at making those moments in their time together. Here’s to a few more, before it’s someone else’s turn.

The Doctor Who 60th Anniversary specials are on Disney Plus, with the first now streaming and two more premiering weekly. Previous seasons of Doctor Who are available to stream on Max.