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‘Doctor Who’ 60th-anniversary specials: David Tennant’s glorious return

The Tardis has landed. If you have been following along, you know that Jodie Whittaker‘s Thirteenth Doctor has morphed into David Tennant‘s Fourteenth Doctor, who was also the Tenth Doctor, a re-regeneration unheard of in the annals of the Time Lords. (Someone better informed than I might be aware of a precedent — anyway, it’s rare.) You can’t go home again, wrote Thomas Wolfe, but F. Scott Fitzgerald said you can repeat the past — of course you can.

Indeed, the past repeats gloriously in “Doctor Who: The Star Beast,” the first of three 60th-anniversary specials premiering Saturday that will end in a fourth, with the Christmas Day advent of Ncuti Gatwa as Doctor No. 15 in “The Church on Ruby Road.” (“Wild Blue Yonder” on Dec. 2 and “The Giggle” on Dec. 9 complete this anniversary series.) This is also the first episode of the beloved British franchise to appear under Disney+’s deal with the BBC to become its exclusive international home, outside of the U.K. and Ireland, but so far the House of Mouse seems to have interfered only to the extent of pouring a bucket of cash into a production that sometimes could look strapped for it.

David Tennant is back as The Doctor.

(Sally Mais / Bad Wolf / BBC Studios)

Running the show again is Russell T Davies, who in 2005 brought “Doctor Who” back to life after 16 years, during which time the character had survived in novels, comics, radio dramas and a single TV movie. Christopher Eccleston played the Doctor for the first revival season; but Tennant, who took over the role that Christmas and kept it until the dawn of 2010, was the gift the Doctor and Davies had been waiting for. And arguably — there will always be argument around “Doctor Who” — they were never better than when Catherine Tate, a hilarious comic actor with a talent for breaking your heart, joined them as the Doctor’s human traveling companion and very best mate Donna Noble. And she’s back as well. Exclamation point! Life could not be better. Let their fierce chemistry recommence.

Yes, yes, I hear you say, but didn’t the Doctor bury Donna’s memory in order to keep her head from exploding when she absorbed a lethal dose of Time Lord mojo? And if she remembers him now, won’t she die? Of course, this sort of science fiction can always rewrite the rules, as desired, or discover a new one. Canon is useful only insofar as it doesn’t get in the way of the story, and Davies’ sensibility is more attuned to poetry than plot, which is just a tool to make you feel big feelings. But you should be concerned for them. I mean, I was.

After a worrisome, cheap-looking, afterthought of a prologue, in which Tennant and Tate, speaking to the camera, fill in backstory for the benefit of Disney+ subscribers new to “Who,” we dive into the episode proper, which looks fantastic, begins fast and gets faster. No time is wasted bringing our main players onstage, to a busy London street. We are reminded that Donna, before she became an adventurer in time and space, had a habit of missing things, and she does here, as a spacecraft blazes across the sky and lands with a bang in the distance. And she feels that something is missing from her otherwise happy life, but she can’t say what it is.

The Doctor also will meet Donna’s daughter, the not arbitrarily named Rose (Yasmin Finney), and meet again Donna’s husband, Shaun Temple (Karl Collins), last seen at their wedding back in 2020. Ruth Madeley plays Shirley Anne Bingham, a droll science advisor from UNIT, which guards the world — well, London at least — from extraterrestrial and paranormal threats. (It hasn’t always succeeded.) The resident alien is the Meep (voiced by Miriam Margolyes), making its screen debut — the episode is based on a story from a comic in Doctor Who magazine — which presents first as something like Gizmo the Gremlin, and then as something more like a Gremlin after it’s been fed after midnight.

Donna Noble and Rose look at a white furry alien who is standing in a yard with a shack in the background.

Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), left, the Meep and Rose (Yasmin Finney) in “The Star Beast.”

(Alistair Heap/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios)

In his quantum way, the Doctor is always the same person but different — except here, where he is very much his old self again, only 13 years older. I have love, in different degrees, for all successive Doctors. (The Doctor, calling himself “the one in the skinny suit,” ticks off his subsequent regenerations: “After that I wear a bow tie, after that I’m a Scotsman, after that I’m a woman.”)

Similarly, each showrunner — including Steven Moffat and Chris Chibnall, who followed and now have been followed by Davies — brought something different to the show, while it always remained fundamentally “Doctor Who.” (Some fans would say otherwise.) But Davies is the architect of the 21st century series, which never seemed tired or strained under his watch, as it sometimes later could. His blend of comedy, tragedy, suspense, romance, terror and farce is quite exhilarating, and with Tennant and Tate, he has two players who have his music down. It’s going to be hard losing them again — I’m getting a little teary just thinking about it — but it’s already on the schedule, and come Christmas, there’ll be a new Doctor to sing this song.

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