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Media Essays: The Doctor Who 60th Anniversary Specials Retrospective (ft. The Wandering Fox)

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This year has been full of so many big anniversaries, hasn't it? Disney and Warner Bros. turned 100 this year, The Flying Scotsman (a famous British steam train) also turned 100, Jurassic Park turned 30, Frozen has turned 10, The Dark Knight, Kung Fu Panda and WALL.E all turned 15, there's just so many pop-culture anniversaries this year and most of them really big ones!

And this post is all about another big one. This post is about the 60th anniversary of Doctor Who.

First released on November the 23rd 1963, Doctor Who remains one of the biggest pop-culture franchises to come out of the UK with dedicated fans worldwide following the Doctor's many adventures even to this day. It's the longest running sci-fi series currently made and has had many showrunners in charge of the show throughout its long history. Some are well-remembered, some are...not so well remembered. But the show continues to go strong and maintain a dedicated following with several conventions held in its honour and many Doctor Who actors being frequent guest stars at comic cons such as those in Nottingham or London. I myself have even meet some of them at conventions including Doctors 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 and I also got to meet David Bradley, whom is one of the actors filling in for the late William Hartnell as the First Doctor.

And now here we are celebrating its 60th anniversary with the return of David Tennant as the 14th Doctor and Russell T. Davies as the showrunner. The previous era run by Chris Chibnall was a massive mixed bag with some great highs and embarrassing lows so Russell's return was met with open arms from the fandom and many such as myself feel he's the man who can bring the show back to its former glory. Did he succeed? Let's find out. In the spirit of Doctor Who's 60th anniversary and also Christmas since the show's so synonymous with the holiday these days, let's dive into them.

For this essay, I'll be approaching it more as a retrospective than a review so it doesn't end up being too long. I'll cover each special and summarize them while saying what I liked and didn't like about them. But I'm not doing this alone. Like the Doctor, I need a companion to help me through this one. And who better than one of Doctor Who's biggest fans? Let's welcome The Wandering Fox once again to join in with this retrospective!

Wandering Fox: Glad to be here my mate. Before we begin I just want to say I have been a big fan of Doctor Who since 2005, I was introduced to a whole new franchise which caught me and I did my own trip through time in collecting Classic Who and audios. Doctors 8 and 10 are my faves.

For me, I do think the Chibnall era had some decent ideas and I liked "Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror" but it was just the execution of how those ideas were handled and I wish Jodie Whittaker and Jo Martin had better stories as the Doctor but they did their utter best.

With RTD coming back my hopes were raised as well and I was curious at how they were going to reveal how David Tennant’s incarnation came back as the 14th and introduce Ncuti Gatwa as the brand new Doctor.

The 60th anniversary had a multi media celebration from Big Finish’s Once and Future series, Tales of the TARDIS reunited classic Doctors and companions, Davros appearing in Children in Need, the first Dalek story re-released in colour, and we had Doom’s Day which less said about it the better.

The main course is the trilogy of The Star Beast, Wild Blue Yonder and The Giggle. So does RTD still have it in him to tell Doctor Who stories? Let’s see...

The Star Beast

The Star Beast

Media Man: The Star Beast is the first of the three specials and interestingly enough isn't an original story. It's actually based on a comic strip written by Pat Mills and Dave Gibbons for Doctor Who Magazine in 1980. Now I haven't read the comic so I'll be talking about the episode on its own rather than as an adaptation.

The plot for this one sees Doctor 14, played again by David Tennant, arriving back on Earth after regenerating at the end of "The Power of the Doctor". While there he meets his old friend Donna Noble (played by Catherine Tate) and gets into a confrontation between the Wrath Warriors and a cutesy looking alien known as The Meep (voiced by Miriam Margolyes). However the Meep may not be as innocent as it looks and the Doctor may have to risk Donna's life if it means saving the Earth once more...

This special is...not good I'm sorry to say. It certainly wasn't a great first impression but first, let's talk about what was good about it.

David and Catherine return and it's like they've never left their roles. Their performances are on point and the Doctor and Donna feel like their old selves from back in 2008. Their dynamic is as fun as ever and I like how we get some updates on Donna's life since they last met with how she's still with her husband, she has a daughter named Rose (played by Yasmin Finney) and how despite winning the lottery, her finanical status hasn't improved any because she gave it all away, later revealed to be a subconcious act of compassion for others from the DoctorDonna side of her. I wish we could've gotten more scenes like that but it's still good that Russell devoted any time at all to it as overlooking it would've been annoying.

Wandering Fox: Yeah, I like as well how David is adding some small differences to this Doctor than the Tenth by making him a little more calmer and more openly emotional, giving us some continuity of him having lived as 11, 12, and 13.

I liked Sylvia here as she’s matured since we last saw her with her being a bit more of a ignorant cow of Donna’s feelings and has become a more mature thoughtful person who is trying her best for her daughter and granddaughter, the latter of whom is trans and we see Sylvia trying her best.

We meet a new character in Shirley Anne Bingham, a UNIT scientist who’s disabled and the Doctor is quite trusting with her. Has a few good moments as well with her having a top tech wheelchair. My only complaint with Shirley is she didn’t call her fellow UNIT colleagues about the ones who have been brainwashed but it’s not a big enough thing for me to be angry about.

Beep the Meep is brought to life well from the comics thanks to a combo of practical effects, special effects and voice acting from Myriam. We have this innocent looking creature, who seems sweet and friendly until it’s true colours are revealed.

I think that’s in which most of the good stuff ends at.

I found this episode way too quick. It should’ve slowed down and had more focus on the Doctor trying to find out why he has the Tenth Doctor’s face again, not have him reunite with Donna straight away. Rose felt more like a plot device than a character as she has to be the one to find Beep the Meep, bring it home and save the Doctor and Donna later. Yeah we have Rose being a creative in crafts but I wanted more of her. I also am confused about what the climax implied, is Rose non binary now or not? Is she non binary because of the metacrises? If it’s the latter I’m annoyed because why can’t Rose just be an ordinary non binary person instead of just having this tied to aliens?

I didn’t like the Wraith Warriors in the story as they fight UNIT in the road, two of them are killed in a car park, yet they all fade from the inside until Beep is defeated. 

I think we can agree though Donna’s memories returning was one of the most weakest moments of the episode.

Media Man: Indeed-y. That suffered the most from the episode's bad pacing in my eyes. Donna's memories returning was a pretty neat moment and it was great to see the DoctorDonna again but the resolution was pretty ridiculous. OK so some of the Metacrisis energy passed down to Rose? That makes sense. But then Donna and Rose are able to just "Let it go" in the end? THAT was what made it ridiculous to me. Why was that necessary? All it does is make "Journey's End" feel stupid in hindsight cause now we're forever asking "Why didn't the Doctor think to just do that back then?" What they should've done is made it so the Metacrisis energy passing down to Rose means its possible to live with it now and the two can live as they are with no ill-effects. That would've been just fine as the conclusion to the DoctorDonna plot.

Oh and it would've meant we could've left out that cringeworthy line about the situation being "something a male presenting Time Lord wouldn't understand". Come on Russell, the anti-woke crowd has ruined Doctor Who's reputation enough already by complaining over nothing, don't give them more stuff to complain about so they can keep ruining the show for the fans who just want to enjoy it.

So overall, this was a poor return to the show for Russell and not a great start for the specials. The pacing is too fast, Rose is underwritten and doesn't feel like a character, the Wraith Warriors are an afterthought, the twist with the Meep being evil was obvious even to someone who's never read the comic and the resolution to the Metacrisis problem was ridiculous. It is saved from being terrible thanks to David and Catherine's fantastic acting, the incredible cinematography and effects, the gorgeous new TARDIS set and the nice feeling of nostalgia that comes from seeing the return of some of these characters and plot points. But it really could've been so much better.

If this special had been just about the Doctor and the Meep with no return from Donna, it would've been a more solid episode or if it had just been about the Doctor and Donna without adapting The Star Beast at all, it would've been better focused. Trying to be both was ultimately its own undoing and weirdly enough, gave us an episode that feels more like it was written by Chris Chibnall than Russell T. Davies. I mean it has Chibnall's trademark writing flaws: rushed pacing, overcrowded cast, lack of focus and underwritten characters. This episode could've been part of the Chibnall era and it would've fit in perfectly, and I don't mean that as a compliment.

That's it for this one. Let's move onto Number 2...

Wild Blue Yonder

Wild Blue Yonder

Now THIS is an interesting one. ;)

Wandering Fox: Going into this, they really hyped this one up and director Tom Kingsley realised what everyone was thinking and he went out on Twitter to try and soften the blow of this episode. He and RTD should’ve been honest from the start there wouldn’t be any other returning Doctors and should’ve mentioned that.

Now, this one is better written and gives us a concept which the audios have delved into now and then, this being a self contained story with cosmic horror thrown in. Following a pointless cameo from Sir Isaac Newton just to make up “Mavity” the Doctor and Donna arrive on an empty spaceship at the edge of the universe. The TARDIS was going bonkers after Donna spilt coffee on it and leaves the Doctor and Donna once the HADS makes it leave. With no enemy around, no screwdriver and no way back to the TARDIS, the Doctor and Donna have to resolve the mystery so the TARDIS can come back.

Media Man: The set-up here is absolutely fantastic. This maybe a typical "base-under-seige" story as Doctor Who is very famous for but the set-up manages to make this old archetype of Doctor Who plots feel new again. I mean when's the last time we had a story where the threat was so great the TARDIS LITERALLY RUNS AWAY? When the TARDIS basically goes "Screw this, I'm out of here!", that must mean the threat level is serious and that only adds more intrigue going into this story. I know I was hooked to learn what was going on with such a set-up like this.

Now unlike the previous episode, this one feels more like a RTD script with a more clear focus, a smaller cast, some creepy and slow build-up to the threat at hand and a focus on character development. We get a lot of scenes of the Doctor and Donna just talking together and opening up to one another about their struggles, which always makes for intriguing character studies. I especially love how RTD doesn't pretend the Chibnall era didn't happen and sweeps it under the rug. No, he has the Doctor acknowledge the Flux event and how even now it's still eating away at him and how the whole Timeless Child twist is still weighing heavy on him with his whole life feeling more complicated than before. This is what a good writer should do, build story on what came before and not pretend everything before didn't happen. If only comic book writers could learn that lesson... =P

I also can't help but feel that this episode sort of feels like a spiritual successor to "Midnight" from Series 4. I mean the villain's true form is never seen, it copies the hero, the setting is a single location out in space and there's a feeling of paranoia throughout the episode. Concidence? Maybe so but who knows if RTD intended it or not.

Wandering Fox: Well the TARDIS has ran away in The Krotons, Cold War, The Magician’s Apprentice so it hasn’t ran away since 2015. XD 

For many Doctor Who fans it reminds them of the Eighth Doctor audio Scherzo, which involves anti-time. I haven’t listened to the audio so I can’t comment, but I can compare it to the 40th anniversary Zagreus in which the Doctor is infected by Anti-Time to the point his three previous incarnations become different people.

This episode does well at foreshadowing how the series will change as with the Doctor introducing superstition at the edge of the universe only allows elements like Goblins to start existing in the universe. The idea of this being a sequel to Flux helps as well as the universe is now much smaller and more odd creatures might start coming inside.

For the special effects of this story, I’m a little 50/50. On one hand the No Things are so strange and odd that the cgi on them is meant to look a bit campy as they try to gain proper form in our universe. On the other hand you can tell the ship is CGI and I wish they just built a set instead of having that Disney money go to a jarring CGI corridor.

I do think it could’ve ended better, as the Doctor could have told Donna a bit more of what happened since he last met like:

“Back once I regenerated, the first time, I faced so many different things. The Time Lords, I sent them back to die, I lost my temper with Wilfred. Then I found out River was the daughter of a couple of my companions. They died and then I found out I didn’t kill the Time Lords, then I gone a bit crazy from billions of years in a confession dial to save my other friend. Then I tried to help the Master and all that got was Bill being converted and Galifrey destroyed. That led me all to the Timeless Child. I sometimes wonder if I’m wasting time and not focusing on the smaller things.”

The episode does end with Wilfred returning at the end with Bernard Cribbins last ever scene in Doctor Who. The man who worked with Cushing, McGann and Tennant made one final appearance. I wish the Doctor apologised to him, but he did give him a hug once he saw him again after all these centuries.

Media Man: Seeing Wilf return for that one last scene certainly hit hard given Bernard passed away last year so his return here felt very bittersweet. It's a pity they couldn't do more with him but sadly, death doesn't wait for anyone. I just appreciate he got to at least have that scene before he died.

Anyway, this episode gave us the No-Things which are quite possibly the creepiest villains we've had in Doctor Who in years. They can copy what they're looking at and the more they watch you, the more they start to adapt and it's to the point where even THINKING gives them power. It shows how dangerous they are and the fact we don't even know their true appearance only makes them even creepier. It's no wonder the captain of the ship had to set the ship to explode very, very slowly in order to defeat them in the end... Also as many reviews have noted, they seem to be a rather creepy allegory for A.I. given they try to copy what they see and have a problem with hands. Considering how A.I. was a pretty hot-button topic throughout this year and a huge reason behind the SAG-AFTRA strikes, I doubt this was a coincidence. I'm sure Russell intended that.

It also leads to one hell of an intense climax where the Doctor gets Donna onboard the TARDIS...only it's not Donna. He got the No-Thing Donna instead and thus we get a proper heart-stopping moment where Donna is literal SECONDS away from being incinerated by the ship exploding! I genuinely got worried for her and thought "Holy crap, is she gonna die?!" at that part! It's been ages since a Doctor Who episode has gotten me this much on the edge of my seat and it was awesome!

Overall, Wild Blue Yonder was a huge step in the right direction. With a slower pace and a more focused story combined with a creepy threat and an interesting character study, we got ourselves a really good special that is easily Doctor Who's best episode we've had since the 2005-2009 era ended. I will say it has no business being a special though as it feels like a standard episode of the series but it's still very good overall.

Wandering Fox: I think we can summarise the 60th as a whole like this with what we’re about to go through in The Giggle.

The Giggle

The Giggle

Following the end of Wild Blue Yonder, just almost every human across the Earth has been fighting each other, thinking their opinion is right. With the Doctor and Donna brought to UNIT, they have to uncover how this has happened and will the Doctor survive or is it another goodbye to David Tennant as the character?

Media Man: This one had a lot of hype going into it as well. Not only was it the last of the specials but it was also the one that was going to introduce the brand new Doctor played by Ncuti Gatwa and it was also going to be the story that saw the return of The Toymaker (played by Neil Patrick Harris). For context, The Toymaker first appeared in the William Hartnell era where he was played by the late Michael Gough. The character has left an impact on fans and he's often hailed as among the greatest one-shot villains in Doctor Who. So naturally his return got many fans excited.

The Star Beast was bad while Wild Blue Yonder was good. How does The Giggle fair up? It's squarely in the middle for me. It's better than The Star Beast but not as good as Wild Blue Yonder.

First, the good stuff. David and Catherine continue to nail it with their roles here but the absolutely show-stealers here are Neil Patrick Harris as the Toymaker and Ncuti Gatwa as the 15th Doctor. The Toymaker is a theatrical, over-the-top, Joker-eqsue villain with an affinity for games and a sadistic sense of humour. He's an aboslute riot onscreen thanks to Neil's scenery-devouring performance, flashy dress sense and how he always acts like he's performing for an audience. And yet he carries an air of menace to him too where he's so scary The Doctor actually tells Donna to go back to the TARDIS, something she notes she's NEVER told him before. As a reminder, the Doctor never actually beat the Toymaker for good. All he could do was win his game and then leave and it was quite an ordeal for him so no wonder he's so afraid of this guy. Russell brought him back in a big way and I'm glad we had a chance to see the Toymaker again.

Wandering Fox: Yeah, I can say the Toymaker was well hyped for being the big baddie, and many fans were left wondering if he was responsible for the Doctor’s face being David Tennant’s again and if they were going to reveal the Doctor and the Toymaker were the same species, given in the Hartnell era Hartnell almost left in the story with the Toymaker making him transform his face and the original ideas in the 60s we’re going to reveal the Doctor and the Toymaker were the same species.

The Toymaker turning UNIT soldiers into balloons is something I think we can all agree was dark, and turning their bullets into roses just shows he’s near undefeatable.

I think they could’ve done more with him as I think while he was good, I think the craziness of the Toymaker’s magic could’ve been better handled in his realm, like we get David Tennant’s head on a doll and some creepy dolls coming after Donna, and a giant Toymaker but that’s it. We don’t get anything which says “Whoa, this guy can do almost anything”. I mean, the Toymaker did say “I can have a whole horde of Doctors to play with”. Well….why not bring back 8 and 11? Bring back Susan and Amy? I mean, it’s the 60th, you’ve got a villain who can do all kinds of crazy stuff with his magic, bring back these characters fans love.

Ncuti won me over in a few seconds as the Doctor. He has this feeling of calm, certainty and compassion to him which helps him stand out against the more tired and frustrated David Doctor, as well as having this energetic delight to him you can’t help but smile at him for.

I think the Toymaker’s plan did end up fading away in the background a bit, Kate shouldn’t be affected by the Giggle because she travelled in the TARDIS, and the Toymaker’s defeat was just utterly dumb. He’s defeated through a game of catch? You mean he defeated the Master, the Guardians and others yet he lost to a game of catch? Ugh.

Now, here’s where it gets confusing. David Tennant is still the Doctor by the end but Ncuti Gatwa is the Doctor as well. The dialogue implies Ncuti’s Doctor comes from the future and was dragged backwards in time to the Giggle, and summoned his TARDIS from the future. Okay, fair, they could’ve been clearer with it, but I can’t help but feel annoyed Tennant is still here as the Doctor and has a happy ending, kinda stealing Gatwa’s thunder, and it makes me feel as if RTD doesn’t want David to leave, and the BBC and Disney wanted to keep him around to have a spin off.

This episode just felt too quick like The Star Beast, Mel’s reintroduction to the series after Jodie’s finale, the Master returning as a gold tooth is just daft, the Moffat era is just talked about through a puppet show, and the whole bi-generation is not well explained. I liked Harris and Gatwa, but this just didn’t feel like it was doing hard enough for a return to the series.

Media Man: Quite so. I was left wondering "Why is Mel even in this story?" You could cut her out and nothing would change. And I also have to agree that the bi-generation thing felt out-of-left-field and was really unnecessary in the end. Just let David turn into Ncuti, don't split them in two. Although I do think it's kinda funny how when they split in two, they have pieces of each other's outfit like David having the trousers but Ncuti has the shoes and so forth. That was a fun little costume detail.

As is, this thing does at least ATTEMPT to be an anniversary special while the previous two felt like standard episodes of Doctor Who but it still falls flat due to how we have a returning companion who has no business being here, callbacks that are just callbacks and don't mean anything for the story and we don't even get any previous Doctors making an appearance. Hell, we don't even get a Dalek cameo! What anniversary special DOESN'T give the Daleks a cameo? Even the 50th anniversary bothered to do so and that thing barely feels like an anniversary special too! The only way it succeeded at being an anniversary special is the fact the Toymaker is the villain here but that's about it. It says a lot when Chibnall did a better job on crafting an anniversary special with last year's "The Power of the Doctor", and that was to celebrate the BBC's 100th anniversary, not Doctor Who's anniversary! They may as well have just saved "The Power of the Doctor" for this year and passed it off as the anniversary special and made these three episodes the opener to the next series!

As is, I personally enjoyed The Giggle in spite of its flaws and found a fun time overall. Neil and Ncuti were total show stealers, the Toymaker's return was fantastic, David's Doctor gets a much happier ending this time around, the visuals are incredible, there was clearly a lot of effort put into it in spite of its short-comings and I feel it gave us a good first impression for our new Doctor. Already I can't wait to see more of Ncuti Gatwa's Doctor. He's gonna be so fun. :D


So overall, the specials are a mixed bag. Wandering Fox, you can sum up first before I give my final thoughts. ^^

Wandering Fox: I’ll just note, the Daleks weren’t in The "Three Doctors" or "Zagreus", so you can do an anniversary story without the Daleks.

For me, I was kinda disappointed by the 60th. It came as if RTD just wanted to celebrate his era of Doctor Who but tossed in some classics like Beep, Toymaker and Mel and keep David Tennant around. He kinda realised this and went on to make Tales of the TARDIS, but it doesn’t change how this doesn’t feel like a 60 year celebration, we have no Susan, no other Doctors other than 14 and 15. Some will argue we just had "The Power of the Doctor" and we shouldn’t have multi Doctors every anniversary. To this I say:

We had three Dalek finales under RTD, and four Cyberman and Master team up finales under Moffat and Chibnall. Yes, we had Twice Upon a Time and Fugitive of the Judoon and The Power of the Doctor, but for a anniversary to celebrate SIXTY YEARS you should follow the tradition of bringing back those who had the hard job of lifting the show.

I did like seeing David and Catherine back as the Doctor and Donna, Bernard had one final scene I liked, and Toymaker and Beep were entertaining and I am looking forward to Ncuti Gatwa, but to me if RTD wants to truly move on, let David Tennant go.

Media Man: Can't disagree on that. After all we can't hold onto David forever. He's not getting any younger after all.

For me, they're fine as stand alone Doctor Who episodes but as anniversary specials, they're rather underwhelming and don't feel like anniversary specials. If they were just used as a three-part opener for the next series instead of being advertised as anniversary specials then they would've been better used here and wouldn't have felt like false advertising.

Still, I think they were decent enough for what they were but they definitely could've been better. I'll still take these over any season of the Moffat era anyday.

Overall, I'd say Wild Blue Yonder is unquestionably the best one with The Giggle in second and The Star Beast in last. How about you Wandering Fox? You agree or you have your own rating? ^^

Wandering Fox: I’m the same as you.

Well, I just hope the next series is good and we have Ncuti written well as the Doctor and have the bestest of trips in the show with him :)

Media Man: Oh indeed. I'm so excited to see what this new era will bring for us. We'll soon see as the show returns again with "The Church on Ruby Road" which is due to air on Christmas Day so we'll be there to open this new Christmas present.

Until then, I say if you're a Doctor Who Christmas, I recommend checking these specials out at least once. Maybe you'll enjoy them, maybe you won't, I say they're worth a watch. Not the finest episodes ever (except for Wild Blue Yonder, that one IS one of the finest) and definitely not the best anniversary specials ever, but they're pretty decent enough for what they were. Here's hoping what comes next will be even better...

And that's our retrospective of the Doctor Who 60th anniversary specials. We hope enjoyed reading this essay and I invite you to share your comments down below. Do you like the specials? Do you not like them? Feel free to let us know.

As usual, big thanks goes to my friend the Wandering Fox for joining me for this post. It's always a pleasure from one Doctor Who fan to another to talk about it with you mate. ^^

Wandering Fox: It’s always a treat to talk about Doctor Who. Thank you for having me here :)

Media Man: Anytime pal. I hope we can talk about it again soon. ^^

Join me again tomorrow as I review Mickey's Once Upon A Christmas for the holiday season. See you then media fans!

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