After what had to be the most drawn-out farewell tour in Doctor Who history, David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor finally regenerated into Matt Smith in the 2010 special “The End Of Time,” but not before he had a chance to say goodbye to, or at least revisit, all of the significant companions and allies he’d known during his five-year tenure. No matter how much showrunner Russell T. Davies tried to wrap Tennant’s departure from the show (and his own) in a tidy bow, though, one major thread was left tragically unresolved—a thread that goes by the name Donna Noble.
The ending of Donna’s story has been one of the most common criticisms of the Davies era among fans, and time hasn’t done anything to diminish the outrage. Now that he’s back at the helm of Doctor Who once again, it seems as if Davies is setting out to rectify that mistake. And the first special, “The Star Beast,” which premiered on November 25, was a pretty good start.
Whether you’re a longtime Doctor Who fan or “The Star Beast” was your first-ever outing with the Doctor, you already know the raw deal Donna (portrayed by Catherine Tate) got in exchange for saving the entire universe in “Journey’s End.” After a Christmas special and an entire season as the Doctor’s companion, she was left with no memory of him or their adventures together. To save her life, the Doctor had to erase all the knowledge she gained during their time, returning her to the ordinary life she had before they met in “The Runaway Bride.”
“I was gonna be with you forever,” she tells him in her last few moments as the human-Time Lord metacrisis hybrid known as the DoctorDonna. “Rest of my life. Traveling in the TARDIS. The DoctorDonna. I can’t go back. Don’t make me go back. Doctor. Please. Please don’t make me go back.”
In the wake of this tragedy we got an indelible Doctor Who meme that’s still going around to this day: sad Ten in the rain. We’re meant to feel sorry for him, being all on his own again, but at least he knows what he’s lost. Poor Donna never got a choice. “That version of Donna is dead,” the Doctor tells her mother and granddad after dropping her off at home one last time. “Because if she remembers, just for a second, she’ll burn up. You can never tell her. You can’t mention me or any of it for the rest of her life.” Fans mourned along with the Doctor, and then turned their ire towards Davies for treating one of the most popular companions of the New Who era so shoddily.
Now, three Doctors, two showrunners and roughly 15 years later, Davies has returned to Doctor Who, and he’s brought both Tennant and Tate back with him. From a storytelling standpoint, he could have easily moved on with Tennant alone as the 14th Doctor or brought back any of his other companions for these three 60th anniversary specials, but he went with Donna Noble specifically. Why? For one thing, bringing her back provides a solid in-world explanation for the Doctor’s regeneration into a familiar old form. As we learned in “The Star Beast,” the Doctor has unfinished business with Donna, and so does Davies. Could it be that Davies actually listened to the fans and wanted to rewrite Donna’s fate? He hasn’t said so explicitly, but the episode strongly suggests that’s the case.
By the end of the first special, Donna is back to her old self, with her mind and memories intact, and trapped with the Doctor inside a malfunctioning TARDIS that could take them anywhere in time and space. The sense of nostalgia is inescapable, except for the fact that the new TARDIS set is gleaming white (or danger red), multi-leveled, and massive. That’s another way in which this era sets itself apart. The production isn’t restricted to making the most of a shoestring BBC budget anymore. Thanks to a co-production deal, it’s got Disney+ money to play with (although that may have come with some unfortunate strings, including shady residual shenanigans on the part of the studio).
It’s easy for fans to say the cheesiness was part of the old show’s charm, and that may still be true, but imagine what the show could be without budgetary restrictions. It’s a whole new world of proper special effects, bigger action scenes, more realistic creatures, and more elaborate production design. Instead of a tiny room with wobbly walls we have a gorgeous new and practical TARDIS, and that’s just the start.
Unfortunately, we won’t have long to enjoy this supercharged reunion between Donna and this version of the Doctor before he regenerates again into the 15th Doctor, played by Ncuti Gatwa. “The Star Beast” was the first of three specials airing on subsequent Saturdays. The next one, titled “Wild Blue Yonder,” premieres on November 30. The story and whatever surprises it holds have been kept tightly under wraps, leading to much fan speculation about other cast members who could also be making return appearances (fingers crossed for the return of John Simm as The Master). This mini arc will conclude on December 6 with “The Giggle,” guest starring Neil Patrick Harris as a villain called The Toymaker.
We’ll have to wait and see how the show deals with Donna’s departure this time, but hopefully Davies will take the opportunity to right the wrongs of the past and leave her in a better place than she was when the Doctor found her. He’ll be running the show for the foreseeable future, so maybe he’ll leave the door open for another return at some point. That’s the beauty of this wonderfully wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey show—there’s no wrong turn that can’t be righted.