In just a few short days, Doctor Who will conclude its trio of 60th anniversary specials in a flurry of spectacle—a climatic battle, the death of its familiarly faced current hero, and their regeneration into a new era starting just a few weeks later. For the most part, it’s celebrated this event without the typical trappings of past milestones, and replaced them with what has turned out to be a pretty radical concept: what if Doctor Who celebrated sticking around for 60 years by just being the best version of itself it can?
It might be on a string of technicalities, but what we’ve had so far in “The Star Beast” and “Wild Blue Yonder,” and can expect to see in “The Giggle” this weekend does kind of play with these usual expectations of a Doctor Who anniversary narrative. It does have a past Doctor, of a sort, in David Tennant’s return, but he’s explicitly a different incarnation to his former one, and week by week has steadily proven just how interesting he can be in that sort of role instead of one of simple reprisal. It does have familiar foes, but they’re not legends like the Daleks or Cybermen, or even old anniversary threats like Omega: they’re deep cut pullbacks from across Doctor Who history like the Meep from classic comics, and the Toymaker from William Hartnell’s era, re-imagined and evolved for the modern age.
It does have past companions in the return of Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble, but it’s crucially told a story with her that is about reckoning with the past she’d had and lost since last seeing the Doctor, rather than leaning on a literal return to that moment in time with her. And, if a few sneaky trailer shots are to be believed, we could get a classic companion return this weekend ahead of a more prominent comeback in the form of Bonnie Langford’s Mel Bush—although if you had your own TARDIS and went back in time a couple years ago and asked most Doctor Who fans, “Mel Bush is back!” would unfortunately not be high on their wishlist for the 60th.
Suffice to say, this has all led to some corners of fandom believing that Doctor Who isn’t doing its 60th anniversary “properly.” That it’s not special enough, not doing enough to warrant the wild, speculatory hopes and dreams of its fans when presented with secrecy. That there are ways these things should be done, and that in not doing them, Doctor Who isn’t rising to the occasion somehow. And yet, at least so far, Doctor Who is rising to the occasion in a way that actually matters to the show: right now, at least, Doctor Who is better than it has been in years.
“The Star Beast” and “Wild Blue Yonder,” on some level, could just find themselves slotted into a typical season of Doctor Who, instead of being treated as standalone special episodes. But that doesn’t suddenly stop them from being great episodes of Doctor Who, ones that push their stars and their characters in interesting ways, ones that encapsulate the variety of tones and ideas the series can tackle, and shine in, week-to-week. In any run of episodes they’d be high points of a season, held up as the show at its strongest: funny, weird, scary, emotional, fresh. Why does that change if they’re broadcast for an anniversary instead? Why is that diminished because they don’t feature the “right” kinds of nostalgia? That’s not to say past anniversary specials that have leaned into that nostalgia are, by default, bad for doing so. “The Day of the Doctor” is a prime example, perhaps the best of Doctor Who’s past anniversary celebrations, because it both plays with the tropes of things like a multi-Doctor story, and classic villains, while also engaging in exploring its hero and pushing their story in new directions as a vision for the future. But those hallmarks are not inherent to being good Doctor Who, and right now, what we’re getting is really good Doctor Who. Pretty bloody incredible, even.
And we’re getting that quality in front of a broader spectrum of people than have engaged with Doctor Who in years. The way we watch television has changed radically in Doctor Who’s revived era, so while direct comparisons require more context than simply looking at the numbers, it’s important that Doctor Who is putting such a good foot forward to an audience that is bigger, and more willing to engage with it, than has been for a while now. “The Star Beast” drew the highest ratings the series has had in five years, and while figures for “Wild Blue Yonder” aren’t final yet, they’re tracking in a similar direction. Beyond raw viewers, those audiences are likewise more pleased with the show than they have been in another similar span of time, with Audience Appreciation Indices for both episodes matching scores Doctor Who hasn’t seen since 2017. That’s just at home in the UK; internationally with its presence on Disney+, Who has likewise found great success on a much bigger platform than it’s had around the world, arguably in this century.
This could all fall flat on its face this weekend, should “The Giggle” deliver a damp end to the proceedings, of course. In fact, one could argue, it would perhaps be the most Doctor Who thing imaginable to vacillate between being really great, and a little bit shit. That’s just storytelling, and Doctor Who has been around the block long enough to be more than intimately familiar with having dizzying highs and spectacular lows. But for the first time in a very long time, it honestly feels relatively difficult to imagine that happening. There is an excitement in the air, a confidence, in both fans and the show itself, that the series is back onto something special right now, and it hasn’t done than on the promise of cameos or nostalgic throwbacks. A hope that there is potential for the series to be its best self, and to be so in front of an eager, growing audience again.
That fuels Doctor Who’s future, more than it does reflects on the interiority of its past. And a future that looks bright as it does right now is a far more worthy celebration of 60 years of Doctor Who than any rumination on where it’s been could ever be.
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