Doctor Who: The Star Beast Novelization written by Gary Russell, Audiobook read by Jacqueline King. From an original comic strip written by Pat Mills and John Wagner, and drawn by Dave Gibbons (BBC Books)

The Star Beast, as most Doctor Who fans know by now, was the first of three 60th anniversary special episodes in 2023, bringing David Tennant back from the dead, no longer the Tenth Doctor, but the Fourteenth – a face from the past with a purpose for the future.

As most Who-fans also know, The Star Beast has a much longer history than 2023. It began life in 1980, in the still-embryonic Doctor Who Weekly magazine, as only the fourth comic-strip in the magazine’s now-600-issue life.

It originally starred the Fourth Doctor, K9, and no other TV companion. It’s since been recreated in audio by Big Finish, simply for the joy and the completeness of the story, and in 2023, it was one of the key nostalgic elements of the 60th anniversary, looking back to an exciting time in the show’s history (the early days of the magazine, the late days of Tom Baker’s iconic portrayal of the character), while getting a 21st century update for a brand new yet familiar Doctor, drawn to deal with unfinished business.

Translating To TV

The TV version by Russell T Davies took the basic premise of the comic-book – small, adorable alien lost on Earth and hunted by scary warriors (Not for nothing, the original Star Beast pre-dated the release of ET: The Extra-Terrestrial), and merged it with the re-uniting of the Doctor (with the face of David Tennant) and Donna Noble, who famously, if she remembers him, will die.

It offers a neat front-and-centre storytelling premise that also gives us the chance to catch up with the Temple-Nobles fifteen years on from the last time we saw them (Yes, really, you’re old), turn Donna into a very 21st century Momma Bear about her daughter, give UNIT a new revamp, including a new chief scientific advisor in Shirley Anne Bingham, and finally restore Donna her memories of the universe and the Doctor, putting right a pain that was still tender in the hearts of any of her fans.

What You Pay For

So what do you get from the novelization, and the audiobook of that novelization?

Well, you get what you pay for. Gary Russell delivers the story straight down the lens for the most part, meaning what you saw on-screen is what you get in the book. There are occasional little snippets of extra character detail which give the book a sprinkle of freshness, but if, say, you were approaching the novelization with the hope of learning a whole lot more about the Meeps and their history, or even some additional history of Rose Noble, you’re looking in the wrong place. Perhaps a new comic-strip in the still-flourishing magazine, by the original writers, would be an idea that allowed for that, but here, Russell mostly sticks to the script.

You do get a bit more detail on the creation of the story’s Wrarth Warriors, and they’re folded neatly into the show’s existing mythos *Cough, cough* Shadow Proclamation, Judoon, etc.

But probably the biggest addition in the novelization is nothing to do with the ostensible front-and-centre alien threat. Quite fittingly, the biggest addition, the one that shifts your understanding of the story round by ninety degrees and makes it click into place like a jigsaw piece, is within the Noble-Temple family – because we get quite a lot from Sylvia Noble’s perspective.

The Pain Of Sylvia

While fifteen years ago, Sylvia Noble, Donna’s mother, was never the most sympathetic character, constantly nagging at and belittling her daughter, towards the end of their time on screen, her own motherly instincts came roaring to the fore, with words of how wonderful Donna was, because she was her daughter. The Doctor couldn’t resist spitting back that it wouldn’t do any harm to tell Donna that from time to time.

And then, bar a little jiggery-pokery with a lottery ticket, the Doctor disappeared from all their lives, ostensibly forever.

In the novelization, far more than there was space or breath for in the TV version, Russell gives us the impact of that shift in sensibility, as well as the weight of the burden of keeping Donna away from all talk or imagery of alien weirdness. It’s a thing that’s sensitively done, and while allowing Sylvia, like Jackie Tyler and Francine Jones before her, to occupy the role of the person who can bring down the Doctor’s high-handed alien portentousness, it also gives us a strong picture of the cost of his involvement in the life of the Temple-Noble-Motts.

On screen in The Star Beast, Sylvia was used quite a lot for comedy – twittering about people and things to keep Donna from thinking too hard, manically asserting that things weren’t real even when they came into the living room, and not for nothing, positively decking the Doctor the moment she laid eyes on him.

In the novelization, there’s breath enough to put all that into context, and the price that Sylvia herself has been forced to pay for fifteen years is made explicit – knowing things and having to deny them, forcing her daughter into an ignorance she doesn’t deserve, simply to keep her safe from the consequences of knowledge.

Imagine doing that to your child for fifteen years, and the caustic damage it would do you in the sleepless, empty quiet of the night.

A Kingly Performance

That’s at least one of the reasons why it makes a glorious amount of sense for Sylvia Noble actress Jacqueline King to read the audiobook version of the novelization.

While she delivers all the rest of the cast with aplomb – which is particularly noteworthy when it comes to the likes of Shirley Anne Bingham, UNIT’s new scientific advisor, and indeed for both Donna and the Meep – it’s when King takes us quietly into the mind and the struggle and the real-term suffering of Sylvia Noble that the novelization and the audiobook most come alive, with compassion and with pain and with tears never shown.

The novelization and the audiobook of The Star Beast will leave you with the overarching sensation of having experienced the story you saw on-screen. But actually, what you’ll experience is a subtly expanded, slightly more rounded and slightly more grounded version of what you saw on-screen.

All the thrills and spills and ferrets from Mars are here. But in not having so strong a demographic bell to ring – in not having to convince Doctor Who fans that the show was firmly back in an RTD era, with Tennant, Tate and King – there’s room here to give a slightly more heartfelt take on the story, which is worth experiencing alongside the knockabout fun-fest of the on-screen Star Beast any day.  Tony Fyler

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