What you need to know before watching the Disney+ Doctor Who specials

SAN DIEGO, CA - JULY 20: David Tennant speaks onstage during the "Call of Duty: WWII Nazi Zombies" Panel at San Diego Convention Center on July 20, 2017 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Activision)
SAN DIEGO, CA - JULY 20: David Tennant speaks onstage during the "Call of Duty: WWII Nazi Zombies" Panel at San Diego Convention Center on July 20, 2017 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Activision) /

It’s been over a year since Jodie Whitacker’s run as the Doctor ended in the Doctor Who episode “The Power of the Doctor.” Ever since, there have been increasingly confusing bits of information floated out to fans. Thankfully, many of the resulting questions are about to be cleared up, as the series returns on Nov. 25, 2023.

Officially speaking, the new run of Doctor Who is actually going to be a separate series, with showrunner Russell T. Davies announcing that new episodes will be considered a new ‘season one’. However, the Flux storyline brought various characters from Doctor Who history together, setting the stage for a more connected world moving forward.

This is perfect timing, as the series’s 60th anniversary is on Nov. 23. Like the 50th anniversary in 2013, there has been a lot of focus on honoring Doctor Who‘s best moments and characters, including the return of several familiar faces. Rather than the distinct eras Doctor Who used to follow, Davies is eager to introduce the “Whoniverse.”

All of that being said, audiences will want to have a decent background in all things Doctor Who before the new episodes drop. Here’s everything you need to know to fully appreciate the new Disney+ Doctor Who specials.

How are the anniversary specials structured?

There are three anniversary specials that will be released on consecutive weeks starting Nov. 25. Russell T. Davies told SFX that the specials are distinct stories, with each one becoming progressively darker than the one before it.

However, all promotional materials have grouped the specials together, suggesting that the three stories will have some level of connection. This connecting point will most likely be Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble, returning to screens for the first time in more than ten years. Further evidence of this is that Donna and Yasmin Finney’s Rose are wearing the same clothes in all released footage.

The major plot points shown in trailers include:

  • The return of Donna Noble
  • An epic fight against Neil Patrick Harris’s “Toymaker”
  • An invasion of Earth
  • A conflict between UNIT and the people of Earth.

The actual plot of each episode has been kept secret, but Russell T. Davies told The Telegraph how each would feel:

"[The Star Beast] is like a great big Pixar family film, like a bank holiday film – all the family watching, lots of laughs, a funny monster. The second one, Wild Blue Yonder, is darker. Not scary – it’s genuinely weird. [The Giggle is] scary, nuts, completely mad, frightening… That one will scare you."

With so little information to go on, we have done our best to fit the puzzle pieces together on which plot details go where, and what you need to know from Doctor Who‘s past to understand them.

Everything you need to know before watching

The Star Beast—Nov. 25, 2023

The first thing to know before watching the anniversary specials is that the previous episode ended with Jodie Whitacker’s Doctor regenerating. However, instead of changing into the form of Ncuti Gatwa, who was announced to be the next Doctor, she regenerated into David Tennant.

Tennant previously played the Tenth Doctor and his human meta-crisis twin from 2006 to 2010, and will now be playing the Fourteenth Doctor.

The Doctor seemed as confused by his old form as the audience, which suggests that the unusual regeneration will be a primary focus in the first episode. However, he will likely be distracted by one of the many threats teased in the trailers.

The title of the episode gives us clues about where the plot will go. The Star Beast is a 1954 novel by Robert A. Heinlein, which features a teenager taking care of an alien pet. In a seemingly unrelated plot, an alien species threatens the Earth unless the humans return a lost alien, which turns out to be the boy’s pet.

Based on the scenes from the trailers, Rose will likely end up similarly adopting an alien pet, which will lead to the pictured alien invasion.

Indeed, the character Rose meets is none other than Beep the Meep, a character from the 1980 comic, Doctor Who and the Star Beast. Audiences will not be expected to know this information, but it may come in handy. In the comics, Beep is the leader of a corrupted species, who use their cute appearances to hide their sinister purposes. Hunting Beep and his people are the Wrarth Warriors, also shown in the trailers.

While devoted comic fans will know how that adventure turned out, Davies is likely to throw audiences a twist regarding why Meep has arrived and what chaos he will wreak. Given that the episode is intended to be a new first episode for the series, it should be understandable and fresh for old audiences and new ones.

It would also be fair to assume that the episode contains several nods to the first episode of the 2005 revival, “Rose.” After all, Russell T. Davies was in charge of both firsts, and both include a young woman named Rose who stumbles into an alien invasion.

The other thing fans should know is who Rose’s family is. Based on the available information, Yasmin Finney’s character is going to be revealed as the child of Donna Noble and Shaun Temple (Karl Collins), who married in “The End of Time Part 2.” This will likely see her interacting with , as well as Sylvia Noble (Jacqueline King) and Wilf (Bernard Cribbins).

Wild Blue Yonder—Dec. 2, 2023

There is almost no information about the second episode from the trailers, other than the fact that Donna will be involved. That lack of information means that this will likely be an episode full of exciting, spoiler-y moments, probably including Donna getting her memory back.

Per Russell T. Davies:

"This is the secret one. I wanted to take one of the Specials and say ‘Let’s protect this one. Let’s try to reveal nothing about it’"

As a quick refresher, Donna Noble was the Tenth Doctor’s companion in 2008, where she often helped pull the Doctor back when he was about to go too far. In the season 4 finale, “Journey’s End,” Donna interacted with the Doctor’s hand, which had been filled with regeneration energy. This spawned a new, human Doctor and gave Donna access to the Doctor’s mind in the form of “Doctor Donna”.

However, Donna’s body couldn’t hold the Doctor’s mind, which nearly killed her. The Doctor had to take all memories of himself, their adventures, and all things space and time travel-related in order to save her life.

This tragedy is certain to be discussed in the first two episodes, as trailers have shown clips from “Journey’s End” and new scenes include the Doctor and Donna’s family trying to keep her from remembering.

However, it’s unclear what else the episode will cover. According to David Tennant, “Wild Blue Yonder” is “unlike any Doctor Who episode ever.” How exactly does one prepare for an episode claiming to be different than the 800+ episodes that came before it?

Regarding the plot of the episode, the title may once again provide a few answers. “The Wild Blue Yonder” is the title of the official US Air Force song, which seems like a strange choice for a British sci-fi show. However, it also was the name of a science fiction movie which might give the audience a clue for where the story is heading.

The 2005 film by Werner Herzog featured an alien who had made Earth his home. After getting a job with the CIA, the alien learned about an expedition to his former planet, which resulted in the astronauts returning to Earth after all humans were gone.

The IMDb plot summary says, “The TARDIS takes the Doctor and Donna to the furthest edge of adventure. To escape, they must face the most desperate fight of their lives, with the fate of the universe at stake.”

From that information, it seems likely that the episode will focus on aliens within government agencies and the military, as well as potential time slips keeping the heroes displaced in time from their loved ones.

According to director Tom Kingsley, “It’s got a lot of similarities with two of my favourite films, ‘Aliens’ and ‘The Thing.'” In other words, bring on the murderous aliens and body horror!

There is one more piece of information that Davies shared with Doctor Who Magazine. According to Davies, “The history of The Flux and The Timeless Child is dealt with very slightly in this episode.”

One notable moment in that arc were the reveal that the Doctor had been around for far more than 14 iterations and was the origin of the Time Lord’s regeneration powers. The Doctor lived multiple lives before the ones we know in canon, the memories of which were stripped by the Division.

The other critical point was when the Flux (a universe-destroying event) eliminated much of the universe. While the Doctor and their companions managed to stop it from destroying everything, it was weaponized against the Daleks, Cybermen, and Sontarans in a triple-genocide.

It is entirely possible that these traumas will push the Doctor to break his usual rules, a mindset that has historically best been managed by having Donna scold him.

The Giggle—Dec. 9, 2023

The most exciting elements of the anniversary specials seem to be gathered into the third episode, where the Doctor and Donna must face off against an old enemy: the Toymaker. While that name might sound weak, he is a god-like foe first introduced back in 1966.

The character was first introduced in season 3, serial 7, “The Celestial Toymaker.” The Toymaker (played by Michael Gough) faced the first Doctor and his companions, Steven and Dodo, in a series of games with lethal consequences. Unfortunately, almost all of this story was lost.

The character has since appeared in comics, short stories, and novels, in which his identity has become as complicated and contradictory as the Doctor’s.

What is important to know is that the Toymaker can bend reality to his whim, which he enjoys doing to torment the Doctor and his companions. Usually, however, he will follow the rules of the game, though he is typically the one who wrote them.

Finally, the Doctor interacted with the Toymaker prior to the start of the series, which has intriguing possibilities given the Timeless Child reveals. In Chibnall’s last season as showrunner, he introduced the idea that the Doctor is not Gallifreyan at all but was a refugee from another dimension.

With this in mind, it is entirely possible that the Toymaker knows more about the Doctor than he does himself. This could be an intriguing possibility, particularly since the Doctor’s regeneration as so unusual.

Additional information

There are a few more pieces of information teased by the trailers and/or interviews that cannot be definitively pinned to one of the episodes. The largest of these is the return of Jemma Redgrave’s Kate Lethbridge-Stewart.

The daughter of Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart (the Brigadier), Kate is a legacy at the Unified Intelligence Task Force (UNIT). UNIT is an international military agency dedicated to the protection of the Earth from extraterrestrial threats, which the Doctor worked closely with during his third incarnation.

Kate was introduced in the season 7 episode, “The Power of Three,” as the current head of UNIT. She has had a contentious relationship with the Doctor at times, but is generally shown as a competent leader, willing to do what it takes to protect the planet.

Kate and UNIT are confirmed to be part of the new specials, though it is currently unclear whether they will be part of all three or only one.

Additionally, the BBC announced that Melanie Bush (a companion to the Sixth and Seventh Doctors) will be returning alongside the Fifteen Doctor. We do not know whether she will return in the anniversary specials or wait until after the next regeneration to appear.

There are also rumors that the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan may return, with Carole Ann Ford listed on “The Giggle”s IMDb page and a cryptic Instagram comment from Davies.

There could be any number of other easter eggs and cameos to come from Disney+’s Doctor Who specials, but this is as much information as we can extract before the specials air. The series has 60 years of history to look back on, and Russell T. Davies seems to be planning to pack in as much of it as he can in these three episodes.

The Doctor Who anniversary specials begin on Nov. 25, available on Disney+.

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