“Doctor Who” star David Tennant says returning for 60th anniversary shows was 'an unexpected treat'

James Pardon/Doctor Who
James Pardon/Doctor Who

Alistair Heap/BBC David Tennant and Catherine Tate in 'Doctor Who'

You could fill many rooms in the famously capacious time travel craft the TARDIS with fans who have strong opinions about the best actor to play the titular hero of Doctor Who. But very few of the 13 people to portray the periodically "regenerating" alien on a regular basis since the British show premiered in 1963 inspire quite the amount of love as David Tennant. Relatively unknown when he took the role in 2005, the actor spent five years playing the Doctor in an energetic, comedic, and, yes, easy-on-the-eye fashion, becoming a firm fan favorite along the way. When the BBC announced in May of last year that Tennant and costar Catherine Tate, who played the Doctor's time-traveling companion Donna Noble, would be reprising their roles to mark the show's 60th anniversary this November, Whovians were thrilled. Turns out, few fans could have been more excited that Tennant, a diehard watcher of the show since early childhood. "Oh, joyous," says the actor, when asked to describe filming the three anniversary episodes, in an interview conducted prior to the SAG strike. "Just an unexpected treat to get to revisit something that had been such a lovely wonderful experience 15 years ago. To get to have another proper runaround, in an albeit slightly different long coat, was a joy I never really imagined."

As Tennant reminds EW, "There's some precedent for ex-Doctors showing up for guest appearances." Way back in 1973, the show's then lead actor, so-called "Third Doctor" Jon Pertwee, was joined by his two predecessors, William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton for an adventure called "The Three Doctors." In 2013, for the show's 50th anniversary special episode, "The Day of the Doctor," Tennant himself returned to the show to join his replacement Matt Smith for a tale which also featured a cameo from the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker. But Tennant is the first returnee to play the current Doctor. This plot twist was revealed last October when Jodie Whittaker's Thirteenth Doctor regenerated into an iteration portrayed by Tennant and not, as had been expected, Sex Education actor Ncuti Gatwa, who the BBC had announced as the new Doctor earlier in the year. That means Tennant can claim to have played the Tenth and the Fourteenth Doctor, with Gatwa's Fifteenth Doctor presumably to be introduced to viewers during November's trio of shows.

James Pardon/Doctor Who
James Pardon/Doctor Who

James Pardon/BBC David Tennant on 'Doctor Who'

The return of Tennant and Tate was facilitated by showrunner Russell T Davies who is himself coming back to the show following a long spell away. It was Davies, another lifelong Whovian, who successfully relaunched Doctor Who in March, 2005, with Christopher Eccleston in the lead role. When Eccleston decided to depart the TARDIS after a single season, Davies cast Tennant as the Tenth Doctor, who was properly introduced to viewers at the end of the year in the show's first special holiday season episode titled "The Christmas Invasion." "As a selling point for a Christmas special, it couldn't have been better," Davies told EW in 2020. "What a gift to put into my hands, come and meet the new Doctor! And David Tennant turned out to be one of the most successful Doctors of all time."

Showrunner and star both left the series in 2010, to be replaced by Sherlock creator Steven Moffat and star Matt Smith, respectively. Davies went on to create the U.K. shows Years and Years and It's a Sin, among others, while Tennant starred in a string of projects on both sides of the Atlantic, including Broadchurch, Jessica Jones, and Good Omens.

Then, in September 2021, the BBC announced that Davies was returning to Doctor Who for the time travel show's 60th anniversary year and "[seasons] beyond." The showrunner's decision took Whovians by surprise, with The Radio Times describing the news as "a move that nobody saw coming." When asked why he decided to revisit the universe of Daleks and Cybermen, Davies gives the simplest of responses

"The real answer is that I still love it," he says, talking prior to the start of the writers' strike. "You do spend your years away from Doctor Who, always watching it. Always thinking of ideas. Thinking about how I would expand it, thinking of stories... It never goes away. I have been inventing stories in my head ever since I was about six. So when I left the show, that doesn't stop."

The showrunner reveals that casting Tennant and Tate in the specials was a no-brainer.

"I realized that there was third act to be written, and it was so much fun writing it," he says. "On a really simple level, it's working with two of the best actors in the world. I love them. I love them as friends. I love their presence. I'm really interested to push the Doctor and Donna into things they've never done before."

James Pardon/Doctor Who
James Pardon/Doctor Who

James Pardon/BBC Neil Patrick Harris on 'Doctor Who'

In addition to Tennant and Tate, the cast of the specials includes Neil Patrick Harris and Heartstopper star Yasmin Finney. Harris is playing a currently unidentified antagonist described by Davies as "the greatest enemy the Doctor has ever faced" while Finney is playing Rose, the daughter of Donna and Shaun Temple (Karl Collins).

At an appearance at Galaxycon in Richmond earlier this year, Tennant confirmed that Bernard Cribbins, who died in July, 2022, at the age of 93, will appear in the episodes, which is appropriate given the actor's long history with the show. Cribbins played Donna's grandfather Wilfred but first joined the Doctor Who universe in 1966 when he was cast as a different character in the film Daleks' Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. "I am thrilled to say that although sadly he wasn't in those episodes as much as we hoped he was on set with us and Wilfred lives on," Tennant said at the event. The episodes will also feature Jacqueline King as Donna's mother Sylvia and Years and Years actress Ruth Madeley as a new character named Shirley Anne Bingham.

James Pardon/Doctor Who
James Pardon/Doctor Who

Alistair Heap/BBC 'Doctor Who'

So much for the human characters, or the humanoid ones anyway. On the creature side of things, Davies seems to have dug deep into Who lore and brought back a character Whovians have identified as Beep the Meep. Previously featured in the pages of Doctor Who Magazine, Beep may resemble a child's toy but is in fact an intergalactic criminal. As Tate's Donna says when encountering the creature in one of the specials' trailers, "What the hell?"

The three 60th anniversary episodes are titled "The Star Beast," "Wild Blue Yonder," and "The Giggle" and were shot in Cardiff last year. The show's directors include Tank Girl filmmaker Rachel Talalay, yet another fan of the series' early "classic" years who has overseen more than half a dozen episodes since the show returned, including 2015's "Heaven Sent," with Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi.

In recent times, Doctor Who has screened in the US on BBC America, but last year the BBC and Disney+ announced that the three special episodes and upcoming seasons will premiere on the latter streaming network outside of the U.K., with the show's creators clearly hoping to further extend the show's fandom.

Tennant has less world-conquering ambitions for the 60th anniversary episodes. The actor simply wants to not disappoint those Whovians who fondly remember his earlier adventures as the Time Lord. "I just hope I look as fast as I did in the 2000s," he says. Well, as the Doctor knows all too well, traveling back in time can be a risky business.

Make sure to check out EW's Fall TV Preview cover story on Gen V — as well as all of our 2023 Fall TV Preview content, releasing through Sept. 21.

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