Doctor Who #844: The Beast Below

"So is this how it works, Doctor? You never interfere in the affairs of other peoples or planets, unless there's children crying?"
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Apr.10 2010.

IN THIS ONE... Starship UK, where every 5 years, you forget it's sitting on top of a Star Whale.

REVIEW: How strange. I was ready to write a review saying this episode was Moffat's first clunker, how it showed he couldn't possibly keep up his string of successes while running the whole show, and how this was the first of what I call Moffat's "kitchen sink" stories where too many things are put in the blender. Then I watched it and found myself oddly moved by it. The above points are still valid criticisms, but The Beast Below is one that profits from repeat viewings, especially with hindsight. Moffat lays in a number of themes that pay off later, for example. Amy must make a choice (and keep making choices through the course of her tenure), and her forgetting/remembering is a key element of Series 5's resolution. Within the episode itself, we're often offered a limited set of choices (usually two), and Amy's one mistake is accepting such a choice. But look, it's when she thinks outside the box and rejects the choices in front of her, that she moves the plot in the "right" direction - picking a padlock to trespass on a tentacle, and more crucially, freeing the Space Whale and recognizing its true motivation (because it's just like the Doctor). It's her companion test, if you will, and she passes it. Not only does the episode begin with children being tested in a classroom, but the Doctor gives Amy explicit orders not to interfere. That's not really his way, so the early part of the episode is about seeing if she'll go against those instructions, whether beneficial interference is her natural impulse, just as it is the Doctor's.

Admittedly, it's not as tightly plotted as some of Moffat's other efforts, and perhaps it feels like a collection of elements forced together because he was trying too hard to relate to themes he was going to explore later in the series. In inspiration, The Beast Below is eclectic. It owes as much to Star Wars as it does to Peter Pan, Discworld, and The Return of the Archons. It's a fairy tale that starts with a nursery rhyme and features children in apparent jeopardy, but also a sly political satire about how we blindly accept corruption and incompetence because we're allowed to vote for it. The UK as a flying city, but also retro equipment and creepy carnival booths come to life. The Queen as a Cockney action hero (Sophie Okenodo's mumbling bothered me first time around, but I found her more appealing this time). It works as a strange world - and is certainly no sillier than RTD's broadly satirical futures - but logic isn't always at a premium.

The central problem is Amy's choice to "forget" the Space Whale secret and leave herself a message (how could this be a voting booth feature?) to get the Doctor out of there. If the Doctor's theory is correct, she did it to save him from an impossible choice (in effect enforcing his bogus non-interference rule), but it's way too early for this kind of thing. She seems too invested in Starship UK, and doesn't know the Doctor well enough to make such a call. Likewise, the Doctor rejecting her solution is a little harsh (though note how his own flawed solution connects to the War Doctor's non-Doctorness). Perhaps if we knew what happened in those 20 minutes she lost. Did it contain specific material relating to the Doctor and consequences to his person? Did she realize there was no option but Forget for those who watched the film (perhaps a subliminal effect she tried to resist)? The episode doesn't say, and we're left with literally motiveless actions.

Once you accept those big plot points have happened (i.e. on repeat viewings), you can start enjoying the little things. Matt Smith's performance is full of quirkiness and fun little lines (I love the escaped fish, for example). And have you noticed? Murray Gold's score isn't wall-to-wall anymore, the better to serve up atmospheres through sound design. An improvement! (Hope it lasts.) There's also an attempt to link episodes together with the final scene, here prefiguring Victory of the Daleks. It's a throwback to the black and white era, and while it dilutes the strength of any given episode, I kind of like it better than a spoilery trailer.

SECOND OPINIONS: My original review, What Is the Beast Below the UK?, looks at the fairy tale elements, but also tries to decode the episode's political allegory.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - Flawed, yes, but grows on you with age. Comes just short of being the 21st-century equivalent of Ghost Light.


Anonymous said...

Too full of Moffat trying to be clever, not enough making of sense.

The bit with Liz's mask fills me with objections: a person's face never changes shape even a little? Mine changes depending on whether I've been exercising and sweating.

Bill D. said...

This episode has never sat right with me for a number of reasons, but the thing that always bugged me the most was "star whale," a name that sounds like something they put into the script until they could think of something better and then day of shooting came and they never did.

Seriously, even "stellar leviathan" would be factors of 10 better in the nomenclature department

Siskoid said...

I always kind of thought it was a reference to Pat Mills' Space Whale, from an episode that wasn't made (but turned into a Lost Stories audio by Big Finish).


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