What Is the Beast Below the UK?

(Featuring spoilers for latest episode of Doctor Who, The Beast Below. You have been warned.)The Beast Below continues what is already being called the Moffat Fairy Tale, definitely bringing that tone to Doctor Who in the same way that Hinchcliffe and Holmes made the fourth Doctor's adventures Gothic. By and large, that explains the odd, almost picaresque (none of the threats have a lasting impact), structure of this episode, as well as the bizarre retro-British society created aboard "Starship UK". And it really does feel like a fairy tale, with the Doctor and Amy acting as a sort of Peter Pan/Wendy (in bed clothes no less) duo, finding themselves inside the belly of a whale (like Pinocchio) and encountering all manner of people at once strange and familiar like Alice did in Wonderland. In fact, the Doctor's line about an "escaped fish" reminds me of Lewis Carroll for some reason (unless it's an unconscious reference to the starwhale). And there's a wink to Terry Pratchett in there as well.

For the second episode in a row, we also have a strong focus on children, which is very much in keeping with this fairy tale about an imaginary friend who turns out to be real. (Anyone seeing anything unseemly about this should move right along to another website.) The cries of children attract the star-beast and in kindness to them, if no one else, it continues to ferry Starship UK to its new home after it is freed. Children can find friends in this world, not only in the whale and (as usual) the Doctor, but in Liz Ten, the kindly Queen who commends Mandy's bravery. And for us adults, we are turned into big kids by the overflowing nostalgia of what might be our own childhoods peppered throughout Starship UK, from the test card girl's nursery rhymes, to the carnival monsters, to the old BBC fonts.

In many ways, I am reminded of the 7th Doctor's era, and as an example I offer Ghost Light. This is a much more opaque story where tone and metaphor are more important than plot. The Beast Below is perhaps not as deep, but nonetheless follows similar rules.
Playing on another frequency is a political satire about modern Britain, and in a larger sense, about most Western countries that have gone perhaps a bit far to the Right. I'll be the first to admit I don't know a heck of a lot about UK politics, and that most of what I do know I basically learned from Spooks, but here's how the episode could be interpreted. First we have Britain operating without a true engine (a deflated empire). Scotland is doing its own thing on its own ship, and though Northern Ireland is named, Wales is not. Of course, Starship UK is flying on the back of a Whale - is that joke to mean that Britain has always felt itself to be superior to Wales, or that in fact, the UK is dependent on Welsh labour? Either way, aside from these pokes at the members of the Kingdom, and the oppressive Britishness of the environment, the allegory fits other countries I'm more familiar with, like the U.S. and Canada.

We have a country bordering on the police state, ruling public opinion by a mix of fear and hopeful propaganda (the Smilers' faces) that, to its shame, is using an immigrant labourer to carry the load. This "starwhale" is mistreated, and yet actually volunteered to carry this load. It is treated with fear and as a necessary evil despite its productive place in society. And of course, there's also the matter of having elections every 5 years, in which the population magically "forgets" the sins of the past. It's why we keep electing the same corrupt or incompetent leaders term after term (to be extreme about it). The election booth is presented as a non-choice. Even the Queen here is deluding herself about being a protector of the people. She wears a mask, but doesn't realize she wears one underneath - her false youth and false idea of who she is and what she's done.
We must also look at the climax in this context. On the surface, you might question the Doctor's solution, and/or applaud how the companion (using her own Observo-Vision) saves the day. However, there may be more going on. It is telling that the country is saved by a young person (or more broadly, youth, since the children were a part of the equation) willing to topple the system to create a brighter future (and in this metaphor, by treating oppressed labourers with dignity and fairness). The Doctor, ancient as he is, cannot see the solution in front of his face. He sees only three choices (parties?). This isn't the Doctor we know, you might say, but we don't actually know THIS Doctor, and haven't established a pattern to his behavior yet. Also, plot takes second place to metaphor in The Beast Below.

The Doctor
Speaking of the Doctor (and leaving this metaphor business behind, there are a couple of interesting things to note about Matt Smith's interpretation. First, he discussed the Time War and doesn't make a meal of it. He's over it. It was a bad day, let's move on. I am totally ok with that. It was RTD's big story arc, it's been acknowledged as the accepted backstory for the character, but there's really no need to dwell on it anymore. Doc11 has his own "humans are rubbish" moment, something all Doctors should indulge in at least one, and Smith avails himself well of it. The best bit, however, and noteworthy for those who don't think the Doctor should have actively pursued such a sanguinary solution, is where he says he'll have to find another name because he won't be the Doctor anymore. In other words, he doesn't think it's what he should pursue either. I also love the hug between the two leads and the vulnerability he shows there.
On to the Daleks! See you next week!


Bully said...

Is he discussing the Time War? I thought he was discussing the events of the final Ten episode. Or, more accurately for the Doctor, mentioning but skirting around a discussion.

Siskoid said...

True, he "re-becomes" last of the Timelords in The End of Time. Either way, the loss of the TLs is no longer the deep wound it used to be.


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