Published on April 11th, 2010 | by James Colvin
The Beast Below
Having established the new cast last week, the second episode of this series gets straight into the adventure. An SF adventure on a Starship UK, the action nods to Star Wars, the metaphors to The Matrix and the setting to 80s dystopias. While the viewer may be more settled with the characters (anxieties put to rest last week), their actions tell us a little more about them, especially Amyâ€™s attitude to the Doctor.
Nods to American genre films never sacrifice the Britishness and Doctor Who-ishness of the show. Itâ€™s hard to imagine an American genre show with cycling as the principle mode of transport in a dystopian future, children crying on school benches, or a police state maintained by sinister creatures with rotating clown faces.
The Smilers themselves have the right degree of mystery and menace about them. There is no explanation for what they are; their purpose isnâ€™t explicitly spelt out with exposition, but their ubiquity and austerity posit them as an intimidating force to the population of Starship UK. The uncertainty of their nature is particularly unsettling. I had assumed they were mechanical, but the half-human, half-Smilers that show up might suggest otherwise.
However, the most striking characteristic of this particular dystopia is the voting system. Citizens are hypnotised into a trance-like state, their thoughts streamlined into one of two polarised options (the red pill or the blue pill). This reflects contemporary political disaffection, a feeling that our current political system regulates opinion into one of two opposing camps, with ignorance the best possible result. This is not directly resolved, but the moral relates back to it implicitly.
Morally, the concern of the episode is environmental, which we havenâ€™t seen in Doctor Who for a long time. The citizens of Starship UK are savaging their land, torturing it in their ignorance. They repeatedly defer action, as to address the problem would first involve having to accept moral responsibility.
The climactic dilemma moves the characters forward impressively. The Doctorâ€™s initial disgust at â€˜humansâ€™ puts him in danger of becoming a mouthpiece for the show, but his attempt to lobotomise the Star Whale quickly puts a stop to that. Doctor Who has always taught us to love the alien, the different and the new. For a moment there he forgot that. It takes Amy stepping in to offer a better solution. This reminds us that Amyâ€™s known this man all of her life. Her speech about what kind of person the Doctor is comes from years of play and fantasy based on a brief, unusual point in the Doctorâ€™s life, where he did act kindly and helpfully to her.
Despite world-changing action, the character focus, as in The Eleventh Hour, is small-scale. Uniquely, the Doctor is defined by his relationship with his companion in this episode, and their relationship is founded on how unusual the Doctorâ€™s timeline is. Matt Smith is very relaxed into his Doctorishness here. He has an absent-mindedness that is simultaneously endearing and alienating, going outside and waving Amy out from the viewscreen is light-hearted. Nearly blowing her out of the TARDIS into space is too, but also life-threateningly clumsy. And his mannerisms are pure Patrick Troughton.
Liz X receives no moral exception or special treatment and the story is better for it. No blame is placed on her, nor is any weight of expectation. Everyone needs to act to change the world for the better, and Queen or not, she is just one of many.
Although the resolution may be a little convenient, the character progression justifies it. And one cannot begrudge the optimism of the outlook. Also, there is enough that is questionable left hanging â€“ Liz X runs a police state! Sheâ€™s going undercover from herself! What the hell are the half-human, half-Smilers all about? They sound horrible, anyway… Just imagine the Jeremy Kyle Show about that illegitimate lovechild.
Itâ€™s great to see a direct lead-in to the next show. Itâ€™s also great to see a noted historical figure contacting the Doctor directly. Namedropping is all very well, but it can seem a little clubby and elitist. As though the viewer isnâ€™t in on the Doctorâ€™s personal joke. Seeing Winston Churchill sat there phoning for help is more inclusive, and removes his mystique. As he was just a man, this is only a good thing.
There have already been many allusions to future events and open plot points in the series. Itâ€™s going to be interesting to see if any of them are red herrings. On top of all the allusion in the last episode, we now have the reappearance of Magpie Electricals and the rip in the Star Whaleâ€™s back.
The Beast Below was a fun adventure and a great follow-up to The Eleventh Hour. A great mix of character progression and morality, of plotting and world-building, dark, unresolved actions and light-heartedness. And Iâ€™ve not even mentioned Terrence Hardiman, scary-by-default to my generation as the former Demon Headmaster.