Doctor Who: The Beast Below

Doctor: 'Right then. This isn't going to be big on dignity.'

Aaron Asadi, writing for SciFiNow, made an interesting comment earlier in the week. He stopped short of saying that Doctor Who had become Americanised, but did proffer the opinion that Russell T. Davies always wrote with one eye firmly on the USA. According to Asadi, this manifested itself in 'a tendency to map Who’s journey about classic American TV tropes: will-they-won’t-they romance; high-octane action; handsome heroes' and 'humourless sacrifice'. Now, whether you agree with him or not (and I sympathise to some degree), since its resurrection, Doctor Who has been a different show. A better show, some would argue—having a broader appeal, almost certainly—but at what cost? Has Doctor Who lost some of its Britishness?

If it has, then Steven Moffat went out of his way tonight to remedy that situation. There was the aptly named Liz 10 (the ass-kicking monarch of Britain), the UK cruising through space on the back of a giant star whale (its sectors and blocks named after British counties), and they even gifted us a couple of well aimed digs at the Scots. In fact, both of this season's episodes have had that distinctive Classic Who feel. They've felt smaller, familiar, more intimate, and most importantly, it somehow feels like the same show I used to watch as a kid. I'm not sure what's been missing—but it's definitely back!

Tonight's episode was Amy's chance to impress, and she did so in cracking style by saving everyone with her quick thinking and instinctive reactions. In the Doctor's case, it wasn't actual death she saved him from, but it was a death of sorts. He almost crossed a line. For all his superior alien intellect, he almost ended up killing a star whale. True, it was the lesser of two evils, but in the end it was Amy's intuition, and her greater understanding of the Doctor, which saved the day. She was able to guess the whale's past intentions by (a) observing how it reacted to the children, and (b) recognising that its circumstances almost exactly mirrored the Doctor's. Both were alone in the world, both were the last of their kind, and both had been spurred on to do great things, despite terrible adversity and personal loss. Amy knew how the whale would act because she knew how the Doctor would act.

Unfortunately, Liz 10—the trashy, gun toting, cape wearing, cockney Queen of Britain—showed considerably less insight. The poor star whale never stood a chance—it was captured and subdued before being able to make its intentions known. Terrified for her people, Liz 10 saw the star whale as their only hope—a miracle—and grabbed it with both hands. To be fair, imprisoning the whale was a measure born of desperation, but to her credit, she did include a method of setting it free. Unfortunately, the cost of pressing the 'protest' button was simply too great—so understandably, hardly anyone ever did.

Liz 10 felt like a pleasing mix of Little Red Riding Hood, Lara Croft and a 19th century Highwayman (or woman), but it was hard to sympathize with some of her decisions—particularly her agreeing to feed the 'beast' protesters and people of limited value. The idea of the populace being able to free the whale did (as the Doctor suggested) give the impression of democracy in action, but only if the number of protesters topped one percent—otherwise, they were presumably fed to the beast. Which, suddenly, didn't feel quite so democratic. And surely poor Timmy didn't deserve to die? Just for being academically below par? Thankfully, the whale showed more compassion than the Queen—though not quite enough to stop it scoffing down the adults. I guess a whale's gotta eat.

I'll be honest, I wasn't expecting the emotional punch at the end. I'll be the first to admit, Amy's explanation that the whale couldn't bear to see children cry was a touch on the cheesy side, but it was a sound piece of reasoning (if a tad simplistic). And when she hugged the Doctor, and said 'Gotcha' I found myself falling in love with them all over again. I don't know what it is about this pair, but I adore them. Seriously, I had a tear in my eye at the end of this episode. That's pretty impressive for two characters I only met eight days ago.

And at least Amy's earned herself a last minute reprieve. The Doctor, angry at her for pressing the 'forget' button (despite her doing so to save him from an impossible decision), was ready to take her home, but by the end of the episode was instead forced to contemplate his own near blunder, and Amy's part in preventing it. I though Matt was perfect in those scenes. His initial reaction was pensive and subdued, then came the gratitude, as he buried his face into her shoulder and the two of them hugged—disaster firmly averted. There were some tender moments, too, towards the end—further evidence (if any were needed), that Smith and Gillan have a superb on-screen chemistry. And Smith's angry outburst was proof positive that he's more than capable of handling the angrier, more ruthless side of the Doctor's occasionally dark personality. He plays this role with such ease. Nothing about it seems forced, nothing feels contrived. I love him more with each passing episode.

Other Thoughts:

—The shop behind the tent was called Magpie Electricals—a reference to the TV shop from 'The Idiot's Lantern'.

—How did Liz turn into such a geezerette? She started out so refined, then two hundred and sixty years later, she's all 'I'm the bloody Queen, mate'.

—I enjoyed the Smilers/Winders more than the Atraxi/Prisoner Zero. Even their non-demonic faces looked hideous. And the Smilers were what? Robots?

—The crack in the side of the ship was no doubt there to remind us that there's still a fissure in the skin of the universe.

—Amy still wearing her nightie reminded me of Arthur Dent (of HHGTTG fame), who spent much of his time kitted out in a dressing gown.

—Amy still hasn't told the Doctor she's getting married. Neither has the Doctor answered her parenthood question.

—A couple of Star Wars franchise homages tonight. Firstly, there was the 'Help us Doctor, you're our only hope' dialogue. Secondly, the interior of the beast's mouth looked a little like the Star Wars trash compactor. And I'll try for a tentative third.... them being inside the whale's mouth was reminiscent of the Millennium Falcon flying inside the space slugs mouth in The Empire Strikes Back.

—I wonder why Amy's marital status came up as 'unknown'?

Quotes:

Amy: 'I've been dead for centuries!'
Doctor: 'Oh lovely! You're a cheery one.'

Doctor: 'Oh, this fell out of her pocket when I accidentally bumped into her. It took me four gos.'

Amy: 'What are you gonna do?'
Doctor: 'What I always do. Stay out of trouble. Badly.'

Mandy: 'How do you not know about this? Are you Scottish too?'
Doctor: 'Oh, I'm way worse than Scottish. I can't even see the movie. It won't play for me.'

Amy: 'You look human.'
Doctor: 'No, you look Time Lord. We came first.'

Doctor: 'Say wheeeee!'
Amy: 'Arrrrrgh!'

Amy: 'It's a rubbish dump and it's minging!'

Doctor: 'There's nothing broken, there's no sign of concussion, and yes... you are covered in sick.'

Liz 10: 'Lovely hair, Amy. Shame about the sick.'

Liz 10: 'I'm the bloody Queen, mate. Basically – I rule.'

Doctor: 'Nobody talk to me. Nobody human has anything to say to me today!'

Amy: 'If you were really old, and that kind, and the very last of your kind, you couldn't just stand there and watch children cry.'
---
Also posted at The Time Meddler.

10 comments:

Mark Greig said...

Knew it would happen eventually and here it is, an episode written by Steven Moffat that I didn’t like. Can’t pinpoint exactly what it was that left me feeling cold (it was typically magical and creepy like the majority of Moffat’s work) but I came away with a mild sense of ‘meh’. Should really to watch it again, might click with me a second time.

But despite my ill-defined disappointments one thing this episode did do was cement my love and affection for the 11th Doctor and Amy Pond. In only two episodes Matt and Karen have become the best duo the show has had since the glory days of Tom and Liz. I just hope Moffat doesn’t everything it with another tiresome ‘will they/won’t they’ dynamic. But I seriously doubt that that he will.

Great review, Paul. Keep ‘em coming.

Paul Kelly said...

Actually, Mark, the first time I watched this episode through I was likewise unimpressed. Until the end, where, as I said in my review, I was really quite moved. On second watch, however, armed with the knowledge of how it ended, the first 30 minutes seemed far more interesting. So much so that I watched it a third time... and am counting the days until they release the boxed set.

I think this slightly new style Doctor Who is going to suit Neil Gaiman's talents no end. I can't wait for next season.

shawnlunn2002 said...

Did a review for this on my blog but it wasn't a favourite. It had some great moments but not the ebst we've had.

I did like Liz Ten, the Smilers were suitably creepy but the star whale reminded me of that manate from Torchwood and did anyone else think of Pinnochio when the Doctor and Amy got swallowed up?

I'm also really liking the Doctor/Amy dynamic a lot as well.

Mark Greig said...

I just watched it again, Paul, and I did like it more the second time round but not enough to radically change my original verdict. One thing I really loved was all the little background details the production team slipped into the scenery, like the Test Card girl, the Queen Vic pub and the Starship UK logo basically being a redesign of the BBC1 indent from the 70s. Most I didn’t even notice until after I watched Confidential.

Gaiman’s episode, formally know as ‘The House of Nothing’, is the one I’ve being looking forward too the most. Shame I’ll have to wait a whole year before I can see it.

Trousers said...

The chemistry between Matt Smith and Karen Gillan is what makes this show for me. They have the best doctor/companion relationship thus far in Nu Who (and I say this as someone who thought Tennants doctor and Rose were superb).
This episode was filmed round about the middle of the series and from watching the interviews in Confidential that these two have at the least become very good friends. At most, it seems that Matt Smith has fallen for Karen Gillan a little bit. (Those legs, who wouldn't!) Whatever the reason, these two are making this series something worth watching.

Henrik Bennetter said...

Excellent review(s)! I've got to say that both Matt Smith and Karen Gillan are instant favorites of mine. They're the best couple I've seen in the series so far plus that Matt just soared to the top of "Favorite Doctor" and Karen to the top of "Favorite companion".
What a return!

Kitty said...

Plot holes, plot holes, plot holes, unnecessary characters wandering around doing nothing, leaps of logic, a passive Doctor, a leap of logic from Amy that makes Fox Mulder look like a reasoned, thoughtful individual, and "Smilers" who just... stand there doing nothing.

Meh. I like these two, but the stories are going to have to get stronger, and they're certainly not endangering my favorite team -- Doctor/Donna -- so far.

Also, that embrace at the end? Completely unearned emotionally, though the backdrop it was set against was certainly pretty.

Really liked last week's, am sure I'll like more in the future, but if RTD had written this one, the hordes would be howling for his head.

Billie Doux said...

I liked it. Didn't love it. I was expecting better from Stephen Moffat. And I kept thinking of the absolutely terrible Torchwood episode, "Meat." Dumping children into hell because they got on a lift after getting zero on a test? Come on.

Did the Doctor and Amy spend the rest of the episode walking around smelling like star whale vomit and no one noticed? Maybe everyone was being polite.

Gaffa said...

The child in the beginning was not dumped into the Beast because he got a zero in the test; he was dumped because he got a zero, and as punishment he was not supposed to use the lift. He was supposed to take the stairs. He was even warned about this by his friend. Had he taken the stairs, he'd have had a long slog home, but no drop into Beastdom.

Patryk said...

Yes definately Moffats first misstep. But it's bound to happen when you have a whole show on your heads not just 1-2 episodes per year.

The critic you're quoting at the beginning should learn the TV Tropes mantra: Tropes are not Bad. ;) Especially American