DOCTOR WHO: Series 5 - The Beast Below / Review


SPOILERS AHEAD

BBC 1 - 10th April 2010 - 6.20pm

On a creaking island in space a school bell rings. A queue of children await the results of their tests. One boy, the Blyton-esquely named Timmy gets a zero and is effectively sent to hell by a frowning automaton. Or should that be sent to Coventry? In this dystopian fable it seems Lancashire is the equivalent. Steven Moffat's The Beast Below is further proof that Doctor Who is undergoing a slow transformation into the 'fairy tale' of his and the production team's over used and ubiquitous sound bites. Similarly to the season's opener, there are still structures remaining from the Russell T Davies era. This second episode examines the development of the companion in a similar way to Rose's adventures on Platform One in The End Of The World. There are also the references back to the relationship between the monarchy and the Doctor ("Vicky was a bit on the fence about you, wasn't she? Knighted and exiled on the same day. And so much for the Virgin Queen. You bad, bad boy") that infer Moffat is more than happy to mine the previous era for little fan pleasing references.


Here one of the major subplots is concerned with testing Amy to see if she has the right stuff, is fit for purpose as the Doctor's companion. What we get, whether we agree with it or not, is a companion who provides an alternative choice to the moral dilemma that's presented, one that the Doctor himself doesn't even register. And he's supposed to be the cleverest man in the room. Yet, the nightie wearing Amy, Karen Gillan's Wendy to Matt Smith's Peter Pan, pays more attention than the Doctor who, at the start of the episode, blusters rather pompously and patronisingly to her about seeing the 'bigger picture'. That he doesn't is an interesting reflection of the whole idea of 'forgetting' that runs through the story.

In The Beast Below, to 'forget', whether you're the Doctor, Liz Ten or Amy, is part of learning to be an adult. As children we want to block out and forget the horror of growing up and most of what we experience often doesn't even register our our consciousness as children and the present moment is enough to provide all the sensation we need. This fits in with the increasingly obvious use of the child's viewpoint that the new series has started to embrace and the childish need to forget the bad things we know we've done. It's also reflected in that great scene in the TARDIS where he and Amy discuss the nature of observation, in the identification figure of Mandy, and the bluff about his interference in matters being determined by the caveat "unless there's children crying".


Whether you agree that this return to the state of childishness undermines the Doctor or not and you found the resolution to the moral dilemma rather heavy-handedly articulated in the allusion of the Star Whale's age and kindness to the qualification of the Doctor as 'last of the Time Lords', the episode clearly intended to show how different people look at the same problem and come up with solutions inimitable to their status within the story. For the British residents and monarchy of Starship UK the decision to keep or dissolve the status quo was reduced to a choice of 'forget' and 'protest' (or 'abdicate' in Liz Ten's case), whereas the Doctor typically demonstrates that there are three choices and he must rest on the one solution which is of the most benefit to all even though it means he must perform a lobotomy on a sentient creature to do so, and then Amy simply asks 'what would the Star Whale want from the situation?' after her observations.

As Donna pointed out to him in The Runaway Bride, "sometimes you need someone to stop you" and Amy's reactions, her humanity if you will, highlight a missing component in the Doctor's conscience, particularly now he's regenerated. That this is missing at this stage is clearly shown in his anger towards the citizens of Starship UK as he struggles to solve the problem - "No Human has anything to say to me today!" She reminds him that his own kindness is rooted in the misery of longevity, loneliness and pain. As he offers her a choice between Starship UK and Leadworth at the beginning of the story with a triumphant "Ha-ha gotcha", later she similarly offers him a choice between loneliness and companionship with a responding "gotcha" as they physically embrace and he confirms his choice of her as a suitable companion.


This defining virtue is also clearly missing from the British residents of Starship One and perhaps suggests Moffat is tapping into the notions of Mervyn Peake's own phantasmagoric depiction of England, in Gormenghast for example, as a decaying citadel where the idea of utopia, the oppressive weight of tradition, rather than rebelled against by Titus is here shattered by a girl in a nightie, a black cockney Queen and a bow-tied gangly limbed Time Lord. The institutions of British culture, signs and symbols as recognisable as Tube station logos, red telephone boxes, the test card, old BBC logos and bakelite television sets, become reductionist and suggest that these visions of British nostalgia are simply the chains of dystopian repression, of the police state that manages the living experience of the individuals on board. Moffat even references Magpie Electricals from The Idiot's Lantern to emphasise this 1950s aesthetic.

The tools of state, warm and fuzzily nostalgic as they may be as they hark back to the illusory 'you've never had it so good' culture of the 1950s, underline the uncomfortable accusation that anything strange and alien has to be exploited as a virtue of imperial power. The Beast Below sadly says that we would rather prefer our society to develop off the back of the suffering of others and that we endlessly repeat this in a spiral of forgetting and not protesting.


The cosy illusion of the 1950s, smoke-screening a Britain crippled by debt and no longer able to trade off its rich imperial past, is used here as a bitingly redolent metaphor for the story's depiction of 'broken Britain' in its splendid isolation (Scotland managed to build a spaceship and escape the solar flares so Britain's obviously poor as a church mouse - again) and cleverly Moffat places these moral choices, and their illusory qualities, within a story that pushes some suitably zeitgeisty buttons - and not just the ones in the booths. As the UK hurtles towards an election, the very notions of democracy are examined and satirised here.

Hilariously (depending on your view), back in February this year Doctor Who was the subject of a rather bizarre Newsnight piece on the 1980s era of the show and its relationship to the Thatcherite politics of the day. A sense of deja-vu is elicited with the Doctor reminding us that we're about to 'hear the sound of Empires toppling' a la 1988's The Happiness Patrol, (also Newsnight's primary evidence of the series political themes) as he replaces the observation 'once every five years, everyone chooses to forget what they've learned. Democracy in action' with the anarchy of "Hold tight. We're bringing down the government'' by thumping the 'protest' button in the voting booth.
 

There is also the depiction of the monarchy here that's interesting. As well as ruffling the feathers of certain traditionalists by casting Sophie Okonedo, the neat twist is that the Queen and her subjects are culpable here and the monarchy is shown as politically significant in the way it helps, through the cycle of forgetting, maintain Britain in a stultifyingly backward, only partly modernised condition. The regressive state, depicted in a traditionalist cultural vision, is in fact a result of her real abdication of responsibilities rather than the one that Amy foists upon her in the conclusion of the story.

The Queen and her Winders and Smilers are all part of the strategy of distraction and ideological reinforcement where her aristocratic power ensures the status quo for the British people. She might well be a feisty, gun toting Cockney girl (love the "I'm the bloody Queen mate. Basically, I rule") but her image, like the 200 year old mask she wears, is based upon the need of the nation-state to bend her to its will. As she says it, "keeps me looking like the stamps". I rather enjoyed Sophie Okonedo's performance, particularly in the final scenes where the chirpy Cockney mask really does fall away and she's genuinely horrified by what she's done in the name of duty and loyalty.


These are all lovely, meaty ideas that give the episode its validity but there are certainly some problems here. We're again given that mind's eye view sequence, except it's Amy's this time, that rather too conveniently provides the plot's solution at the end of the story and it really does over-use the analogy between the Doctor and the Star Whale within the space of at least ten minutes as if there's a worry that we just won't get it unless it's repeated to us several times. The Smilers, wonderful creations that they are, are really only present to provide a bit of a scare in the story and really have very little else to offer as a threat. They work as one of the episode's preoccupations with the child-like view of the implications of failure but I suspect many viewers will feel shortchanged that gangs of the creatures didn't chase Amy and the Doctor around Sussex for twenty minutes.

The major fault with the script is that it doesn't work hard enough to elicit our sympathies with the citizens we meet. They drive the plot but don't offer enough emotional context about life on board the ship to make us really care about their fate. Perhaps that's deliberate but it does rather undervalue the theme of humanity grappling with its own kindness and the simple kindness of strangers. This may be a side-effect of Moffat's clear dictum for the series to embrace the fairy tale's use of symbolism and allegory.


It's not perfect by any means, it doesn't quite flow logically, lacks a bit of the vigour and wit of The Eleventh Hour and its short running time barely lets the story and the world building breathe. But these niggles are balanced against a Doctor Who that actively re-engages with interesting ideas, happily riffs on its own history of political satire with The Sunmakers and The Happiness Patrol, on Orwell, Pratchett and Gilliam coupled with the esoteria of Pat Mills and 2000AD and even a plethora of Star Wars references. Director Andrew Gunn visually expresses those ideas in a beautifully cinematic way, seizing on close ups of faces and eyes, some great use of deep focus, that indicate a consistent style that picks up on The Eleventh Hour's own statement about how you really look at things and what they might reveal to you.

Gunn's work emphasises many of Moffat's central tenets for the series, the Peter Pan and Wendy qualities of the Doctor and Amy, the use of fairy tales with their darkness allowing children to grapple with their fears in symbolic terms, the surreal idea of Starship UK that strongly re-positions the series as an exploration of British identity and culture within a fantasy and science fiction context (Churchill's up next), and Matt Smith's physical 'madman and his box' Troughton-esque portrayal of the Doctor. Murray Gold's music also adds a shimmering, music box quality to the visuals that really complemented the evocative images.


There are some stand-out sequences here: Amy suddenly realising the Doctor has stopped observing on the TARDIS scanner and is already investigating and waving at her to come and join him, the Alice In Wonderland like investigation of the hole in the road, Amy and the Doctor in the mouth of the Star Whale as a delightful riff on Pinocchio. Whilst the final hug between Amy and the Doctor may well be a bit sentimental and absolutely seals the bond between the pair, I am not yet convinced that Amy is the innocent Wendy that she seems to be. It's not clear when Amy recorded that message to herself in the booth that she hurriedly turned off before the Doctor saw it and that little reminder on the hull of Starship UK is a signal that something's not quite right.


Some may snipe that the inclusion of the 'Churchill on the phone' scene is evident of a script under running or that it's plainly ridiculous that a Prime Minister would have the Doctor's number ("Aaah, hello dear, what's up?") but there's no way that as a viewer you didn't get a frisson from that all too recognisable shadow appearing on the wall behind Winston and the reintroduction of the classic Hartnell era device of linking into the next story.

A completely revised and much fuller version of this review is now available in my book Doctor Who: The Pandorica Opens - Exploring the Worlds of the Eleventh Doctor published by Classic TV Press and is also available on Amazon



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Comments
7 Responses to “DOCTOR WHO: Series 5 - The Beast Below / Review”
  1. What can I say about The Beast Below that I haven't already said/or thought? Well... certainly the link into episode Three is a nice touch. Churchill telephoning the Doctor is no more outrageous than when Rose rang her mother in The End of The World - it seems that a long-distance (time/galactic) phone call is easy come by these days. But to the question of how Churchill had the Doctor's number? Artistic licence is such a beautiful thing, no logic needed at times!

    The suspense was amazing, although the Smilers weren't really needed; the plot could have coped without them. It did seem that some ideas had been thrown about and mashed together with great confusion.

    But, saying that, the final outcome - and the big revelation about the Beast of the title - was a nice touch. The Beast Below wasn't as fast, humorous or pleasing as the previous adventure, but it certainly kept me watching.

  2. Very good review, Frank. Sums up the episode so well I might not bother myself!! A bold episode for number two in a enw run with a new man but I think they just about pulled it off despite the somehat hurried and occasionally heavy-handed nature of the storyline. I'm hoping this 'link between episodes' thing continues as, if nothing else, it justifies the "journey continues" tagline the trailers are using! Also makes it a bugger for fan writers to slot stories into the gaps if there aren't any gaps!

  3. Steven Gill says:

    Great reveiw, i agree that it felt a bit rushed but good episode none the less, I have to admit, i've really fallen for the reworked music now, the middle eight at the end sounded great.

  4. Sarah says:

    Thanks for excellent review! I had fears when first watching that there were re-hashed elements from 'Planet of the Ood', especally with the torturing of the giant alien star whale brain and its song of despair... I could see how the Doctor would have come to the conclusion that he did about another enslaved and tortured alien. The final reveal about the star whale was surprising and satisfying.

    I'm also intrigued by the pervasive sense of secrecy; secrets withheld from the self as much as from others. Has this some implication for the Doctor himself and the wider story arc - those sinister cracks in the walls of the universe that just flickered into view again at the end?

  5. Anonymous says:

    Another very interesting review, thank you! -- in fact so much so that, unusually, I thought I'd mention the rare parts I didn't quite agree with --

    "reminds him that his own kindness is rooted in the misery of longevity, loneliness and pain."

    I do agree with this, but I assume you mean he would be kind anyway, it only highlights how kind he is that he's driven even more to spare others the same fates.

    "The institutions of British culture, signs and symbols as recognisable as Tube station logos, red telephone boxes, the test card, old BBC logos and bakelite television sets, become reductionist and suggest that these visions of British nostalgia are simply the chains of dystopian repression, of the police state that manages the living experience of the individuals on board."

    Just for myself, I think this is a false tangent-- I didn't see any direct connection between the paraphenalia and the repression beyond the booths-- it (to me) was more about the identity of the ship being instantly established.

    "The Beast Below sadly says that we would rather prefer our society to develop off the back of the suffering of others and that we endlessly repeat this in a spiral of forgetting and not protesting."

    Isn't this cycle broken at the end, as far as we know?

    "I am not yet convinced that Amy is the innocent Wendy that she seems to be. It's not clear when Amy recorded that message to herself in the booth that she hurriedly turned off before the Doctor saw it and that little reminder on the hull of Starship UK is a signal that something's not quite right."

    ??? What do you think she could have been doing, beyond recording that message as a desperate measure, knowing she was about to lose her memory? And why would (not to mention how could) the cracks in the universe be her doing?

    As I say, though, these are the odd parts out of a very interesting text :)

    Tim

  6. FRANK says:

    Tim, thanks for your kind comments.

    I see the symbols of British life in the story as symptomatic of a populace that's never allowed to move on, that's forever forced to remain in nostalgia. It's an atrophied culture.

    Yes, the cycle does of course end here for Starship UK. But I was saying that out here in the real world then the cycle goes on. The story points to our own voter apathy for one thing.

    I think, as I've discussed elsewhere, that it's now understood that Amy recorded the message for herself in the 20 minutes she lost. The problem I had with it was it wasn't clearly shown that this was the case. It's being so clever by editing it from her viewpoint that you really aren't sure what happened and it certainly led me to conclude that something else was going on.

    But I still maintain she's not all she seems to be.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Hullo again :)

    "I see the symbols of British life in the story as symptomatic of a populace that's never allowed to move on, that's forever forced to remain in nostalgia. It's an atrophied culture.

    Yes, the cycle does of course end here for Starship UK. But I was saying that out here in the real world then the cycle goes on. The story points to our own voter apathy for one thing."

    Hmmm, yes! Yes, fair point.

    "I think, as I've discussed elsewhere, that it's now understood that Amy recorded the message for herself in the 20 minutes she lost. The problem I had with it was it wasn't clearly shown that this was the case. "

    That's true, it's not clear enough. For myself, her distress in the video suggests it was right after the information dump, just before she pressed "Forget", but I can see how there's leeway, which is unfortunate.

    "But I still maintain she's not all she seems to be."

    Fair enough, each to their own speculation. I was a little baffled as I can't for the life of me see any suggestion she's anything other then herself, or colluding in any plot, though I imagine she's connected to the cracks somehow. But again, each to their own.

    As for people not being what they seem to be, I do, however, think almost the opposite for Shaz Granger-- I enjoy your Ashes to Ashes blogs as well, and I agree that she had some kind of strange epiphany on friday... (my theory is that, as she is the other main character apart from Alex who is new to this series, she turns out to be in the same position as Alex and Sam-- someone either on their way back to "reality" or in the process of going somewhere else)

    I'm very much gripped by ATA, too. For me, DW, ATA and Merlin are the three key fantasy shows our country has at the moment.

    Tim

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