TV EYE: Doctor Who, S5 E02: ‘The Beast Below’

Once again, it’s time to look at Who. I won’t be writing this much on every week (if only because on the current form, it’ll get very dull writing “Matt Smith and Karen Gillan are both brilliant” over and over again), but it’s time for me to get my teeth into an episode that may not have knocked my socks off as much as last week’s, but still had plenty of delights on offer. As usual, fear the spoilers…

And a big hello to the gripers. Looking at the comments section of any review of Who (particularly on the SFX website) is never a good idea – and there’s certainly a sense that for at least a few people, the jubilation of last week was brought slightly down to earth by the fact that The Beast Below was not (shock horror) an absolute barnstorming classic of barnstorming barnstormosity. I especially loved the people who were saying “Oh, but it was a bit like The Long Game, wasn’t it?” or “Oh, not another story of the Doctor visiting the future of the human race and defeating a corrupt hierarchy”, which is a bit like complaining about the number of episodes where the Doctor and Companion get separated, or where the TARDIS lands.

To throw my hat into the ring, I really, really enjoyed The Beast Below, but would agree that it wasn’t an absolute barnstorming classic – and I didn’t enjoy it quite as hugely as I did ‘The Eleventh Hour’. But then, (a) Moffat had nearly twenty extra minutes to play with in episode 1 and pack it full of one-liners and characterization (I think a chopped down version would have been very inferior), and (b) ‘The Beast Below’ is a very different episode, and setting out to do very different things. In fact, I’m kind of reminded of the way that when a Pixar film comes out that isn’t quite in the same league as something like WALL-E or The Incredibles, people will gripe about it in a way that’s essentially saying “Well, it isn’t quite a masterpiece. ‘The Beast Below’ isn’t quite a masterpiece, but it is a very good piece of Doctor Who storytelling, and gives us a tale that I really can’t see any other show getting away with in such a kooky and heartfelt manner.

In the same way that getting Moffatt as showrunner didn’t mean that we’d be getting thirteen weeks of creepy ‘Blink’-style stories, the fact that ‘The Eleventh Hour’ was brilliant didn’t mean that all the other episodes would be just as good and exactly the same. It’s part of Doctor Who’s genetic make-up that the pace and genre and tone switches every week, and ‘The Beast Below’ sees Moffat trying on a new writing hat. While the general setup might occasionally recall ‘The Long Game’ (and many other Who stories), there’s also the sense that this is acting as Moffat’s eqivalent of ‘The End of the World’ in S1 (even up to a reversal of having the Doctor rather than the companion do a soul-searching stare out of the window towards the end of the episode) – we’ve had the modern-day romp, and this is a very definite change of tone, pitching us far into the future and into a dark mystery. It’s also true that while there are spooky moments and echoes of the clockwork robots from The Girl in the Fireplace, ‘The Beast Below’ isn’t trying to be a typical Moffat-style scarefest. Moffat mentions Roald Dahl’s name in his interviews in Doctor Who Confidential, and Dahl is a very good name to check for this episode – Who has definitely stepped in a slightly more stylized and fantastical direction, but it’s a style that works for the show. It’s also one that recalls certain aspects of the Graham Williams era, where the show stepped back from gothic horror and instead went for a more mythical feel – an era that’s some of the most genuinely fun Who (although also some of the least effective technically…).

The stylization works very well in realizing Starship UK. For the first time in ages, we have a spacecraft interior that doesn’t feel like it was filmed in a power station, and the oddball nature of the world they’ve created means they can actually get away with using real locations in a much better and more consistent way than in, say, S4’s The Doctor’s Daughter (where you can feel the script straining to try and explain why these future colonists are all hiding out in what looks like an antique theatre). The worldbuilding is nice and strong – it isn’t watertight, admittedly, and there are some whacking great holes if you think about it too much, but the tone of the episode clearly says that this isn’t trying to be hard sci-fi. And, most importantly, the plot holes don’t impact on the main climax, and there’s no decision to press the button marked ‘TOTAL BOLLOCKS OVERDRIVE’. In fact, in many ways this is Moffat synthesizing RTD’s style to combine it with his own, and the results are very, very nice – the steampunk, retro-Fifties world works extremely well (and may have been slightly influenced by the gorgeous design in the film City of Ember – among many of the details I loved were the London Underground signs on the ‘Vator’ elevators, and the retro look blended with the real sets very effectively).

It all builds up to a difficult moral choice, but unlike ‘The Waters of Mars’ it doesn’t feel like a weighted game, or that the script is trying too hard. There’s a very good and unsettling atmosphere to the whole episode, especially with the political satire of the voting booths (which is exactly the right kind of satire Who can get away with, and much stronger than RTD’s “Gosh, wouldn’t it be great if the Master was the Prime Minister?” style). The idea of a population living in deliberate ignorance so that they don’t have to deal with the moral choice that their society is based on is a very strong, provocative idea, and while it’s fair to say that the episode is almost a bit too crowded at times – there’s an awful lot going on, and it’s weird and unsettling rather than genuinely scary – the intelligence and the sense of wonder at the heart of the story makes it all hang together in a way that many other New Who episodes don’t (such as the previously mentioned Doctor’s Daughter). The episode essentially begins and ends with a poem (and I did love the way that what starts as a menacing warning gets redone as a positive message at the climax) – Moffat’s determination to do fairy tale is front and centre here, and with story devices like the Queen going undercover to investigate her own kingdom, he’s certainly pulling most of it off. It’s also a slightly more child-centric episode than last weeks, both in story-focus and in tone – and I think it’s surprising how well it works, and how much it acts as a contrast to RTD’s occasional habit of trying to entertain too many people at the same time.

In fact, if there’s one place that the scripting felt like it slipped up – and it’s the only one, really – it was in underlining the similarities between the Doctor and the Star Whale just a little too much. And the weird thing is, the second time it happens – between the Doctor and Amy, in front of the view of the Starship UK cityscape – still needs to be there, and does fulfil a slightly different story purpose, but still feels like we’re being told the similarities all over again. It’s only a minor stumble in an episode that may be a little jumbled at times, but does a great job of marrying old-style Who and new-style Who, while also leading up to a well-played and emotionally affecting climax.

The other thing it’s doing, of course, is giving us our first ‘proper’ look at the Eleventh Doctor and Amy in an actual Doctor/Companion situation, and the results are really, really good. It’s a great set-up – combative in the right way, with characters who can disagree and strike sparks off each other without sinking into non-stop bickering (as many of the Eighties Who companions did). A lot of the story is about Amy finding her footing as a companion and truly earning her place in the TARDIS – Karen Gillan doesn’t put a foot wrong, and Amy is in serious danger of becoming the most interesting and well-rounded companion (as well as making sure I spend the next eleven weeks just reduced to fanboy style “Another episiode where she’s fantastic OMG!!!”). Suffice to say, last week wasn’t a fluke, and Moffat is exploring some interesting new territory with the Doctor/Companion relationship, especially considering that Amy not only manages to get herself temporarily fired as companion (something that hasn’t really happened in any way since Adam in S1), but she then goes and does one of the things that the Doctor expressly said he wouldn’t do. She’s a character who’s her own person and a genuine match for the Doctor – and isn’t making goo-goo eyes of love at him every five minutes. They’ve got a fascinating friendship already growing – and just from a characterization point of view, the show’s already done its job. I’m invested in the Doctor and Amy in a way I’ve never managed with New Who before – I want to see what ups and downs they go through, and it’s going to be really interesting to see what the other episodes have in store.

And as for Matt Smith… well, again, I’m going to have to find different superlatives or at least different ways of saying “Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant” for the next eleven weeks. Because once again, he’s really, really good – and also genuinely odd in an absolutely fascinating way. It’s the kind of performance where you can tell the actor is having a whale of a time exploring the eccentricity and energy of the role, but he’s also doing a good job with the darker moments. The reference to the Time War and the end of the Time Lords was, at first glance, maybe a bit too casual – and yet I like the fact that it wasn’t an immediate cue for the Doctor to don his Angst face and another round of “the Lonely Doctor”. It’s a much quieter moment, and we get the sense that the events of ‘The End of Time’ and the regeneration have sorted out some of that mess in the Doctor’s head – he can talk about it in a different way now, without having to go through stuff that was, to be honest, getting a little old at times. And at the climax of the episode, the segue from the high-energy eccentricity into the anger at himself and everyone else about what he’s about to have to do is just perfectly pitched – Tennant took a while to balance the eccentric energy and the darkness (and even then could be excessive at times), while Smith has got it almost spot on from the start. He’s handling the madness, the truly oddball nature of the Doctor – it’s a genuinely engaging and thrilling performance to watch. He’s owning the part – he is the Doctor, in a way that few performers have managed so quickly.

So- ‘The Beast Below’ is, admittedly, probably close to Moffat’s weakest script for the show, but that’s really only because the others are almost all stone-cold classics, and it’s still a very good example of the kind of sturdy, all-round entertaining storytelling that Doctor Who has to do inbetween the more attention-grabbing blockbusters. There were a couple of caveats (I wasn’t fond of Sophie Okonedo’s performance, especially when she originally had the mask on) and plenty of unexpected surprises (Terrence Hardiman! The Demon Headmaster himself!), and I was certainly amazed to see a trail for the next episode actually worked into the climax (which is actually a callback to the show’s original structure in the early sixties, when every story climax fed into the next one – all that was missing was a “Next Episode: Victory of the Daleks” title card). We’re basically running at one almost-classic (hell, I watched it three times in one week – I haven’t done that with Doctor Who since 1989), and one slightly flawed but still thoroughly entertaining tale. Not sure about next week – it’ll be interesting to see how the show functions with a non-Moffat script (although, like RTD, I’m sure Moffat will have done a ton of script-doctoring), and I’m really not sure about the upcoming redesign of the Daleks unveiled on the Radio Times covers this week (I initially thought it was some kind of odd redesign done in CG especially for the cover – it seems I may be mistaken…). Again, there are going to be ups and downs, but Who seems to be in rude health right now, and it’s going to be fascinating to see where the journey takes us next.

2 thoughts on “TV EYE: Doctor Who, S5 E02: ‘The Beast Below’

  1. It’s an episode I quite enjoyed as it went past but whose flaws seem to have magnified in my memory. Principle among those flaws is the deeply contrived premise of the starship and its mystery: everything technically hangs together but never feels even remotely plausible. It’s horrendously cluttered and over-complicated because every element depends on every other in a teetering house of cards.
    As you say, it’s not trying to be hard SF and indeed is almost the reverse: a weird dark fantasy/pulp sf hybrid. That’s the get-out clause for me. I can buy a far future starship closely modelled on 1950s England and powered by a space whale, but only if I use the bit of my brain that enjoyed the wry imagination of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and not the bit of my brain that demands realism. On that level I liked the imagination, and the gothic fairy tale qualities, and I really enjoyed the satirical edge.
    What I did love pretty much unreservedly was the Doctor and his companion, and I second your thoughts on that front. I particularly love the unpredictability of the Doctor, something that emerges as a synthesis of Moffatt’s sly scripts and Smith’s eccentric body language and line readings. He’s a natural.

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  2. All completely valid criticisms and opinions – although, I have to admit that plausibility and Who can often be strange bedfellows. Really, it’s not much more implausible than many of the other oddities New Who has thrown at us, and does hang together without hitting the Total Bollocks Overdrive button (I think partly because of the fact that it is deliberately weird and fantastical). It’s not the most amazing Who I’ve ever seen, but it is satisfying and consistent and fun in a way that a lot of the average inbetweener episodes of New Who haven’t been (and which is also very reminiscent of the more oddball stories of the Sylvester McCoy era – occasional echoes of The Happiness Patrol, certainly). I certainly wouldn’t complain if this was the baseline of quality for the episodes between the all-out blockbusters. And the Neverwhere comparisons are apt, too (although on a much healthier budget than the original TV version).

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