If The Eleventh Hour is this season’s equivalent to Rose, then it’s no surprise to see The Beast Below taking a lot of its cues from The End of the World. In both cases, you have a new companion dealing with a new and unfamiliar Doctor. We’ve had an introduction story set in confines which are familiar to both the view and the companion, and now it’s time to see what the TARDIS can do.
Which is to say, lets go to the future. Let’s show that this is a story about time travel. Let’s test drive the ship, and let’s test drive the new Doctor-companion relationship, because you don’t really know someone until you’ve taken them to a completely unfamiliar setting and seen how they fend for themselves. By the time the story is over, the companion has a better idea of the sort of lifestyle she’s about to lead and, with luck, she’ll have embraced it. The rest of the season can now follow with the Doctor and the companion now more comfortable with each other.
The Beast Below fulfills these obligations admirably. Which is good, because as Steven Moffat scripts go, this is clearly the weakest he’s submitted to the series. While the acting, the direction and the production values are as good as always, and while the script shows moments of Steven’s usual brilliance, there are some out-of-tune moments, and the climax is so surprisingly unsubtle that it threatens to shake me out of my suspension of disbelief.
But remember what I said about what to expect from Steven Moffat. Writing one story for a series is completely different from writing an entire season. The Beast Below was always going to be a workmanlike story. It wasn’t going to be a highlight and, indeed, that wasn’t the job it was charged with. It’s job was to build the season. And, frankly, if this is as bad as Steven Moffat gets, then we don’t really have much to worry about with the remainder of the season.
Spoilers follow after the break. Seriously. If you don’t want to be spoiled, turn away now.
Image courtesy the BBC.
It is probably the same night that the eleventh Doctor unknowingly whisked Amy away from her impending nuptials (Amy is still wearing her nightie), and the Doctor is showing the girl a good time. First there’s a little weightlessness among the stars, and then it’s to an interesting place in the future. Cue up the twenty-ninth century and let’s land on Spaceship Britain: the great ark set up to ferry the people of the United Kingdom (minus Scotland, who got their own ship) to safety as Earth boiled under the sudden onslaught of solar flares.
But all is not as it seems. Beneath all the British stiff upper lip and people going about their business, the Doctor catches sight of a child crying. There are also carnival-like smiling mannequins sitting in booths, watching over the people who give them a wide berth. The Doctor quickly susses out that Spaceship Britain is a police state, and there’s a big secret that everybody is not talking about. Despite the Doctor’s lecture to Amy that they don’t interfere, of course the Doctor does. After all, he has to: there’s a child crying. He can’t stand idly by.
The story quickly falls into the Doctor Who rote: Doctor and companion split up so as to get into trouble twice as fast. Amy tries to follow to girl to find out more, and gets called on it laughably fast. The Doctor’s own investigations quickly get noticed and he’s contacted by a masked woman who warns him that evil things are about and he must tread carefully. Again, Moffat pokes a little fun at the fact that, thanks to Russell T. Davies, the Doctor is such a widely known figure, a bit to the eleventh Doctor’s chagrin.
Where things get really interesting, though, is when Amy is captured. Things don’t go quite to cliché. Rather than toss her into a dungeon and threaten execution, the authorities find out that she’s a British citizen (albeit one who is now over a thousand years old), and determine that she has rights. Specifically, she has a right to know.
Amy wakes up in a voting booth. Once her identity is confirmed by the computer, she’s given a short speech by one of the founders of Spaceship UK setting up the parameters of her coming decision, after which she’ll be permitted to press one button to lodge a protest, or another button to forget the whole thing and go on with her life. She’s then fed a blipvert providing her with the whole truth, and she immediately slams her hand down on the “Forget” button. To complicate things even further, once she forgets everything, she sees a recording of herself begging herself to get the Doctor off the ship as soon as possible. The truth is apparently just too horrible for the Doctor and Amy to remain on board.
There is a lot to like about The Beast Below. The smiling mannequins are another in a long line of creepy monsters that seem to be a hallmark of Moffat’s writing. The script also sparkles with a lot of fun pieces of dialogue, and there are plenty of good and creepy moments. Matt Smith and Karen Gillan are growing into their roles well, and I have to love the aplomb with which the Doctor decides to protest. The scene where the Doctor and Amy find themselves shot down below, to land on a gigantic tongue, is funny, creepy and gross in perfect balance (though I was forced to wonder (a) when Amy found time to wash afterward, (b) where she found a laundromat to wash her nightie, (c) what she wore in the interim and (d) why she didn’t wear these new clothes back to the TARDIS. Is she sentimentally attached to her nightie, or what?).
And, again, the acting was of high calibre, and I’m noting it here particularly because of the presence of child actors, who are always a risk. Hannah Sharp’s Mandy has plenty of charisma for her small but important role of drawing the Doctor into the story, and Alfie Field’s Timmy is suitably terror-stricken. And of all the guest characters, I have to say that I loved Sophie Okonedo’s “Liz Ten” — the tenth Elizabeth, Queen of England, who rebels against her own government and helps the Doctor as part of her own search for the truth. The actress also has a critical role to play here, as when the climax hits, she represents the people when it comes to their pain at the horrible decision they must make every day in order to keep the country alive.
Because, of course, the ship is not what it seems. There are no engines. So how is the thing running? Well, that would be the Space Whale that’s cocooned in the middle of it — on whose tongue the Doctor and Amy landed on when they registered their protest to this whole set of affairs. Three hundred years ago, the people of Britain were trapped on Earth as the solar flares hit. It was every country for themselves, and Britain had been caught short, until miraculously the Space Whale arrived, to be captured and tortured into carrying the people to freedom.
This is the choice that every citizen on Spaceship UK labours under. There’s plenty of precedence here. I remember the short story by Ursula K. LeGuin about a town whose prosperity relied on keeping one child locked in a dungeon in unspeakable degradation. In that book, too, a number of that town’s citizens could not accept that the needs of the many outweighed the rights of the one, and they too protested, and accepted exile. So, I’m familiar with the concept at play here, and Sophie Okonedo’s acting makes me sympathize for Liz Ten as she contemplates this horrible decision yet again in her three-hundred year reign.
But though I sympathize with Liz Ten’s pain, I don’t really feel it. Much as the director Andrew Gunn tries to make me feel it, something is missing here. But what?
Erin made an interesting suggestion. She believes the story could have been improved if we the viewers had been privy to Amy’s blipvert. The story as it stands keeps us out of Amy’s head, as well as the head of Liz Ten, preferring that the beast below be the big revelation, and not the choice that the people of Britain made three hundred years beforehand in order to survive. As a result, we’re a disinterested observer. We have little sense of the actual pain that Amy, Liz Ten or any of the people of Spaceship UK have when they understand the truth and decide to forget.
As a result, when the Doctor lays out the dilemma: torture the beast and live, or release the beast and die, I just didn’t see it as a dilemma. If I were Liz Ten, I’d say, “Doctor, I need a third option.” And, to his credit, the Doctor immediately sets out exercising the third option: killing the consciousness of the beast so it can continue to ferry the people of Britain to safety, but do so without feeling any pain. Which is still, of course, unacceptable. All of this is good drama, except for the lingering question I have of why there isn’t a fourth option. Why, in over three hundred years, hadn’t the combined braintrust of Spaceship UK once tried to work out some way to communicate with the beast?
The place to address that could well have been with Amy’s blipvert. Show us the images. Show us the decision the people of Britain faced three hundred years ago. Make us think things through. Make us understand why Amy pressed the “Forget” button.
In other words, don’t just tell us, show us.
Another problem could also be that revelation that Amy receives to save the say comes too soon. Erin notes that perhaps The Beast Below could have worked much better if it had come later in the season. At the beginning of the story, Steven Moffat demonstrates that Amy just doesn’t know the Doctor. She doesn’t know how old he is, or even that he isn’t human, and the last of his kind. And yet she’s able to make this incredible intuitive leap that the beast below is just like the Doctor, based on information she learns barely twenty minutes beforehand? The Doctor isn’t the only one to be surprised at this; I am too.
Amy’s sudden revelation that saves the day is sweet, and it lines up well with the Doctor’s desire to intervene triggered by the sight of a crying child, but it is extremely unsubtle — perhaps not surprisingly so given the obstacles that Moffat faced in writing this into the story. Director Andrew Gunn lays it all so thick that it seems to be raining mortar and bricks on us and, worse, Steven Moffat repeats the message again in the follow-up scene between the Doctor and Amy. Yes, they may have needed that conversation to patch up their relationship, but it still prompted Erin to shout at the television screen, “Yes! We got it the first time!!”, and that’s never a good thing.
But part of the problem is because the delivery of the inherent drama is flawed. Without the sense that we have of the terrible decision the people of Britain made, the revelation that breaks it doesn’t feel nearly so special, and raining down on us the import of the revelation doesn’t make it so. It’s a missing link, and it’s the one thing that prevents The Beast Below from being a wholly satisfying experience.
Still, credit where it’s due: The Beast Below is wonderfully creative, has lovely characters, a witty script, and a definite sense of itself and where it’s going. It’s not the best that Steven Moffat is capable of, and it will likely be at the middle or even the bottom when the time comes for fans to craft their lists of favourite episodes this season, but the episode doesn’t disgrace itself. Not even close. There’s plenty of promise of better things to come, starting next week with Winston Churchill and the Daleks.