THIS EPISODE TAKES
PLACE DIRECTLY BETWEEN THE TV EPISODES "THE
OF THE DALEKS."
'THE COMPLETE FIFTH SERIES' LIMITED EDITION STEELBOOK BLU-RAY DVD
(BBCBD0130) RELEASED IN NOVEMBER 2010.
The Doctor takes
Amy to the distant future, where she finds Britain in space.
Starship UK houses the future of BRITONS, as they search the stars for a new home.
But as Amy explores, she encounters the terrifying Smilers
and learns a deadly truth inside the Voting Booth...
10TH APRIL 2010
It would have been difficult for a season-opener to provoke a more favourable response than last week’s Eleventh Hour did. But as the first ‘regular’ episode to feature the new ensemble, The Beast Below had an altogether harder job. It had to maintain the pace without prolonging the peak. It had to prove that the new team can do just as exceptional a job with the ‘bread and butter’ episodes as they can do with those charged with hype.
And The Beast Below certainly ticks all the requisite boxes. Starship UK is a marvellous idea – all the peoples of the United Kingdom (less Scotland, naturally, who demanded their own ship!) launched into space to escape the burning Earth and to find a new, temporary home – that impresses as much visually as it does conceptually. The Mill’s external CG shots are absolutely stunning, mirroring the pomp and circumstance of the stereotypically-British interior, which is exceedingly impressive in itself. The heavy, imperial regalia really feeds the “police state” feel of the episode, whilst at the same time celebrating the show’s Britishness, which is certain to go down well with international audiences. I particularly like the Starship UK logos, which are, in essence, corruptions of the early BBC, sans-serif / parallelogram logos. Long-time viewers might also appreciate the nod to the popular Tom Baker serial, The Ark in Space, which also featured a group of humans from the same era attempting to flee the solar flares.
“Ask Mandy: ‘Why are people scared of the things in the booth?’”
Furthermore, new Head Writer Steven Moffat’s flair for creating extremely unsettling monsters continues apace here, Starship UK’s Smilers being the latest addition to a formidable list that includes gas-mask zombies, clockwork droids, weeping angels and even flesh-eating darkness. These enamel-painted, head-spinning horrors are almost Mag-rstianly macabre with their sinister, painted smiles, and are certainly destined to be cause of many a child’s nightmare. Their human counterparts, the Winders, are less inspiring at a first glance, but once the rationale behind their name becomes evident I think that they actually out-chill their booth-dwelling cousins.
“I’m the bloody Queen, mate. Basically, I rule.”
Moffat’s script also presents us with a memorable character whose intentions aren’t wicked – Liz 10, the gun-toting queen regnant of the future commonwealth realms. Much like the Winders, the porcelain mask-wearing monarch is initially portrayed as a walking cliché, but as the narrative unfolds her cockney twang and volatile reactions soon rear their heads. Sophie Okonedo - who is already familiar to many Doctor Who fans as Alison Cheney, companion to the Doctor who never was – clearly has great fun with the part. After all, how many jobs is she likely to find that will allow her to flit from ‘Landan’ to regal to phantom of the bloody opera within the space of forty-five minutes?
The story itself is both clever and effective, steeped in patent meta-phor and offering the nightie-clad Amy a unique induction into the world of TARDIS travel, whilst still giving the incoming incarnation plenty of meat to get his teeth into. Indeed, as he did last week, Matt Smith dominates the proceedings with consummate ease. Here though, the gauche fluency of his enthusiastic portrayal is afforded a little more depth as Moffat’s script betrays the Doctor’s paternal instincts, and broaches difficult topics such as the fate of the Time Lords and even his recent regeneration. Most importantly of all though, The Beast Below shows flashes of darkness and despair within the Doctor; flashes that, were it not for Amy, would have led him down a path so dark that he’d have had to abandon his ‘Doctor’ moniker.
“You never interfere in the affairs of other peoples or planets… unless there’s children crying.”
I continue to be intrigued by the series’ portrayal of Amelia Jessica Pond. The opening scene features Amy floating in space, speaking of how she used to have an imaginary friend, and how that ‘imaginary’ friend returned for her on the night before her wedding to whisk her off for adventures in time and space. Moffat has admittedly tried to heighten the series’ fairytale feel, and Amy is the embodiment of this. Such storybook sensibilities are sure to go down a storm amongst younger viewers – I wonder how many of them will be dreaming of floating in space beside the TARDIS in their pyjamas tonight? - though I can’t help but wonder how those of us in the adult audience are going to react after (at least) thirteen episodes of it.
However, Karen Gillan’s performance doesn’t evoke the likes of Wendy or Alice. On the contrary, Gillan leaves the viewer with no doubt that Amy is as real as real could be. She’s hot and feisty, cool but crude, and – just like all of us – she is capable of making a bad call when put under pressure. The scene in the voting booth, where she chooses to forget what she’s learned - albeit with the noble intention of saving the Doctor from having to make an agonising decision - is the perfect example of this.
“All that pain and misery and loneliness, and it just made it kind.
Very old and very kind, and the very, very last. Sound a bit familiar?”
The episode’s dénouement is remarkable for both Amy and the Doctor. Andy Gunn’s fabulous use of that distinctive, first-person ‘thought-cam’ (first seen in last week’s episode) allows us to see the cogs in Amy’s mind turning as, in a heartbeat, she puts together all the pieces of the puzzle and springs into action, saving the star whale’s life and reminding us all of the Doctor’s vulnerability; of how he needs the compassion of a human companion to help him to make the right calls.
However, the weighty climax of The Beast Below is at odds with its general tone, which is one of traditional thrills and spirited adventure. This feel is encapsulated superbly by Murray Gold’s new ‘Doctor Theme’ which, particularly when contrasted with Nine and Ten’s more melancholy refrains, might be quite telling as to where Moffat and Smith intend to go with Eleven.
“In bed above or deep asleep, while greater love lies further deep.
This dream must end, this world must know, we all depend on the Beast below.”
Inescapably though, The Beast Below is not quite as engaging as last week’s superlative effort. It’s a spellbinding and stirring story nonetheless; so much so, in fact, that I can only make one small criticism. Though its explanatory dialogue should prevent children (and quite a few adults, I suspect) from using the terms ‘United Kingdom’ and ‘Great Britain’ interchangeably, a generation are now going to grow up with a warped understanding of the word ‘abdicate’...
ab-di-cate [æbdɪkeɪt, ab-di-keyt]
–verb (used without object)
to cease the stimulation of an enslaved star whale's brain, esp. when said cessation prompts an increase in velocity of or the destruction of annexed space vehicle
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2010
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
Second episodes are tricky things, generally more difficult than first ones. Thrilling audiences with brand new characters is one thing; proving that they can be engaging week after week is another. The Beast Below struggles to make the same impression as the breathless series opener The Eleventh Hour, but it is, nonetheless, a fine example of ‘bread and butter’ Doctor Who.
Beginning with a classic creepy opening scene, with its unsettling mixture of a pit of hell and a scary smiling monster face, and ending with a sort of spooky nursery rhyme, you just know this one is going to linger in half-remembered memories in today’s young viewers long into their lives. The Doctor holding Amy out by legs, letting her dangle in open space is another image that is sure to stay with a lot of people. To make an already tired observation, there really is a fairytale-vibe to the goings on here. Not to say that the adults in the audience are poorly served; fairytales retain their place in folklore due to their cross-generational appeal, and that’s also true of the events on offer here. Plus, for those so inclined, we have Amy Pond cavorting around in her nightie, following on from her police-woman / kissogram costume in The Eleventh Hour, which is also sure to stick in some viewers’ memories.
“My name is Amy Pond. When I was seven, I had an imaginary friend...”
It’s a decidedly peculiar episode, with much of its running time devoted to arresting imagery at the expense of explanation. There’s some real scope and mystery to this story, which, although played out on a small-scale, hints at a much greater world. When we see the Starship UK, cruising through space, we can feel there’s a whole world within it. It’s a conceit lifted from James Blish’s classic Cities in Flight quartet of novels, but expanded, encompassing an entire nation on the back of a spacecraft. It’s also a unique way of capturing the show’s oft-cited quintessential Britishness, by lifting the whole of Britain away from the world and transforming it into an alien backdrop. You can see this episode going down well with the American audiences, capturing exportable Britishisms like Cockneys, the Royal Family, and eccentric adventurers in Harris tweed. Liz 10 is a great addition to the show’s mythology, even if the Doctor does take a little while to catch onto her identity. Admittedly, the Cockney cries of “I’m the bloody Queen, mate!” and the like are a bit broad, but effective, and Sophie Okenedo makes the part her own.
This world-building extends beyond the hull of the ship and the walls of the county-named tower blocks. A sad little fan boy part of me loves that the solar flares that pushed humanity from the Earth are clearly intended to be those that were referenced in classic serial The Ark in Space (although an even sadder little fan boy part is annoyed that they screwed the dating up). We hear tales of a long-gone race of vast star whales; creatures who took early space travellers under their wing. Some aspects, such as the Smilers (I keep wanting to write ‘Slimers’...), and the nature of the government in this version of the United Kingdom, remain under-explained, but this only adds to the sense that there’s so much more to this world left to discover.
“The man above might say hello, expect no love from the Beast below!”
There’s a missed opportunity here, however. What with the election approaching in the real United Kingdom, something topical could have been made of this story’s voting booths and secret police. Yet, although we’re all well aware that the British government has sanctioned actions that would appall most of us, there’s no real parallel to made with the torment of a giant star whale. Perhaps a longer episode could have made something of the potential satire here. Instead, it’s mostly a chance to Terrence Hardiman to play another Demon Headmaster-style villain.
Both the regulars get some great material here. It’s a chance for Karen Gillan to impress as Amy takes more of the story on her shoulders. She doesn’t disappoint, showing that she has the potential to make Amy into a very strong character. Certainly, Amy is lacking in some of the more annoying traits that companions can sometimes display; she’s curious and brave without being full of herself, and capable of self-doubt without being under the Doctor’s thumb. And, indeed, it is Amy who saves the day here, in an entirely believable fashion, seeing the truth when the Doctor is blinded by his responsibilities. The Doctor is a far more carefree figure here than we’ve become used to during the last year, but The Beast Below still shows us that he’s carrying the weight of the universe. He’s the last of his kind, but happily this isn’t the be-all of his character. It’s also great when we learn that the Royal Family has been passing stories down through the ages (including a surprising reference to a throwaway gag in The End of Time). Matt Smith continues to impress as the Doctor. There are moments that contain notes of Doctors Two, Five, Six, Seven and Nine in his performance, but most of all something that’s uniquely his.
“Thing One. We are observers only. That’s the one rule I’ve always stuck to in all my travels.
I never get involved in the affairs of other peoples or planets...”
All in all, this is a slower-paced story than I might have expected following the frenetic season opener, but one that is ultimately satisfying and I believe will become a favourite in my repeated viewings. The pace of the overall series is kept up, however, as we launch directly into next week’s Victory of the Daleks. This level of episode-to-episode feeding harks back to the days of William Hartnell, where one story bled into the next. And, although we don’t know just how long the Doctor spent on his little side trip to the Moon, running in the TARDIS, it does seem that he’s barely had a chance to catch his breath since the beginning of The End of Time. That man needs a nice cup of tea and a sit down.
Copyright © Daniel Tessier 2010
Daniel Tessier has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
It’s interesting to see how Steven Moffat fares when compared to his predec-essor, Russell T Davies, simply because no two other people have ever had such a role in the series before. We’ve had script editors who contribute regular scripts (Robert Holmes and Eric Saward, especially) but never before has the creative thrust of Doctor Who been channelled through one person quite so personally. From experience we know that Moffat is an excellent writer; he has served an unforgettable glut of quality adventures over the past four years, from chilling wartime drama to lyrical romance to out and out mind blowing science fiction. We know this is a writer who can deliver the goods. What is interesting is that despite both episodes of the 2010 season being accomplished pieces of writing – The Eleventh Hour was a gorgeous fairytale piece and The Beast Below a charming one– neither episode has threatened to be anywhere near as radiant as his one-per-season wonders during Davies’ reign.
Above: Steven Moffat. As efficient a showrunner as Russell T Davies?
There has been, and still is a lot, of Davies-bashing going on now that he’s left the big chair, and I don’t always think it is entirely justified (despite some moments in his era that I really didn’t like), but it is fascinating to see that when he is called upon to produce as many scripts as Davies was, the level of quality is about the same. My point is that both of these writers have their strengths and weaknesses, and when called upon to do the same job they are probably as efficient as each other. Davies is bigger on spectacle and the moment and Moffat plots his stories with more style and classy imagery. Fundamentally, I think we’re in for a treat of a season but I don’t want to join the ‘Now we are finally getting some good Doctor Who’ brigade because there has been a terrific amount of quality Who over the past four years. What I would really like would be for Davies to write one script a year so that we could see how good he can be when required to fill just forty-five minutes. I’m willing to bet it would be a belter.
Comparisons with The End of the World are inevitable as we have a story which introduces a new Doctor and companion (like Rose) followed by a story that rockets into outer space and features aliens, spaceships and all sorts of science fiction weirdness where the companion and the Doctor find more out about each other. I still think that The End of the World is one of the Davies era treasures, a cornucopia of insane ideas and a budget bursting visual delight. The Beast Below is a much more sombre affair with some much darker ideas. Probably my biggest complaint would be that once I had finished this episode I felt as if we’d hardly explored the setting at all – squeezing an evolving plot into forty-five minutes left the setting with no room to breathe so the entirety of the Starship UK is represented by about four people. The multitude of aliens and plots in The End of the World left you with the impression that you had taken a thorough peek at the far future, but I could have happily have spent more time on Starship UK exploring the fabulous idea of typical British landmarks in a science fiction setting.
Saying all that, what a truly scrumptious idea – the whole of the UK setting sail for the stars. The image of the sky scrapers reaching out into space with familiar town names (Devon, Surrey) is one of those magic Doctor Who icons that no other show could pull off with such aplomb. It was only once I’d watched the accompanying episode of Doctor Who Confidential that I realised just how much detail the behind the scenes crew had put into recreating London within the spaceship, going to such lengths as having market stalls; lollipop men; painted road lines; taxis; level crossings; post boxes; and underground station doors for lifts. Some bits I spotted, but I don’t feel that the director capitalised on the sheer culture shock of seeing these things in such a bizarre setting. The focus is too much on Amy and her wonderfully wide eyed expression! I did love the shot of the glass ceiling, however, which gave the opening scenes a sense of grandeur that was otherwise missing.
Since we’ve had Moffat behind the typewriter, he has really thought about what makes this world tick and the layers to the script are as we have come to expect. Liz 10 is a brilliant idea; a common, swaggering Queen Elizabeth X who is a dab hand with a blaster and is trying to find out what her government is keeping from her. The director gives Sophie Okonedo appropriate exposure throughout the episode, lusciously panning across the velvet folds in her dress, tracking her through glasses of water, shrouding her in mist and masks before finally exposing her as the cocky cockney with a heart. Mysteries are Moffat’s weapon and the idea of a spaceship travelling through space with no engines or movement is an intriguing one. His use of polling booths is not the political allegory that I thought it would be (or definitely would’ve been if Davies had written the script!) but a rather clever way of pushing the idea that there are secrets to be had on Starship UK that people are deliberately trying to forget. Amy’s impassioned speech to herself to get the Doctor away from the dilemma that awaits him only serves to whet out appetites even more. I thought that the Smilers would be creepier than they turned out to be though - I have always found ventriloquists dolls sinister, which I thought they resembled in pictures, but in reality they just swivelled their heads and looked moody. I think a menacing laugh and glowing eyes would have done the trick.
“The impossible truth, Doctor. We’re travelling amongst the stars in a space ship that can never fly.
There’s a darkness at the heart of this space ship. It frightens every one of us.”
The episode rides on the revelation that in order to escape the solar nightmare that threatened the Earth, the people of the UK were willing to trap and torture a glorious Star Whale and ride on its back. It works beautifully and the last fifteen minutes of The Beast Below is where the episode really kicks into gear and we are confronted with the sort of moral dilemma that is generally reserved for shows like Star Trek. Let the creature continue to suffer, wipe out the human race, or render the whale brain-dead so that the journey can continue painlessly? What an awful turn of events, which left me asking my husband surely there must be a fourth option? The horror of the situation is beautifully captured in a moment that reminded me of both Planet of the Ood and Torchwood’s Meat when the Doctor let them all hear the creature screaming out in pain. A shocking but necessary wake up call for those responsible for its suffering.
“You knew if we stayed here I’d be faced with an impossible choice. Humanity or the alien.
You took it upon yourself to save me from that. That was wrong.”
The way the story twists and turns around Amy is one of its many delights and we leave the future with a better understanding of both her and the Doctor, and with the pair of them on a much more even footing. What I really loved was the opportunity for both Amy and the Doctor to show their teeth. Amy makes a decision to stop the Doctor having to experience the appalling choice above and he turns on her upon realising this, telling her that she has no right to hide anything from him and that she is going home as soon as they are done here. Amy chases him instantly and powerfully calls him on his reaction which gets him even madder, screaming that no human has the right to talk to him after what they’ve done to the creature. After the fairytale antics of last week, this is raw drama and very much appreciated.
The joy of Amy realising that the star whale hale is simply a kind old beast that wanted to help a crying child – just like the Doctor did with her last week – sees their relationship deepen and the Doctor realises that she understands him more than he does himself. For once, he gets to see how his companion sees him and his grateful but muted reaction is one that reveals a lonely and sensitive man. She finds him staring out into space pondering on what he could have done to the last of star whales, and he buries his face into her shoulder in an embrace that speaks volumes. It’s glorious characterisation and I can’t wait to see where the relationship heads from here.
The performances of Matt Smith and Karen Gillan step up a notch and both do brilliant work here. There are lots of lovely moments of continuity that keep reminding us that this is the Doctor and not ‘the new bloke’ – the Doctor telling Amy that he never interferes in other cultures (hah!), Liz 10’s potted history of the Doctor and the monarchy, the Doctor’s quiet admission that he’s the last of his people (I love how he calls it, “a bad day”). There are lots of Troughton-esque touches to Smith’s performance that make me love him more and more each time that I see him. He minces about on his toes and uses his delicate hands very expressively; how funny that under the first straight producer in over a quarter of a century, we have the gayest Doctor! He looks like a mad professor and he behaves like a responsible schoolboy and you just have to love the look on his face when he reveals that he and Amy are standing on a tongue - he is about to pee his pants with excitement! It’s Gillan who owns the episode, however, floating in space with delirium; cheekily breaking the rules and boasting about it to children; “It’s minging!”; standing up to the Doctor; and, of course, sorting the whole messy business out in the way only a human being could, by understanding the creature. Gillan gets more confident with each episode and I can easily imagine her holding up an episode on her own later in the season. Bring on Amy’s Choice!
So what do we have here? A packed episode that doesn’t quite fulfil its potential because of its limited running time, but does leave you with the feeling that you have seen a delightful piece of drama that explores the regulars and has enough clever twists to satisfy. It’s a quirky, often surprising episode that lacks spectacle, but has a lot of heart. I liked it mostly for its dramatic conclusion more than anything.
And how brilliant to have a Hartnell / Davison-style lead-in to the next episode…
Copyright © Joe Ford 2010
Joe Ford has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
Starship UK is one of a number of human colony ships that left Earth in or around the 29th century in order to escape solar flare activity. The fourth Doctor visited a different colony ship in The Ark in Space, which had been infiltrated by the Wirrn.
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