"We all depend on the beast below.”
So after spending most of the first episode introducing the new Doctor, Steven Moffat this week gave us an episode which had more of a plot. It felt like a fairly slim plot, though, and as some have noticed was basically the same plot as Encounter at Farpoint, the dreary intro to Star Trek: TNG.
It’s a measure of quite how good last week’s episode was that I found this one somehow disappointing, but it’s not really fair to say there was anything particularly wrong with it; if anything, to consider The Beast Below as not that great is a reflection on the high expectations we’ve been given by five years of mostly very good stuff. As with the first season of the new revival, the episodes seem to be put in the order they are to firstly show the new Doctor dealing with a threat on contemporary Earth, then in space in the far future, then in Earth’s past. Consequently, this had the feel of a retread of The End of the World, but in keeping with Steve Moffat’s writing, it was much, much darker.
It’s the little details of this story that really make it. The observation of Britain reflected in Starship UK was intentionally idealised; it’s fun to imagine a 30th century where British identity boils down to a hackneyed, rundown version of the 1950s. Nice to see a sign for Magpie Electrical, and noticeable that the Starship UK logo displayed on screens was obviously based on the old BBC one. The ‘Vator’ with its London Underground logo, was very much the same kind of lift that takes you down to Covent Garden tube station, and the ‘London market’ was so obviously out of Eastenders that it even had a Queen Victoria pub!
As the Doctor very precisely pointed out early on, this was obviously a police state with a dark secret, and the real driving force of the plot was to find out what that secret was. The Smilers, clockwork enforcers for the State, were a typically memorable Moffat creation. Even in ‘smiling’ mode, confined in their fairground booths, they looked very sinister – it might actually have been even better if they hadn’t had an ‘angry’ face, and had shown their displeasure in some more literal way while still wearing that blank smile. The ability to somehow have three faces despite only appearing to have two was never remarked on, but their scariness was somehow undercut by never having any idea of what they might actually do; the shock moment when we see them get out of their booths certainly makes you go ‘Whoa!’, but then a moment’s thought reveals that they don’t appear to be armed in any way. All they do is menacingly walk forward until someone shoots them. Nice to have them apparently run by clockwork though, in a presumed nod to Moffat’s previous clockwork droids in The Girl in the Fireplace.
Appositely enough for an episode that went out in the week a general election was announced, there were some amusingly blatant political jokes contained therein. The voting booths, where every five years the citizens are told the truth then choose to forget, was obviously a sly dig at the political system, and Liz10 was a brilliantly conceived character – “I’m the bloody Queen, mate”. Hard to know what would shock the Daily Mail more – the idea that the Queen was black, or that she speaks like Captain Jack Sparrow. Sophie Okonedo, clearly knowing she had a terrific role, overplayed it to perfection. Less well used was Terrence Hardiman, who doesn’t seem to have aged since The Demon Headmaster – maybe he really is a demon. His Chief Cleric was clearly the real power in Starship UK, but didn’t really get much to say or do, which is a shame as his few brief appearances were very bit as charismatic as his evil teacher of some years ago.
This was also our first real chance to see the new Doctor and the new companion properly in action. Matt Smith’s performance seemed oddly different than last week – presumably a consequence of shooting the episodes out of order. He was no less engaging though; his fussily precise, slightly stuffy diction were very reminiscent of Patrick Troughton, and his almost mannered physicality is a clear evolution of the previous week’s. And he does righteous anger every bit as well as David Tennant. I don’t know whether this was one of the eariler episodes shot, but it very much showed his stated intent of playing the Doctor as an older man in a young body. Not that I’m complaining, it worked very well – and it’s a rather nice younger body too! And he’s still slyly evasive with Amy, as his avoidance of answering her question about him being a parent showed.
Amy was not so easy to get, though. Karen Gillan is certainly very attractive – for those who fancy girls anyway – and it was a brave decision to have her spend the entire episode in a baggy nightdress rather than the microscopic skirt she wore last week. But I’m still unsure if she matches up to Catherine Tate in the companion stakes. It’s entirely fitting that she’s the one who sees the real solution to the thorny moral problem the Doctor’s ultimately faced with, as it shows that he still needs a human perspective, and the continuing mystery about her upcoming wedding is obviously going to be a major plot point. Steve Moffat has pre-empted jokesters by saying that he doesn’t have a ‘Scottish Agenda’, but with the quips about Scotland wanting their own ship following last week’s exploration of Scottish frying, one has to wonder…
But what about the children? (As the Daily Mail might say). Children were the major plot point in this episode, from the little boy disappearing down below in the pre-credits sequence to the little girl who ultimately helped the Doctor and Amy solve the mystery. It smacked somewhat of a sentimentality that I’ve not previously seen Mr Moffat display for the space whale to have wanted to save Earth because it couldn’t bear to see children crying. Though frankly, it must have been a bloody good-natured space whale to still want to help after hundreds of years of torture. I’m pretty sure my reaction under the circumstances would have been to say “bloody sod you then” and leave the UK to rot. Amy’s faith in its good nature was, with this in mind, one heck of a gamble.
It also disappointingly relieved the Doctor of having to make a decision on the moral dilemma he was presented with. It was a good one, too; either leave millions of people to die in space or destroy the mind of a beautiful and unique creature. It’s been a trademark of the series for years , the idea that a new Doctor gets presented with a moral dilemma to solve, and it seems like cheating a little to cut the Gordian knot with a sword. Still, I note from the trailer that at some point we’re going to see him actually using a gun, so maybe he’ll start doing the dirty deeds himself this year.
The ending, with Churchill randomly able to call the Doctor on the new TARDIS phone, felt a little tacked on to give us a teaser of next weeks Dalek appearance, but was well handled for that. Ian McNeice is clearly great casting as Churchill, and having the Dalek appear as just a shadow in his office was nicely foreboding. Mind you, I’m not sure what to make of the idea that great historical leaders can simply call the Doctor for help whenever they need to. Perhaps Gordon Brown will be on the blower to him soon, to ask for help dealing with the menace of David Cameron.
So after a storming season opener, this one seemed rather low key, but there was still plenty to enjoy. Some clever design, great dialogue and performances, and some lovely CG of Starship UK in space. I notice it’s got another one of those cracks in the universe in it though; I know it’s a little early to speculate, but I wonder if it was there before the Doctor showed up?