The Beast Below
|Production Code||Series 5, Episode 2|
|Dates||April 10 2010|
With Matt Smith,
Written by Steven Moffat Directed by Andrew Gunn
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Piers Wenger, Beth Willis.
|Synopsis: The Doctor and Amy arrive on the Starship UK, where the population of the United Kingdom are struggling to survive.|
A Review by Connie Hoffman 27/4/10
So I like Matt Smith. He is an okay Doctor. But after this second episode, I am wondering where is the key element of the Doctor? While each Doctor has had his own quirks, lines and styles, one thing has remained constant even throughout the classic series. A sense of justice and righteousness.
Particularly in the second episode, The Beast Below. Yes, he did show some anger once he found out the true purpose of the Starship UK and what it was doing to the star whale. But I felt like there should have been more. I mean, here is the very last of a species, and a gentle creature, mind you. And how quickly he came to the conclusion that out of mercy he should put it in a vegetative state. His lack of angst over his desperate decision was disappointing.
Also, as the 10th Doctor, for being so unforgiving with Harriett Jones when she used Torchwood to blow an alien ship out of the sky, he was a little too quick to forgive Amy for her mistake. Not enough scolding. Yes, Amy ended up saving the whale so she deserved forgiveness, but I feel she needed to truly understand what her actions may have cost the Starship UK, the star whale and the Doctor.
I'm a big fan so I will still watch. The new storylines are very exciting, but I have to say that I hope Matt Smith grows some more in those shoes of the Doctor.
Basically, Moffat rules by Thomas Marshall 2/9/10
Steven Moffat's fairytale-like vision of Doctor Who continues to be in evidence in this superb episode. His second script for Series 5 is markedly different in tone and substance but equally as brilliant as his first, The Eleventh Hour. In fact, this is the story which gives a more accurate indication of the overall flavor of his new era and the overall dynamic between the two lead actors. Unlike the central premise of the 33rd century set up in The Beast Below, if this episode is an accurate indication of what is to come then the future is very bright indeed.
For a start with Moffat one must expect the unexpected. All the trailers for this episode gave the indication it would be a reasonably action-filled scare-fest, with android monsters the Smilers haunting kids for months afterwards. Whilst the Smilers have their place, it's fair to say they're not the selling point of their episode and in fact by the end I was beginning to see that with the episode he had trodden a very different path entirely, but one that I am happy to say in no way caused my grin of delight to diminish in size.
His warped imagination (so evident in the beauty that is Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead) comes to the fore very much in this episode. The sheer concept of 'Starship UK' is a little classier than most space stations we might have found in the RTD era, whilst the CGI shots of the exterior are quite stunning. The idea, though, is the thing to be applauded here: all of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (except Scotland; naturally they wanted their own ship!) bolted together in one huge steel space-liner flying through space. Clanking corridors, creaking signs, a musty tower room... it's all classic Doctor Who but with that touch more Britishness even out here in deep space, making it more relatable to us and of course to Amy Pond.
The sets and the direction impress me too. Andrew Gunn probably isn't the best director the show has ever seen, but I enjoyed his use of the 'memory cam' flashbacks which Adam Smith employed so well in The Eleventh Hour. The exterior shots are also very memorable, as are some of the showy pans of London market and the off-street roads. The effects and sets are sometimes slightly cheap-looking (I'm thinking mainly the Magpie Electricals scene and the torturing device in the Tower of London) but this oddly reassures me because the show has at its heart always had crappy effects. This is balanced by the superbly directed scene in the Star Whale's mouth, one of Moffat's most memorable set-pieces and given frenetic pace by Andy Gunn. I feel I must also mention the cracking pre-title sequence, one of the best yet, as we find an unnerving space station, a poetry-reciting girl, a monster beneath the lift and best of all a terrifying Smiler turning its head to the camera - and all in tune with Murray Gold's superb score.
And speaking of Smilers... whilst they might not be the villains of the episode, they certainly showcase Moffat's flair for creating macabre creations. They're instantly more tangible and monster-ish than a gasmask plague or killer shadows, as they are in fact robots present in the room: some of the direction of their fairground grinning faces is exquisite, and I loved the way they turned from grin to mild anger to downright fury and hatred. Their best expression is the last. The Winders, another part of the police state which shows how 'Starship UK' has gone wrong, are not as creepy at first but when one realizes (beautifully underplayed) that the keys turn them up and they are half-human, half-Smiler, they only add to the chill factor. Terrance Hardiman as Hawthorne, leader of the Winders, is a bit wasted though.
Hardiman aside, the main big guest star this week is Sophie Okonedo's brilliant Liz Ten. Having the monarch make an appearance is quite nationalistic enough, but when you turn this on its head and make her into a swaggering, Cockney, gun-toting undercover girl who is investigating the secrets of her own kingdom then you really are on a winner for good ideas. Moffat gives her some great dialogue ("I'm the bloody queen, mate; I rule") and Okonedo's fun performance is the icing on the cake.
This is the interesting part, because this is where the story deviates from what RTD would do. Both the first bit of the episode and the second feel like RTD stories but I can scarcely imagine RTD putting them into the same story: the first has such a joie de vivre, adventure-spirit, fairytale-world kind of feel whilst the second is a remarkably weighty and emotional climax. It's also where the intricacy of the plot really comes into play and it's remarkable how Moffat can weave so many elements together which were set up only minutes into the episode: the screaming tentacles, the Smilers, the glasses of water which don't vibrate on deck, the Winders, the masked lady, etc.
Liz Ten discovers she has been on the throne for hundreds of years in a beautifully underplayed scene from Sophie Okonedo. The ship has no engines but is driven by the brutal torture of a Star Whale in an unpleasant portrayal of vivisection. The population is entirely unaware of this because every 5 years they always choose in the voting to press the 'FORGET' button: there's a brutal political allegory the likes of which we haven't seen since Vengeance on Varos. The revelations come thick and fast; in fact, The Beast Below is an astonishingly fast-paced episode, not in terms of its action-packed content but in the sheer themes it hits you with one after another.
The concept of humanity as a contemptible species is not entirely new - in fact it had been covered by Gridlock and Planet of the Ood in recent years, and a few times before - but I don't think it's ever been done as effectively as it has here. The discovery that there is an ancient, benevolent creature underneath 'Starship UK' not an infestation as we would expect, is beautifully handled; and humanity's vivisection and torture of this aged and wondrous Star Whale, the last of its kind, is a subtle morality point that is done very well. In a way, the episode itself is a comment on humanity because everyone expected the beast below to be a terrifying creature the likes of which would give the Beast a run for his money... but Moffat makes it incredibly unexpected by making it actually a good alien. When have we seen friendly aliens before: perhaps humans have degenerated into a society where there is so much suspicion we instantly suppose something to be evil?
I don't know who's better in this episode, Matt Smith or Karen Gillan, and I don't want to have to decide because they are both absolutely off the scale. Whether it's Amy floating in the TARDIS, experiencing the wonders of space or the Doctor interfering when he just said he wouldn't or Amy wandering around 'Starship UK' in her nightie, there are plenty of memorable images for the pair. In the early scenes, they share the same adventurous spirit - Amy picking the lock, the Doctor investigating the masked lady - and the fun of some of these scenes is phenomenal, especially the disgusting scene in the Whale's tongue where the Doctor explains the gag reflex in Moffat's best joke yet: 'This isn't going to be big on dignity.'
But it's in the second half of the episode, so weighty and emotional, that the two actors really come into their own. Amy learns of the terrible truth of 'Starship UK' but does not tell the Doctor for fear of him having to make such a terrible choice; the Doctor's dealing with this choice is superb. Matt Smith absolutely owns the part in this scene, as he rages against the torture of the trapped and terrified Star Whale... and better still when he shouts 'Nobody human has anything to say to me today!' Humanity did this, Amy exacerbated it; one can see why he cannot stand humans in some respects, and his anger at the things they have done wrong is shockingly weighty for Episode 2 of the series. It took Tennant's Doctor until The Waters of Mars to reach the dark gravitas Smith displays here.
In many ways, it's Amy's episode though, as she explores the ship, finds out more about time travel and the life she has let herself in for, almost reveals she's getting married tomorrow, and probes more into the Doctor's backstory. Her realisation having seen the past of 'Starship UK' that the Star Whale is simply benevolent and kind is so well handled and brilliant that by the end the Doctor and Amy truly are best friends. She saved him from an agonising choice, something he is eternally grateful for, I think: the shot where they hug in front of that beautiful view, both of them clearly affected by their adventure, is a stunning punch-the-air moment. And the parting shots of the entire spaceship being carried by this aged and kind being - who volunteered for the job - are very memorable, as is the crack appearing on the side of the ship. Although those who have not seen The Eleventh Hour might not understand it, it nicely contributes to the story arc.
The hilarious Churchill bit at the end is the masterstroke in the masterpiece, with a beautiful shot depicting the cigar-smoking PM, on the phone to the Doctor, in the Cabinet War Rooms and with a Dalek shadow menacing the wall behind him: bring on next week! All told, The Beast Below will remain in the mind as intelligent, witty, thought-provoking, scary, epic, stunning and ultimately moving, with one of the best depictions of a Doctor-companion dynamic.
And here's the thing: not all the questions raised might be answered by the end. It might not be instantly accessible. It might not be on first viewing the most exciting thing you've ever seen. But The Beast Below is the kind of episode that is much more rewarding in the long run and for once it is no dumbed-down morality play, but something that only the intelligent will pick up. There's very little television like that anymore.
(Nods to Star Wars: some of the shots of the star ship; "Help us, Doctor! You're our only hope!"; the scene on the Star Whale's tongue and the ejection through its mouth; and the fade pan near the end.)
Melting Pot by Mike Morris 19/10/10
I really like The Beast Below, but at the same time it's clearly got a lot of problems. That's not to say that those problems really bother me, but it's still a story with a lot of problems.
Anyway... Davies and Moffatt, Moffatt and Davies. Clearly the two major writing figures since the show came back, even before Moffatt became The Anointed One. Shortly before the Moff emerged as the new Most Important Man In The World, Davies announced that he would "never change a word" of Moffat's scripts. PR it may have been, but it's obvious that the two men hold each other in high regard. This might have something to do with the fact that they're both gifted where the other is weak; Davies could do moments of spontaneous insanity and burst of raw emotion like Moffatt never could. As for Moffatt, he can do structure and great concepts and atmosphere, and he can do them proper.
It's hardly surprising, then, that Davies seems to have shown a desire to emulate the way Moffatt created complex, self-sustaining structures for his storylines. At times this was good - witness the way that the Mr Saxon meme of Series Three was supplemented by actual plotting, seeded in Human Nature - but, more often than not, you just wished he'd never really bothered trying. The Eccleston Series didn't really have an "arc", not in the sci-fi, plot-based sense anyway; instead, while the characters went through natural progressions, the series just kept repeating the meme of Bad Wolf. The conclusion worked-
- oh yes it did -
- not because it was clever in its own right, but because it bounced off the grandiose explanations that the viewers had come up with, and instead offered an answer that was subtle and simple, for all its grand scale. All the fans were busy speculating whether Bad Wolf was Davros, but in the end it wasn't even a person; the name turned out to mean nothing, just two random words left as a message and no more.
Contrast this with the conclusion of Series 4. There's endless foreshadowing about Donna becoming a walking plot resolution, dating back to The Fires of Pompeii; Rose pops up all over the place; the bees are disappearing from Partners in Crime; and planets keep on going missing. Yet at the end, only one of those (the planets) turns out to have any meaningful payoff. Rose serves no real story purpose, the bees lead the Doctor up a blind alley of a subplot, and the less said about Donna's arc the better. It's hard to escape the idea that RTD was consciously trying to do a Moffatt - multiple threads, little details that turn out to be crucial, and non-linear plotting (I absolutely refuse to use the phrase "timey wimey" here) - but instead of going "ooh, that's clever", the viewer's left screaming "If it's all been foreseen and created by the subtle space-time machinations of Dalek Caan, and he's manipulated everyone so all this will unfold, and even if I accept he had some reason for doing it this mind-meltingly complicated way rather than just not saving Davros from certain doom in the first place, the most important point of the whole thing was Donna getting locked in the TARDIS. So WHO CLOSED THE TARDIS DOOR???!!!!!??!"
Thing is, when Russell gets away with it, he does so just being a charmingly cheeky writer. So it's a mixed blessing that The Beast Below feels very much like Moffatt's trying to do a Russell. In fact, he's very much riffing on The End of the World with a few trademark scary-things-like-what-Moffatt-does thrown in, in much the same way that The Eleventh Hour was basically an adaptation of Rose with some timey-wimey (dammit!) shenanigans bunged into the mix. So, does it work?
Well... not entirely. I'm a big fan of The End of the World, and what that story had was great economy. It was an effects show, it was designed to reveal the Doctor's last of the Time Lords status, it had a pop at plutocracy via an alien menagerie and it strung all that along a fairly simple insurance-scam plot. The Beast Below, by contrast, has a very sprawling scope. It's about Smilers, and voters, and people remembering and forgetting, and children, and the last of the Time Lords, and it's got a gun-toting sort of queen in it, and...
Well, you get the picture. The Beast Below feels like a big Moffat two-parter squeezed into a single part. As a result, a lot of the story elements are stunted. Annoyingly enough (from the point of view of this review, anyway) the big secret of what's at the heart of Starship UK is probably the most successful, but it's also impossible to discuss without spoilers. So take it on trust; it's clever and it works, although you do find yourself thinking that if the TARDIS had materialised below the ship instead of above, it would have been a much shorter story.
The Smilers work well enough - certainly, they're physically unsettling - but they're also symptomatic of being everything the story does wrong. They don't actually connect with the main plot at all, they're just ubiquitous sentry boxes that oppress people for no readily apparent reason. Part of the difficulty with The Beast Below is that Starship UK is a clearly oppressive, subtly dictatorial place. However, this doesn't have any connection to the secret at its core, and there's no readily apparent reason for it being run this way. The ripping pre-title sequence works well on its merits, but at no point does the Doctor start demanding of the leaders why underperforming kids get dumped down lift-shafts; he just sorts out the, eh, engine-trouble, and leaves without bothering to address the tyranny of the society. Which... well... he should.
Having said that, even if she wasn't played by Sophie Okonedo having an obvious whale of a time, I'd have liked the character of Liz 10. There's more than a smattering of adolescent wish-fulfillment here - I still blame Kill Bill for all these cartoon-sexy gun-wielding blow-up dolls of characters - but there's something strangely right about this ruler that isn't really in charge, and the labyrinthine power-structure is clearly part of the point. It also hinges nicely on the premise of the "forget" button, which works wonderfully well as a concept; there's an obvious dig at the UK elections, although I'm not sure Moffat says anything much about them. Maybe that's as it should be. Anyway, it's nice to see him having a stab at satire (doing a Russell again), and there's a smart jab at the foundations of suffering upon which western consumer-culture is based.
There might be too much going on, but gosh, Matt Smith juggles the threads with gusto. He's just superb in The Beast Below, from his rather embarrassed revelations about the Time Lords ("yes... it was a bad day") to his almost instantaneous rejection of Amy when he discovers her deception. As for Amy... there's a quietly deceptive side to her nature which is interesting, and it works well here. I have reservations about her as a character, largely because of the rather-too-obvious way she's been put in to keep some of the male contingent happy, and a glib edge to her scripting that accompanies this; our first meeting with adult-Amy has her in full strippogram regalia, and she spends this episode wandering around Starship UK in her nightie. Who does she think she is, Nyssa?
Still, even if Amy's "damaged" side is a bit too sitcom to be really interesting, she's fun. I'm not sure her figuring out of the situation really rings true, and her reconciliation with the Doctor's a bit drippy, but I can see what they tried to do.
It's also worth stating that the design is beautiful. The colour scheme is really lovely, there's a nice feel of progression between the ship's differing levels, and the costumes are great.
Ooh, get me and my faint praise. I don't really want to pick at The Beast Below, but dammit, it's obviously got too much in the pot. And yet... I don't really care. It may be lacking discipline, but it's energetic and vigorous and has some lovely moments. There are as many "er, sorry?" moments as there are "wow, cool!" bits, but so what? It's fun, and has more resonance than might be obvious on first viewing. I could ask for more than that, but it would be churlish. This might not be perfect but dammit, it just wins you over on charm alone.
A bit like the Doctor himself, then.
The First Great Matt Smith Story by Andy Hicks 16/1/11
One of my least favorite moments in all of Doctor Who occurred in the episode Planet of the Ood. Donna can't believe that humans use the Ood for slave labor in the far future, and the Doctor askes her quite pointedly "Who do you think made your clothes?" Now, like a lot of that episode, his comments are a little bit too on the nose, but he raises a very good point. Donna then sarcastically asks if he drags humans around the cosmos just so he can take cheap shots at them, to which the Doctor immediately apologizes.
That's right. He apologizes. Totally undermines the point of the whole story. It'd be like if, at the end of Spartacus, when the soldiers were asking where they could find the titular character, everyone stood up and said "I'm Sparta- naaaaaaw, just kidding. It's the guy who looks like Kirk Douglas." It's entirely possible that Planet of the Ood could have been redeemed if David Tennant had simply delivered the "Sorry" line in a slightly more sarcastic manner. But no: where Planet of the Ood falls apart is that it's a heavy-handed episode without the courage of its convictions.
The Beast Below is the opposite of that. It's Planet of the Ood done right. It doesn't smash you over the head with its moral. It doesn't neatly divide the world up into two sets of people; the good (the Doctor, Donna, and the Ood) and the bad (pretty much everyone else in that story). All it does is present a society based on a completely corrupt system where people actively choose to ignore what's really going on. No, not just ignore, forget. People actively choose to forget here. The Doctor's the only one who really sees through it, of course, because that's what he does. Everyone else in the story (with the possible exception of some of the children) choose to forget what they've learned. Even the people we're supposed to like. Like the best allegorical science fiction, it serves as a distorted mirror. The distortion is the futuristic setting, the "Smilers", the space whale. The reflection is us. We can learn about how we've stripped the Earth of its resources, polluted it, enslaved and killed millions, kept the wrong people in power for the wrong reasons, all in the name of our own comfort. We can read articles and watch documentaries and even speak out against these things, but at the end of the day, if we want to stay sane, we have to choose to forget, to some degree. Even "good" people choose to forget.
Look, if The Beast Below doesn't go down as one of the greatest Doctor Who stories ever, up there with Genesis of the Daleks, The Girl In The Fireplace, Human Nature, The Caves of Androzani, Interference and The Chimes of Midnight, then I just don't know what your definition of good is. Which is, I guess, the point of the story. Which is how it should be.
Actually, that raises an interesting (and severely geeky) point: some of the greatest Doctor Who stories are about how uncomfortable change can be. Can history itself be changed, and is it a good idea, even when you think you're saving millions of lives? If the Doctor becomes a human being, what changes about him? Can the sweet, curious cricket player and the blustery bully with no dress sense really be facets of the same person? Is the Doctor's history itself malleable? What if people were trapped in a house where, due to a time loop, nothing ever changed... and so on. Even The Girl In The Fireplace, which is mostly notable for the clockwork droids and the timey-wimey stuff and the lovely, mind-blowing explanation for it all, is essentially about a woman growing up (i.e. changing) before our eyes.
And here we have The Beast Below, where you push a button to forget what you've learned. To face what you've seen, you risk pulling down the whole world around you. Change takes courage. Change takes work. And it's easier to forget.
I could gush for hours, about the wonderfully retro set and the horrific tentacled beasties and the way the plot hinges on Amy observing and remembering bits and pieces throughout the episode and, ultimately, seeing something the Doctor doesn't, and about the Doctor feeling betrayed that Amy chose to forget about the beast below, even if she doesn't remember doing it, and about that crack at the end, and about how next week we've got Winston Churchill and Daleks to look forward to, but gushing is boring. It's hard to write compelling gush. Best episode since at least Turn Left, or what?
This isn't going to be big on dignity by Evan Weston 10/2/17
The Beast Below prominently features a choice that several of the characters must make. They can either protest the truth about the starship-county upon which they reside, or they can forget and go back to normal life. I didn't intend to - and, like Amy Pond, I swear I can't remember doing it - but I think I pressed the forget button about this one. I can't really remember all that much about The Beast Below, and I watched it fewer than 48 hours ago. For the second episode of a brand new era for the show - as I'll state many times, the showrunner is far more important than the lead actor in terms of quality - this is an extreme disappointment, especially coming off the massive success of The Eleventh Hour.
The Beast Below tries to do a zillion different things, and, while it succeeds at some, it fails at several others. Its largest triumph, incidentally, is the lead actor Matt Smith, who displays an impressive range that we rarely got from David Tennant. No disrespect to the Tenth, but Smith is quite comfortably the superior actor, and, even in a mediocre script, he commands the screen whenever he's on. At times he overdoes it, particularly during his climactic decision - much more on that later - but he's really very good throughout. He's nearly joined by Karen Gillan, who passes her first off-Earth episode with flying colors. She gets the excited/terrified balance almost right, with a slight lean to the former. To this day, though, Billie Piper is the only actress to have nailed that target (in Series 1's spectacular The End of the World), and Gillan probably comes in second. Not a bad place to be at all.
Smith and Gillan inhabit an absolutely gorgeous world, as Moffat fully takes advantage of the BBC's deep pockets to deliver a stunning rendition of floating Britain. Granted, the backstory doesn't quite hold up - much of the story doesn't, I'm afraid - but it's still an ingenious concept, and the production team pulls it off brilliantly. It does tend to feel a bit too dystopic, though. I can't imagine many people hitting the forget button to go back to a dirty, rundown spaceship controlled by creepy circus-booth men. Still, the sets feel authentic and real, and that's a huge plus with such a high concept. The big winner is the beast's tongue, which is suitably disgusting and hilarious. Amy drenched in star whale saliva is easily the biggest laugh the episode gets.
The plot, while riddled with holes, is competent and interesting enough for most of its run. The mystery is genuinely intriguing, and, while it's not hard to figure out that the beast is powering the ship, the circumstances surrounding it and Liz 10 are a genuine surprise, and the reveal of the Forget/Abdicate buttons is close to a jaw-dropper. Out of the supporting cast, Mandy is a bit of a waste, but the queen is good fun, played with relish by Sophie Okonedo. Her plotline ends up working, as does the conspiracy surrounding Starship UK. It's a well-woven web by Moffat, who works right in his wheelhouse here. The problem is, a lot of the details fall apart when given some thought. The message Amy reads to herself is never recorded, leaving the viewer wondering where it came from. The Doctor's rage near the end is also completely unjustified, as the story has to contort itself through technobabble to set up an impossible situation. In addition, he gets angry with the humans for harming the star whale, and then chooses to... harm the star whale. Odd.
Moffat's monsters this week are the Smilers, which creepily have three faces on a rotating head that can seemingly only hold two. They're never truly threatening, though; even when they emerge from their booths and start menacing the Doctor and Amy, Liz 10 takes them down with one shot. Moffat has now shown a hit-or-miss trend with his monsters. While the Weeping Angels are his magnum opus and the Gas Mask Zombies and Clockwork Droids were good, creepy fun, the Vashta Nerada and now the Smilers have underwhelmed with initially cool concepts. It's a trend that unfortunately continues down the line, though he's certainly not done with the good ones.
Even with a bunch of semi-serious flaws, The Beast Below was headed for either a B or high B- grade, with a fun mystery and two excellent central performances carrying it through. However, I cannot excuse the appallingly bad ending that left me with a sour taste in my mouth. Basically, Amy hits the abdicate button and releases the star whale. While the ship should disintegrate - as the Doctor said it would, and one of the show's rules is that he's never wrong about these things - the whale simply holds it up, happy to help out... despite the centuries of torture inflicted upon it by the very thing its carrying. This is explained with an "it just wanted to help out cuz it's old and alone" throwaway line, and it feels unsatisfactory and worse, lazy. If Moffat wanted to develop Amy's character as a compassionate, risk-taking problem solver, he could have done far better than this.
Another Moffat trend starts here. I'll be telling you how disappointing the final five minutes of a given story are in a solid 5-10 more reviews throughout his first three series. And so The Beast Below begins that tradition by going out on an impressively low note, throwing away a large portion of the good will it had built up over its running time. I can't forget all of the things it does correctly, but I'd certainly like to forget the ending. I don't know what the deal is with Moffat and finishing his stories, but I'd officially like to protest.