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Quick Take: Doctor Who, "The Beast Below"
"You don't ever decide what I need to know!" – The Doctor
Review: Doctor Who, "The Beast Below"
(S0502) Last week in the UK, Doctor Who returned to our screens with an episode that established a likable Doctor with an ability to plan that rivalled the latter part of the 7th Doctor's reign – a Doctor who was, to quote Ace, "well devious". A Doctor with actual plans that had not just one but multiple back up options, a Doctor that seems to feature so many of the traits that made previous Doctors so enjoyable to watch.
In a single episode, Matt Smith managed to endear a large quantity of BBC viewers thanks to his performance, Stephen Moffat's script and the superb assistance of Karen Gillan as Amy Pond – a companion with the potential to become one of the all time greats. While the plot itself was little more than Doctor Who-by-numbers it was the details and characterisation which lifted everything up and resulted in quite a special experience.
This week's episode, "The Beast Below," is another classic Doctor Who story – the society with a dark secret at its heart. A classic example of this is "The Happiness Patrol", a three part story which placed the 7th Doctor along with his newly acquired companion Ace into a somewhat dystopian society where happiness was compulsory and sadness illegal. If you can't recall it, it's the episodes from the 1990s with a lot of pink and a psychotic Bertie Bassett executing unhappy people.
Now, while "The Happiness Patrol" was set in an era with exceptionally wonky sets and faltering acting, it did have one major thing going for it in the tension stakes. Apart from turning a beloved peddler of confectionary into a sweetborg (that's part sweetie, part cyborg) murderer, it was set over three weeks, broken into three half-hour episodes. This is of an incredible benefit to a show like Doctor Who, as it can leave characters in mid-peril for an entire seven days, resulting in the viewers talking and wondering what horror will befall their heroes. And as we all know, the human imagination is one heck of a scary place to dwell in.
I bring this up because it is the thing which I feel was fundamentally missing from "The Beast Below". The concept of the episode – the entirety of British (not Scottish) society living on a city/space ship – was great, likewise the imagery. But the mystery of the truth behind the 'Smilers' – who were a cross between 'Zoltan', ventriloquist dummies and monsters – along with 'the beast below' itself had no time to build a sense of threat for the viewer or the characters. Everything had to run at a sufficient pace in order to fit it all into the forty five minute time slot allowed for a single episode story. This just didn't help things and while there wasn't a lot wrong with the episode, there also wasn't a lot in it that was magnificent.
At least until the last few minutes that is, but I'll get onto that bit later.
Starring alongside (the quite frankly brilliant) Matt Smith and Karen Gillan was Sophie Okonedo as Liz10, who if I'm honest was a little unconvincing in the role after she removed her mask and started running about as some gun-toting cockney queen; and the quite brilliant Terrence Hardiman (from the children's classic, The Demon Headmaster) who was honestly underused. He had little more to do than look menacing at first and then serious later on. Finally we had Hannah Sharp as Mandy, and if I'm honest she certainly gave the best performance out of the guest stars. It was a solid and believable piece of acting, especially from someone so young.
After a little bit of running about and some fun the episode got to the crux of the matter, dealing with a few huge issues. The first of which directly involved Amy Pond herself: she made a decision to try and conceal the truth from the Doctor and get him to leave the place. Then she forgot about it, but reminded herself about it – that part is a little confusing to explain and is best just watched. Still, it results in the Doctor deciding that she needs to be returned home as she has the gall to try and protect him from making a hard decision.
The decision turns out to be a threefold one as it eventually turns out that the star ship/city is floating on the back of the last space whale (I kid you not) and being tortured in order to keep it moving through space. So he's left with the choice of either leaving everything alone and letting a large creature get tortured for hundreds of years, setting it free and killing all the British or lobotomising the beast (the last of its kind) so it doesn't feel pain anymore.
This is the part where I felt things were a little out of control as the Doctor jumped towards the lobotomy option with both feet first. For an ancient being who's spent many lifetimes choosing the moral option in every situation possible I found it a little incredible that he'd decide on such a nasty option without desperately trying to find another way, a fourth way, anything other than harming an essentially innocent beast.
It falls to Amy to come up with a fourth option, or at least deciding that the second option (freeing the beast) is the best one to go for. She impulsively does it without asking for the Doctor's thoughts on the matter and naturally he's a little unimpressed. At least until they all realise she's made the right choice, deducing from her experience of the Doctor and the parallels between his existence and that of the star whale. It's a somewhat clichéd moment, but it was moving and it redeemed the other flaws in the episode, lifting it up from being a weak one to an average episode with a great ending.
I do 'get' what "The Beast Below" is doing; it's giving us a story that establishes Amy Pond as a strong, impulsive and insightful companion who isn't afraid to do something based on instinct. It's going further and showing to the Doctor that he needs to spend time with someone like that and learn to trust others again after his time spent alone.
So I'd say it was an average to weak episode with a great character-driven ending. It's just a shame it was the second episode in the series, as I was hoping for something stronger at this early stage.
Fortunately next week, which has Winston Churchill and Daleks, promises to be a real belter of a show.
More observations of "The Beast Below":
Video: Doctor Who, "The Beast Below"
Here's the fifth season/series preview, which is quite dramatic indeed:
Recap: Doctor Who, "The Beast Below"
Amy Pond takes her first trip in the TARDIS when the Doctor whisks her away to the distant future and they discover Britain in space. Starship UK houses the future of the British people as they search the stars for a new home. But when Amy explores she encounters the terrifying Smilers and learns a deadly truth inside the Voting booth...
From Around the Web: Doctor Who, "The Beast Below"