“The Beast Below” is an episode which surprised me. It starts out as a futuristic “romp” that seems to have no particular deeper purpose, but at the climax suddenly turns its focus onto the relationship between Amy Pond and the Doctor, and how she proves herself to be a worthy companion. Not as polished and coherent as “The Eleventh Hour”, with some unusually exposed plot holes by Steven Moffat’s standards, I nevertheless found it to be quite moving by the end.
Doctor Who episodes are nominally forty-five minutes or so long, but given 2009’s series of specials, this is actually the first standard-length installment since “The Stolen Earth” nearly two years ago. With it following on closely from the previous episode, and the next one gatecrashing the ending as well, the actual story is told in not much more than half an hour. It feels not so much like a story in its own right as a brief interlude in a continuing journey.
The setting is impressively strange right from the opening shot, which shows what looks like a huge collection of tower blocks on a piece of “land” floating through space. This is the Starship UK, 1300 years in the future, created as a space-going refuge for the people of Britain when the Earth became uninhabitable due to solar flares in the 29th century. However, anyone expecting a nuts-and-bolts, science-fictional depiction of a future society would be disappointed. There are two main reasons for this: The first is that the budget limitations of Doctor Who simply don’t allow for the sort of CGI integration and panoramic shots that would convince the viewer that this ship is a real place with miles of corridors and thousands of inhabitants. In that respect, this story is no more successful at establishing a credible vision of the future than “The Long Game” from Christopher Eccleston’s season in 2005, which took a similar approach to realizing its setting with a CGI exterior and a few interior sets redressed multiple times.
But the second reason is that writer Steven Moffat is trying for a different effect, which simply doesn’t require such a realistic environment. He and his fellow executive producers, Piers Wenger and Beth Willis, have said in interviews that one of their key touchstones for the feel of this season is “dark fairytale,” and this episode certainly establishes an exaggerated, Roald Dahl-style environment, with the nominal setting of a far-future Britain serving in fact to contain a microcosm of current Britain, with the accent on familiar iconography—flags everywhere, red post boxes, London Underground signage, etc. The off-kilter element is introduced with the sinister Smilers that watch over everyone and everything—mannequins with heads that spin around to change their expression from smiling to frowning whenever someone does something wrong.
In some ways it’s a pity that the Smilers were emphasized so much in all the pre-publicity for the season and for this episode, making it seem like they were a major new foe for the Doctor. In fact, they’re more like the Nodes in “Silence in the Library”—a subsidiary element of the story which is there mainly for macabre effect. They’re still successfully creepy, though, particularly when you consider the fact, which the story never makes a point of emphasizing, that they have two faces, but three expressions—smiling, frowning, and demonic. So they can’t just be inanimate dummies—something’s happening out of sight when those heads spin around…
Another way in which the story maintains a fairytale atmosphere is by foregrounding children. The pre-credits sequence shows a boy falling foul of the Smilers by scoring zero on a test, and being punished by having to walk home. When he disobeys and takes the elevator instead, the nearest Smiler turns demonic and the floor underneath him opens, sending him “below,” as described in a strange poem chanted by a girl who appears on the elevator’s screen:
“A horse and a man, above, below,
One has a plan but two must go.
Mile after mile, above, beneath,
One has a smile, one has teeth.
Though the man above might say hello,
Expect no love from the beast below.”
Unfortunately, although last week the show found an extremely good child actor to play a crucial role, this episode does not fare so well. The child with the main role, Mandy (Hannah Sharp), is good, but the other children are not. In particular, the girl who reads the poem quoted above is dreadful—in fact, almost unintelligible.
Into this weird setting arrive the Doctor (Matt Smith) and Amy (Karen Gillan), and the fairytale aspect of Amy’s adventure is emphasized with the striking opening shots of her floating in space outside the TARDIS, as she discovers that the Doctor’s police box really is a spaceship. She is also still in her nightie from last week, and in fact keeps wearing it all through this episode—an explicit callback, as Moffat himself has said, to Wendy from Peter Pan, having left home the night before her wedding to go adventuring with the friend from her childhood.
It’s another strong performance from Matt Smith as the Doctor. In the early scenes, as he and Amy investigate, he shows the Doctor’s mind working at top speed, instantly deducing the police-state nature of the environment and the role of the Smilers. There’s a lovely moment of eccentricity as he suddenly grabs a glass of water from a table and puts it down on the floor, observing it closely. He disarms the protests of the patrons at the table with “Sorry, checking all the water in this area. There’s an escaped fish.” When Amy asks why he just did that, he just says, “Dunno. I think a lot, it’s hard to keep track.”
The interaction between the Doctor and Amy continues to be very good. At the start, in the TARDIS, he spins her a line about observing but never interfering in the places he visits, which he of course immediately contradicts by rushing over to comfort the crying Mandy.
Amy: “So is this how it works, Doctor? You never interfere in the affairs of other peoples or planets… unless there’s children crying.”
Of course, to a near-immortal Time Lord, practically everyone else in the universe counts as children…and this line will turn out to inform the conclusion of the story in a typically clever Moffat way. Amy is sent off by the Doctor to follow Mandy, and they find a locked-off passage, which Amy wants to see inside (“I never could resist a KEEP OUT sign”). She picks the lock and looks inside, to see a strange root-like tentacle thrashing around. She is captured and knocked out.
In a lower area of the ship, the Doctor finds something mysterious—this is a starship with no engine. His experiment with the glass of water earlier showed that there was no engine vibration to be detected, and now he discovers that power cables that should be linked are disconnected, and the space where the engine should be is hollow. He also draws the attention of a mysterious masked woman who calls herself Liz 10 and seems to be familiar with him.
Amy wakes to find herself in a voting booth, faced with a bank of monitors and three buttons—PROTEST, RECORD, and FORGET. She is amused when the computer looks her up and gives her age as 1306, and intrigued when her marital status is given as…“information unavailable.” The question being put to the voters is a simple one—whether they approve or disapprove of what has been done to save the people on this ship. If just one percent of the voters protest, the voyage will end. She is given the necessary information in the form of a video of the history of Starship UK, but we don’t get to see it; we only see her choosing vehemently to hit the FORGET button. Then a recording appears of herself—upset, urging her to find the Doctor and leave this place immediately. The direction is rather unnecessarily confused here—it took me a while to realize that she must have used the RECORD button to create the message for herself, and then pressed FORGET. Whatever she saw in that video, it clearly distressed her.
There’s a partial similarity in this strand of the episode to a famous 1973 short story by Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, where the citizens of a utopian city are required to come to terms with the dark secret at its heart. In this case, however, people are given the opportunity to forget, which allows Moffat to indulge in some political satire via the Doctor on the eve of a general election in Britain (just as happened with “Aliens of London” back in 2005): “And once every five years, everyone chooses to forget what they’ve learned. Democracy in action.”
Also in this scene, Amy discovers more of the Doctor’s background—stuff which we already know, but which every companion must sooner or later find out. When the subject of the Time War comes up, Matt Smith does a fine job of showing that the Doctor now seems to have moved on from the survivor’s guilt of Eccleston and the angst of Tennant.
The Doctor: “The computer doesn’t accept me as human.”
Amy: “Why not?” (The Doctor just looks at her.) “Well, you look human.”
The Doctor: “No, you look Time Lord. We came first.”
Amy: “So there are other Time Lords, yeah?”
The Doctor: “No. There were, but there aren’t… Just me now. Long story. It was a bad day. Bad stuff happened. And you know what, I’d love to forget it all, every last bit of it. But I don’t. Not ever.”
The fact that the one thing the Doctor never does is forget “bad stuff” will, in Moffat fashion, come back strongly at the end. For the moment, he simply says, “Hold tight. We’re bringing down the government.” He hits PROTEST, and the floor opens.
They find themselves unceremoniously dumped into a dark, cavernous space filled with revolting sludge and scraps of rotting food. “It’s a rubbish dump—and it’s minging!” cries Amy, bringing a fine old Scottish term of disgust to a wider audience. The Doctor realizes they are in an enormous mouth, belonging to a creature being fed by implanted tubes like the one through which they have just fallen. What with the earlier remark to the Doctor from Liz 10, “Help us, Doctor—you’re our only hope,” it’s easy to keep up a running commentary of Star Wars lines through this section—“What an incredible smell you’ve discovered!” “This is no cave…” And, of course, “I have a bad feeling about this…” (Also, at the end of the story, there’s another obvious homage with an ostentatious cinematic wipe-style scene transition.) The Doctor manages to get them vomited from the mouth back up through an “overspill pipe.” I loved the way he nervously adjusts his bow tie as he says, “Right, then. This isn’t going to be big on dignity…”
The area where they end up is guarded by a couple of Smilers, but they are rescued by Liz 10, who reveals that she knows of the Doctor having heard stories of him from her family growing up. “The Doctor. Old drinking buddy of Henry 12. Tea and scones with Liz 2. Vicky was a bit on the fence about you, weren’t she…knighted and exiled you on the same day. And so much for the Virgin Queen, you bad, bad, boy.” It seems like the Doctor was telling the truth in “The End of Time” about his casual dalliance with the flower of Tudor royalty…Elizabeth the Tenth guns down another couple of pursuing Smilers before posing for her signature line, which will have you either laughing or groaning:
Liz 10: “I’m the bloody queen, mate. Basically, I rule.”
The idea of the British monarch being this Cockney-accented, masked, caped, gun-toting undercover vigilante is hilarious in itself, but Oscar-nominated Sophie Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda) really makes the most of it, bringing a wonderfully funny, cheeky quality to Liz 10. Unfortunately the episode’s other major guest star, Terrence Hardiman, well known to children of the 1990s as The Demon Headmaster, is stuck in the thankless role of the chief of her functionaries, the Winders, and has very little to work with.
Liz 10 explains that she is certain her government has been keeping things from her, and she is proved right when the Winders revolt against her, taking her and the others to the Tower of London—the lowest level of Starship UK. To her confusion, the Winders tell her they are acting on “the highest authority.” The secret at the heart of the ship is revealed—the giant creature’s brain is being repeatedly shocked to force it to fly the ship. The Doctor discovers that Liz 10 has been on the throne for a lot longer than the ten years she thinks—she’s almost 300 years old, and she has repeatedly been led here over the decades, to a choice like that of her subjects, between FORGET and ABDICATE. A video message from her original self (which, in a nice touch, has a much more refined speaking voice than her current accent) lays out her dilemma. The giant beast is actually a completely benign space-faring creature called a “starwhale,” which arrived “like a miracle” in the time of the solar flares when Britain’s people were dying; they trapped it and built their ship around it.
Liz 10: “If you wish our voyage to continue, then you must press the FORGET button—be again the heart of this nation, untainted. If not, press the other button. Your reign will end, the starwhale will be released, and our ship will disintegrate. I hope I keep the strength to make the right decision.”
The ethical dilemma itself is well presented, but the setup unfortunately really strains the willing suspension of disbelief. You find yourself asking questions like, why couldn’t Britain build a ship with a functioning engine when every other nation apparently could? The script doesn’t do enough to answer (or encourage the audience to not ask) such questions, which is an unusual misstep for Moffat, whose stories are usually much more tightly constructed.
Fortunately, this is the point where the episode takes a more interesting and original turn. So far, it’s followed the predictable structure where the Doctor and companion arrive in a strange place, investigate, penetrate to the heart of the situation, and identify an injustice to be corrected. Now is the point where the Doctor should come up with the solution. But this time, he has no easy answer. Either he leaves things unchanged, with the innocent starwhale being tortured, or he releases it, which will doom all the humans on the ship. He eventually decides on the least bad option, which is to pass a massive electrical charge through the starwhale’s higher brain centers, rendering it still able to fly the ship, but no longer knowing anything about it. “And then, I find a new name, because I won’t be the Doctor any more.”
Matt Smith and Karen Gillan are excellent in these scenes. The Doctor/Amy relationship, which was threatening to become quite cosy, is suddenly full of conflict. Amy realizes that this knowledge is what she voted to forget, so that the Doctor would not be faced with an impossible choice. The Doctor, in turn, is disappointed—and angry.
The Doctor: “You took it upon yourself to save me from that. That was wrong. You don’t ever decide what I need to know.”
Amy: “I don’t even remember doing it.”
The Doctor: “You did it, that’s what counts.”
Amy: “I’m…I’m sorry.”
The Doctor: “Oh, I don’t care. When I’m done here you’re going home.”
Amy: “Why? Because I made a mistake? One mistake, I don’t even remember doing it. Doctor!”
The Doctor: “Yeah, I know. You’re only human.”
Smith, who has been great with the Doctor’s humorous and eccentric sides, now shows that he is also up to handling the anger and authority of the character. When Liz 10 presses him that there must be another way, he suddenly yells, “Nobody talk to me. Nobody human has anything to say to me today!” with an intimidating rage worthy of Tom Baker’s Doctor. Gillan shows Amy crushed at the thought that she has destroyed her voyage of discovery before it’s barely begun.
But then, Amy gets her chance to retrieve the situation. There are children down here performing various manual tasks, including the boy who was sent below in the opening sequence—apparently, the beast refuses to eat children. She sees some of them touching and playing with one of the creature’s tentacles, and suddenly puts the pieces together. She grabs Liz 10’s hand and presses the ABDICATE button. The ship is rocked as the starwhale is released…but nothing further happens. The starwhale chooses to stay with the ship, as it had originally chosen to come to Earth and offer itself to the people there to save them—their trapping and torturing of it was, tragically, not just wrong but needless.
I liked the cleverness of this script in coming up with a plausible way for the Doctor to be beaten to the solution by Amy. The Doctor is of course a genius, but he can’t see himself from outside. Amy, with the advantage of having spent fourteen years obsessing about him, can spot the similarity between the lone Time Lord and the lone starwhale. “What if you were really old, and really kind, and alone. Your whole race dead, no future. What couldn’t you do then? If you were that old, and that kind, and the very last of your kind, you couldn’t just stand there and watch children cry.” It’s true that the script loses all subtlety here, hammering the point home no less than three times in succession, but I think it’s sufficiently important and significant that Amy proves herself worthy of being a companion, not just tagging along but providing a viewpoint for the Doctor that he can’t provide for himself.
The Doctor: “But you couldn’t have known how it would react.”
Amy: “You couldn’t. But I’ve seen it before. Very old and very kind, and the very very last. Sound a bit familiar?”
In any event, she is about to tell him, when the TARDIS phone rings. It’s Winston Churchill, calling from next week’s episode, and summoning the Doctor back in time as the shadow of a Dalek appears on the wall beside him. Apparently it’s not only former companions who have the Doctor’s phone number… The TARDIS fades away, to a poetic voiceover from Amy:
“In bed above we’re deep asleep,
While greater love lies further deep.
This dream must end, this world must know,
We all depend on the beast below.”
We have one final view of Starship UK, which shows—surprise!—a crack appearing in its hull the exact same shape as the one from last week. There’s no doubt now that some silent menace is following the Doctor and Amy around…but just what is going on?
Next Week: Is Winston Churchill in the power of the Daleks? How can Skaro’s finest be helping the British Prime Minister win World War Two? We’ll find out, in “Victory of the Daleks.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: To see what happened to another group of humans affected by the solar flares referred to in “The Beast Below,” check out “The Ark in Space,” starring Tom Baker, with Elisabeth Sladen and Ian Marter.
For more Doctor Who recaps, click here.