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The Beastly Side: The Beast Below

Remember last week how I was said I was going to wait until the end of the year to post up one big post-season analysis of Matt Smith’s first season as the Doctor? Yeah, well I’m still gonna do that. But while the episodes still give us food for thought, I might want to post my thought on a given hour (or, in this case, the first episode of the show under an hour long in about two years). Maybe next week I’ll have nothing more to post than simply the fact that spitfires in space represent the coolest concept ever.

The belly of the beast...

Note: This post contains spoilers for The Beast Below, the second episode of the fifth season of Doctor Who (and if you’re going to argue about the given season number, you know exactly which season I’m talking about). I’ll flag them in the article below before I reach them, but consider yourself warned.

I always had the faint feeling that the show’s first year back – featuring Christopher Eccleston – was intended as an organic successor to the superb final season of the original series. Not withstanding that both seasons of the series were among the very few earth-bound years of the show and that Russell T. Davies cut his teeth writing novels set in that era of the show, the Doctor was presented as a much more ambiguous character, the series spent more time in working class Britain and social satire became slightly more pronounced. The social commentary of Davies’ scripts for The Long Game and Bad Wolf called to mind the superb electoral satire of the iconic (and divisive) serial, The Happiness Patrol (although it was actually part of the second-to-last season). I mention this because I couldn’t help but get an old school feeling to this little episode.

Don’t get me wrong, The Beast Below is a mess. There’s far too much going on here. Moffat is a fantastic writer who can scare the bejezus out of his audience when it suits him, but here it looks like he’s trying too much at once: the creepy smilers and their booths deserve an episode to themselves, as does the voting booth or the creepy rhyming child – instead they’re all shoehorned into a single script which seems to lack focus. It lacks a lot of focus.

But amid the mess surrounding it, Moffat’s handling of electoral system (and the UK system in particular) manages to be wonderfully cheeky. Every five years the residents of Starship UK make a decision on the way things work – a choice handily boiled down to “protest” or “forget”. There are some observations about the police state and a wonderful picture as the democratic system as an object that allows everyone to absolve themselves of responsibility. It’s a clunky metaphor that isn’t without its problems, but it’s a fun one – and should provide more than enough food for thought.

However, it’s Moffat’s character work which continues to excel – at least with his two leads. this week it seems Eleven is allowed to become his own man. Though Matt Smith had a near-perfect opening episode last week, there was more than a niggling feeling that he was attempting to escape the (justifiably) large shadow of David Tennant. It was, with excuse of post-regeneration trauma and twenty minutes to save the world, all go-go-go all the time. Here we get some moments for character introduction.

So is this how it works Doctor? You never interfere with the affairs of other people or planets, unless there’s children crying?

– Amy Pond

Perhaps that line sums up Moffat’s perspective of the Doctor. Davies had the Doctor as a wider catalyst for societal change – a libertarian revolutionary – but Moffat is smaller and more intimate. As mentioned last week, his Doctor is a fairytale of himself – a fact allude to in that Amy, like so many fairytale ladies, spends the episode in her dressing gown (in the making of that followed, Moffat himself alluded to Wendy and Peter Pan).

Smith makes the role his own as well. Here we see a little of what we’d been expecting since the costume was revealed – there’s more than a little Patrick Troughton about him. He is a nutty professor, who speaks in sentence fragments. He’s thinking too fast, he confesses to Amy. there’s also more than a loveable bit of zaniness to him, such as when he attempts to pickpocket a little girl’s diary by bumping into her. It took four tries. “Your friend kept bumping into me,” the girl explains to Amy, later on. When attempting to explain his fascination with glasses of water to a couple at a bar, he explains, “there’s an escaped fish” while tapping his nose, knowingly.

The episode has more than a few holes in it. Some are big enough to fly a TARDIS through. Others are big enought to fit the inside of the TARDIS through. But ithis isn’t an episode about story, it’s about mood and character. Everything that happens in the first half-hour is about getting to those final ten minutes and letting us get to know these characters.

I’m now, as the above suggests, about to talk about those final ten minutes. Consider this a spoiler warning. Still with us? Good.

So there are other Time Lords, yeah?

No. There were. But there aren’t… Just me now. Long story. There 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.

– Amy and The Doctor

The episode’s climax is a wonderful little bit and one which calls to mind the heart of the first year of the revival. When Eleven declares that “nobody human has anything to say to me today”, it’s hard not to think of Nine’s observations that humans are only interested “in what the universe can do for you”. When he snidely observes that Amy is “only human”, it brought to mind Nine’s description of Rose as “another stupid ape”.

Moffat was long overdue to write a ‘humans are the monsters’ script and I guess this is it. Somehow it seems like the actions of humanity here – in just blindly inferring that they have to capture and torture the space whale to get it to help – seems to affect the Doctor more than any human atrocities over the course of the last few years. Sure, the Master’s manipulation of the future humans in The Last of the Timelords and the willingness of humans to turn on each other in Midnight affected him, but tended to depress rather than anger him. Here Eleven is practically seething with rage at what has transpired.

However, in keeping with the episode’s theme, it’s the invalidating of personal choice which infuriates him most. Both in the way that the citizens of Starship UK continually absolve themselves by forgetting and in the way Amy attempted to absolve him by getting him off the ship. “You don’t ever get to decide what I need to know,” he scolds Amy, as though her offense is the worst of the day. When Amy protests she doesn’t remember, he explains, “but you did it – that’s what counts”. Moffat’s commentary is clear: whenever we deny responsibility – for ourselves or for others – we commit a huge offense, no matter how honest or sincere our intentions. It’s that attempt to invalidate choice that leads to the situation on Starship UK, with the government capturing and torturing a creature which came to help anyway.

And all credit to Moffat for having the courage to have the Doctor make a choice. It would have been easy to have him hesitate on the verge before Amy made her revelation, but Moffat has the courage to show him making a decision – a cruel and unforgiveable one – before he is spared at the last minute. Because that’s what companions do – they spare him. We’ve had hints about how much the name ‘Doctor’ means to him in the past, but here Moffat lays it out. As he outlines his plan, he finishes with, “and then I find a new name, because I won’t be the Doctor any more.”

It’s a beautiful little ending and – although we know (this being a family show) the Doctor can’t actually lobotomise the whale – Moffat makes us believe in Amy as a companion. Which is great, because the Doctor-Companion relationship needs to be co-dependent (in a good sense, if that’s possible). Maybe eleven’s found his companion in one go (it took Ten a while to find his perfect companion in Donna).

The Beast Below has been a fairly divisive episode. I can see where the criticism of the episode are coming from – it is a jumble and a mess of an episode which has its core moral an ethical dilemma riding upon any number of unlikely occurances (so Scotland could build a ship, but the UK couldn’t?) – but it works much better as a fairy tale with a horrible choice and some horrible truths about human nature at its centre. Well, that and perhaps the most creative metaphor for UK politics you’ll see this year. Is the spacewhale a metaphor for the inhabitants of the overseas colonies which carried Great Britain on their back? I’ll let you decide.

Still, I’m calling it now. The Beast Below will be the most important episode, arc-wise of the coming year – like The Long Game in Season One or The Shakespeare Code thematically in Season Three. I’m probably way off, but we’ll see…

2 Responses

  1. Though you should know Whedon’s in final negotiations for Avengers.

    http://theplaylist.blogspot.com/2010/04/joss-whedon-in-final-negotiations-to.html

    • Thanks for the head’s-up. That is pretty neat. Maybe it’ll see Whedon heading more towards movies than television (where he has been repeatedly screwed).

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