Episode 2 of Season 5 of the Doctor Who revived series is The Beast Below by showrunner and lead producer Steven Moffat.
Plot: The Tardis brings the Doctor and Amy to Starship UK – the United Kingdom (minus Scotland) turned into a huge space ark after the earth was made uninhabitable from solar flares in the far future. Moved by the image a young girl crying, the Doctor begins to investigate what he realizes is a police state, monitored by mysterious humanoid machines that sit in booths and whose heads rotate to reveal increasingly angry faces when citizens are acting in a displeasing manner. Amy goes after the young girl, Mandy, who is crying because her little brother Timmy has disappeared following doing poorly at school. She has a brief run-in with a monstrous tentacle before being brought to a voting booth. Meanwhile, the Doctor discovers that Starship UK has no working engines – even though it is flying through space. In the voting booth, Amy is shown a film detailing the secrets of Starship UK and given the opportunity to vote whether to accept the situation by having her memory erased of what she has learned, or to Protest the situation, with the warning that if even 1% of the people do likewise it will mean the end of Starship UK. Amy chooses to forget, and leaves a message behind for herself to not let the Doctor investigate. Finding Amy, the Doctor enters the voting booth and presses the “Protest” button, causing both he and Amy to be sent down a chute into the mouth a great, unseen monster. They escape by inducing the creature to vomit, and then meet up with Liz 10, the current Queen of England, who also realizes that something strange is going on in her kingdom behind her back. Together, they go to the central control room.
There they discover the truth – Starship UK has been built on the back of a giant Star Whale which is “swimming” through space. The only way to save the people was to capture and continuously torture this creature with electric shocks so that it will keep flying them onward. It is fed the dissenters and underachievers of the society. Liz 10 knew this but in the past chose to have her memory of the situation erased, and has spent years reliving the cycle of discovering there were secrets being held against her and investigating until she discovered them, only to then have her memory erased again. Enraged at the wrongness of it all, the Doctor prepares to lobotomize the Star Whale so that it doesn’t feel the pain anymore, but is stopped by Amy at the last second who has figured out that the torture is unnecessary, and that the Star Whale came to the dying earth to help and would willingly fly the Starship UK because of its compassion for the children of earth.
Comments: The Beast Below may be my least favorite Steven Moffat-written episode of Doctor Who. But as Moffat is usually my favorite writer for the series, this doesn’t mean the episode is at all terrible. It just lacks the sparkle and wit that normally makes the Moffat’s episodes so engaging, and as a result the problems in the plot get less of a free pass.
And there are a couple of big problems, mostly to do with the conclusion. At the end of the episode, there is a big deal–and I really mean big deal–made about the terrible treatment to the poor Star Whale, and rightly so. The Doctor is really enraged and seems on the verge of renouncing all association with humans. When the problem is solved, and the Star Whale is revealed to be friendly and benign, everyone is relieved and the problem seems to be solved. But once we get into the Star Whale business, everyone seems to forget the fact that the Star Whale has been surviving by being fed UK citizens! Specifically people who choose to show dissent against the current system, and even children who do poorly at school, are “sacrificed” to the “monster” for food! The Doctor notices the signs of this at the beginning of the story but never really follows it up. And even worse, there’s no talk about what they are now going to do instead. That Star Whale has got to eat something, right?
If you don’t think about this too much when you are watching it, it’s not too bothersome, but if you examine it, this really shows the Doctor in a poor light. He is furious with Amy for choosing to forget something that she should have told him in order to prevent him the moral dilemma of what to do about the Star Whale, but is pretty easy going with Liz 10 for setting up a police state including monsters that can chase the people around and trap doors everywhere so that “unworthy citizens” can be fed to the beast below – even if she can’t remember doing so. (Added to the list of crimes of her regime that are never really addressed is the fact that the children that the Star Whale doesn’t eat are apparently forced into slave labor in Starship UK’s dungeon!)
The other problem is the way Amy eventually solves the problem. It’s entirely intuitive – she makes the connection between the Doctor and the Star Whale – both incredibly old beings, the last of their kind, who can’t keep themselves from helping crying children. She remembers that the Star Whale always refuses to eat children (including Timmy) and watches it interact tenderly with them. This has got some thematic value, to be sure, but it’s pretty flimsy evidence to risk everyone’s lives on. They do acknowledge it, when the Doctor talks to her at the end, but she gets away with it simply by being right. There are lots of questions that Amy never has to answer – What if the Star Whale was not as nice as she thought? What if it was ticked off at having been tortured for hundreds of years and just left, or even attacked the people who had been holding him captive? What if pressing the “abdicate” button had destroyed the ship regardless of the Star Whale’s disposition (as that’s what seems to have been implied). And it’s a bit contrived that the Doctor was so angry that he wouldn’t listen to her protests.
There are other lapses in logic. The Queen’s people gas Amy and supposedly take here some place safe–why then do they deposit her in a voting booth? Also, why exactly is the Queen sneaking around with a mask on, especially when she seems so happy to reveal herself to Mandy? Why is there a “forget” button at the other exit passageway from the Star Whale’s mouth if people who go there either get eaten or end up working as slaves in the dungeon? Why, in the scene where the Doctor is about to lobotomize the Star Whale does Timmy appear to have had a lobotomy himself?
On the plus side, the episode does explore the character and the plight of the Doctor quite well – very old, very alone, and ultimately disconnected from everyone around him. Yet he cares – in the face of sadness, he has to stop and investigate and help if he can. And by proving that he was wrong – that he missed something – Amy breaks through his “aloneness” and reminds him that as old he is, he still has things to learn, and thus that he needs a companion.
My favorite bits of dialogue in this story are ones that quietly reveal something about the Doctor.
• As Amy and the Doctor are leaving, we get this exchange which gives us a glimpse as to how the Doctor sees life (as well as offering a bit of meta-commentary on the fact that every landing seems to lead to a massive adventure)
Amy: Shouldn’t we say goodbye? Won’t they wonder where we went?
Doctor: For the rest of their lives. Oh, the songs they’ll write. Nevermind them, big day tomorrow.
Amy: Sorry, what?
Doctor: Well it’s always a big day tomorrow. We’ve got a time machine. I skip the little ones.
• And the Doctor at his most Holmesian, making sense to the viewer about all those things he just seems to know, as he talks to Amy about the crying girl that he has observed.
Doctor: Hundreds of parents walking past this spot, and not one of them’s asking her what’s wrong, which means they already know. It’s something they don’t talk about. Secrets. They’re not helping her, so it’s something they’re afraid of. Shadows. Whatever they’re afraid of, it’s nowhere to be seen. Which means…it’s everywhere. Police state.
And just afterwards
Doctor: Ask her about those things, the smiling fellows in the booths. They’re everywhere.
Amy: But they’re just things.
Doctor: They’re clean. Everything else here is all battered and filthy, look at this place. But no one’s laid a finger on those booths. Not a footprint within two feet of any of them, look. Ask Mandy why are people scared of the things in the booths.
• And my favorite line of dialogue is one that is particularly relevant with Matt Smith’s Doctor. Often, his Doctor can be so quick in his speaking that it challenges the viewers (and the other characters) to keep up with what he’s saying. It really does give the impression that the Doctor is operating on a different level than the rest of us. This comes out in the middle of a talking about his suspicions about Starship UK, the Doctor suddenly pulls a glass off of a table nearby, disrupting a confused couples’ conversation, and places it on the ground, staring at it closely. Then he moves on without explanation.
Amy: Why did you just do that with the bottle?
Doctor: Dunno. I think a lot. It’s hard to keep track.
The design of Starship UK itself, especially in the long shots, is very impressive, as is the brief image the Star Whale itself at the end. For me, the Smilers (the mechanical creatures who keep an eye on everyone) go from being sort of creepy to being a bit silly when they get up and start chasing people around, so that’s a bit of a shame. Sophie Okonedo, who plays Liz 10, took some getting used to, but I didn’t mind her in the end, and she had some fun moments at the gun-toting monarch (“Basically, I rule.”)
The episode also begins with a beautiful and memorable image of Amy floating in space outside the Tardis doors while the Doctor holds onto her ankle. Images like that and a focus on the amazing experience that these companions have as part of the Tardis crew are probably the main thing that the revival of Doctor Who brings to the viewer that the original series did not or could not. And there’s a cool teaser at the end, where the Doctor gets a phone call from Winston Churchill, who is concerned about something that casts a very familiar shadow…
Things to watch out for (Warning: veiled Spoilers for the rest of the season) Well, of course there is that big crack at the end. There is really no other connection to the whole “the universe is cracked” concept introduced in the prior episode except that this moment sort of confirms it by showing there’s a big ol’ crack in the universe on the side of Starship UK.
And of course, if there was any doubt, this episode also confirms the fact that Amy is engaged (although the Doctor still doesn’t know) and shows her dealing a bit with her doubts. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to mention that this is an ongoing story point that will get a lot of attention in later episodes (indeed there’s an episode called Amy’s Choice coming up at the mid-point of the season!)
Looking at the whole of Season 5, I think that memory and perception really come through as themes. The events of this episode with regards to these ideas (Amy choosing to forget, is the dungeon a torture chamber or not, etc.) don’t tie directly into anything else that is coming up but it’s worthwhile to note how often these concepts are played with.
Making sense of it all (Warning: blatant spoilers for the rest of the series): Nothing to say here, really, as there is really no new information except that the cracks are appearing in different times and places. As I was watching these episodes, I wondered if the Tardis was following the cracks, or if the cracks might be following the Tardis, but by the end of things it just seems like they are just all over the place.
Sophie Okenedo shows up again as Liz 10 briefly in The Pandorica Opens. Ian McNeice is there as well as Churchill, and of course it is no surprise to anyone that he will also guest star in the following episode, Victory of the Daleks.
Last Word: The Beast Below feels like a big party full of lots of wildly imaginative and out-of-this-world concepts (a nation turned into a Starship, a giant friendly Star Whale, the police state, a 300 year old queen reliving the same 10 years over and over, Amy choosing amnesia and sending a message back to herself, the smilers with their three faces, and so on) but where the host has failed to provide enough chairs, and everyone ends up standing around not sure what to do.