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April 13, 2010

BBC Whales

Doctor Who: The Beast Below

Review by Paul Kirkley

Liz 10

A queen in a red riding hood. A girl who's crept out of bed for a magical adventure in her nightie. Carnival masks. Nursery rhymes. A castle in the sky. Vanishing children. And a journey into the belly of a giant whale.

Blimey, they weren’t lying about the fairytale stuff, were they? By the end of The Beast Below, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the Doctor had ridden to the rescue on a white charger through a magic mirror. Oh hang on, he already did that in one of Stephen Moffat’s earlier stories.

In retrospect, a show about a mysterious man in a magic box was always ripe for this sort of treatment. What’s intriguing is that, in all our years of chatter about Doctor Who’s infinitely flexible format, none of us ever had fairytale on our radar; the usual litany decrees the show can be “anything from sci-fi to horror to space opera to historical romance”, but did any of us ever think of it as a fairytale, until it was presented to us as one?

A 50,000 tonne alien sea cow is going to put a strain on even the most watertight story

No doubt some people will be uncomfortable with this - because fairy stories are for children, right? But the darkness and fear at the heart of most fairytales – babes lost in the wood, brutal punishments from wicked stepmothers, the tread of an approaching giant – is actually the perfect fit for Doctor Who; it just took someone like Stephen Moffat to make us see it.

Of course, if it was actual wicked stepmothers in actual fairytale castles, that would be rubbish. But this show has always taken a gloriously cavalier approach to genre boundaries, and never more so than in the hands of the man who once had our hero ask “What’s revolutionary France doing onboard a spaceship?” So this a fairytale where Little Red Riding Hood packs a couple of shooters and records video messages to herself. Why? Because it’s Doctor Who, and she can.

Let's talk about the whale in the room, then. Last week, in a flush of girlish enthusiasm, I declared that The Moff’s scripts tend to bear up better to forensic scrutiny than Russell the T’s. But a 50,000 tonne alien sea cow is going to put a strain on even the most watertight story and, as it happens, this one was springing holes left right and centre.

What’s the Doctor got as his memory bank homepage these days: Wikipedia?

The most obvious problem was with the geography. We were told the beast was at the heart of the ship but, from the closing shot, it appeared to be just carrying it on its back. How come when the Doctor and Amy got vomited out through its mouth, they didn’t end up in space? And how rubbish are the TARDIS instruments that give the whole history of the Starship UK but fail to mention (or detect) the colossal Cetacean swimming about underneath it? What’s the Doctor got as his memory bank homepage these days: Wikipedia?

Also, you’ve got to love the insane logic of the whole bonkers enterprise in the first place. The UK’s plan for escaping global catastrophe certainly puts the recent bank rescue into perspective. Imagine the overtime the spin doctors must have been putting in to sell that one:

“So basically, we’re going to strap the entire country onto the back of a massive whale and float off into space. Any questions?”
“Erm, yes. Why not just build a spaceship?”
“That’s what we’re doing. A space whale ship.”
“No, I mean, just a normal spaceship. With an engine and everything.”
“Riiiiight. And where would we put the whale?”
“Forget about the whale, there is no whale.”
“I’m sorry, I’m not sure I follow you.”
(Incidentally, what did Scotland fly off on – a space Nessie?)

This entire script appears to be the product of an infinite improbability drive

But all this is forgivable because, hey, whales are cool - any kid who’s ever stood under the blue whale in the Natural History Museum knows that. And they’ve always been the stuff of myth and legend, from Jonah to Moby Dick to The Snail and the Whale. (In fact, The Beast Below has quite a bit in common with Julia Donaldson and Alex Scheffler’s kiddie classic: “This is the tale, of how a nation set sail, on the back of a whale, in the hit TV show from BBC Wales”. Although, thinking about it, the whale it has most in common with is the one in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, as this entire script appears to be the product of an infinite improbability drive.)

Smilers Other niggles: They’re pulling punches on the scares again. The Smilers are a very creepy idea but they were woefully under-exploited, especially in the scene where they climbed out of their boxes. This should have been a memory-searing classic monster moment, but they’d only been on their feet for about two seconds – not long enough to even begin to affect a menacing advance – when Liz 10 came along and popped a couple of caps in them. (How cool was that, though? “I’m the bloody Queen, mate – basically, I rule.”)

And Amy was too clever by half at the end – especially when you consider she’d been tucked up in bed at home a few hours earlier; now all of a sudden she’s a genius who can solve a centuries-old moral dilemma in a split second. No wonder The Demon Bernie Ecclestone looked so surprised. (I can’t help wondering, incidentally, why the Doctor didn’t point out the fourth option: “Hey everyone, there’s room for you all aboard my infinitely large, dimensionally transcendental time machine.” Maybe he’s just the sort of guy who needs his own space.) Also, Amy’s speech about the creature being so old and so kind and the last of its race was lovely but, really, we got it the first time, already – we didn’t need her to draw us a diagram.

But niggles are exactly what these are because, at the end of the day, The Beast Below was everything we would want Doctor Who to be: Funny, inventive, scary (okay, ish) and bursting at the seams with more maddeningly inventive ideas and concepts and gags than most shows manage to pony up in an entire lifetime. And even if this wasn’t your style of Who (and was it just me or would the Seventh Doctor and Ace have felt perfectly at home in this one?), who could fail to be charmed by the Eleventh Doctor and Miss Amy Pond?

I bet Matt Smith has no trouble nicking crisps out of vending machines

I was surprised by how different Matt Smith was in this story to the previous one. It almost makes it seem like he played The Eleventh Hour as half-Tennant. Here, as his own man in his own clothes with his own magic box and his own universe to explore, his performance was something new: odder, more angular, more awkward (in a good way) – even his voice seemed to have moved to a slightly higher register. And he has incredible wrists. I can’t stop looking at them. They seem to be about a foot too long, emerging from the end of his (admittedly too short) sleeves like a cross between Jarvis Cocker, a Slitheen and Andrew Marr on Dead Ringers. I bet he has no trouble nicking crisps out of vending machines.

Sick Anyway, it’s just another hypnotic element in this strange, alien, wonderful new Doctor. (Smith was particularly exceptional in the voting booth scene: His response to Amy’s questions about the Time Lords was spookily reminiscent of Troughton talking to Victoria in Tomb of the Cybermen, and his “bringing down the Government” speech (did someone let Andrew Cartmel back into the building?) was utterly thrilling.)

Karen Gillan, too, has really made the role her own. I’ll admit she was the one element I had my doubts about before the series started – not because of anything she’d done, more because of what she hadn’t done (i.e. much). I was secretly worried she might turn out to be a bit Hollyoaks – very young and very pretty, but a bit ordinary. But not a bit of it – turns out she’s a brilliant character actress. It’s just that you don't often find brilliant character actresses peering out from inside the body of a supermodel. What a find.

It’s a measure of Doctor Who's confidence and popularity that it can pursue this magical, even whimsical new direction and carry a huge audience with it (even when it’s shown in an insane timeslot the middle of the afternoon on the hottest weekend of the year). Five years ago, Russell T Davies had to ease his audience in gently with mothers and shopping and Tina the Cleaner and News 24 and chips. And while I’d be reluctant to lose that completely (the mix of the domestic and the fantastic – “Coronation Street meets 2001”, as Timothy Dalton so nicely put it – is the show's USP), the fact no such hand-holding is considered necessary suggests that, like Amy Pond, we feel comfortable letting the Doctor lift our feet off the ground occasionally. Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in space.

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