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April 11, 2010

Kindness Of Strangers

Doctor Who: The Beast Below

Review by Frank Collins

Tb1 On a creaking island in space a school bell rings. A queue of children await the results of their tests. One boy, the Blyton-esquely named Timmy gets a zero and is effectively sent to hell by a frowning automaton. Or should that be sent to Coventry? In this dystopian fable it seems Lancashire is the equivalent. Steven Moffat's The Beast Below is further proof that Doctor Who is undergoing a slow transformation into the 'fairy tale' of his and the production team's over used and ubiquitous sound bites. Similarly to the season's opener, there are still structures remaining from the Russell T Davies era. This second episode examines the development of the companion in a similar way to Rose's adventures on Platform One in The End Of The World. There are also the references back to the relationship between the monarchy and the Doctor ("Vicky was a bit on the fence about you, wasn't she? Knighted and exiled on the same day. And so much for the Virgin Queen. You bad, bad boy") that infer Moffat is more than happy to mine the previous era for little fan pleasing references.

Here one of the major subplots is concerned with testing Amy to see if she has the right stuff, is fit for purpose as the Doctor's companion. What we get, whether we agree with it or not, is a companion who observes an alternative choice to the moral dilemma that's presented, one that the Doctor himself doesn't even register. And he's supposed to be the cleverest man in the room! Yet, the nightie wearing Amy, Karen Gillan's Wendy to Matt Smith's Peter Pan, pays more attention than the Doctor who, at the start of the episode, blusters rather pompously and patronisingly to her about seeing the 'bigger picture'. The fact that he doesn't is an interesting reflection of the whole idea of 'forgetting' that runs through the story.

Tb5 In The Beast Below, to 'forget', whether you're the Doctor, Liz Ten or Amy, is part of learning to be an adult. As children we want to block out and forget the horror of growing up and most of what we experience as kids often doesn't even register on our consciousness and the present moment is enough to provide all the sensation we need. This fits in with the increasingly obvious use of the child's viewpoint that the new series has started to embrace. It's reflected in that great scene in the TARDIS where he and Amy discuss the nature of observation, his deduction that Starship UK is a police state and the bluff about his interference in matters being determined by the caveat 'unless there's children crying'. Whether you agree that this return to the state of childhood undermines the Doctor or not and you found Amy's resolution to the moral dilemma rather heavy-handedly articulated in the allusion of the Star Whale's age and kindness to the qualification of the Doctor as 'last of the Time Lords', it was clearly intended to show how different people look at the same problem and come up with solutions inimitable to their status within the story.

For the British residents and monarchy of Starship UK the decision to keep or dissolve the status quo is reduced to a choice of 'forget' and 'protest' (or 'abdicate' in Liz Ten's case), whereas the Doctor typically demonstrates that there are three choices and he must rest on the one solution which is of the most benefit to all even though it means he must perform a lobotomy on a sentient creature to do so, and then Amy simply asks 'what would the Star Whale want from the situation?' based on what she's observed. As Donna pointed out to the Doctor in The Runaway Bride, 'sometimes you need someone to stop you' and Amy's reactions, her humanity if you will, highlight a missing component in the Doctor's conscience, particularly now he's regenerated. That this is missing at this stage is clearly shown in his anger towards the citizens of Starship UK as he struggles to solve the problem - "No Human has anything to say to me today!" She reminds him that his own kindness is rooted in the misery of longevity, loneliness and pain. It is all about making and remembering why you made choices as he offers her a choice between Starship UK and Leadworth at the beginning of the story with a triumphant 'Ha-ha gotcha' and later she similarly offers him a choice between loneliness and companionship with a responding 'gotcha' as they physically embrace and he confirms his choice of her as a suitable companion.

Tb7 This defining virtue is also clearly missing from the British residents of Starship One and perhaps suggests Moffat is tapping into the notions of Mervyn Peake's own phantasmagoric depiction of England, in Gormenghast for example, as a decaying citadel where the idea of utopia, described by the oppressive weight of tradition, rather than rebelled against by Titus in Peake's book, is here shattered by a girl in a nightie, a black cockney Queen and a bow-tied gangly limbed Time Lord. The institutions of British culture, signs and symbols recognisable as Tube station logos, red telephone boxes, the test card, old BBC logos and bakelite television sets, are simply reductionist and suggest that these visions of British nostalgia are only the chains of dystopian repression, the emblems of a police state that manages the living experience of the individuals on board. Moffat even references Magpie Electricals from The Idiot's Lantern to emphasise this 1950s aesthetic. The tools of state, warm and fuzzily nostalgic as they may be as they hark back to the illusory 'you've never had it so good' culture of the 1950s, underline the uncomfortable accusation that for humanity anything strange and alien has to be exploited as a virtue of imperial power.

The Beast Below sadly says that we would rather prefer our society to develop off the back of the suffering of others and that we endlessly repeat this in a spiral of forgetting and not protesting. The cosy illusion of the 1950s, smoke-screening a Britain crippled by debt and no longer able to trade off its rich imperial past, is used here as a bitingly redolent metaphor for the story's depiction of 'broken Britain' in its splendid isolation (Scotland managed to build a spaceship and escape the solar flares so the rest of Britain's obviously poor as a church mouse - again) and cleverly Moffat places these moral choices, and their illusory qualities, within a story that pushes some suitably zeitgeisty buttons - and not just the ones in the booths.

Tb8 As the UK hurtles towards an election, the very notions of democracy are examined and satirised here. Hilariously (depending on your view), back in February this year Doctor Who was the subject of a rather bizarre Newsnight piece on the 1980s era of the show and its relationship to the Thatcherite politics of the day. A sense of deja-vu is elicited with the Doctor reminding us that we're about to 'hear the sound of Empires toppling' a la 1988's The Happiness Patrol, (also Newsnight's primary evidence of the series political themes) as he replaces the observation 'once every five years, everyone chooses to forget what they've learned. Democracy in action' with the anarchy of "Hold tight. We're bringing down the government'' by thumping the 'protest' button in the voting booth.

There is also the depiction of the monarchy here that's interesting. As well as ruffling the feathers of certain traditionalists by casting Sophie Okonedo, the neat twist is that the Queen and her subjects are the culpable ones here and the monarchy is shown as politically significant in the way it ensures, through the cycle of 'forgetting', that Britain is maintained in a stultifying, backward, only partly modernised condition. The regressive state, depicted in a traditional British cultural vision, is in fact a result of her real abdication of responsibilities rather than the one that Amy foists upon her in the conclusion of the story. The Queen and her Winders and Smilers are all part of the strategy of distraction and ideological reinforcement where her aristocratic power ensures the status quo for the British people. She might well be a feisty, gun toting Cockney girl (love the "I'm the bloody Queen mate. Basically, I rule") but her image, like the 200 year old mask she wears, is based upon the need of the nation-state to bend her to its will. As she says, her real face "keeps me looking like the stamps". I rather enjoyed Sophie Okonedo's performance, particularly in the final scenes where the chirpy Cockney mask really does fall away and she's genuinely horrified by what she's done in the name of duty and loyalty.

Tb12 These are all lovely, meaty ideas that give the episode its validity but there are certainly some problems here. We're again given that mind's eye view sequence, except it's Amy's this time, to illustrate the rather too convenient moral choice at the end of the story and it really does over-use the analogy between the Doctor and the Star Whale within the space of at least ten minutes as if there's a worry that we just won't get it unless it's repeated to us several times. The Smilers, wonderful creations that they are, are really only present to provide a bit of a scare in the story and have very little else to offer as a threat. They work as one of the episode's preoccupations with the child-like view of the implications of failure but I suspect many viewers will feel shortchanged that gangs of the creatures didn't chase Amy and the Doctor around Sussex for twenty minutes.

The major fault with the script is that it doesn't work hard enough to elicit our sympathies with the citizens we meet. They drive the plot but don't offer enough emotional context about life on board the ship to make us really care about their fate. Perhaps that's deliberate but it does rather undervalue the theme of humanity grappling with its own kindness and the kindness of strangers. This may be a side-effect of Moffat's clear dictum for the series to embrace the fairy tale's use of symbolism and allegory. It's not perfect by any means, lacks a bit of the vigour and wit of The Eleventh Hour and its short running time barely lets the story and the world building breathe.

Tb9 But these niggles are balanced against a Doctor Who that has re-engaged with interesting ideas, happily riffs on its own history of political satire with The Sunmakers and The Happiness Patrol, Orwell, Pratchett and Gilliam coupled with the esoteria of Pat Mills and 2000AD and even a plethora of Star Wars references. Director Andrew Gunn visually expresses those ideas in a beautifully cinematic way, seizing on close ups of faces and eyes, some great use of deep focus, that indicate a consistency of style that picks up on The Eleventh Hour's own statement about how you really look at things and what they might reveal to you. Gunn's work emphasises many of Moffat's central tenets for the series, the Peter Pan and Wendy qualities of the Doctor and Amy, the use of fairy tales with their darkness allowing children to grapple with their fears in symbolic terms, the surreal idea of Starship UK that strongly re-positions the series as an exploration of British identity and culture within a fantasy and science fiction context (Churchill's up next), and Matt Smith's physical 'madman and his box' Troughton-esque portrayal of the Doctor. Murray Gold's music also adds a shimmering, music box quality to the visuals that really complemented the evocative images.

There are some stand-out sequences here: Amy suddenly realising the Doctor has stopped observing on the TARDIS scanner and is already investigating and waving at her to come and join him, the Alice In Wonderland like investigation of the hole in the road, Amy and the Doctor in the mouth of the Star Whale as a delightful riff on Pinocchio. Whilst the final hug between Amy and the Doctor may well be a bit sentimental and absolutely seals the bond between the pair, I am not yet convinced that Amy is the innocent Wendy that she seems to be. It's not clear when Amy recorded that message to herself in the booth that she hurriedly turns off before the Doctor saw it and that little reminder on the hull of Starship UK is a signal that something's not quite right.

Some may snipe that the inclusion of the 'Churchill on the phone' scene is evident of a script under running or that it's plainly ridiculous that a Prime Minister would have the Doctor's number ("Aaah, hello dear, what's up?") but there's no way that as a viewer you didn't get a frisson from that all too recognisable shadow appearing on the wall behind Winston and the reintroduction of the Hartnell era device of linking into the next story.

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