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April 11, 2010

Memories of Amy

Stuart Ian Burns is swallowed by Doctor Who: The Beast Below

Just be self-reflexive for a moment, I notoriously failed to review most of the 2005 season for this blog, offering a single paragraph in reaction to the revelation at the close of the second episode The End of the World.  I hope I’ve made up for that omission in the intervening years (look at that, it’s years) but if the thirty year old version of me (I was thirty?) was quite as vociferous as I am now about spending a few hours (a few?) after every episode trying to come to terms with what he’d just seen, for the purposes of looking for a way into this review, he might have noticed that The End of the World was Russell T Davies’s mission statement about what his era of Doctor Who was going to be like, the Britney, the funky aliens, the last of the timelords, the chips.

Last week I suggested The Eleventh Hour was that mission statement; yet it wasn’t until rewatching the episode later that I realised that Moffat, the writer let us not forget of the editing awareness scenes in Forest of the Dead, wasn’t just offering a Doctor in transition, he was also offering a show in transition.  Some have since criticised the Daviesian – oh err – Daviesesque – ugh – I’ll get back to you on that one – fundamentals on show there: the TARDIS hurtling to Earth, the scientific Chatroulette roundtable, the alien invasion subplot, the approach to the boyfriend, the ransacking of his season openers for the plotting, as though Moffat was losing his touch.  But he’s too clever for that.  Moffat was showing the series itself still cooking, and just like the Doctor as soon as his brain was in gear, the Moffat version of the show snapped into place too.

Philosophically, narratively, we’re in completely different place.

Which means that in fact, The Beast Below, is Steven Moffat’s mission statement.  Philosophically, narratively, we’re in completely different place.  As Moffat explained in Confidential, Doctor Who isn’t just like a fairy tale, it is a fairy tale, something which got lost in most areas of the Davies era, inadvertently asserting itself when your reviewer was trying to justify why it was ok for a whole planet to be pulled halfway across the galaxy when some fans were dismissing it as a reason to hate an episode.  He’s throwing around names like Roald Dahl and suggesting Amy is a Wendy figure being carried about by a Peter Pan figure, bedecking her in a pyjamas to prove the point.  Wow.  I mean wow.  Under those circumstances, the hiring of Neil Gaiman to write an episode next series doesn’t look quite so eccentric (and we’ll talk about those influences in a moment).

This is a deeply held belief in what the show should be like, a belief Moffat's had for over ten years if not longer.  We know that because as I suspected when I reproduced sections of it for this very blog, he talked about what he wanted to do with the show in some detail ten years ago in Doctor Who Magazine, ironically in the same round table as Russell T Davies.  Some key quotes:  “I just want him out of those TARDIS doors and having adventures.  Us kids want Narnia, not the wardrobe”, “The way you’d know you’d got it right would be if the 11 year-olds all jumped up and down and said it was the best show ever and all the sadder Doctor Who fans muttered that it was no longer serious adult drama like it was when they were 11” and “He should be forty-plus and weird looking – the kind of wacky grandfather that kids know on sight to be secretly one of them.” 

I just want him out of those TARDIS doors and having adventures.  Us kids want Narnia, not the wardrobe

With the exception of the notes on his age  (though as we know Moffat was looking for someone older before Matt walked into the room) those few quotes sum up The Beast Below.  We’re barely in the TARDIS – when Amy isn’t floating in space in a shot that looked like it was just trailer fodder but was actually in the episode along with the voiceover – the Doctor’s already left the box and into the adventure before she’s noticed he’s gone.  For reasons we’ll talk about in a moment the story was as simple a story as we’ve seen so far but infinitely complex in that way that feeds a child’s imagination and the Doctor is no longer the omnipresent figure and that slightly giddy kiddy madness has largely returned to his eyes of the kind we’ve only rarely seen in him since he danced in his new shoes in San Francisco.  He’s not always in control, he doesn’t always know what’s going on, he sometimes makes mistakes, just like children and those of us who are basically still children.  He’s had a return to innocence. 

And so has the show.  Not often since the Hartnell era, and certainly not since 2005 have we seen a narrative that it could so easily be accommodated on a series of Give-A-Show slides.  Something along the lines of “The TARDIS lands on Starship UK!”, “The Doctor and Amy meet a crying girl.  It’s an oppressive regime!”, “Liz 10 is the queen!”, “The Doctor and Amy fall through a tunnel!”, “The Doctor and Amy are inside a space whale!”, “The space whale is being used to move the starship through the stars!”, “The Doctor and Amy free the space whale from torture!” and “The starship continues on its way!”  Ditching time travel as a plot-device for the very first time, and even after being split up initially (for Amy to receive the vital clue which will lead to her epic win at the climax) much of the episode has the Doctor lead Amy (and us) through the adventure, dropping Pinocchio-like into the stomach of the beast, meeting Liz 10 and receiving the revelation about her along the way.

and Pat Mills if you’re in the mood for some Who apocrypha

In other words, The Beast Below is a picture book, the scene changes like a child turning the page, offering a constant stream of surprises and unusual images, Starship UK with its collection of sky-scrapers itself suggesting even an old fashioned pop up picture book.  To dismiss it as having a "weak story" is to miss the point entirely.  Which isn’t to say that Moffat is only being influenced by children’s stories.  The market place brought to mind the London Below from Neverwhere; the final image of the star whale pure Terry Pratchett (and Pat Mills if you’re in the mood for some Who apocrypha).  And whilst arguably Moffat’s own stories previously have suggested similar images and ideas and with a hat-tip to Paul Cornell the fate of the Family of Blood, it’s never been quite so on the nose, quite so specifically trying to speak to children, hoping against hope that the adults are enjoying it too. 

Admittedly some of this is similar to Davies’s The Sarah Jane Adventures with its clown shaped Pied Piper and black-cloaked Trickster so perhaps I shouldn’t really get myself too carried away in trying to define an era on the basis of a single episode (especially with those photos of a football shirted James Cordon knocking about).  Indeed there was something of the Mona Lisa about Sophie “Alison from Scream of the Shalka” Okenado’s gun-toting cockney Liz 10 except far better performed and with a post-racial subtext to her monarchy.  But I don’t remember SJA being quite so complex with its political subtext; the big white buttons with “Protest” or “Forget” printed on them which turned out to be an apt satire on the political process or the Smilers whose simplistic happy face/sad face/angry face approach to everything is terrifying but also redolent of the nanny state.

perhaps I shouldn’t really get myself too carried away in trying to define an era on the basis of a single episode

Perhaps the difference is that Moffat is underscoring fairy tale elements which have always been there, but rather than hiding them in colder technology (sonic screwdriver as magic wand) he’s making them obvious, aggressively fantastical.  At no point in the episode was it explained exactly why the country was being administered by these fairground throwbacks.  The question was asked, I think, but we were simply left to accept the status quo, why the sometimes happiness, sometimes not, patrol had such a hold on the population, teaching the children even when a real teacher or plasma screen with a computer generated Melvyn Bragg or Matt Baker (as might have been the option in the Davies era) would be the more logical solution.  Because in fairy tales we don’t question talking mirrors and poison apples; they just are.  Build a space station on the back of giant star whale?  Alright then.

Plus, none of the characters in The Sarah Jane Adventures (with the exception of the titular mistress herself) has developed quite as much as Amy has already.  Like Moffat’s version of the show, she’s at once a child but also an adult; marriage is awaiting her, but she’s almost desperate to stay in the TARDIS, even to the point of risking all on a hunch.  Our previous nu-Who companions enjoyed their journey as a kind of privilege, something bestowed at the drop of a TARDIS key; Amy has the self awareness to know that she has to prove herself, explain effectively why the Doctor needs her.  It’s somewhat like Donna suggesting that 10th required her to be his moral conscience, but Donna would never have made that big speech at the close of this episode (probably because he would have got there before her).  She’s both entirely real and totally mysterious.  Wow, again.

oh yays

Then, right at the end, Moffat curiously evokes The End of the World himself.  But instead of Rose being disturbed by the Doctor as she looks out into the immensity of space, it’s the Doctor ruminating on his failure to see the details which were right in front of Amy.  I thought initially we were supposed to assume that he had been testing his new companion, her moral code, but instead he seems like a man who understands what he’s lost in this regeneration, that the human elements of his tenth persona which inescapably led to his doom have been divested and he knows he’s returned to having an alien perspective.  When he clumsily embraces Amy, it’s as though he’s trying to literally absorb her humanity.  Then its off to the TARDIS again and Moffat commits another surprise as like the early Hartnell era we effectively get the next episode teaser as part of the story, Churchill, Daleks and all (oh yays) because like children, no sooner have we read one story, we want to be enchanted by the next one straight away.

Next Week:  Doctor Who sprouts its own Downfall-like meme.

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