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April 16, 2010

Pushing the Right Buttons?

Doctor Who: The Beast Below
Review by Tom Dickinson

Escaped FishAs a card-carrying Davies apologist I’m usually not terribly bothered about a Doctor Who story’s logical flaws. I acknowledge them when they exist, certainly. I’m the kind of guy who gets enraged when someone suggests (even jokingly) that the earth is six thousand years old, so of course I acknowledge that the same Earth cannot be towed through space for billions of miles without all life being extinguished. I’m aware that that bit of Journey’s End was particularly absurd, but I usually don’t care about things like that. I’m more interested in what’s really going on: In that case, the Doctor, surrounded by his companions, experiencing a moment of sheer victory and togetherness, before everyone leaves and tragedy strikes.

I’m more interested in where a story’s heart is than where it’s head is. What’s going on with these characters? How do they relate to one another? What’s the conflict, and what ramifications does it have for them? In this respect, The Beast Below gets full marks. Its heart is clearly in the right place, and it has a lot of brilliant moments of development for these two characters and their relationship. And certainly, I’m going to rave about Karen Gillan's performance and Matt Smith's as well, because to the extent that this story holds together at all, it's held together by Matt Smith's pure magic. But that's all going to have to wait a few paragraphs.

Because surprisingly, I now find the story logic quite a pressing concern. Like Neil, I loved it on first viewing. It appealed to me in quite a visceral way. But also like Neil, as I’ve watched the episode again, and put more and more thought into it, its flaws have become more apparent and more important. It’s a new place for me, and yes, I’m as horrified at my sudden curmudgeonliness as Neil is by his brief turn as an apologist.

To the extent that this story holds together at all, it's held together by Matt Smith's pure magic.

TeethWhy now? I think I know why. While I loved the Davies era, by the end I was getting plumb tired of it. Having to divide my loyalty between the story’s head and its heart isn’t the ideal situation, when it would obviously be better to have both. I was hoping that with the Moff on board I could finally put that conflict to rest. After all, his Doctor Who stories have managed to go for the jugular without skipping a beat in the story. Blink was a well-oiled causal loop machine and a postmodern fairy tale and a melancholy thriller. And The Eleventh Hour absolutely set us up for more in that vein. I got excited, and that’s maybe why I feel a bit let down by an episode I might have gushed about two years ago. But now Moffat’s written a script that’s so full of questionable story logic and so badly structured that, even with the bits of brilliance he’s crammed into it (which are both numerous and considerable), it really doesn’t hold up to even the slightest bit of analysis.

This has all been documented elsewhere, so I’ll be brief. For starters, what the hell is going on in the pre-credits teaser? That girl’s poem was creepy as hell, but why what's the point of it other than that? Who is she? Why did they write a poem for this kind of occasion? And why are we feeding under-performing children to a whale, anyway, even leaving aside the point that we know that it's just going to spit them back out? For that matter, how does it spit them out when the ending of the episode pretty clearly shows that the whale’s mouth is just hanging out there into the harsh void of space? Which brings up all sorts of questions about the space whale biology that we needn’t really get into. Unrealistic xenobiology, I can accept. It's a core tenet of a show whose hero looks human but has two hearts for no reason other than just because. And I’ll also accept the democracy that forms the plot’s backbone, because even though that strains my credulity a bit, and the "Record" feature seems ill-explained, it sets up a lot of the worthier parts of this episode. And it’s not the worst thing in the episode by quite a margin.

That would be the Smilers. Because here's the crucial part: What the hell is a Smiler?

What function do they serve in this society? Or, for that matter, in this narrative? I don’t understand what they are, or why we should even be interested in what they are. They don’t do anything except scare the citizens and occasionally feed people to the whale. But isn’t that what the voting booth is already doing? So ultimately, the Smilers are sort of meaningless, and that goes double for the Winders.

There’s a wonderful story buried underneath all of this, but it's buried pretty damn deep.

SmilerIn fact, I’m convinced that this story would work far better if we simply removed the Smilers and Winders. I even suspect that, at one stage in this story’s writing, they didn’t exist at all and were later shoehorned in just to give the story a monster, or to pad the length, or both. In either case, they backfire, because the monster they provide is useless (albeit creepy), and the story rushes along a bit too fast. Once you realize how pointless the Smilers are, the whole story falls apart, because of how heavily it relies on them for menace. And it’s an empty menace, because of Moffat’s reluctance to kill any of his characters.

It’s frustrating, because there’s a wonderful story buried underneath all of this, but it's buried pretty damn deep. And most of the fat is so easily trimmable! Just cut out the Smilers and this episode has the potential to be a gem.

Because there are wonderful moments in this story. The one that really hooked me in was the voting booth, the tense presentation of the moral dilemma. We don’t get to hear what the dilemma is just yet, but we get enough to understand the drama of the scene, and piece together what the story is really about: millions of people, choosing to forget. It reminds me of the old adage that showing the monster is never as creepy as hinting at the monster, and this scene really takes that notion and applies it more abstractly to the real monster of this episode: the massive conspiracy to torture an innocent.

Karen Gillan does admirably in this scene, and in the rest of the episode as well, extending her range beyond what we saw in The Eleventh Hour as we get a better grip on her character. The fact that she’s still on the fence about her wedding could have been worked into the narrative more smoothly, but it’s there and it's appreciated. This episode seems to deal with a running theme about the choices Amy has to make: about her wedding, about whether to Protest or Forget, about what information the Doctor should have, and about how to save the Starwhale and the Starship UK. At the beginning of the episode, the Doctor tells Amy she can either follow his lead or head back to Leadworth. “What will Amy Pond Choose?” I don’t know what to make of this recurring theme yet, but considering that there’s an episode later this season entitled Amy’s Choice, I can’t help but think it’s important. Which is good, because it's going to lead to some interesting material for Karen Gillan as an actress. I was surprised to see her get a part this meaty this early in the season, and I was pleased with how well she took it on.

For the second time in as many weeks, Matt Smith steals my heart using nothing more than a glass of water.

Nobody HumanBut as good Karen is in this episode, Matt is better. It would perhaps be premature of me to declare him my favorite Doctor ever, but I’m tempted to do just that. For the second time in as many weeks, Matt Smith steals my heart using nothing more than a glass of water. This episode is full of excellent Smith moments: his intention to “stay out of trouble... badly,” his understated but genuine explanation of the death of his people, his mixture of fury and resignation when forced with the dilemma. "And then I find a new name, because I won't be the Doctor anymore." An excellent line, well delivered. Moments like these define a Doctor, and this episode benefits from several. As in the Eleventh Hour, Smith enchants with his energy, his delivery, and the way he moves and gestures. Matt Smith is a being of pure magic, and he really is the best thing about this episode.

There’s been a lot said about how The Beast Below draws from The End of the World, with the Doctor taking his new companion to the far future to get a new perspective on the world from which he came, the conflict that comes about as a result of it, and the eventual understanding that comes about regarding the Doctor’s Last-of-the-Time-Lords status. All of those things are true, and probably consciously so, but this is a different sort of story. There’s a certain frivolity to that episode, despite the dark subject (and, for that matter the gloomy characterization of the Ninth Doctor). Bizarre aliens paraded like a fashion show, a bitchy trampoline, Soft Cell. Don’t get me wrong, that was a fantastic episode, but it’s quite the opposite effect from what we get here. There’s more gravity and grandeur and tension in the raw material from which The Beast Below was crafted.

Which is why it’s such a pity that the story doesn’t really work. The direction’s not at fault. In David Gunn’s directorial debut he handles the story quite well, and while it’ not quite as breathtaking as Adam Smith’s debut last week, it holds its own with the best of the Russell T Davies era. Nor is the production design the problem; pointless as they may be, the Smilers are a beautiful bit of design and the sets of the Starship UK look like an appropriate melding of futuristic and historical. It’s not the acting either, with Gillan and Smith both doing marvelously and Okonedo giving us a spirited and likable Queen Liz Ten. We’ll even forgive the dubious CG starwhale. Much as I hate to say it, the blame for this one’s flaws all go to Moffat.

WinstonBut! Ian McNiece! Churchill! Daleks! Mark Gatiss! It’s difficult to stay pessimistic after that lovely little Hartnell-style linking scene. This is the most excited I’ve been to see the Daleks in some time. It will also be interesting to see what a Moffat-era episode will be like when it’s not actually written by Moffat. And this looks like the most intriguing and promising Dalek story since Dalek itself. So I won't let a single disappointing story dampen my anticipation. Let's call this a hiccup.

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