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April 14, 2010

The Beast of Both Worlds

Doctor Who: The Beast Below
Review by Neil Perryman

I loved this episode.

Beast4Matt Smith continues to hypnotise me with his unique take on the Doctor. Once again I simply can't take my eyes off of him. Just look at the way he walks  - slouching like a wounded chimp that's just been beaten up outside a library - and yet it still doesn't feel forced or over-the-top. If any other actor were playing the part this way I'd probably be scoffing by now, but given that Matt has come across in his press interviews as a genuinely weird bloke it feels like a natural extension of his personality. And it's great to have a quirky, unpredictable Doctor again.

He displays some great comic timing, especially in the scene where he has to prepare Amy for the revelation about the giant tongue; his use of the sonic screwdriver is particularly inspired here. He also gets to display some Doctory rage, and while he isn't as scary as Tom Baker or as exasperated as Peter Davison, his outburst still managed to chill my bones. I'm not entirely convinced about his knee-jerk reaction to Amy's actions though. His threat to "do an Adam on her" felt a little harsh under the circumstances.

I was relieved when the elephant in the room was promptly addressed ("It was a bad day. Bad stuff happened") without anyone wallowing in it, and now that we've had yet another riff on the lonely god motif I really expect that to be the end of it. Time to move on, I reckon.

Thankfully, the Doctor's dialogue is as crisp and memorable as we've come to expect from the Moff: "On the plus side - roomy!" - "Hold tight, we're bringing down the government" - and my personal favourite, "It's always a big day tomorrow, I've got a time machine, I skip the little ones". Fantastic lines delivered brilliantly by the most engaging actor on television today.

It's great to have a quirky, unpredictable hero again

Beast5Karen Gillan continues to shine as Amy Pond. Her willingness to investigate mysterious locked rooms feels curiously natural instead of moronic (a much needed quality in any companion) and her ear-piercing screams in the lift shaft felt entirely believable, acting as a hilarious counterpoint to the Doctor's giddy excitement at the prospect of almost certain death. It's a good job they weren't ejected into the cold vacuum of space or directly into the belly of the beast or then they'd have been in trouble!

Amy's willingness to get stuck in, even when dressed in her nightie (why didn't she ask to go back and change?) is commendable and sassy. There. I finally used the word "sassy". It's the law, I think. It's hardly surprising that Matt Smith has a thing for Miss Gillan; his appearance on this week's Confidential was a plaintive cry for help if ever I saw one.

Sophie Okonedo was great fun as the subversive Liz X.  "I'm the bloody Queen, mate! Basically, I rule!" made me roar with laughter and her tragic tale of discovery was both poignant and disturbing.

There's a 7th Doctor vibe running throughout the episode that also appealed to me. I may be in the minority but I really enjoy the McCoy era (especially the Virgin New Adventures), and love nothing more than witnessing the Doctor bringing down a decaying government in less than a day whilst surreptitiously testing his companion's mettle. The only difference being that the 7th Doctor would have known that it was a space whale all along.

I was also reminded of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere with it's scenes of Friars and Queens rubbing shoulders with the commoners in a parody of London Down Below. The fairytale aesthetic is definitely in full-swing now, with a dreamlike quality beginning to seep into every pore of the show, from the magical moment where Amy learns to fly in her nightgown (how much more Wendy can you get?) to the final shot of the star whale continuing its timeless voyage, the series is as far removed from contemporary suburbia as you could possibly get.

the 7th Doctor would have known that it was a space whale all along...

Beast6In short, The Beast Below is another confident, complex and entertaining episode that manages to capitalise on last week's impressive introduction. It boasts some excellent performances, some imaginative designs and some genuinely shocking surprises. But at its heart it's a story about the Doctor and Amy learning to trust each other. And now we've got that important step out of the way I am really looking forward to sharing one hell of an adventure with them.

If you are happy with my assessment of The Beast Below then simply forget that you can see a link that will take you to the second part of this review. Just leave the blog happy in the knowledge that this was the Best. Episode. Ever. 

If, on the other hand, you wish to protest at some of this episode's shortcomings then please press the link below to continue reading. But be advised that if just 1% of the blog's readership do this there could be dire consequences for you all.

The decision is yours...

It was only on the second viewing that I began to notice some serious problems with this story. I still stand by my glowing appraisal of Smith and Gillan, but the plot doesn't make any sense when you stop to think about it.

This wouldn't be quite so annoying if Moffat didn't demand that the audience pay attention to everything they see. The resolution to two plots on the trot have gone to great lengths to emphasise the importance of noticing the small things in order to appreciate the bigger picture. Unfortunately, while Moffat's details are certainly impressive on the surface, the bigger picture crumbles to dust as soon as you begin to examine it.

Beast1Take the scene in the voting booth. The way the procedure is presented to us suggests that Amy is given a massive telepathic info dump concerning the truth behind Starship UK and then she immediately whacks the Forget button. This felt incredibly dramatic to me because it implied that the situation was so horrendous, so goddamned awful, she didn't have to think twice before making her decision. Wow, I thought, the truth must be really bad!

And then that message to herself kicked in and suddenly everything went all timey-wimey and blinking freaky. It was only on the second viewing that I actually noticed the huge RECORD button on the table, but since it's never mentioned or explained in the government film, it's easy to miss the first time.

And then you stop to think about that Record option for a second. What function does it serve, exactly? What would stop something like this from happening:

A voter presses the FORGET button.

An image of the voter forms on the screen and says: "Hi, it's me. You. Whatever. Just to let you know that we choose to forget the fact that the government is torturing a giant space whale because the ship doesn't have an engine. Can you Adam and Eve it! Now go and pick your son up from school - assuming he hasn't been sent to his doom, of course! A fact we are all happy to live with every single day. Bye!"

Weird.

Beast2So, these Smilers. What are they all about? 

Sure, they look creepy and foreboding, and the opening scene must have sent the youngsters scurrying behind the sofa - but don't worry, the happy, triumphant theme music made them all dance back out again - but beyond looking vaguely intimidating they didn't really do all that much. It was a nice twist to see them "come alive" but what would they do if they ever caught up with you? Grimace you to death? A weapon of some sort would have been nice.

And those monk-like half-human, half-smiler "Winders". Again - why? Or are they all half-human? Either way, it seems like a pointless exercise in fairground theatrics to me. Is this what dictatorships do when they have far too much time on their hands? Is Bernie Ecclestone the only human on the ship who knows what the hell is going on? No wonder he spends so much of the episode looking so smug. And was it his idea or the Queen's to hire small children to recite ghoulish poems to their victims just before they died?! Was this nightmarish vision of the future set-up when they originally decided to hitch a ride on a whale, or did they make this bit up as they went along? Maybe the population starting grumbling about the whole whale business and something had to be done? Moffat only knows.

Sadly, Starship UK's police state is so contrived it makes The Happiness Patrol look positively subliminal.

And to top it all, the star whale doesn't eat the kids. So why do they keep feeding them to it? Or did it just eat a few and then it stopped eating them? I mean, if it never ate a single kid then it seems a bit silly to keep doing it over and over again. And what's that all about anyway? This horrific act seems far worse to me than torturing an idiotic, simple-minded mammal. A mammal so stupid it happily goes on providing a taxi service to these idiots after being tortured for, what? 250 years? More? No wonder the star whales are practically extinct - they're like 2000AD's version of the Kakapo...

And didn't we meet the same species in Torchwood when a bunch of Welsh Chavs managed to slice one up into bacon? Actually, that explains a lot...

I couldn't believe that the Doctor didn't chastise the UK for feeding its own children and dissidents to a giant space whale. He went mental over them torturing a large space cow; and he practically bit Amy's head off for trying to protect him. But murdering small kids doesn't even get a look in! Or maybe it's all just a massive inducement for doing your homework on time? Although how they learn from an experience they immediately forget is beyond me.

No wonder they're practically extinct - they're like 2000AD's version of the Kakapo...

Beast3It just doesn't make any sense.

This civilisation can stop body clocks, it can build sophisticated cyborgs and it can capture and torture giant space whales BUT they can't work out how to install a working engine on a spaceship. Every other civilisation on Earth seemed to manage it. Even the Scots. Hell, the script suggests that New Zealand, Switzerland and Andorra managed to get their shit together and head for the stars.

The Doctor is supposed to be the smartest man in the universe - forget the sodding room - and yet he didn't stop to consider for one second that the whale might not kill everyone in a fit of pique. In fact, he makes no attempt to communicate with the poor bastard at all. I'll let him off, being so close to a regeneration and everything, but let's not forget that the 4th Doctor went to the trouble of trying to communicate with a large plastic bag once. I thought the 11th might have extended the TARDIS's air bubble that they made such a big deal of at the beginning of the story, but apparently that detail was only there to provide the fairytale opening.

After all the exposition in the London dungeon stopped the first thing my wife said to me was this: "Why don't they just stop torturing the whale and see what happens?" And she wasn't paying that much attention; she even left the room to make a cup of tea at one point. It's such an obvious question to ask and yet we are asked to accept that Amy is the only sentient being in the whole universe who can work it all out. Even though the whale is playing with some kids at the time. Makes the Doctor look a bit of a twat, if you ask me,

Starship UK's police state is so contrived it makes The Happiness Patrol look positively subliminal

BeastAh, but it's all a fairytale, isn't it? It's not supposed to make any sense. Er, well, in that case stop trying to weave intricate plot threads that are supposed to lead to logical conclusions - and stop imploring us to pay attention to these details in order to work it all out. It's not working. It's like having a particularly tricky episode of Jonathan Creek to ponder over only to discover that it was all done... with magic!

It's a development that worries me. I'm all for the fairytale aesthetics and the childlike-wonder bobbins but if this results in plots falling apart with a second glance then I'd rather have some Christopher H. Bidmead, thanks.

Jesus Christ, Gridlock made more sense than this!

And here's a really scary thought for you: when are they going to run out of decent child actors? Two episodes in and they must have used up a fair slice of them already. They'll be phoning up Deep Roy by the time they get to episode 11.

So, to summarise: my initial reaction - an 8/10 rating on Gallifrey Base, an excellent rating on this blog and several posts to Twitter and Facebook extolling its virtues - has fizzled away to a vague shrug. I'm also left with a horrible suspicion that I must have sounded like one of those RTD apologists I could never get my head around last year. I had somehow managed to hit the button in my head that told me to forget or ignore the bits that don't make any sense and to just enjoy the ride. If this was the 1970s, before the advent of video recorders, who knows, it might have worked.

Still, it's not The End of the World. It just looks like it. A bit.

And no matter what you might think, it's episode 2. Come the end of the season we'll all have forgotten about it, whether we choose to or not.

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