Review by Mark Bousquet
“THE BEAST BELOW” – Series 5, Episode 2, Story 204 – Written by Steven Moffat; Directed by Andrew Gunn – The Eleventh Doctor and new Companion Amelia Jessica Pond hit up Starship UK, an entire country floating in space. It’s all impressive and stuff, but there are secrets lurking about the Starship. The Queen doesn’t want to draw attention to herself so she goes sneaking around in public looking like Guy Fawkes’ sister. Which is fitting. Because It’s Not Remember, Remember The Fifth Of November, But Forget, Forget Or … Um … You Get Eaten By A Star Whale. Yeah. I’m Rubbish At Poetry.
When I was reviewing the Tennant episodes, I started replaying them in the background when I was writing about them. Because they were on Netflix’s Instant Watch, they were literally playing in the background beneath the window I was writing in, which helped serve as an auditory reminder without constantly pulling my eyeballs away from the screen. The Smith episodes aren’t on Instant Watch, but I still want to do the watch-once-clean, then rewatch-while-type method. Almost always I’ll catch something I missed the first time; usually it’s not something big, but sometimes it’s big enough that it changes your perception of an episode.
Such is the case with THE BEAST BELOW.
When I watched it back during the original broadcast, I thought it was just an okay episode that had some really nice character touches. (I love the bit with the water.) When I watched it the other night when the DVD came in the mail, I had a similar reaction. It’s not nearly as brilliant a script as Steven Moffat’s other DOCTOR WHO contributions, and as I talked about during THE ELEVENTH HOUR, I’m interested in seeing how Moffat alters his style to go along with his new position as showrunner. With ELEVENTH, we saw Moffat blend his Timey Wimey method (I’m so glad I finally came up with a shorthand name for that) with Davies’ Run and Shout Style. In BEAST BELOW, however, Moffat is back on his more traditional ground, writing a slower, high concept script that still manages to deliver a big emotional impact.
I think that’s what threw me. I’m still not going to argue that this is a brilliant script or a brilliant episode, but it is one of those episodes that I like more every time I watch it. There’s still some plot holes and contrivances (we’ll get to them) but there is a whole lot to love about BEAST BELOW.
Coming after the overtly upbeat and frantic ELEVENTH HOUR, BEAST is a darker, more somber piece. I think it’s entirely the wrong episode to follow ELEVENTH if you’re trying to build momentum, but the right choice if you’re tying to signal to the audience that things are going to be different. Moffat’s scripts almost always come late in the season: THE EMPTY CHILD/DOCTOR DANCES were episodes 9 and 10, BLINK was episode 10, and SILENCE IN THE LIBRARY/FOREST OF THE DEAD were also episodes 9 and 10. (Only THE GIRL IN THE FIREPLACE came early in the season, broadcasting in the 4th slot.) I think this largely helps his episodes stand out from the Davies’ fueled episodes, and they provide a break before the big finale.
(I think, just glancing over the season’s list of episodes, I’d have gone with VICTORY OF THE DALEKS, VAMPIRES OF VENICE or VINCENT AND THE DOCTOR in the second slot if I was, you know, capable of rearranging the universe to suit my whims.)
Where BEAST trips me up a bit is that despite the lack of running around with the feet, there’s lots of running around with the mouth. It feels like there’s an inordinate number of important things happening in BEAST early on as Moffat builds up the mystery of how the Starship UK can sail through the stars without the benefit of engines. This isn’t an episode like ELEVENTH where something happens, then everyone runs to the next scene for something else to happen, then everyone runs to another place and on and on. Davies was the master at that kind of writing and Tennant did a bang up job making his Doctor work in that style. (Even if the Doctor did sometimes seem to do little more than run, shout, and sonic screwdriver away his problems at time.)
With Moffat and Smith, however, we have multiple strands going on in the same scene.
Take the Doctor and Amy’s second scene. Their first scene sees the Doctor showing off space to Amy, letting her float outside the TARDIS until they notice the large Starship UK moving beneath them. There’s a really nice transition that sees the Doctor and Amy looking at the outside monitor to see a little girl named Mandy crying outside of the TARDIS once they land. The Doctor tells Amy that they are only allowed to observe and not to interfere. Amy interprets that to mean they’re like wildlife observers, and then as she’s realizing that’s kind of hard and sad and cold, she sees the Doctor on the screen attempting to talk to the girl.
The girl blows him off and the Doctor signals Amy to come on out.
Still dressed in her PJs, Amy takes her first steps out of the TARDIS onto a futuristic spacecraft. It’s an important moment for a new Companion. Rose’s first adventure was also to a spacecraft in the future back in THE END OF THE WORLD, but that was a craft that highlighted the alien-ness of the future. Martha first went to space and met aliens in SMITH AND JONES and then largely got the human treatment in her first trip to the future in GRIDLOCK. Donna visited THE PLANET OF THE OOD.
Amy doesn’t get any aliens.
Well, until the end. Wait for it.
As she walks around a marketplace, the Doctor is bursting with energy but Smith keeps his body largely contained, funneling all of that fuel through his mouth. He challenges Amy immediately with a “What’s wrong?” and we see how he thinks. He tells her this is a police state and then goes about showing us how he came to that conclusion: There’s a girl crying but no one is paying attention to her, including parents and parents always pay attention to crying children.
“Are you a parent?” Amy asks.
The Doctor’s face says, “I walked right into that,” but he keeps going. If no one is paying attention to a crying child that means they’re afraid of something that they can’t see, which means it’s everywhere, which means a police state. As he’s doing all this and avoiding questions about his status as a dad, he’s also training Amy to not only notice everything but interpret what it means.
He picks a glass of water off a table and puts in one the floor, watching it and noticing that its perfectly still. “Sorry, we’re testing all the water on this level,” he says to the diners. “There’s a fish on the loose.”
Amy wants to know why he did that and the Eleventh Doctor gives us a bit of insight into how this character is going to work when he answers, “Dont’ know. I think a lot. It’s hard to keep track.”
It’s a great line and there’s a whole host of great lines sprinkled throughout the episode. Moffat is so good at delivering these catchy bits of dialogue that it’s almost as if he’s writing for the trailer. “When I was seven,” Amy says in a voice-over at the beginning of the episode, as if she were doing a “Previously on DOCTOR WHO” monologue, “I had an imaginary friend. Last night, he came back.”
Honestly. Who’s she talking to? She recites a bit of poetry at the end of the episode in a voice over, too. Is she keeping a journal? The answer, of course, is that she’s talking to us, for the benefit of the viewers at home and not because the story demands these worlds.
The Doctor sends Amy on a mission to track down the little girl who was crying and he goes off to look at the engines. She finds the girl and breaks through a security gate, finding this massively big, scorpion-tale looking tentacle bursting up through the street and gets herself arrested by the Winders, the starship’s security force. They don’t wear cop uniforms because it’s cooler if they wear black robes like they’re monks in a cult.
Amy wakes up in a room and is forced to watch the history of the starship. At the end of the program she has to hit one of two buttons: she can choose to FORGET what she’s seen and have her memory of the viewing experience erased, or she can choose to PROTEST what’s going on. We don’t get to see much of the clip but we do see Amy hit the FORGET button and then we see a recorded message she left herself begging her to get the Doctor and get off this ship.
Later, when the Doctor realizes what she’s done, he’s furious and throws a modest little fit, telling her she has no right to make his decisions for him and that after he’s done, he’s taking her home.
As Amy is going through all of that, the Doctor is approached by a mysterious woman in a white mask and dark red cloak who calls herself Liz 10. Now, this is an incredibly silly little bit. Liz 10 wears a mask so no one knows who she is. Why? Because she’s the Queen and people would recognize the Queen. So she goes about in a cloak and mask to protect her identity and then calls herself LIZ 10. Because no one is going to put two-and-two together. Clark Kent’s glasses think this is a stupid disguise.
Liz 10 sends the Doctor on the trail of Amy as she’s watching her message to herself. In another great unspoken bit mirroring the parenting question earlier, the Doctor remarks that he can’t get the machine to play the recording for him because it doesn’t recognize him as human. “Why?” Amy asks, and instead of saying, “Because I’m an alien,” the Doctor just sort of half-turns to look at her. “But you look human,” Amy insists, which gets the Doctor’s nose in a twist. “You look Time Lord,” he counters. “We came first.”
“So there are more of you?”
Again, Amy asks the question the Doctor doesn’t really want to answer. I missed this trait on my first watch. One of the traditional functions of the Companion over the years, is to be the stand-in for the viewer, to ask the question we’re thinking that also allows the Doctor to show us how clever he is at figuring things out. Amy enjoys making the Doctor uncomfortable simply by asking questions that he’s unknowingly led her into asking.
After the Doctor smacks the PROTEST button they get dumped into the trash compactor from Star Wars. Only it’s not a trash compactor, it’s …
“What is it, Doctor?”
“Okay. The next word is kind of a scary word,” he tells Amy. “Say Ommmmm.”
“It’s a tongue.”
I love how the realization of this first causes the Doctor to think of how best to break the news to Amy and then, once that bit of unpleasantness is over, becomes all boyishly enthusiastic about being trapped in the mouth of such a “beautiful beastie.”
They end up in the Tower of London with Liz 10 and Mandy and all is revealed. The Starship UK is flying on the back of a trapped star whale. It’s such a horrible thing they’re doing, torturing this creature to propel themselves forward that everyone chooses to forget what they’re doing. Of course, if they choose to protest they get fed to the whale, so, yeah, probably smart of them to forget if they want to live.
The Doctor uses his screwdriver to allow everyone to hear the whale and it’s obvious the creature is in great pain. Everyone is horrified. Liz 10 demands its release but then she watches a taped message from herself telling her that the Earth was burning and their children were crying and like a miracle, the star whale came. They trapped it and built their country on its back; if they let it go, the ship will fall apart.
It’s a great moral quandary of a moment for the Doctor: 1. Free the whale and condemn all the humans to death, 2. Do nothing and force the whale to live on for centuries in terrible agony, or 3. Turn it into a functioning vegetable. The Doctor lets loose with the aforementioned temper tantrum and snaps at Amy and Liz that “no one human has anything to say to me today!” The Doctor announces he’s going to do the worst thing he’s ever done, which is to basically lobotomize this creature so that it will continue to function but it won’t feel any pain. It’s a really great moment from Smith as you can see the years stacked high behind him bursting out of him.
He goes about fiddling with wires and cables and in a nice turn from the Eccleston and Tennant years, while the Doctor is doing this we’re not paying him any real attention. Moffat uses this re-engineering moment to focus on Amy and Mandy. While the Doctor has let his anger cloud his ability to come up with a clever solution, Amy notices one of the scorpion-tentacle things not only won’t attack the children, but interacts with them, allowing them to touch it.
In a nice bit of editing, Amy thinks back over the episode (and a bit from her childhood), hearing the Doctor’s words to see everything. She realizes what no one else sees and grabs the Queen’s hand and hits the ABDICATE button (the Queen’s version of PROTEST). Everyone freaks but Amy explains that the space whale wants to help. It didn’t comes as a miracle, it came because it couldn’t stand to hear the children crying and suffering and wanted to help.
Amy’s speech is brilliant and soft, with swelling music instead of fireworks. She says that “if you were old and the last of your kind, you couldn’t stand to see children suffer.” Clearly, Amy is noting the similarities between the star whale and the Doctor, and it’s really wonderfully delivered by Karen Gillan. When Amy notes how everything the star whale has gone through has just made it “more kind” than ever … a big hammer delivered by small words. Great stuff. Moffat overplays the speech a bit, basically letting Amy say it three times within 5 minutes. The third time she’s saying it directly to the Doctor.
“You could have killed everyone,” the Doctor says, the weight of Amy’s decision weighing on him. It’s so great to see the Doctor being reflective over something that just happened. You can see he’s troubled by what Amy did but also incredibly impressed. What’s nice is that neither Moffat nor the Doctor nor Pond go on and on about how wonderfully clever Amy was in making that decision. There’s a whole lot of subtext here and this episode seems to signal that we’re not going to get everything spelled out for us and then reinforced in bright, flashing neon.
There’s so much to get to in this episode that I haven’t touched on but I’ve already been sitting here for a few hours, writing this and re-watching the episode. I love how Murray Gold brings back a bit of Tennant’s Series 3 theme music and then segues it into Smith Series 5 theme during one point. Series 3 wasn’t only the best season of Davies’ tenure, it was also Gold’s best season of that run, too. I love how Smith always looks at the sonic screwdriver after using it. I love how Moffat keeps writing really smart kids into his programs. I love how the Eleventh is always thinking.
I promised up above I’d hit on some of the plot holes/contrivances. None of these wreck the episode, but they’re there and if you want to start poking at the cracks, you can cause a bit of crumbling. Why, for instance, in all this time are they still relying on the star whale? Hasn’t anyone been able to come up with some kind of propulsion system? I know that with everyone hitting FORGET they don’t know they’re torturing an animal, but it’s a bit too much to believe that only the Doctor and the Queen are willing to investigate how this ship can fly without any engines. Seriously, they’re smart enough to build an entire country on the back of a star whale, but they can’t figure out how to put it in orbit around Jupiter?
The Doctor is also too quick to give in to his sullenness and not come up with a solution. Now, this is early in his tenure so we don’t know if this is going to be a character trait, but I was rolling my eyes a bit at how quickly he was resigned to the least bad of three choices. His threat to bring Amy home, too, seemed unnecessary.
The ending between the Doctor and Pond on the observation deck, though … that’s some emotional stuff. When the Doctor tells Amy she didn’t know her plan would work, she tells him, “You wouldn’t. But I’ve seen it before. Old, the last of his kind … sound familiar?”
They embrace in a hug and it’s a wonderful, wonderful moment between two people just starting to get to know one another.