Review: Doctor Who – 5×2 – The Beast Below

Gridlock done properly

Doctor Who - The Beast Below

In the UK: Saturday 10th April 2010, 6.15pm, BBC1
In the US: Saturday 24th April 2010, 9/8c, BBC America

Do you get the feeling that Steven Moffat’s plan for the season is to stick two fingers up at Russell T Davies and say, “This is how it should have been done?”

Discussion and spoilers after the trailer.

Plot
The Doctor takes Amy to the distant future, where she finds all of Britain (Rob: EXCEPT FOR SCOTLAND AND WALES. AND DOES NORTHERN IRELAND GET ITS OWN SPACESHIP TOO? SHOULDN’T THIS BE ALL OF THE UK RATHER THAN BRITAIN?) in a spaceship.

Was it any good?
Compared to the slam dunk that was The Eleventh Hour, this was a bit more uneven, a bit less compelling and far less coherent. Nevertheless, it was still jolly good.

Now, if last week’s episode was Girl in the Fireplace melded with Smith and Jones, this week’s was a big chunk of Gridlock merged with The End of the World. They’re basically the same stories in both cases.

However, once again, the episode showed what a difference having a different writer with subtly different sensibilities can have on the same story. Whereas Rusty’s efforts were broad-brush splodges of exuberance, without much care for detail, logic, etc, our Stevie turned in something that was far more considered, far more restrained and far more interested in minutiae.

Tie-ins
Tying in nicely with golden oldie stories The Ark in Space and The Sontaran Experiment, The Beast Below saw the people of Britain evacuating the country and heading off into outer space to escape the solar flares threatening to burn the planet to a cinder. How they do it – there’s the rub.

So, much as with Gridlock, the Doctor and Amy turn up and try to work out why the whole of Britain – and you can bet that if someone said “Let’s build a new Britain in space,” they’d do a Gibraltar and have every bit of 1950s nostalgia and everyday kitsch all over the place, a nice touch by the production team – is now a police state in the stars and can possibly be travelling without an engine.

Now, also much as with Gridlock, not a lot of this makes much sense. Why exactly are failing kiddies being rushed down to “the beast below” when those running the place know the beast won’t eat them? Why did anyone even bother with the illusion of an engine room in such a police state, since no one would be allowed down there? This almost feels like about 10 minutes of extra explanation is sitting on an Avid Media Composer somewhere, waiting to be dumped out as a DVD extra.

But unlike Gridlock, this glaring lack of logic isn’t at the heart of the story – it can all be fudged over, unlike centuries-long traffic jams (metaphor for faith or no metaphor). So the rest of the story after these first few minutes of kiddie-related plot manage to hold together quite well, even if again, you have to use the ‘metaphor’ excuse to justify certain aspects of it, and a good hard stare at it reveals plot holes aplenty.

The eventual explanation, when it comes, is really rather nasty and unpleasant. Yey! I’m a little surprised at the Doctor only coming up with three options to solve the problem, and goes for option three quite so quickly, given “find some other big spaceships”, “do something clever with the TARDIS”, “find a planet somewhere” rapidly to come to mind.

But this is still really a character piece for the new Doctor. As with The Fires of Pompeii and The Waters of Mars, we’re being shown that left by himself for too long, the Doctor starts to get a God complex and it requires the likes of a Donna or an Amy to bring him down to Earth. We also get more of the Doctor’s deductive as well as scientific skills, which is a nice change, with the Doctor spotting the police state nature of Britain (sans Scotland) just from observing people’s behaviour and saving himself and Amy from the space whale’s mouth using a bit of knowledge about nerve endings.

As a character piece for Amy, the episode was a little unsatisfactory. While she definitely had her moments, including saving the day, some flirting with the Doctor, her comments on Scotland and her childlike naughtiness, rather too much of her dialogue was effectively “What’s this, Doctor?”, her choice to press the “Forget” button a little unlikely and wandering around Future Britain in her nightie – while a nice head-nod to The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – a little too implausible. I still like her and I like her chemistry with Matt Smith, but a bit more of her original feistiness and craziness would be handy.

Highlights
Niggles aside, this was still a really good episode, with a genuine mystery at its core, some fun comments on politics, sparkly dialogue, Matt Smith being very alien, Karen Gillan being suitably mental and some really creepy parts – the Smilers, the half-Smilers, the Demon Headmaster, the disappearing flaws, being trapped on the space whale’s tongue, and the reveal of how the spaceship actually works. Sophie Okonedo was great as “Liz 10” (I was expecting her to be Martha’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great granddaughter for all of a minute, but thankfully she wasn’t), although her accent seemed a little weird. It was also a decent Stevie-rejoinder to Rusty’s “Aren’t humans brilliant?” motif during the first four series, with Britain capturing and torturing a creature for no good reason except survival, only to learn that the creature they’re torturing was trying to help anyway.

It’s also interesting to note how explicitly Stevie is making this a kids show/a show about kids. They’re the entire raison d’être for the episode and even for the Doctor doing the things the Doctor does. The Eleventh Hour had Amy as a kid and exploited kids’ fears, and the Smilers were pretty creepy exploitations of the fear of ventriloquists’ dummies, dolls, et al. There’s a parent behind this, that’s all I say.

Great lead-in to the next episode, too. Mark Gatiss mind, and it’s been hanging around for a while, so let’s see what we get.

Rating: 7 or 8/10, I can’t decide

Other reviews
Written a review of the episode, either loving it or hating it? Then leave a link to it below so everyone else can enjoy it, too.




  • Poly Gianniba

    I felt let down when watching the episode, but thinking about it makes me hate it even more.
    I hate that almost everyone in the episode behaves stupidly: in 250 years, humans never thought about developing a back up plan. Not because they want to behave humanly but from a purely practical point of view, what happens if the creature dies.
    Furthermore, the Doctor behaves stupidly: there is no emergency, things are as they always were, and his first instict is to lobotomise the creature, instead of asking is there any other solution to the problem.
    I can believe in an alien, less in touch with emotions Doctor. I don’t believe in a stupid Doctor.

  • Poly Gianniba

    I felt let down when watching the episode, but thinking about it makes me hate it even more.
    I hate that almost everyone in the episode behaves stupidly: in 250 years, humans never thought about developing a back up plan. Not because they want to behave humanly but from a purely practical point of view, what happens if the creature dies.
    Furthermore, the Doctor behaves stupidly: there is no emergency, things are as they always were, and his first instict is to lobotomise the creature, instead of asking is there any other solution to the problem.
    I can believe in an alien, less in touch with emotions Doctor. I don’t believe in a stupid Doctor.

  • Anna

    “Whereas Rusty’s efforts were broad-brush splodges of exuberance, without much care for detail, logic, etc, our Stevie turned in something that was far more considered, far more restrained and far more interested in minutiae.”
    That’s occasionally my issue with Stevie – I don’t really want restrained Doctor Who… I want big, emotional Doctor Who which is why I’m having to add RTD to my list of ‘people Anna has to defend all the time’ like Macca and Meg White. And like you say, the problem with this episode was precisely that he didn’t get the details right – why WERE kids down there? They were pretty important to the whole story.
    That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it though – like I’ve just said, I’m no details person. I find Matt as the Doctor constantly fascinating – haven’t quite pinned down what this Doctor’s like yet and I consider this a plus. And Amy’s just a nutty joy; can’t wait to see how her character progresses and when the name-change becomes important (it must?)

  • bob

    So disappointed. I think it is telling that people are comparing this episode to RTD era episodes. Not very original at all. And the Doctor being second to Amy in intelligence was ridiculous character-assassination in just his second outing. And also yep, SM’s episodes are for the kiddies (“It’s also interesting to note how explicitly Stevie is making this a kids show/a show about kids.”). I don’t think next week’s episode will be at least. I look forward to that.
    For the record, we had three series of RTD saying humans are great followed by one where he turned that on its head and made the Doctor lose faith in humanity.

  • A weird, visionary, flawed masterpiece, let down by an oppressive soundtrack that drowned out the actors’ voices and the constraints of a 45-minute episode.
    Visually, it was stunning. Aurally, it was madenning.

  • Stuart

    There isn’t a Doctor Who story that isn’t influenced by or a remake of something else? There are basically only two different stories — base under seige and planetary invasion and often its a mix of the two. Even An UnEarthly Child is basically an episode of Out of the Unknown or The Twilight Zone with a twist ending that hasn’t properly been sorted out fifty years later. To smack any script for Doctor Who around for its lack of originality as some people have doesn’t seem to make much sense to me.

  • Well I enjoyed it(-: (But easily pleased me). I agree that there was no logic to the kids being sent to the vault, but I thought that beginning was really creepy and menacing (and if anything was a little disappointed the rest of the episode didn’t match up to that). RTD had his flaws, but also his moments of brilliance, same for Steven Moffat. They’re very different writers and I’ve enjoyed both of their takes on Dr Who. But considering how the franchise was left to rot for 18 years I am just damned pleased RTD brought it back so spectacularly and Steven Moffat has taken the baton so well. I think Matt Smith is great and Amy, though not given enough to do this time (he was very quick to give up on her wasn’t he?), was also fun. True, it wasn’t as good as the opener, but still lots of fun and entertaining. Interesting point about a parent writing, Rob, I’m sure that does make a difference. My kids certainly respond to Steven Moffat’s episodes in a way they don’t to RTD’s. Wasn’t sure how they’d take the new Doctor, but after initial resistance they’ve come round quite quickly. And of course, there’s a whole load of new children for whom Matt Smith is their first doctor. That’s the joy of children’s tv/books, you always get a fresh audience!

  • Marie

    My review’s over here: http://womanwhotalkedtoomuch.blogspot.com/2010/04/doctor-who-beast-below.html
    I thought it was good, but very child-oriented, which is a good thing for the kids, and we had our own day with Who, so it’s only fair – but if it’s all like this it will become less of a must-see for me.

  • I had mixed feelings about this one.
    Things I liked:
    Amy is independent, sassy. Great companion.
    Matt Smith had a couple of wobbly moments (probably because it was early in filming) but overall he’s going to be good. Really liked it when he got angry with the humans.
    Great chemistry and humour between them & liked the way this developed their relationship.
    The detective work, worked well.
    Being in the beast’s mouth and the way he got them out.
    The choice was great.Protest or forget. A little bit Matrix-like?
    Things that worked less well.
    The smilers were wonderfully creepy but then just faded away. I liked the idea that humans were the real bad guys,but think the smilers were underused.
    I think the pacing of both this week’s and last week’s have been a bit out at times. We needed to have some clue as to why Amy made her choice, and when she recorded her warning to herself. The Doc’s explanation later didn’t quite work because we didn’t have that clue (though I rather liked his ruthless shrugging her off at that point, glad she persuaded him to keep with her…)
    But the thing I most dislike (& didn’t like last week either) is the rewinding of events through her eye. Really irritating directorial tic which I hope they will drop soon.
    I’d compare this more to The Long Game than Gridlock. That’s one of my favourite Series 1 episodes, which I think pulled it off slightly better than this one. However, this is better than Gridlock…
    Overall, Moffat’s made a strong start to the series,& I’m intrigued by the crack in time. Think Matt Smith has it in him to be a brilliant doctor (but I always thought that – he was superb in Party Animals)but occasionally his delivery doesn’t quite work for me. (The line in next week’s about the daleks for instance). I’m sure that’s teething problems though.

  • MediumRob

    @Poly: presumably the reason there was no Plan B was pretty much the same reason that NASA has no Plan B for “what happens if the engines of the space shuttle stop working?” There simply wasn’t an alternative. And surely the point of the Doctor is that he looks at the status quo on AN Other world, says “This is wrong,” then interferes to make it the way he thinks it should be. A sentient creature was being tortured – he could either have continued to let it be tortured or he could stop it. That was the choice. But he’s too remote and been by himself for too long to see the obvious (just as the humans were too small minded to think of the obvious, too). He just came to a conclusion too quickly and was too pissed off with Amy to think rationally.
    @bob: where in the specials did the Doctor lose his faith in humanity? Doesn’t he even sacrifice himself for Wilf at the end of The End of Time? He still thinks they’re brilliant in Waters of Mars, and he’s dead impressed with Michelle Ryan, too.
    @anna: I like Who that at least tries to make sense, even if individual bits of it do. I like emotional Who, too, and so does Stevie, judging by Girl in the Fireplace, Forests of the Dead, etc. He just doesn’t go as big as RTD.
    @virginia/@janehenry: agreed!

  • bob

    I admit that I was ignoring the specials. Okay then, three series of humanity is great followed by one where that is turned upsidedown and a handful of specials that kind of go backwards (though the Doctor still doesn’t accept a companion).

  • MediumRob

    “I admit that I was ignoring the specials. Okay then, three series of humanity is great followed by one where that is turned upsidedown and a handful of specials that kind of go backwards (though the Doctor still doesn’t accept a companion).”
    Really? The final DT season is “humanity is rubbish”. Which bit in Journey’s End where the Doctor is calling Donna brilliant and she outsmarts him because of her human half does the Doctor lose his faith in humans? The Unicorn and the Wasp when he’s gushing on about how brilliant Agatha Christie is? There are moments when humans behave badly in that season (and indeed whole episodes), but the Doctor never really loses his faith in them.

  • MediumRob

    “I admit that I was ignoring the specials. Okay then, three series of humanity is great followed by one where that is turned upsidedown and a handful of specials that kind of go backwards (though the Doctor still doesn’t accept a companion).”
    Really? The final DT season is “humanity is rubbish”. Which bit in Journey’s End where the Doctor is calling Donna brilliant and she outsmarts him because of her human half does the Doctor lose his faith in humans? The Unicorn and the Wasp when he’s gushing on about how brilliant Agatha Christie is? There are moments when humans behave badly in that season (and indeed whole episodes), but the Doctor never really loses his faith in them.

  • bob

    Sure he does- every companion apart from Donna disappoints him. And behaving badly? We have the Ood being enslaved. And also a human works with the Sontarans to kill everyone, the humans in Midnight vote to kill Sky and the Doctor and detention camps are set up in Turn Left for foreigners. It’s definitely a shift in the series from the first three years of the humans never doing anything wrong and getting continuously praised. It wasn’t ruling out the odd good person here or there but it was addressing the “aren’t humans great” sentiment the Doctor used to have. And so the Doctor goes on without a companion maybe not so much because he loses faith in each individual human, but he thinks even if he takes someone decent, he turns them into a monster through his influence.
    I don’t think your two examples of people the Doctor likes in series 4 constitute a “aren’t humans great” motif. You’d need to see some result on them acting en masse. And if SM provided a decent rejoinder, how come none of the examples I list above are decent, particularly the Ood one?

  • bob

    Sure he does- every companion apart from Donna disappoints him. And behaving badly? We have the Ood being enslaved. And also a human works with the Sontarans to kill everyone, the humans in Midnight vote to kill Sky and the Doctor and detention camps are set up in Turn Left for foreigners. It’s definitely a shift in the series from the first three years of the humans never doing anything wrong and getting continuously praised. It wasn’t ruling out the odd good person here or there but it was addressing the “aren’t humans great” sentiment the Doctor used to have. And so the Doctor goes on without a companion maybe not so much because he loses faith in each individual human, but he thinks even if he takes someone decent, he turns them into a monster through his influence.
    I don’t think your two examples of people the Doctor likes in series 4 constitute a “aren’t humans great” motif. You’d need to see some result on them acting en masse. And if SM provided a decent rejoinder, how come none of the examples I list above are decent, particularly the Ood one?

  • Late to the party and I have to say, I am STILL hooked, but then I do perhaps have a certain disposition to watch and enjoy even what the programme is at its most insane, excessive, stupid, irrational etc.
    E.g. pretty much all the time it will do something to annoy somebody but I try not to let it bother me too much. I want to enjoy it. It’s not a case of ‘critical faculties off’ but I have a toleration for overlooking things I don’t feel are crucial.
    Basically though, I loved it and Amy and the Doctor being far more grumpy about humanity than of late. Brilliant!

  • Late to the party and I have to say, I am STILL hooked, but then I do perhaps have a certain disposition to watch and enjoy even what the programme is at its most insane, excessive, stupid, irrational etc.
    E.g. pretty much all the time it will do something to annoy somebody but I try not to let it bother me too much. I want to enjoy it. It’s not a case of ‘critical faculties off’ but I have a toleration for overlooking things I don’t feel are crucial.
    Basically though, I loved it and Amy and the Doctor being far more grumpy about humanity than of late. Brilliant!

  • Pat

    Child centered? The children had nothing to do. I hate this new series so much I started to wonder whether Doctor Who has always reeked and I’ve been in a state of temporary insanity thinking it was good. So I watched an earlier show at random, which happened to be School Reunion. What did I see? Good stuff. Kenny figuring out how to fight bats and hitting the fire alarm with his elbow. “Kenny blew up the school. Ken-ny! Ken-ny!” That’s how you use kids in a kids’ show. You don’t leave them standing around looking lost!

  • Pat

    Child centered? The children had nothing to do. I hate this new series so much I started to wonder whether Doctor Who has always reeked and I’ve been in a state of temporary insanity thinking it was good. So I watched an earlier show at random, which happened to be School Reunion. What did I see? Good stuff. Kenny figuring out how to fight bats and hitting the fire alarm with his elbow. “Kenny blew up the school. Ken-ny! Ken-ny!” That’s how you use kids in a kids’ show. You don’t leave them standing around looking lost!

  • MediumRob

    “Child centered? The children had nothing to do.”
    If the storyline is all about children, then it’s child-centred. Doesn’t matter whether the kids do anything or not
    “So I watched an earlier show at random, which happened to be School Reunion. What did I see? Good stuff. Kenny figuring out how to fight bats and hitting the fire alarm with his elbow. “Kenny blew up the school. Ken-ny! Ken-ny!” That’s how you use kids in a kids’ show. You don’t leave them standing around looking lost!”
    I take your point, but I actually hated that aspect of School Reunion. It made me cringe. I always preferred the Codename Icarus approach to having children in central roles: treat it realistically – if kids get involved, they’ll probably get their arses kicked, so make sure they don’t get too much to do.

  • MediumRob

    I take your point, but to my mind, the Doctor doesn’t actually lose faith in humanity. He doesn’t actually say “God, humans are crap, aren’t they?” like he does here.

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