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.

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.

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.

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

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  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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