The Beast Below

17th April 2010 • Review by Ben Paddon •

It’s a beast! It’s below! It’s a beast and it’s below! It’s The Beast Below!

There’s a lot of pressure for a new Doctor or a new companion’s second episode. A lot of expectations, a lot riding on the story. It’s not just about having a satisfying self-contained little series of events, oh no. The new Doctor has to show us that he’s totally different and yet somehow the same man. The new companion has to justify their place alongside him in the TARDIS. So for The Beast Below, which is both the Doctor’s second episode and the companion’s second episode, there’s a lot riding on it. There’s a lot of pressure, especially considering this episode follows The Eleventh Hour, easily the best series premiere that New Who has ever done ever ever. Ever.

Good thing it’s pretty bloody spectacular, then.

There are some very RTD-like qualities to this episode. It feels like the sort of story RTD would have come up with, and yet the pacing, the dialogue, the beats, it all resonates with a distinct Moffatness that is a bit of a bugger to define. Whereas RTD would have written a ham-fisted version of this story, replete with unrefined ideas and That One Moment In Every RTD Episode Everybody Hates (the monster dustbin in Rose, the Britney Spears in The End of the World, the farting aliens in Aliens of London, the…) this feels exceptionally polished with very few holes to pick.

Firstly, I’m going to come back to Matt Smith’s performance. He is, as Cappsy put it last week, astounding. Brilliant, perfect, exceptionally good. I’ve had no trouble accepting him as the Doctor – he may be young but he feels so incredibly old. There’s an age and a wisdom in his performance that is just remarkable to watch. I feel like I’ve been watching Smith for a few years already, so much so that when I rewatched Daleks In Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks earlier today with Insomniac Whovian David Tennant seemed positively jarring. It took me a while to readjust for Tennant’s performance, because Smith is so subtle and brilliant and perfect and blimey, who knew I’d be saying this stuff two episodes in to the new series? Steven Moffat was right.

Karen Gillan is, by comparison, a girl. She has a vagina and everything. That’s pretty much the only distinction between the two – she’s marvellous as well, every bit as nuanced as Smith and every bit as enjoyable to watch. Seeing these two actors, these two characters, interact with each other is a sheer unbridled joy, and I’m already starting to feel a bit of a knot in my stomach about next week’s episode – will the other writers handle their dynamic as well as Moffat does?

The plot, as it is, is marvellous. It’s almost perfectly self-contained while ticking all the boxes that a new Doctor/new companion’s second episode should. The Police State stuff is very well developed, even if the Smilers are sadly underused. Liz 10 (Queen of the Britons, although I didn’t vote for her) comes across as a wonderful fusion of an RTD-era idea mixed with Moffat’s dialogue. The fake-out conclusion is jarring but believable, and the real conclusion is the sort of thing that RTD-haters would probably look upon as being a bit of a Deus Ex Machina, although I bet they all loved it, the fickle bastards. Amy hammered her “very old, very wise, and the last of its kind” point home a little more than is strictly necessary, but there we go. Sometimes that sort of thing doesn’t get neutered after the first draft.

It’s difficult for me to review this episode from a detached, impartial viewpoint because I’ve spent much of the last few days arguing with people about it on the internet (I really must stop doing that). One thing that bugs me about scifi fandom is that for all the wonderful people that it encompasses it doesn’t arf have some thickos in it – people who miss, ignore, or otherwise totally erase entire plot points from their memories. Stuff, for instance, like the corridor right outside the beast’s mouth. People seem to have a real difficulty with that, but the idea of building a space ship on a the back of a space whale on a strict time limit while the sun is slowly roasting the planet is perfectly reasonable. No, what bothered me more about that scene is the sudden appearance of Liz 10 despite the Doctor pointedly mentioning that there’s only one way in or out of the corridor and in order to use it you have to mash a great big “FORGET” button.

And why are people complaining about the “Magpie Electricals” sign? Martha’s TV in The Sound of Drums is a Magpie, not to mention…

Ugh. Sorry. This is my problem and I’ll deal with it in my own way – the casual genocide of every last stinking moron who… oh, sorry. Um. Right.

The one thing fans seem to agree on is that there’s an awful lot going on in this 45 minutes, and it could have used an extra 15 to flesh itself out and give the Smilers something more interesting to do, but what it achieves in the time it has is nothing short of remarkable. This is by no means another Blink, but it’s definitely one of the better episodes of its kind. One thing Doctor Who as a show has a good track record with is “corrupt government” stories, and this easily tops the lot in my opinion. Moffat clearly isn’t trying to reinvent the show (despite giving it a new logo and a new title sequence and a new theme and throwing out all of the old Directors and…), and is instead building on the groundwork that RTD constructed. And a bloody good job he’s doing, too.

Next week’s episode looks pretty damned spiffy an’ all.

Ben Paddon certainly isn’t here to help a malevolent entity to bring down the website. Ben writes and hosts PortsCenter, a webseries about video game ports that exists solely because someone once asked him if Doom on the PSone was any good. His favourite colour is mope.

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5 Responses

  1. John Hoare

    That One Moment In Every RTD Episode Everybody Hates (the monster dustbin in Rose, the Britney Spears in The End of the World, the farting aliens in Aliens of London

    I love all three of those.

    Firstly, I’m going to come back to Matt Smith’s performance. He is, as Cappsy put it last week, astounding. Brilliant, perfect, exceptionally good.

    I feel a complete idiot for doubting Smith would be good. I should have trusted Moffat. But damn, those trailers just weren’t convincing me. But he is quite clearly great.

    He just doesn’t clip as well as Tennant, that’s all.

  2. “it doesn’t arf have some thickos in it – people who miss, ignore, or otherwise totally erase entire plot points from their memories. Stuff, for instance, like the corridor right outside the beast’s mouth. People seem to have a real difficulty with that, but the idea of building a space ship on a the back of a space whale on a strict time limit while the sun is slowly roasting the planet is perfectly reasonable.”

    Someone once said that the dumbest people are the ones who treat smart people like they’re stupid…

    To be fair, you’ve picked the worst possible example to make your point. Any screenwriter worth anything will tell you that the two incidents you have there – the corridor and the original ship build – don’t belong together. There’s a huge and vital difference between the existing pre-coditions of a story and the events that take place within it.

    The basic rule says that you can suspend disbelief most in the early stages of a narrative’s creation. Because set-up, generally, is permitted a huge leeway. We allow a huge amount with back-story because that’s the agreement, that’s the deal with the audience – you promise us something interesting, we allow you the jump in logic to make it happen.

    The T-1000 doesn’t make any robotic sense. But that’s fine, because it’s in the set-up. It’s not that you have to hold to absolute logic, it’s only that you have to create the logics that exist for your own universe. The Terminator series allows the nonsense of time travel (“Nothing dead can go…um, except terminators”), the nonsense of super-sophisticated killer robots from a stupidly near-future, because that’s part of the Rules Of This Fiction.

    What it doesn’t allow is lapses of logic with the narrative. “But Sarah should be able to just wander out of the front door of the mental hospital unchallenged – that’s fair enough, isn’t it, in a film with ROBOTS FROM THE FUTURE?!” doesn’t remotely work as an argument. You still have to treat the story beats with their own internal logic.

    The break that allows the story to exist at all is not a free pass to breaks throughout the ongoing narrative. Those are two totally different sets of rules. Genre writing 101: you’re allowed whatever weirdnesses you need to create your playing arena, but once within it you have to stick to the rules.

    The corridor thing is an issue precisely because the reality of the episode is “A leads to B”. People travel in coherent ways. They walk from area to area, they take elevators, they cycle. Areas are cordoned off, doors lock and seal. The reality of the episode is one of coherent connection – right down to the tubes that feed our heroes into the starwhale.

    That we suddenly cut to characters in a sealed corridor with no visible relationship to the mouth we just left is a breech of the storytelling logic that was in place. It is not justified by saying “Yeah, but the whole set-up’s a bit mad”. Initial creation and ongoing story are governed by different rules. People aren’t “thickos” for knowing this.

  3. Mammalian Verisimilitude

    There’s a tube immediately above where Amy was lying, that they apparently fell through.

  4. I see your point, but even then the “overspill tunnel” that they wind up in still makes logical sense to me. I mean, you have a ruddy long tube going into the creature’s mouth, right? Presumably you don’t want that mouth exposed to the elements, as t’were, otherwise anything sent down to the Space Whale would simply get sucked it into space through the gap in its teeth and the Whale wouldn’t actually get to eat anyone.

    The existence of the tunnel makes sense to me. The nature of the tunnel (one door in or out, unless you’re Liz 10) doesn’t.

  5. Mammalian Verisimilitude

    Why would there be a Forget button on the OUTSIDE?

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