Doctor Who – The Beast Below – Review

‘In front of you are two buttons. One is marked ‘Remember’ and the other ‘forget’’.

This is an episode of Dr Who which I spent the majority of reminding myself wasn’t actually a ‘choose your own adventure’ book. I felt like at any moment I might have to turn to page 131. Worse, at one point I tried to roll for initiative to see if the Doctor was taken captive by a smiler, or whether i failed my skills check on pressing remember (I did).

Indeed, it may as well have started with “This episode of Doctor Who was brought to you by the letters C, H and OICE”.

Chalk it up as the difficult second episode, or just my own enthusiasm at last weeks episode being too high to maintain, but this seemed a far weaker episode. There is much that needs to be remembered here as really good, but there was a lot, maybe more than in any other Moffat episode, that was poor.

This week we open on the United Kingdom, now minus Scotland. The UK now looks like Caprica City does West Side Story on top of a shell. Inside, foul shenanigans are afoot as it appears that the class is being taught by a ‘Zoltar Speaks’ machine. This a plot line straight out of a Goosebumps choose your own adventure book (Give yourself Goosebumps: Tick Tock, You’re Dead) where if you got a question wrong you got disintegrated.

It seems that SM read this and correctly recognised that this was a quite good plotline, and so we have something that is sure to terrify children everywhere: the idea that Teachers are going to drop you down a lift shaft if you get your test wrong. Personally, I think any system where this is a duly acknowledged part of schooling and where you still fail a test with a 0 implies a lack of effort on your part, but this isn’t the message of the episode (that’s ‘choice’ by the way).

Unfortunately little Timmy isn’t just book dumb, but real life dumb too, and so he gets into a lift having being specifically warned not to. In fact, his friend even goes so far as to remind him exactly why getting in a lift is a bad idea. So when he does and a little girl sings him a creepy song from the view screen before the floor opens up and drops him screaming to his doom he only has himself to blame.

But.Why would the Smilers drop children who get 0 on their tests, then use the lift, down to the star whale? They know it doesn’t eat them, so what possible use could they have for children. Much like the CyberKing construction scenes, or Temple of Doom I have a problem with the idea of using children as a workforce. They’re wholly unsuitable to anything but stitching. You certainly don’t use them for random heavy labour.

Meanwhile, in space the Doctor is dangling Amy out the TARDIS by her ankle. Conveniently, this is possible because of the TARDIS’s extendable ‘air shell’ which is only just more scientifically plausible than ‘she’s holding her breath’ or ‘it just looks cool’. He then proceeds to lock her outside, at which point you begin to wonder if this new Doctor is less forgetful and more wilfully sadistic.

Ah, but he does have the Prime Directive. And he’s a Janeway, bless him, so he’s going to pay a totally different amount of attention to it each episode depending on whether it’s convenient or not.

There are great introductions to the characters as well as the plot, particularly the Doctors Holmesian mind. I’m enjoying his portrayal as someone who is just very observant, and that he drives the plot not from knowledge he already possesses, but his own deductions. It’s an interesting way of getting round requirement for him to be an expert in what’s going on.

Not that the plot isn’t particularly difficult. As soon as the glass of water was placed on the floor the room (as one) worked out the entirety of the plot. The only bit we didn’t get was the identity of Liz.

Much as I complained last week there are huge story beats borrowed from the RTD era. This is a mishmash of every space station episode, plus Planet of the Ood. So much PotO. Exposed brains, slavery of other species. All it needs is the whale to sing a song at the end. Oh wait, he actually talks about the “songs they’ll sing”. Ha.

Instead we get Liz 10. How do I loathe thee, let me count the ways. It’s not just the costume, or the affectations, or the (really bad) dialogue “Basically, I rule”. It’s the fact that, whatever her change of heart, she more than anyone is responsible for the ongoing and systematic torture of the star whale. Hard to make her that sympathetic a character when it’s only the fact that the Doctor is there to witness her choice that means she doesn’t just forget it again.

And here’s the thing. Why not just stop torturing it. You’re in space. A vacuum. You have momentum. You won’t stop if you ditch the whale, you’ll just keep going. It’s not like they’re going anywhere in particular.

Oh, there’s so much here. So much to digest and mull over. It’s certainly not a great episode, but it’s very reasonable, and on a second viewing it’s a lot better than I’d given it the credit for. The dialogue between the leads is lovely, even with the wobble at the end about the whale’s/ Doctor’s loveliness, and its loneliness, and its YAWN.

I’m enjoying him a lot though. He’s much more unpredictable and alien than Tennant ever managed. He still reminds me of a thoroughbred stallion evolving into a biped, but in a very endearing way. Disappointingly, the usual high point of SM episodes, the stellar plot was lacking this time out. Hopefully a blip rather than a foretaste of what an increased schedule means for his quality control.

But. How are they going to feed the space whale now? If it lives on a diet of humans fed to it by the Smilers, what are they to do now? Can’t go giving it political deviants any more. Feed it the dead? Or have it as a form of Euthanasia (although if people are fit and healthy at 300, that’s unlikely). Caleb suggests it actually eats something else, so they just feed it people for convenience. Surely it would be as convenient to flush them out the airlock. It’s not as if that’s any less noticeable than a large number of voters disappearing from polling booths to be eaten.

Finally, what was going on with all the Star Wars references? “You’re my only hope” from Liz 10, the garbage compactor / asteroid slug meld – this was packed full of loads of references, call backs and one liners designed to distract sci-fi fans everywhere.

Next week we have ‘Victory of the Daleks’, which promises us Churchill and, yes, a Dalek. The ultimate confrontation, when the most despicable Bastard in all of time and space teams up with a classic Doctor Who villain. Zing.