Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Beast Below

10/4/10 “The Beast Below”
“We’re like a wildlife documentary.” –Amy

I was raising concerns last week about the tonality of all Steven Moffat’s stories and whether there would be any variation. This story was, though as usual I found much to allude to. For all its inventiveness and the consummate way any Moffat story fits together, I found it very difficult to watch and could not, despite myself, give it the ebullient emotion I felt when watching “The Eleventh Hour.” Maybe that story had raised my expectations so high anything else was bound to be, well, second-best.

The teaser is a classic Doctor Who fake out, and while it succeeded in garnering interest and gluing the kiddies to their seats, it felt very much at odds with the rest of the story once it had all played out. Taking place in Starship UK, “bits of the UK bolted together and floating in the sky,” I felt vague stirrings of Stephen Wyatt (“Paradise Towers” principally, with the bad thing in the basement, though also a bit of “Greatest Show in the Galaxy”) as well as a similarity in production values to “Gridlock” (I don’t know where that was filmed, but “The Beast Below” appeared to have been filmed in Cardiff Market). I really have to question the place of the Smilers. I realize there had to be a gimmick to focus the pre-airing ads, since the revelation at the end was much too complex and gruesome to really sell this story. But the Smilers seemed like scare for scare’s sake. Almost like the Primords in “Inferno,” which were tacked on during production to have a traditional monster in a non-traditional story. And what’s with Half-Smilers, Half-Human? Why even bother?

Meanwhile, out in space, Amy (charmingly still in her nightgown, though what a conveniently opaque nightie!) is floating around in a beautiful starry sky with the Doctor holding onto her ankle (and hopefully not looking up her skirt). This was beautiful and said a lot about Amy and the new Doctor. “I’ve extended the air shell,” the Doctor told her when she asked (and I was about to raise the question myself). Like Rose, the Amy is going to start her travels in the future and then the past, not especially by choice like Rose, though. While the Doctor showed her Starship UK on the view screen, he more or less told her what he told Barbara, “You can’t rewrite history! Not one line.” Actually he told her that they were observers only. Amy has difficulty being an observer, which she quickly realizes is the case with the Doctor as well. Wherever children are crying, she wryly notes, the Doctor is there to fix it. A nice sentiment that seems to be very much in line with the ethos of the series so far . . . not sure how much I truly like it, though.

As the Doctor and Amy looked around Starship UK, with its illusion of Middle Britain, she worried “oh my God, I’m in my nightie” while he casually mentioned they were in “a police state at the brink of collapse.” They’re being watched, especially when the Doctor takes a full pint of water and places it on the ground. This is a lovely alien thing to do for the lovely alien Eleventh Doctor. “We’re under orders to tell her,” one monk-looking official person tells his telephone. On the other end of the telephone, the mysterious masked lady says, “Did he do the thing?” She is slightly Gothic, and I couldn’t help thinking of Neverwhere for some reason. Like all Moffat, this story is pieces of a puzzle arranged with maddening precision around the viewer.

The Doctor and Amy have found the girl from the teaser, and the Doctor is concerned about her crying—yet he has a Sherlock Holmes-like detachment about the whole situation, like a tour guide. As the Doctor explains to Amy that if no adults are comforting the crying girl, then they know what caused her despair and can’t do anything about it, so choose to ignore it. “Any parent knows that,” the Doctor states in the oblique manner he did in “The Doctor’s Daughter.” Cute. He shows Amy the girl’s identity card—“took me four go’s to get it.” As they start to get “involved,” the Doctor says, “What will Amy Pond choose?” This seems very manipulative of him. For all his disingenuousness, this Doctor is starting to emerge as a darker character in his dealings with Amy. Maybe I’m just hyper-sensitive to it, as this is the kind of relationship that sets my fan fic sense a-tingling.

As Amy follows the girl and starts investigating, the Doctor goes elsewhere. Amy uses lock picking skills (acquired from Marie-Antoinette?) and I see an ad for Magpie Electricals. A one-off? Amy is pleased that the Scots wanted their own ship. I can see that Jamie is right: Moffat is going to do for the Scots in Doctor Who what RTD did for the Welsh. Tee hee. Amy gets taken off into a booth on her own where, somewhat “Vengeance on Varos”-like, she is given the interactive choice to “vote,” so to speak. Her choices are, however, Protest or Forget. Whatever Amy sees prompts her to forget, so she comes out of the booth with her memories erased. The girl explains to her that all adults are required to “vote” every five years. It’s a curious, and not terribly belabored, commentary on voting and civil responsibility; in the wake of the fact I’m reading a book about the British political system and the fact the British General Election is coming up . . . well, let’s just say “The Beast Below” has some interesting ramifications for choice versus compulsion in voting, and just how important votes can be. If only 1% of the population of Starship UK voted for “protest,” the system would change radically. Instead, we’ll find out where dissenters go later.

Amy is unable to explain this to the Doctor—he isn’t required to vote because he doesn’t register as human—except with a vague sense of foreboding. He has had contact with the mysterious lady, and it’s all so mysterious. Amy and the Doctor, in their exploration, fall down a chute onto a tongue. With all the slipping and sliding, it reminded me, in a good way, of the garbage compacter scene in Star Wars IV. Having been fed from tongue into a stomach with a feeding tube, the only way for them to be expelled is through vomiting. “Yes, you are covered in sick,” the Doctor tells Amy. There’s a strange, roguish gross-out factor to the Eleventh Doctor so far. They are rescued by Liz 10, the mysterious lady, who Jamie immediately and correctly identified as the Queen. For a Queen, she is very bad-ass (she reminded me of Zoe from Firefly). I had written in my notes, “A more optimistic vision of royalty than RTD’s,” but I’m not so sure that’s true once you’ve gotten to the end.

Liz’s freedom fight is for her people, and she somehow manages to land outside the jurisdiction of the Smilers and has been time locked (I think that was the phrase). She says she is forty and has been struggling for ten years of her reign. “Keeps me looking like the stamps.” If all this seems a bit tenuous, you’ll find out why and be shaking your head. As Liz 10 is reliving the same ten years of her reign, over 300 years. I found it quite a similar (and similarly disturbing) idea to the one at the heart of Rob Shearman’s The Holy Terror. It is an amusing and bitter satire of the monarchy, that all the responsibility and pomp that goes with the role is so similar and passed down through the generations, no one seems to notice if it’s relived a hundred times with the same people.

The horrible truth that Amy saw when she voted was that Starship UK isn’t powered by mechanisms, they’re riding on the back of a Star Whale they captured and are keeping in a constant state of torture in order to keep themselves alive and blissfully unaware of the fact. I won’t bore you with allusion to modern events that would fit right at home in this simile as you can draw the conclusions for yourselves. A generational deception that’s sort of the reverse of the one in “Full Circle.” And the dissenters are sent to the belly of the whale, though “it won’t eat the children.” The Queen has instructed that this system be put in place, though every time she finds this revelation anew, she can choose to keep the system going or to abdicate and release the Whale, killing them all in the process. It’s a bit more complicated than “Meat,” but the same morals—and the same extremely poor light humans are shown in—are the same. The Star Whale also happens to be the last of its kind.

Amy tried to keep all this from the Doctor in the split-second she chose “Forget.” “You took it upon yourself to save me from myself,” says the Doctor angrily. His role is to kill the humans and save the whale and for Amy to stand by and take his abuse and do nothing. “I won’t be the Doctor anymore!” It’s an impossible choice to make, and it would be interesting to see the Ninth Doctor in a similar situation—doubtless he had many impasses like this as Nine. Fortunately for everyone, Amy was listening when they told her that “it won’t eat the children,” and based on this, she formulates a theory and tests it out, without the Doctor’s approval. She makes the choice. And it’s the right one. She has the Queen abdicate, setting the whale free . . . but they don’t get shrugged off and they don’t die. Because the creature they’ve been torturing is of a moral fiber so much better than their own. “It volunteered—if you were that old and that kind . . .” She knew she had made the right choice because she realized the Doctor was old, kind, and lonely, and like the whale, had a big heart. This is the kind of stuff that does somewhat restore your faith in the universe if not in humanity. The Doctor, too, however, has been culpable and is mindful of Amy’s role in “humanizing” him. He confesses that the last time he ran away from a big decision, like Amy has, he ended up as . . . well . . . the Doctor. The title, of course, has been deceptively making us worry about a Satan-like figure—when beast here signifies a beast of burden. That clever Vast Toffee.

And onto the next story, where Winston Churchill uses the TARDIS phone and methinks things are not as they seem in wartime London.

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