Season 31, Episode 2 – The Beast Below, by Steven Moffat

April 11, 2010

by Martin Odoni

Clever stuff again from Master Moffat. It’s certainly another good episode, if a little odd. I guess the series is meant to be odd, so it means it’s a job well done, but there were a lot of weird touches that… well they didn’t do any harm, but seemed a bit random and could have done with explaining. What was the point of the smilers’ two-sided heads? Just seemed a rather kooky excuse for having something that looks scary. Why was there a girl quoting rhymes in an apparent mock-up of the old BBC2 test-card? Why was Devon next to Surrey? Why would a whale have teeth? What exactly was ‘the thing’ the Doctor did that Liz 10 refered to? And was the Doctor perving up Amy’s nightie while she was ‘spacefloating’? (Is she a parody of Arthur Dent, or of Wendy from Peter Pan maybe?)

I do really like Matt Smith. The Doctor is an eccentric scientist again, which he is perfectly cast to portray, and no longer the absurd messianic celeb his Tenth incarnation was contrived into being. He also has an excellent chemistry with Karen Gillan – almost too good in fact, as in the early stages of the story they’re so settled in each other’s company that it seems hard-to-believe that Amy only set foot in the TARDIS for the first time an hour or so earlier. Karen Gillan’s performance is a bit hit-and-miss for me. Her acting in the scene when she sneaks into the workman’s tent seems very stagey and a little over-the-top – see the bit where she glances over her shoulder at the girl and says, “About what?”; cheese-city. But she improves as the story goes on. Once again, she uses those eyes superbly in the later scenes. Sophie Okonedo also fluctuates as Liz 10. She seems like an EastEnders drop-out when in Cockney mode, but as the more regal Queen Elizabeth X on the recording her delivery of her lines is outstanding. (The cockney accent is a a neat early clue, incidentally, that she’s been around a lot longer than she thinks. She’s been mixing with the regular population so much and for so long that her regality has eroded.)

The story seems a bit mis-paced. This is probably because of the gigantic info-dump in the big scene near the end, which leaves the audience having to take on board rather a lot of plot in a big rush after quite a lot of rather slow build-up previously.

But it’s a good story that probably just needed an extra redraft. There are some clever bits of satire on British willful political ignorance – it’s sadly true that our Government isn’t always keeping secrets from us; sometimes people just don’t want to know – and on Scottish ‘we’ll-go-anywhere-so-long-as-it’s-different-from-where-the-English-go’ dogmatism. The star-whale is another bit of weirdness but it works, and the idea of the British of the future suddenly having an action-hero monarch sounds cleverly medieval – Liz 10 a true descendant of the Plantagenets!

The script also cleverly plays on the widescale suspicion of faceless Government workers with a supposed private agenda that even the legislators know nothing of. The Queen here is almost Jim Hacker to Hawthorne’s Sir Humphrey Appleby. (And Appleby was of course played by Nigel Hawthorne in Yes, Minister; another clever bit of sub-text there.) It’s a bit of a turn-up when we realise that Liz 10 is investigating a ‘conspiracy’ she herself set up and then had to forget. Her choice to forget may seem contrived, but in fact it’s very real indeed. Many politicians face the horror of no-win situations every day. (And just like the rest of us, sometimes they would rather just forget it was there…)

The close is very powerful, as the Doctor gets one of those humbling moments he needs every so often. It is Amy, the ‘mere human’, not the mighty Time Lord, who sees the obvious and realises that the star-whale is benign and will help willingly if it is just given the chance. It shows that Amy is a more insightful companion than most of her predecessors… it’s those eyes again!

Good stuff, but I could have done without that phone-call-from-Winston-Churchill tosh at the end…

It just about scrapes an 8 out of 10, would’ve been a very healthy 9 with a redraft. But either way, the series has so far been an absolutely elephantine improvement on most of the dross of the previous couple of years. I’m even starting to like the new version of the theme tune, surprisingly.

For the Matt and the Moffat, may the Time Lord make us truly thankful.

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