“The Beast Below”
April 10th, 2010
While Doctor Who effectively transcends our understandings of both time and space, it is generally the former which has had the most impact (at least from my outsider’s perspective): the Doctor is, after all, a Timelord, and the different locations that the Doctor visits tend to be defined more by “when” as opposed to “where,” especially when you consider that location is often dependent on time period. There is always that initial moment, upon the Doctor’s arrival, where the question of “where” becomes immediately important, but it is often superseded by the show’s interest in “when” the Doctor has arrived in order to place the events in question into some sort of new context.
“The Beast Below” is one of these examples, beginning with a really fascinating question of place and national identity before eventually delving into a complex investigation of morality in the wake of great tragedy. In the end, the episode boils down to considerations of time as opposed to any questions about location, but the presence of those ideas is sort of what makes Doctor Who so intriguing to me. While we would normally complain that so many potentially interesting ideas regarding Spaceship UK and its police state are left uninvestigated, their presence makes for a more engaged audience experience – the show may eventually boil things down to a single story, but the presence of that added potential is something for us to chew on, which is at least half of what Doctor Who means to accomplish.
I could spend a lot of time listing the various story ideas that “The Beast Below” sort of just tosses aside once the Star Whale comes into play. Don’t get me wrong: I thought the Star Whale was an intriguing twist, and having Amy “solve” the situation was powerful and impactful to both her relationship with the doctor and our sense of her character. The problem, I think, was that in doing so every other idea the episode dealt with was literally tossed aside: all of those questions about the Police State, about the half man, half Amusement Park Fortune Teller creatures, and about the twisted sort of democracy the show was playing with all faded away. The episode opened with the tale of young Mandy and the child who got a “zero,” and it implied a very strict police state that all but evaporates once the Doctor and Amy arrive and unimpeded waltz through the ship.
You could write dozens of stories that take place on Starship UK as we find it, but that isn’t what the show’s interested in. In some ways, Doctor Who takes changes in place for granted: when the Doctor asks Amy to look around and try to tell him what’s wrong, he’s looking for a specific answer as opposed to asking us to soak in the sights and start to understand the differences between this world and our own. The Doctor’s powers of observation are very clearly tuned into place and location: he notices the lack of engine noise, and spots the lack of dirt or even human presence in the vicinity of the creepy fortune teller booths. But part of me would rather that Amy’s sort of scattershot perspective, seeing things like bicycles as opposed to tears in reality which threaten the entire ship’s existence, would be our point of entry as opposed to the Doctor’s brilliant but more procedural observations. That opening shot of Amy floating in space, confirming the Doctor’s presumption that the TARDIS is really a spaceship, is pure and sort of freeing, while Starship UK feels as if it has none of that freedom since the Doctor is tasked with his mission almost immediately before having the opportunity to discover much of the place itself as opposed to, well, “The Beast Below.”
As for the story itself, the end result is all about time: we’re meant to focus on the fact that the “Forget” button effectively stops time, and that Queen Elizabeth the Tenth has lived the same ten years twenty-five times, always stumbling upon the discovery of what she did to “save” the British people and each time choosing to forget in order to keep her people alive. While the show focuses on how the Star Whale is a convenient parallel to the Doctor (as Amy so conveniently lays out for us), I was struck by how the atemporality of Starship UK plays into the sense that the Doctor is above time, and how the “Forget” button plays into what little I know about what happens with former companions once the Doctor (or, you know, the actress) moves onto another role. Also, let’s remember that Starship UK was designed as a short term solution: it was meant to be a ship to take them to a new settlement somewhere in the galaxy, a temporary form of transportation rather than a place in its own right. And yet, because of the “forgetting” that defines the community, that end goal is entirely left behind. There is no sense that they’re moving forward to some end goal, left to aimlessly drift through space while fighting their own ethical demons rather than finding a new home.
A lot of this was left entirely out of the central story, which boils down to the Doctor being forced to make a tough decision until Amy Pond decides to do it for him and proves something to her new traveling companion in the process. And generally, I’m fine with that: I thought Matt Smith remained very good at balancing both the quirky and the more serious elements of the Doctor, and Karen Gillan managed to give a nuanced performance in a nightie, so I’d say that the show remains on an interesting and potential-filled trajectory moving forward regardless of whether some of the nuances were left to our imaginations.
- Always like when small inconsistencies reveal the plot twists before you actually get to them: while everyone was focused on the fairly hackneyed “Marital Status: Information Unavailable” part of Amy’s identity test, her age indicated that this was far beyond the 29th century (when the Doctor had indicated that Earth had been abandoned), which threw some cold water on Liz 10′s claim she had only been reigning for ten years once we learned that particular statistic.
- Notice yet another “crack in the wall” on the side of Starship UK: does this imply that the big bad from the premiere is still chasing the Doctor through space?
- The above is probably already all sorts of ignorant to the larger Doctor Who ethos, but my ignorance is really going to be clear next week with the arrival of the Daleks (which, at the very least, I knew existed). Looks like I’ll have to finish reading the A.V. Club’s Doctor Who Primer by then.