THE BEAST BELOW
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Oh, poxy poxy poxy pox. What a disappointment.
And it started so well, too. So very, very well. The shots of the spaceship are stunning, for a start. We’re always suckers for a creepy automaton, and these are doozies: when the third face rolled into view, we shrieked like, er, girls.
And there’s so much more beginningy goodness. The setup’s completely intriguing, with the kid and the lift and people in cloaks making mysterious pronouncements. The clockwork stuff is lovely. The initial shot of Liz 10, becalmed in a sea of red velvet with her mysterious mask parked beside her and a collection of glasses and a crashed chandelier in front of her, is breathtaking.
The Doctor and Amy get off to a brilliant start, too. We’re utterly impressed by Karen Gillan, who’s astonishingly expressive. Watch the emotions chase across her face as she talks about the wounded cub (ahem, not reminding you of anyone, is it, Amy?). It’s an acting masterclass.
And the Doctor’s new persona is solidifying in a very nice way, too. He’s less manic, less Tenth Doctory, than he was immediately post-regeneration, and that’s a good thing. This is a Doctor whose delightful oddness seems completely organic, not grafted on by a scriptwriter. It’s also a Doctor who’s decidedly alien, so hallelujah! And we love his forensic, Holmesian approach to working out what’s wrong on the ship.
And then, wham-o! It all starts to turn to fish-finger-studded custard.
The massively clunking political satire we can just about forgive. Election year, anyone? It’s hardly deftly incisive, but meh, it’s all right. What really made our jaws drop were the protest and forget buttons. As we hit pause and sat there in stunned silence, once of us finally managed to say it: “He’s….actually….doing….the red pill and the blue pill.”
Yes. He really is. It’s the most outrageous steal this side of Quentin Tarantino. But one giant ripoff isn’t enough: just in case we thought that Steven Moffat had been living in an airing cupboard from 1999 to 2003 and never saw the Matrix movies, he proves he really means it by making the whale the Great A’Tuin. And what about the Star Wars stuff? The “You’re our only hope” bit does scrape under the wire as a legitimate homage, as it’s just a moment and not an important plot point, but the rubbish chute? Noooo! And in case Star Trek feels left out: Encounter At Farpoint much?
We don’t get it. Does he think it’s all clever and postmodern? It isn’t. You can call it a homage all you like, but that doesn’t stop that little neon sign saying “creatively bankrupt” flashing right through it. And whoa, it’s a bit early for that, isn’t it?
And those are just the most in yer face appropriations. Sadly, there are also far too many cannibalisations of the Whoniverse here too. Yes, we know that this alien is nice, but that’s not nearly enough to save this story from being a barely remixed Long Game, Frontios, Gridlock… And Moffat also steals from himself. The clockwork Smilers, wonderful though they are, are kissing cousins to the clockwork androids in Girl In The Fireplace, for example.
And, just like the androids, the Smilers are thrown away. That’s the trouble with a lot of this episode. 300 year old queen. Half-Smilers, half-humans. Why? We'll never know. How often have we said this about single-episode stories? Too many ideas, too little time, and as a result too much good stuff is scrumpled up and tossed before it can even get going. Why do they do this? Why haven’t they learned? Single episodes aren’t compulsory: if they can’t stuff it all into one, why use that format at all?
What’s more, the hastiness of the story leaves plot holes you could blat a Hummer through. If all the other countries, including Scotland, manage to get a ship with an actual engine, why is the rest of the UK the only ones without? When, exactly, does Amy leave herself a message? She has no time before she presses the forget button, and after she’s pressed it she’s got no memory of what she’s supposed to be leaving a message about. If they know the whale won’t eat children, why do they flush them down the tubes? We have to stop now, because we’re going to cry.
And none of this is the worst bit. That comes along in a moment. Meanwhile, the queen finds her government isn’t plotting against her after all and none of them, except the whale, are going to be tortured in the Tower: it’s All A Trick! Quite nicely done, ackshully, and it would work beautifully if it weren’t for what they do next. Which is make the Doctor look more idiotic than his hair.
Yes, we’ve arrived at the worst bit. All change.
What do we know about the Doctor? A fair few things, by now. Two hearts, citizen of Gallifrey, regenerates, all that. But the most important thing is what he does, especially when there’s trouble. He doesn’t always manage to fix it, but he always tries, and most importantly, he tries in a way that’s Doctorly. That means that whatever he comes up with, it will be smart, it will be laced with compassion, and it will, no matter how quickly he seems to have made the decision, be considered. What’s more, when he makes his decisions he draws on many hundreds of years’ experience.
All right, then. So what does the Doctor do here? He finds out about the whale: ooh, bad. But if he releases the whale, the ship will be stranded: oh noes! So does he use his experience and his observational abilities to work out that in fact there’s a whole other scenario here as the whale’s actually a volunteer?
Nope. The companion does that. The. Companion. Who’s never been in space in her life. Who had to be told at the beginning of the episode to be observant. The…companion.
We felt as sick as a whale with a TARDIS crew stuck in its teeth.
Dude. That guy striding in to administer a lobotomy without even stopping to think about it, and in the absence of any urgency since the poor old whale’s been suffering like this for hundreds of years and another ten minutes isn’t going to make any difference, does not come remotely near passing Doctor 101. First of all, why doesn’t he think about it just a little harder and figure out what’s actually going on? Second, he’s completely wrong anyway, because multiple experiments have shown that creatures without higher functions still feel pain. Third, why is it a foregone conclusion to the Doctor that the humans are more worth saving than the whale? As the last of its kind, isn’t it more, rather than less, valuable? And fourth, dear God, the morality. Hello, I’m the Doctor! Oh, your civilisation practices slavery? No problem, because I’ll just lobotomise them all! They won’t feel a thing! And then everyone will be happy! Remind us again how the Doctor’s “solution” for the whale is different from this?
If he’s going to be that much of a drongo, and that easily correctable by a companion so new she’s still in her Earth nightie, how can we tell he’s the Doctor at all? Even if it was the Doctor who told Amy to be observant, it’s just wrong. Wrongwrongwrongwrongwrong. “And then I find a new name, cause I won’t be the Doctor any more.” You said it, buster.
And then, just when we’re reeling from the wrongness, they kick us when we’re down by hammering the comparison between the Doctor and the whale into our heads until we’re whimpering for mercy. Old! Kind! Last of their kind! Lonely! Especially lonely. O hai, Emo Doctor! Back so soon?
You want metaphor? We’ll give you metaphor. Sliding rapidly down a tube and ending up in rubbish, that’s your metaphor for you. Oh, sorry, that wasn’t obvious enough, was it? The episode SLID RAPIDLY DOWNHILL and then it ended up in ABSOLUTE CRAP. JUST LIKE THE DOCTOR AND AMY WHEN THEY SLID DOWN THE RUBBISH TUBE. There, we think we just might have made it obvious enough to pass the Moffat test.
It’s such a shame: the beginning is really spectacular. And there’s so much potential here, especially with what, apart from the hideous misstep, is a fantastically fresh and interesting Doctor and what’s shaping up to be an absolutely brilliant companion. It’s way too early to say it’s all hopeless: we’re hoping this is just a blip. It’s far too good to throw away.
MORAL: Thou shalt not steal.
GIVE US A SMILE
When Little Timmy gets in the lift, the long shot shows a Smiler with its grumpy face on. Then the girl starts her poetry recital and there's a close-up of the Smiler's turning face - but it's turning from smiling to grumpy. (Thanks to Gareth Rafferty for pointing this out.)
ONCE UPON A TARDIS
Moffat has said he thinks of Doctor Who as a fairytale (of course, it couldn’t possibly be SF), and the girl reciting in the lift and at the end makes this pretty obvious.
GET A GRIP
In the first shot of Amy in space, the Doctor’s holding the back of her calf. Then they cut to a shot of the Doctor laughing and he has his hand wrapped around her ankle.
How does Amy get from standing at the door to holding on to the doorframe with her feet out in space?
WAKE ME UP BEFORE YOU GO GO
There are some wonderful nightmare tropes in here: out of control lift, falling, being in your nightie. It contributes to the wonderful atmosphere of the beginning.
THAT’S A MORAY
We love the Doctor’s “escaped fish” speech. Now that’s the Doctor we want to see more of.
ST ANDREW FLAGGING
If Scotland’s not on the UK ship, why is it flying an intact Union Jack? (And yes, Rose, we know that's not its official name. Too bad.)
GOOD WHALE HUNTING
Um, so if we're all being up front now about the whale, does that mean we're no longer feeding it people? They didn't say they wouldn't, after all. Or is the whale now having to get by on the contents of the compost bowl? Considering the teeth, it's obviously a predator, so it probably needs animal protein. And what does it usually eat, anyway? Why doesn't it just eat that?
THE TRACKS OF MY TEARS
The whale couldn’t stand to watch your children cry - from space? It could see that from space?
SHOW US YOUR CRACK
Arc watch: the kid getting zero, and the crack. We predict we’re swiftly going to get bored with keeping an eye out for these, so don’t rely on us to keep you informed.
Buy this Doctor Who DVD: UK
Buy this Doctor Who DVD on Blu-ray: UK