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Doctor Who: Review supplemental on The Beast Below

REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO

More reviews of yesterday's episode, but beware of spoilers if you haven't seen it yet...

Arggh! The Beast Below's 'smilers'

John Bensalhia reviews The Beast Below:

These Complete Doctor Who Reviews have taken a giddy old lurch in the last couple of weeks. One minute I'm looking at muddy monochrome images. The next I'm looking at swanky, bang-up-to-date HD TV. One minute, I'm talking about a curmudegonly old man. The next I'm talking about the youngest ever Doctor actor to grace the TV screen. Still, as with the programme itself, it's all wibbly wobbly, timey wimey, time is all relative etc...

Besides, the current series of Doctor Who is the show that everyone's talking about at the moment. Every single TV show, radio programme or newspaper is talking about the latest crop of adventures - whether Matt Smith is replying with remarkably good grace to inane, unimaginative questions from the likes of Jonathan Ross or Christine Bleakley, or whether The Daily Mail are getting their proverbial knickers in a twist over the length of Amy's skirt, Doctor Who is hot property. God knows what The Daily Mail would have made of Leela back in 1977...

And they'll probably be talking about the latest adventure The Beast Below. A month or so ago, they and the other papers only cottoned on to the fact that The Happiness Patrol was a big, political allegory about the "joys" of Thatcherism (please note the ironic speech marks) - despite the story being over 20 years old. The Beast Below similarly offers much food for thought. Doctor Who always works well when it deals on more than one level. While kids may have been spooked by the sinister Smilers, adults could have enjoyed the story on a deeper level or two. Or three. Or four.


"The Beast Below taps into all of these political machinations, and wraps them all up in a sinister fairytale package"


What with election day heading our way rapidly, The Beast Below couldn't have been more timely. The voting booths. The brainwashing techniques which play on people's fears. The myth that the government seems to have more power than the monarch. The Beast Below taps into all of these political machinations, and wraps them all up in a sinister fairytale package. Of course, all these political allegories aside, you could also argue that the fate of the Space Whale throws up issues on euthanasia and more directly, vivisection.

What would you have thought The Beast Below would have related to before you saw the episode? For me, it conjured up images of a terrifying monster, threatening the innocent population of the future. For Moffatt to turn all these expectations around takes some genius. In the end, the beast is a benevolent creature, who's the victim rather than the threat. The scene in which The Doctor allows the others to hear its pitiful screams is hugely effective, and recalls the predicament of the Marsh Child in Full Circle. The Doctor is understandably outraged at humanity and how it has allowed the beast to suffer in agonising silence all these years.

Matt Smith is excellent in this scene, and surprisingly manages to do anger very well. He starts with a barely suppressed tone of sad rage when he explains to Amy about how the Space Whale has suffered all these years, and by the time, he's planning to turn the Space Whale into a vegetable, he's bellowing at the humans in the room and urging them not to talk to him any more today. It's subtly but effectively done, and is only a part of Smith's marvellous performance as The Doctor, which luckily proves that his debut was no fluke.

There's something genuinely alien about the Eleventh Doctor, and its all in Smith's vocal and physical mannerisms. The gangling walk. The way in which he casually strolls up to the blokes in the bar and innocently checks the glass of water. Smith's Doctor also has the lion's share of amusing lines this week. "Ohhhmmmm!" "There's a missing fish." And again all expertly delivered by Smith in a subtle rather than OTT manner.


"The Doctor needs a companion to keep him on the straight and narrow and occasionally question his actions rather than blindly follow them"


Fortunately, Karen Gillan also turns in another strong performance as Amy. She's more proactive than ever, even recklessly so at the end, as she risks the fate of humanity to force Liz Ten to press the Abdicate button. She acts on The Doctor's advice to look at everything that's going on around her and having noticed the way in which the Space Whale acts around the children, she uses her intelligence to work out the missing piece of the puzzle. The Doctor's and Amy's relationship isn't exactly smooth. After The Doctor finds out that Amy has "protected" him from making a painful decision, he reacts angrily to this and threatens to take her back. However, after Amy has used her initiative, it's that initiative that cements her place aboard the TARDIS, as The Doctor realises that Amy is a real asset. Just like The Doctor/Donna relationship before, The Doctor/Amy one may not be as lovey-dovey as others, but The Doctor needs a companion to keep him on the straight and narrow and occasionally question his actions rather than blindly follow them.

Mind you, the rather odd bit when Amy's in the voting booth does throw up some issues about both her age and what happens on her wedding day. I don't think that's the last we've seen of this subplot.

All of which reminds me of The Long Game. Both had political messages. But by the same token, they both pose unanswered questions. Just look at the ending of The Beast Below, when that mysterious crack appears in the outer shell of Starship UK. The Atraxi again? Or something a little bigger?

Well written and well produced as The Beast Below is, it's still not quite as brilliant as I'd have liked. And again, like The Eleventh Hour, this is all down to both the lack of scares and character. The principal guest character of The Beast Below is a smug, shouty Mockney called Ten. No, The Tenth Doctor hasn't made a reappearance so soon, no, I'm talking about the bloody Queen, mate. It's a shame, in the final scenes, Sophie Okonedo's performance is great as she comes to terms with what she's done in order to maintain the status quo aboard Starship UK. But up until then, Liz Ten is just annoying, strutting about and shouting in a loud, gorbloymey voice as if everyone in earshot has gone deaf. I like the idea of a more proactive ruler though and the mythical stories about The Doctor and past rulers is very amusing. Although scones is SCONNNS, not SCEEOHHNES.


"The smilers don't attack or kill anyone, so they don't really pose anything more than a visual threat"


The other characters are non-existent though. The brilliant Terrence Hardiman gets to do nothing apart from skulk in a phone booth and then potter around aimlessly in the dungeon. The hooded half-human/half-Smiler goons are no more than faceless drones, if you'll pardon the expression. And on the subject of The Smilers, they seem a bit of a waste. They look scary enough for the kids, especially the creepy way in which their heads slowly rotate to reveal blank anger and then the demonic visage. But they don't actually do anything. Even when they clamber out of their booths, they are shot by Liz Ten. They don't attack or kill anyone, so they don't really pose anything more than a visual threat.

And then there's the lack of death. OK, Doctor Who shouldn't all be doom and gloom, but Steven Moffatt never seems to want to bring anybody to a sticky end. Reinette, Billy Shipton and Kathy Nightingale meet natural ends. River Song and her buddies apparently meet horrible ends in the Library two-parter, but they then end up in a cheesy afterlife scenario. Last week, Dr Ramsden met her maker offscreen. And this week, again, (sigh) everybody lives. Even in the light-hearted Graham Williams years, characters got killed by angry stones, ageing time accelerators and shaggy Mandrels, so there's really no excuse for not killing off at least one supporting character.


"Doctor Who shouldn't all be doom and gloom, but Steven Moffatt never seems to want to bring anybody to a sticky end"


For all that though, the positives outweigh the negative. This is another well directed show. Andrew Gunn makes his debut contribution and it's a heady mix of the old (Star Wars screen wipes) and the new (the model shots are excellent as is the sequence in which Amy ethereally floats outside the TARDIS). Moffatt's script is both witty and thought-provoking, and Matt and Karen prove to be real inspired choices.

Oh, and then there's the small matter of Daleks to come. Ian McNiece, fresh from appearing in the lacklustre Jonathan Creek episode The Judas Tree, appears as a worried Winston Churchill, as the shadow of the Dalek appears on the background wall. Add to that Bill Patterson. Intergalactic spaceship battles. I'd say that next Saturday can't come fast enough.


Caleb Leland reviews The Beast Below:

If you had told me a year ago that I would be enjoying Matt Smith on Doctor Who just as much as I did David Tennant, I would have asked which medications you had mixed. But I am finding myself doing just that. Smith has shades of Troughton and Davison, while making the character his very own. One second he shows child-like wonder, and the next, he seems very much like your grandfather, full of aged wisdom and authority. And after watching his first outing as The Doctor, I asked the same question he asked of the TARDIS: “What have you got for me this time?”

We begin our newest adventure with a classroom. The students are all lining up to get their marks from what looks to be an amusement park fortune telling machine, but is a “Smiler”, which is apparently what goes for the authority figures here. Everyone has done well, with the exception of one young lad, who has received a zero. He catches up with his friend, but is reminded that he can’t take the lift home, because he’ll be sent below.

He takes the next lift, where another Smiler is waiting. His head spins around to reveal an angry face, and a view screen portrays a young girl reciting some poem telling of his demise. Suddenly, the floor opens up to show what looks to be a horrible death, and he screams, while the Smiler’s head spins one last time to reveal a horrific face.


"The Doctor comments several times to Amy that he never gets involved in the affairs of those he visits, which is a comment I can only imagine got a big a laugh out of other fans as it did out of me"


We then go to the TARDIS, where The Doctor is showing Amy that his “box” is, indeed, a spaceship. He then takes her eight hundred and some years into the future to Starship UK, which is, for all intents and purposes, The United Kingdom, but relocated to a, well, starship. The Doctor comments several times to Amy that he never gets involved in the affairs of those he visits, which is a comment I can only imagine got a big a laugh out of other fans as it did out of me. Of course, immediately, The Doctor realizes there is something amiss about the whole situation, and does what he does best: meddles.

After an experiment with a glass of water, they watch a little girl who is crying. The Doctor has already spoken to her once, and he points out to Amy that she’s not crying for attention, but that she’s worried about someone. Here he lets slip a clue about his past and having been a parent, but he skirts around the issue. He also points out that no one is paying any attention to her, so they know that something has happened, but aren’t allowed to talk about it.

Once he realizes the girl has left, he leaves Amy (still wearing her nightie from the last episode) to find her and get information, mostly about why everyone seems to be afraid of the Smilers. But their presence has not gone unnoticed. A man who has seen their actions has called a woman who asks if he did “the thing”. He confirms this, and she thanks him, picks up a mask, and walks past a group of water-filled glasses.

Amy finds the girl, but winds up in trouble when she breaks the rules, and investigates a blocked off road. The reason for it being closed off is a tentacle of some sort. She is captured and knocked out. The Doctor has made his way to the engine room, only to be confronted by the mysterious masked woman. She asks what he’s doing, to which he tells her he wants to know why there’s no engine. He tells her of the water, and that to move a ship of that size, the engine would be felt, and cause the water to react.

She tells him Amy is okay, and retreats, leaving him a tracker to find her. We then see Amy awaken in a voting booth, where the person inside is shown a film about the truth about Starship UK, and given the choice: Vote to protest, or to forget. She is then hit with a barrage of images, and then hits the forget button. The Doctor finds her, and they realize she has recorded a message for herself, basically just saying that they need to get off of the ship.

They escape, only to end up below, in what winds up being a very large mouth. After being tossed up (which, thankfully, isn’t shown) by whatever it is they’re meant to be lunch for, they meet back up with the masked woman, who has now unmasked, and is packing a couple of lasers. She takes care of a couple of the Smilers, and takes them to her suite, where she reveals that she is Liz 10, the Queen of England. She is enamored with The Doctor, having grown up with stories about him.

He asks about the glasses of water, and she remarks that it reminds her that her government is hiding secrets from her. She knows something is going on, but doesn’t know what, or at least claims not to know. They are then taken to The Tower, where all is revealed. The power source for the ship is a near extinct species known as the Star Whale, and this, the last one in existence, is carrying the ship through space. The folks in charge get it to move by shocking the poor creature’s brain.

And it is revealed that Liz 10 – who has had her body clock stopped and is about 400-years-old – allowed this to happen, for the “good” of mankind. And this is where The Doctor has decided enough is enough. He is outraged that these people could be so heartless. He then lashes out at Amy for erasing her memory of what was going on, because she was keeping him from having to make a rather difficult decision: Allow the humans to ride for free on the whale, or kill the defenseless creature, and see the colony be destroyed. And then he yells at all of them, telling them that no human has anything of worth to say to him. He decides to end the whale’s suffering, and leave it a vegetable, so that it wouldn’t feel pain as it hauled the ship through space. But as he’s preparing to do this, Amy suddenly has an epiphany.

She has observed, as The Doctor told her to do, and has realized something. The whale wasn’t captured, but volunteered, because it couldn’t stand the suffering of the children. She stops The Doctor, and turns off the torturing device. The whale is saved the pain, and continues to carry the ship safely through space.

The Doctor admonishes Amy, telling her that she could have killed everyone. She tells him she knew she wouldn’t, because this very old creature is the last of its kind, and wouldn’t let them die. Then she asks, “Sound familiar”. Indeed, it does sound familiar to him, because that’s what he does.


"Steven Moffat can make just about any ordinary object seem dangerous (which is why I haven’t gotten to close to any statue since I watched “Blink”)"


Moffat shows us once again where his talents lie. His dialogue is brilliantly written, and the story keeps you entertained, while adding just enough emotion. He also makes sure you have a vested interest in the characters by developing them, and not just throwing in cardboard cutouts of background characters. And he has again given us a truly creepy villain in the Smilers. I wondered at first how these things were going to work out, but they are effective. Whether a fortune-telling device or a statue, Steven Moffat can make just about any ordinary object seem dangerous (which is why I haven’t gotten to close to any statue since I watched “Blink”). Matt Smith is wonderful as The Doctor.

The great reveal scene in The Tower is magnificent to watch. His speech to all involved never gets condescending, but has real authority and emotion behind it, harkening back to the days of Troughton, or Tom Baker. You wouldn’t guess he’s a young man in his twenties, but actually a 900-plus year old Time Lord. Karen Gillan is also great, giving Amy real character. Although we are reminded that she has this past with The Doctor, we see that she’s not falling all over him as we saw too many times in the past several years. She seems like a nice blend of what made Donna, Ace and Romana good companions. She has attitude, self-confidence, and is not afraid of showing The Doctor that he can be wrong at times. She’s a perfect foil for The Doctor, but also has a respect for him, and seems to have a sense of wonder that will make for great television viewing in the following episodes.

And he’s planted a lot of seeds for the following season, and we’ll have to see what sprouts from them. Will Amy press The Doctor for more information about whether or not he was a father? Will Amy get to the church on time for her wedding? Will we find out why there aren’t any ducks in the pond? And what is with that crack from the first episode that keeps popping up everywhere? I’m sure all of our questions will be answered before it’s all said and done. And I will keep watching to find out.


Ben Skipper reviews The Beast Below:

After last week’s explosive series opener the adrenaline is still pumping among a British public eager to see Matt Smith’s eleventh Doctor find his feet and make that Tennant fella a distant memory. The Beast Below, written by head writer and new DW exec producer Steven Moffat, has the distinctly British feel that I hope extends through the whole series - and it all kicks off with a wonderful cityscape of Starship UK.


"Gamers out there may get a few vibes from this episode, the city skyline has connotations of Bioshock’s Rapture and that alien nasty in the tent will remind a few people of the original Half Life"


Britain is now located on the back of a space ship thanks to a dastardly solar flare escalating Global Warming a tad and forcing Earth’s inhabitants to flee however they can. Luckily for the viewer, The Doctor wastes no time noticing that something is afoot aboard the beautifully retro ship, and quickly sends the ever-lovely Amy Pond on her first mission.

Gamers out there may get a few vibes from this episode, the city skyline has connotations of Bioshock’s Rapture and that alien nasty in the tent will remind a few people of the original Half Life. Intended or not it’s certainly better than taking inspiration from Gossip Girls.

As the story progresses a mysterious cockney figure calling herself Liz 10 makes an appearance, later revealing herself to be Queen Elizabeth the 10th with the cracking line, “I’m the bloody Queen mate, and I rule”. The ship is overseen by the Smilers, a wonderfully designed species of baddie reminiscent of seaside fortune-tellers, hopefully giving plenty of children the creeps and a restless night.

The episode’s climax reveals the mystery of the ship with no engine. Britain is being ridden across the great void of space on the back of a huge Star Whale (Discworld much?) and the “authorities” are torturing the beast to ensure it keeps going.


"Matt Smith hit his stride in this scene and showed a glimpse of his potential greatness"


With 10 minutes to spare it seemed there was too much plot for a 45-minute episode, and the pacing early on suffered somewhat; but the ending more than made up for any earlier problems. While probably a bit heavy-handed with its message of comparing The Doctor to the tortured Star Whale that powers the ship, also the last of its kind, it was played out fantastically. The Doctor showed a new, angrier side to the viewers and it was one that understood what he needed to do. Matt Smith hit his stride in this scene and showed a glimpse of his potential greatness. It wasn’t The Doctor who saved the day though it was Pond who sewed the story up and brought us a conclusion that would make the coldest of us crack a smile.

The Doctor and his assistant share a hug in front of a magnificent view and it is here that for many people a like for the new series turned into love. As if the viewer’s beaming grins weren’t big enough at this point the Daleks are reintroduced for the two parter coming up next week. And I can’t wait to see it!

Calvin Peat reviews The Beast Below:

The Beast Below is written by new showrunner Steven Moffat, who also penned last week's The Eleventh Hour.  These two episodes represent a brilliant start to the Grand Moffat Tarkin era, setting forth a bold vision of Doctor Who that builds on the excellent template that Russell T. Davies established.

The new title sequence is very good, tweaking the previous one well.  It adds forks of lightning, and there’s a different take on the theme, making the music a bit more intense, but in my opinion, it doesn’t ruin it.  Also, I like the new font used.  Then the swirly tunnel thing goes all orangey and cool at the end, and the new Doctor Who logo, with the D and the W and the light on top, spins round and turns into the Tardis. Needless to say, this is awesome.

David Tennant embodied the role of The Doctor amazingly well, and it was sad to see him go.  It would seem unfair, not to mention probably impossible, to compare his performance in the role with that of any subsequent Doctor.


"Matt Smith's physical acting perfectly conveys the quirky side of the character, whether jumping over a bench, leaping up off the floor, or simply clicking his fingers"


Having said that, it’s remarkable how quickly Matt Smith has established himself in the role, persuading fans to move on and accept a new actor as The Doctor.  His performance is simply brilliant: quirky, old-fashioned, understated, quietly commanding, and utterly assured.  On occasion, his voice is slightly reminiscent of David Tennant’s, but in a good way - paying homage, rather than copying. Also, his physical acting perfectly conveys the quirky side of the character, whether jumping over a bench, leaping up off the floor, or simply clicking his fingers.  He promises to be a truly great Doctor.

Karen Gillan makes a great companion as Amy Pond: resourceful, intelligent, and pro-active.  Judging from these first two episodes, it seems like the writers are going to avoid shoe-horning in romantic tension with The Doctor too soon (or at all), a mistake that was made with Martha and, to a lesser extent, Rose.

Also, I like the fact that Amy seems to care much more about her fiancé (who’s presumably Rory, although this hasn’t been said explicitly) than Rose cared about her boyfriend Mickey.  Admittedly, Rory (who would make a funny sidekick, so hopefully we’ll see more of him) is a much better character than Mickey was, but I think this is because the writers didn’t do Mickey justice initially.  They started off making him a bit of a clueless loser, and he only became cool when the Cybermen attacked.

As usual for a Steven Moffat script, the episode is filled with smart, witty writing and clever little references to what’s gone before, with an assured hand by director Andrew Gunn, and the aid of Murray Gold’s atmospheric music,


"It seems like the writers are going to avoid shoe-horning in romantic tension with The Doctor too soon (or at all), a mistake that was made with Martha and, to a lesser extent, Rose"


Moffat ceates a strange, imaginative, original, well-realised dystopia, featuring the sinister mechanical Smilers, the Winders (who wear black hooded robes), Sophie Okonedo as the gun-toting monarch Liz Ten, and thematic similarities with The Matrix Reloaded, Æon Flux (the movie, at least; I haven’t seen the series), and Dollhouse.

Matt Smith also gets a chance to put his comedic abilities to good use.  When he takes someone’s glass of water and places it on the floor to check for vibrations caused by the spaceship’s engine (mysteriously, there are none...), he explains by saying “Sorry...checking all the water in this area...there’s an escaped fish,” then taps his nose knowingly.

Later, he declares to Amy Pond his intention to do, “What I always do: stay out of trouble,” before adding, “Badly.”

There’s a big dramatic scene where The Doctor is faced with an impossible choice, having to weigh the interests of millions of humans against one innocent alien creature.  I love how Matt Smith nervously scratches his head and scrunches up his eyes as he tries to prepare himself for “the worst thing I’ll ever do”, before admitting that this would mean “...and then I find a new name, because I won’t be The Doctor anymore”.  Liz Ten tries to reason with him, but he bellows “Nobody talk to me!  Nobody HUMAN has anything to say to me today!”

Then, of course, Amy Pond solves the dilemma, saving the day and proving her worth as a companion.

There’s a familiar silhouette at the end, and then a great preview, harking back to iconic elements of Doctor Who lore.  Now, if you’ll excuse my degeneration into excitable fanboy mode:

Daleks, daleks, daleks!  Woo!  (Plus, space battles!  Like Star Wars!)

Okay, I’m back to being sensible again.  Until next week.

Read Jonathan Cooper's review of The Beast Below here

See also John Bensalhia's Doctor Who complete reviews: The Beast Below

Read more Doctor Who articles at Shadowlocked


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Comments 

 
#1 Guest 2010-04-11 15:51
I think the beast below was a great episode, The new series is awesome!!
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#2 Guest 2010-04-11 18:39
For the most part I thought it was standard Who fare, but I loved Amy solving the crisis. I have a feeling she is going to be the most fleshed out companion yet. Oh, and who else did just geekishly squeal with delight after learning about Mr. Churchill's latest problem?
http://www.igp-scifi.com/doctor-who-season-five.html
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#3 Guest 2010-04-11 19:49
Interesting coincidence: Considering the presumed arc of 'silence will fall', doesn't 'Liz 10' sound a bit like 'Listen'?

I agree about the heavyhanded comparison between whale and doctor, but then again it IS a family show. You have to make sure the kids get it!

Similarly, there's probably something in the BBC's broadcasting standards document that restricts Moffats freedom to show death and killing in a program watched by 8-year olds.
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#4 Guest 2010-04-12 09:46
I really like this episode, but did anyone else spot the flaws in the lift scene with Tmmy? watch the smilers face carefully - it goes from smiling, to frowning, to smiling which rotates to frowning, to angry, to frowning which rotates to angry? maybe it was a mess up with the shooting... or something?

also, when there's a hole in the road, the tent is magpie electricals (the idiots lantern episode).

On the whole i think matt smith is going to be a great doctor, which i definitely didn't expect - i mean, Geronimo!?!? who says that? he's definitely a very different doctor to David Tennant and Eccleston, but in a good way definitely - 'there's an escaped fish' lol. Amy is a great character too and I'm glad she's not in love with The Doctor - that was getting a bit annoying to be honest.

Also, in the tent with Amy, what part of the star whale is it she sees - i swear in the video bit at the end that Liz has recorded, where it shows the diagram of the star whale, it doesn't have tentacles or whatever they are?

Great plot line though, genuinely sad when you realise what has happened to the star whale, and a terrible, heartrending choice for both Liz and The Doctor - very well scripted and produced.
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#5 Guest 2010-04-12 13:32
Loved the line - "This isn't going to big on dignity" (as a wave sick approaches).

Didn't think I would like it post DT - but this is brill!
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#6 Guest 2010-04-12 19:07
I thought it was a rubbish episode with some good lines, but devoid of tension or any real interest.

MS looks like a very good Dr Who and his companion is delightful. And yet another mention of Scotland. It's Doctor Who, not a broadcast for the SNP. I couldn't care less where the writer comes from!

Keep your shabby politics out of Doctor Who, Moffat!
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#7 Beast Below mistake I noticed Dominic Mackie 2010-12-08 19:37
At the begginning with the kid in the lift. The Smiler's face keeps on changing
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#8 cool benjimen sisko 2010-12-18 14:40
this new series is awesome i have watched it on the canadien channel space and i really enjoy british tv my hat is off to david tennat and matt smith.
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