[A revised and improved version of this essay appears in my book The Eleventh Doctor: a critical ramble through Matt Smith’s tenure in Doctor Who.]
2:16pm — zero minus four hours
I realise that I am scared about this evening’s Doctor Who episode. I have too much invested in it. I so, so want to love the new series; I so want it to live up to the best of Steven Moffat’s episodes in previous series (which, to be fair, is all of Moffat’s episodes); I so want his being in overall charge of the series to mean that the plots are going to make more sense, actions have more consequences, and monsters are more motivated. But I don’t know if I trust that what Moffat could do for one and a half episodes in each of the previous series, he can do for all thirteen in this one.
Last week’s inaugral episode, The Eleventh Hour, was Good But Not That Good. I can forgive it, because of the difficulty of introducing a new Doctor and a new companion and a new TARDIS and trying to tell a story. But the gloves are off, now. That hurdle has been negotiated, and The Beast Below has no other responsibilities but to be an outstanding episode in its own right.
Can it do it? I will find out in four hours.
3:42pm — zero minus two and a half hours
I find myself wondering why I care so much about this. Why all the emotional investment? Two reasons, I think. One is nationalistic: I’ve realised that pretty much all the TV shows that I’ve loved recently (Veronica Mars, Firefly, Buffy/Angel, Frasier, Friends, The Simpsons) have been American, and Doctor Who is the only British entry on the list. So I want the champion of British TV to be a worthy champion. (Yes, Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister and Blackadder were all British; they are also all between 20 and 40 years old.)
The other reason is broader: when Doctor Who is done well, it’s a literally unique blend of the mundane and exotic. The best stories are scary and exciting, yes, but also thought-provoking. The Doctor himself is both very alien and very reassuring — unpredictable yet reliable. In short, the show walks a tightrope. Doing that makes it both fascinating and also in constant danger of falling off on one side or the other. So long as all those aspects are held in tension, Doctor Who has the potential to be brilliant (where script and acting allow); but as soon as the Doctor loses his alienness, say, or the plot emphasises excitement and danger to the point where it’s no longer thoughtful, it loses what makes it so special. And I want something on TV to be special in that literate yet accessible way, and I don’t know of any other candidates.
Come on, Moffat, you can do it … No pressure …
8:03pm — first impressions
Mild spoilers follow — nothing too spoily, though
I watched The Beast Below with Fiona and the eldest and youngest boys as we ate tea in front of the TV. (The middle son is away camping with the Cub Scouts). Then we watched the documentary on BBC 3. As soon as I’d finished cleaning up the meal, I sat down to write this review, and …
Yes, yes, yes! :-)
This second episode is very much what I’d hoped for on all counts. Last time, I concluded that “Matt Smith had better start being his own man pretty darned quick, and I want to see more of the depth and insight of Moffat’s previous scripts in his subsequent ones”; I also wanted to see more characteristically Doctorish qualities about the Doctor. I am delighted to say that we got all that and more.
The 11th Doctor reminds me of The Doctor
First of all, the Doctor was quick of mind, perceptive, thoughtful and observant. I just love that. When he did eccentric things (like taking the drink off the table and putting it on the floor), it was never an unmotivated character tic, but turned out to mean something specific. The Doctor’s way into the mystery came from his insight into a normal-looking situation, and his compassion; and straight away he was trying to get Amy to figure it out for herself. As has been said before, it’s the job of the Doctor to make people better, and that investment paid off superbly at the climax, when it was Amy’s clear thinking that saved the Doctor from making a terrible mistake.
The 11th Doctor doesn’t remind me of the 10th Doctor
Second, I didn’t feel that Matt Smith was channelling David Tennant this time around. Maybe because from the outset he had something to actually do rather than just having to be the Doctor, he seemed much more his own man, characterised not by arbitrary mannerisms (one thinks of the stick of celery and the umbrella, ugh) but by, well, all the good stuff I mentioned in the last paragraph. Where David Tennant’s Doctor too often felt like he was pulling an arbitrary solution out of big Deus Ex Machina-shaped hat, Matt Smith (in this episode at least) gave much more of an impression that he was slowly putting the pieces together, arriving at an understanding through the same sorts of mental processes that we, if we were Time Lords, might be capable of. I like that: he’s a Doctor that I can admire rather than just being dazzled by.
On reflection, Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor also had some of this quality of putting solutions together rather than yanking them fully-formed out of mid air; with hindsight, the latter seems to be a bad habit unique to David Tennant’s portrayal. But of course this is at least as much a consequence of the writing as of the acting, so please don’t think this is criticism of Tennant per se.
Steven Moffat’s script reminds me of a Steven Moffat script
Last week I said of The Eleventh Hour that “this initial episode had nothing about it that struck me as characteristically Moffatian, and it could very easily have been a Davies episode in a Davies series”. This week, no: without either repeating or pastiching himself, Moffat gave us a story that hit several of his trademark qualities, and it was much the better for it. It’s hard for me to say much about this without getting all spoily, but those of you who’ve seen the episode will hopefully know what I mean when I say that (A) things that would normally seem mundane were made to seem very alien and mysterious; (B) something more complex and interesting was going on that a mere goodies-vs.-baddies confrontation (as with the resolution of The Empty Child); and (C) the story taken as a whole made sense. The conclusion pretty much followed from, or at least was consistent with, the setup, rather than feeling like it was teleported in from some completely different story.
Steven Moffat’s script reminds me of a Russell T. Davies script
At the same time, the script had moments that reminded me of the better aspects of RTD’s writing, which is an impressive feat to pull off in the context of a Moffat story. Here, I am thinking mostly of two things: that the story made concrete an issue that all of us face in the abstract from day to day (you know, the two buttons that Amy had to choose between); and the interaction between the Doctor and Amy at the end — the sense that, despite their short association, Amy has real insight into his character.
Sadly, that character moment was slightly spoiled for me by its lack of trust in the viewer: the understanding between the Doctor and Amy was conveyed clearly by oblique words and silent eye contact; that was enough. But instead, Amy then had more lines that rather bluntly laid out in black and white what had already been implied, and that broke the moment in the same kind of way that a bad American sit-com spoils a joke by spelling out the punchline that ought to be left hanging in the air unsaid. (Frasier was particularly good at not doing this, at getting it right; but it’s in a minority.)
[For anyone who’s reading this without having seen the episode and wondering whether I am alluding to some kind of romantic tie between the two lead characters: no, absolutely not. It’s something very different from that. I most certainly don’t want to see the series go down that path, and I hope to the bottom of my heart that Moffat has more taste than that. I mean; she’s 21, he’s 906. It’d never last.]
Not that it was perfect or anything
I said earlier that “the story taken as a whole made sense. The conclusion pretty much followed from […] the setup”. If that seemed like damning with, if not faint then equivocal, praise, then I guess it is. The big reveal, when it comes, is not really quite enough to justify the horror aspects of the setup, and the pre-credit sequence in particular doesn’t really fit the rest of the story when you look back on it from a position of knowledge.
Beyond that … I am sort of casting around for something else negative to say, and nothing is coming to mind. There was so much to like. Karen Gillan’s portrayal of Amy was again excellent, Matt Smith was a much better Doctor than previously, there were several laugh-out-loud funny moments, and lots of delicious little details, such as the use of London Underground-style lifts (elevators for you Americans). In fact, the episode was a visual feast, and I will certainly watch it again just to catch all the details of the sets. And again to catch all the dialogue: as is often the case with Doctor Who, some of the dialogue went too fast, and against a backdrop of too much action, to be easily heard (at least while explaining plot developments to an eight-year-old); but unlike an RTD/Tennant episode, missing those lines didn’t mean losing the thread — they just feel like a rich seam of optional-extra jewels to be mined next time around.
And then, finally, the sheer audacity of the last minute made me laugh out loud and tingle with anticipation. Fantastic. Literally.
So, actually, it was pretty close to perfect after all?
Yep, seems like it!
Keep it up!