The Beast Below (11th Doctor, episode 2)

[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!

30 responses to “The Beast Below (11th Doctor, episode 2)

  1. Well, I should be able to get it from usenet shortly. We don’t get it in real-time here across the pond from the Isles, but right-thinking folks post 720p HD rips pretty much as fast as they can upload them to the net. Going to go check now… :-)

  2. I missed it, was busy hacking some code and forgot completely. Now I’ll have to wait until after midnight to watch it on BBC iPlayer :-/

  3. Well, it’s there – 1.1GB @ 5+mbps ~= 1/2 hour before I can watch it!

  4. Heart-renching at a point. I’m not able to say much as I just finished watching except….

    …all my fears about Matt Smith and the new producer have disappeared.

  5. Maybe I’m just a nostalgic fogey, but Peter Davidson was the last true Doctor. I tried watching Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper, *wanted* to like it, but the vibe just wasn’t the same. Three cheers for the 1970s SJS!

  6. As someone in the U.S. who will wait months for the DVD… thanks for a great non-spoiler review that gives me something to look forward to since the first time since… well sometime around Forest of the Dead, looking back. Though I suppose I should thank Smith and Moffat!

    Also, as maybe mentioned in a previous thread, don’t sell short current British TV: Life on Mars and Robin Hood come to mind, and a nostalgia list with maybe a half dozen shows over two full decades is hardly a high hit rate, now of course compressed in hindsight…

  7. Squidfood, YES — Life on Mars, I feel stupid for forgetting that. An excellent show from the very recent past, and all British! Thanks for the reminder. And to all those of you out there who haven’t seen it: please treat yourselves to the Life on Mars DVDs, you won’t regret it. And be very, very sure to the the British original starring John Simm, not the horribly botched American Remake.

    Oh, which reminds me: another recent British show that I think was outstanding and forgot to mention in the article: The Office. Although I’ve heard reasonably good things about the American remake, this is another one where you really want to get the British original.

  8. Andrew Molyneux

    I was also very pleasantly surprised, although it wasn’t on a par with Moffat’s best work. There’s plenty of time though, and I’m sure he won’t disappoint.
    If you’re going to watch it again, you’ll probably notice the fairly blatant continuity error in the pre-credits section. I only spotted it on the second viewing; first time round I was too busy watching to make sure my 5-year-old wasn’t freaking out.

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  10. Hey, don’t sell BTV so short. My wife & I thoroughly enjoyed the “IT Crowd”. Me because I can relate to it and her because it was downright funny. Reboot. Screen Saver. Hilarious stuff!

  11. Erik, what is this BTV of which you speak? I can’t find anything in the article that begins with these intitials, and the BTV disambiguation page at Wikipedia doesn’t suggest anything that’s obviously relevant:

  12. I’m quite hopeful, so far. The one thing I really hope Moffat avoids is ending each series with a bang so big, that the only solution is something that magically unwinds it all.

  13. My apologies. I should have said, “British Television”.

    These are the times I wish I could edit my comments.

  14. JulesLt, I strongly agree. One of the problems with Davies’ reign was his feeling that he had to top himself with each successive season-closer. So while Doctor Chris had to prevent the Daleks from invading a future earth, Tennant had to first stop Daleks and Cybermen from taking over present-day Earth, then prevent the Master from having turned the whole human race into evil monsters, and finally prevent Davros from destroying not only the entire universe, but every possible universe. Really, where are you going to go from there?

    I think one of the signs of green shoots in series 4 was the stand-alone episode “Midnight”, which was all about the Doctor trapped on a shuttle with a dozen or so people while a mysterious monster tried to take over the minds of the passengers. Nothing more was at stake than those dozen lives — no multiplicity of universes — yet most commentators agreed that it was one of the best episodes of the series. The point is not that smaller is necessarily better; but that BETTER is better, and that doesn’t need to be bigger. As far as I am concerned the best thing for Moffat to do is simply to close the series with his best episode — whether that’s the biggest, the smallest, or something in between; whether it’s on Earth, in space or on an alien planet.

  15. The opening scene shows that the Doctor is still very much a male organism, and a DOM (dirty old man) – extrapolate his view during Amy’s spacewalk – just sayin’…

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  18. Oh man, you have to be kidding me… I can respect your views on the actors. I can actually see where you’re coming from, talking about how Smith’s thought processes seemed more human, able to follow. I saw it, I just thought it made him seem stupid (comparatively). I also thought that he lacked emotion, until he suddenly was yelling at everybody. Which was a severe over-reaction, as he hadn’t even considered other options yet. OBVIOUS other options, leading me back to the “stupid” comment. (And I blame the writers for that one, not Matt. I seriously hope it stops.) Oh, and I liked it when David did things that didn’t make sense to anyone but him, but again, that made him seem like a mad genius time lord, not simply a smart human.

    Still, I can respectfully disagree with you on that, and accept that everyone is going to see things like personality and what not differently. But seriously, you had a hard time coming up with negative things to say? Oh, my husband started listing off things that showed bad writing from the beginning. Where did the half-Smilers-half-humans come from? Why do the Smilers exist in the first place? Would a police state like this really change its rule if 1% of the population disagreed? Why did they feel the need to torture the beast to begin with? Why DID Amy pick forget? How did she record a message to herself? Who made the Queen’s mask, that fit her so perfectly? Why did the beast eat people at all? Surely something that big would need a bigger fuel source than people. It felt like mystery was introduced constantly to make the episode feel like there was more to it than there really was. And then it wasn’t explained. I always felt like in the past anything not explained was intentional. I felt like this was forgetful.

    But my biggest peeve is that after knowing the Doctor for a combined total of all of an hour Amy is perfectly and utterly convinced of his character. What she thinks she knows is all in her imaginations of him for 10 years. But no, she knows so well how old, kind things are that she can correlate that to a beast (which she knows almost nothing about, and has now been tortured, whatever its original intentions might be, and is a BEAST) and risk an entire “country” on her assumption, without even running it by anyone else.

    She is not bold with curiosity or wonder, she’s bold with stupidity.

    Simply having her ask and bring it up would not only have made more sense, it would have given more opportunity for finding out more about the beast, and how everything came to be. Better yet, have her bring it up, the Doctor decide to have the queen push abdicate, and then Amy asks, “But what if you’re wrong?!” Isn’t it the role of the companion to keep the Doctor in check, not the other way around? Such reckless disregard for the human life she put at risk and made a huge decision for, on her own, with faulty logic, makes me like her not.

    Don’t get me wrong, the episode had its moments. I chuckled a few times. But it had a lot of bad stuff too, and I’m just shocked anyone can call it nearly perfect.

  19. Thanks, Improbable, for this persuasively argued counterpoint. I have to admit that you’re right about some of the implausibilities of the setup — the thing is that the episode was crafted well enough to carry me along through all that, and it’s only in retrospect that I find myself asking the questions that troubled you at the time.

    Regarding Amy: we don’t know, of course, that she’s not been elsewhere with the Doctor between Episodes 1 and 2 … although I suppose the fact that she’s still wearing the nightie strongly suggests it. But I like your interpretation that “She is not bold with curiosity or wonder, she’s bold with stupidity”. There is definitely something to that, and I think we may see it playing into the plot. In other words, I don’t think we’re supposed to uncritically say, “Oh, Amy is so reckless, I love her!”, but worry about what lies in her future if she continues that way … or maybe we are supposed to be uncritical for now, but review these earlier episodes with different perspective once she really gets someone into trouble.

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  22. Bertie Wooster

    Have you ever considered writing an article on The Simpsons? You might want to consider it!

  23. I love The Simpsons, but I don’t think I have anything original and insightful to say about it. So, no, I don’t plan to write about them. (Doesn’t necessarily mean that I won’t, someday, of course.)

  24. Jiminy Cricket

    What a fascinating review!

    Would you mind telling me what your favourite episode of “Fawlty Towers” is?

    And “The Simpsons” ?

    And “Doctor Who” ?

    Much obliged…

  25. Tricky. For Fawlty Towers I think that Communication Problems is the most perfectly constructed and consistently brilliant. For The Simpsons, I have a special fondness for the episode with Sherry Bobbins. As for the best Doctor Who episode: that is extraordinarily hard to pick and varies from day to day. Right now, maybe A Christmas Carol.

  26. Jiminy Cricket

    Have you watched “Duffless” yet? I also recommend that you watch “Marge Vs. The Monorail” and “Cape Feare”… “Homer’s Triple Bypass” and “Treehouse of Horror V” are hilarious as well!

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