jblum (jblum) wrote,

Doctor Who 5x02 -- The Beast Below

In brief: it doesn't manage what it sets out to do as perfectly as Eleventh Hour did -- but I'm way more interested in what it sets out to do!

As I said in my previous brief posting, getting past the familiar introductory stuff made it much easier for this one to impress me. I love it when Doctor Who goes "oddball" -- and even though this oddball was in itself a step into familiar territory, that territory felt like coming home for me. Because the Sylvester McCoy era was my second childhood in fandom, the point where I began to realize that Doctor Who really could run riot and do whatever the hell it wanted, and this caught the flavor of that late-'80s renaissance. The shabby, decayed Rule Britannia look of Starship UK, with its cheery-fairground-gone-wrong Smilers, is a cross between Happiness Patrol done right and the straight-up urban rot of Paradise Towers (with its founders' nasty secret lurking in the basement). (See also The End of the World and The Long Game, among others.) And it showed some of that era's teeth too: as I said before, the McCoy allegories are as subtle as a brick through the window -- but Andrew Cartmel understood that sometimes windows need bricking. And the timing of the UK election, which couldn't have been planned when they were writing it, just makes this one more perfect.

On a similar note of threads connecting to the past, one of the amusing things I've seen on my peeks into Gallifrey Base to get the ratings info is watching some people fall over themselves trying to explain how this story set in a retro-looking future where everything in space is named after Earth, with the Doctor confessing about being the last of his kind and saying he'll never forget the Time War (and apparently having shagged Good Queen Bess), the companion being there to save the day and stop him from doing terrible things, a queen who talks all common-loike, and a gag (literally) about a barfing space whale, still represented a fundamental break from Russell Davies' approach. Honestly, I've seriously seen people who regularly twitted RTD for his lack of alien worlds (which stopped being the case by about 2007) saying how Starship UK made them feel that Doctor Who could go anywhere again... despite the fact that New Earth featured every single exotic thing Starship UK did with extra bonus cat-nurse-nuns. There are differences in approach between the two producers' styles, sure, but they're small shifts of emphasis rather than outright repudiations.

More generally about Matt Smith... We're still in the "Doctor Identikit" stage of fandom's relationship with a new Doctor, where everyone's spotting connections to their favorite previous Doctors -- which means while fans of a certain age are going googly-eyed over a Troughtonish inflection or a Pertweeiferous raised eyebrow, me I'm noticing Moffat's recently-developed love for the McCoy era (as confessed in DWM). His Doctor is constantly noticing the details, and distinctly ahead of the game -- he recognizes the starwhale from a glimpse of one of its tentacles, works out the entire situation within the same scene, and then doesn't tell anybody until after they get carted off to the Tower. The key tension between him and Amy, in fact, stems from the possibility that she might know more than he does -- her offense against him, the one he's willing to throw her out of the TARDIS for a la The Long Game, is that she's deliberately keeping a secret from him. "You don't ever decide what I need to know." While at the same time he's keeping his secrets about the crack-in-the-universe from her... He even starts out flaunting that he knows more about how she's going to react than she does -- "It's this or Leadworth. What do you think? Let's see, what will Amy Pond choose?... Gotcha." and only by the end realises he's equally matched in that department. Throughout the episode, in fact, she's basically on trial as a new companion, being tested asked to prove herself (such as when he sends her after little Mandy); his quizzing her about what's wrong with the society is pure Sylv mentoring Sophie -- though his actual speech about what makes a police state is the sort of thing which Sylv would have tried to offload onto Sophie as much as possible!

But of course, as usual with trying to filter the present of Who through reference to its past, if all you've got is a hammer everything looks like a nail. There's way more to number eleven than the McCoy similarities; Smith's Doctor goes off in directions all his own as well. Rather than being in perfect control, even he's sometimes one step behind his own thought processes; when Amy asks about his trick with the water-glass, his response is "Dunno, I think a lot, it's hard to keep track." Sylv had to improvise his plans a lot, but he wasn't running on instinct in that same way.

If there's a defining moment for Smith so far, I think it's his reaction to finding himself in, if not the belly of the beast, then at least its his mouth. His first reaction to Amy's where-are-we questions is to try to spare her feelings -- getting her to a happy place before unleashing the scary word "tongue" on her. But underneath these calming ommm's is a visceral glee at the word that he can't wait to get to. That's something new; past Doctors in the Troughton/Baker mould could be both reassuring and enthused by danger at different times, but never both in the exact same moment. This Doctor contains multitudes, and they're jostling for position.

Which is probably how people are able to see their favorite Doctor in him, even though that's only part of the picture; he's already full of contrasts. In some ways he's more considerate; in others, much less so (where the tenth Doctor seemed to take his companions' decisions in Journey's End as a direct reflection on what he'd done to them, the eleventh seems completely oblivious to how he's already warped Amy's development since childhood). At one moment he acts less overtly childlike than the tenth Doctor, then he's positively relishing the way that their escape "isn't going to be very big on dignity". There's that looking-after-the-kiddies kindness, next to the utter bluntness of his response when he tells Amy she's transgressed and is going home: "I'm sorry!" "I don't care." Followed by his explosion at her and her entire race: "Nobody human has anything to say to me today!" Part fluffy, part spiky; a little bit of everything.

What about Amy, though? Well, she spends most of the story doing extremely traditional companion stuff, going off and poking her nose in and getting captured and asking the Doctor what's going on. Karen Gillan acquits herself well with the routine stuff, and brings a good chunk of personality to it -- her spitfire delivery of "And it's minging!" in the whale's mouth brought back happy memories of Donna Noble. The character beats surrounding her possible impending marriage, though, were nicely handled; the Doctor disrupting the companion's love life is a note we've seen recently, but it's shaded differently in that Amy is looking at the Doctor as a generalized means of escape rather than a replacement. She's already running away on her own, and that's nicely paralleled with the Doctor having run off in the TARDIS. More intriguingly, her message-to-herself is a first glimpse of what Amy is like when she really has to take stuff seriously.

But the bit of her story which we haven't seen before is the finale, where she demonstrates what she's learned from the Doctor, in noticing things and putting the picture together (in a montage that's her version of his stop-motion noticing-the-details sequence from Eleventh Hour) and finds the solution in her understanding of the nature of the Doctor. She's not the first companion to put a stop to him doing the wrong thing, Rose slammed the brakes on in Dalek by pointing out the line the Doctor was crossing... but this time rather than it being a simple matter of the Doctor's morals, it's a comment about understanding his character.

Because the advantage Amy has is that she's known the eleventh Doctor longer than he's known himself. She's had fourteen years to think about what he's like, based on two brief encounters which she can roll over endlessly in her mind, where he's had a matter of hours and no indication that he's even stopped to reflect yet. What sets Amy apart, and apart from the entire society of Starship UK, is that she remembers.

At the same time, this idealized image of the Doctor is what prompts her to try to get him away from the tough choice he'll have to make to save the world. As the Doctor put it, "You took it upon yourself to save me from that." It's interesting that her crime in the Doctor's eyes was wanting to keep him innocent of the situation... the same mistake the government is making with Lis Ten, who supposedly can only be the spirit of the nation if she's unaware of what the nation is really up to. If he's Peter Pan and she's Wendy, as Moffat sets up on every level from her flying in the opening scene to her nightgown, he's a Pan who doesn't want to be kept in childhood. Ignorance is not bliss... but in the end it's her belief in the Doctor's underlying innocence and kindness which allows her to spot the other way out of their dilemma.

Which in turn is all a nice twist on the idea of the false, constructed vote in the voting booth, engineered so that neither choice gives you a good outcome. We're used to the idea of the Doctor as the man who, when faced with two impossible choices, finds a third way... all the way up through The End of Time. Even if that third way is still unpleasant, as in The Ancestor Cell, we still have confidence that it must be the best option available. But what we get this time is Amy pointing out that even this is a false assumption, and that it's possible to find a fourth way.

And the key to that fourth way is entirely a matter of recognizing motive rather than just action. The facts about the space whale are all exactly as we saw them, but the meaning of them was completely different -- and that presents an opportunity for other ways of behaving. And that's a direct repudiation of the morality which other characters, including the Doctor, display throughout the story -- he's willing to judge Amy just on what she's done, without any regard for why she did it. A great image of all those false assumptions which lead us into disaster.

In fact, this false premise is carefully set up from the teaser scene onwards -- in the last line of the surrogate Test Card Girl's creepy poem in the lift: "Expect no love from the beast below". Remember how I said I was looking forward to Steven Moffat's next trick? There it is, I think. Cause in one line he hasn't just set up the nature of the UK's beast of burden, but of the wrong assumption this whole society is built on. Because, against all odds, the beast does love them.

It's right there in plain view, but is impossible to spot until a second viewing. Now that's cool writing. Not just puzzle-clever, but meaning-clever.

As for the scenes after Amy's revelation... I got her explanation the first time she gave it, I felt the second scene in front of the observation window made it a little too heavy-handed. But the second time through does establish something that I thought was interesting, which was that the Doctor didn't really get the connection the first time. That Amy knows him better than he does himself. He still knows himself as the hard-edged bloke from the Time War who'll do the horrible-but-necessary things, but to her his kindness is even more important.

More generally... I did get an odd feeling about this story on a structural level, in that a few beats felt glossed over. Curiously, the episode was underlength, not quite 42 minutes rather than the usual 45... Was something lost for technical reasons, a la End of the World? Or was it just short to begin with, like Silence In The Library? I got a sense that the story could have used another beat or two -- most notably a concluding scene showing how Lis Ten dealt with her new status quo, which could even have gone in place of the repetition of Amy identifying the Doctor with the whale. After all the fuss about the Doctor setting out to overthrow the system... at the end, we don't actually get any sign of how much of the system will change. "No more secrets", Lis supposedly says (oddly offscreen)... but does that actually mean no more Smilers, no more squashing of dissidents, no more children who disappear?

Plus, the story could really have used a scene where the Doctor asked Lis Ten "Okay, ma'am, you're Queen, why do you have the Smilers and the Winders?" What's the official rationalization for the secret police? Cause while I'm normally more than happy to fill in the gaps myself, usually that's because I have a fair few good ideas of what could go in the gaps... and while the Smilers make perfect sense as a sort of interactive Big Brother poster, I can't figure out why the Winders would be half-human half-Smiler.

For that matter, the fact that we never actually see the Winders *winding* anything seemed a bit odd. Not a Smiler, not even a clockwork streetlamp -- there's a line about those, but we never actually see one.

It would also be worth it to explore the culpability of the humans a bit more. Because enslaving and torturing an innocent creature is one sin, but one which at least in a sense the entire society has consented to. But chucking anyone who protests down a hole to their death -- no one signed up for that. (The voting video certainly doesn't acknowledge it.) If the government is acting on the highest authority -- did Lis Ten authorize that as well? Even if she doesn't remember, is she responsible? Who's going to pay for the deaths and disappearances? And would her motives being altruistic make a difference? After all the wonderfully scathing comment on a society which chooses to forget what is being done in their name, it seems a little too quickly forgotten.

On a related note, I can agree with Kate's feeling that the Smilers didn't actually do enough. It makes sense when you realize they're not supposed to be the primary threat, they're sort of a cross between Nodes (from Silence in the Library) and Macra (from Gridlock), it's just that the emphasis placed on them in the trailers probably built peoples' expectations. But even so, it would have been nice to see one of them actually do something directly... someone suggested that it should have been a Smiler rather than a Winder who stood up to grab Amy after her encounter with the tentacle in the workman's hut, and that would have worked nicely.

More generally... there's a matter of tone which still haunts me. As often in Who, there's a tension between huge and horrible ideas and a safe-for-children coating put over them... like the smile on the face of a Smiler. I'm interested in the friction between these two aspects of the show -- that's part of what The Happiness Patrol is actually about, the way we make the unbearable palatable. And this is still a Doctor Who story about overthrowing a ruthless police state in which no characters actually die, and the kids weren't really hurt, and nobody has to face any serious consequences.

I also find myself thinking about the K9 spinoff. Which in some ways uses the same gag as the Smilers; where Moffat puts the watching eyes of Big Brother in a funfair piece of clockwork, Baker makes his authorities' Gestapo-like robot policemen sound like British bobbies. But the point in K9 is to make the threat a bit less disturbing (to the child audience, or to the parents who get the joke?), while the point of the Smilers is to make them more obviously wrong and unsafe.

Is that why Who feels more sophisticated? Because there's nothing inherent in K9's setup which makes it more obviously a kids-show story; the leads are all teenagers, barely a year off being the original cast of Buffy, while Beast Below wears its kids on its sleeve. But Moffat plays up the sense of disturbingness and danger... even if he glosses over the follow-through. In texture and mood, Beast Below is impeccable -- a genuinely beautifully-produced story, from the detail-packed London Market to that glorious first portrait of Lis Ten on her throne (velvet robe draped across the floor, porcelain mask nestled in its folds, forest of water-glasses on the floor in front of a fallen chandelier). But on the flipside, it's K9 which actually has scenes in which its wannabe-government-overthrowing characters have to think about the complexity of taking direct action versus trying to change the system from within... getting into the sorts of complexity which the big-peoples' show pushed to the margin. But on the flipside of that, the spinoff takes plot shortcuts which would only work in a kids-show universe, even more blatantly than Who. Which one's really telling a cosy and reassuring story, and which one's pushing the boundaries? I don't know the answers here, I'm just considering the questions.

But they lead me to wonder about what it is that still doesn't sit right for me about the New New Show so far. I mean, the whole Dark Fairytale thing should be absolutely up my alley -- for God's sake, Moffat namechecked Roald Dahl when talking about his approach, how could I even be the slightest bit ambivalent about this! This is hitting every one of my childhood buttons, from Dahl's acid wit to his disturbingness... but there's still something missing.

The two episodes so far, and indeed much of Roald Dahl's work, draw on a particular sort of British mythology, which is centered around a particular era. Eleventh Hour transplants present-day Who back into an English village, with its inherent timelessness... so I'm not surprised it didn't work so well for me, because I'm one of the few people in my generation of fandom who doesn't seem to have a sleepywetenglishvillage fetish. At all. (It's like the way I was a couple of years too late to see Terrance Dicks as the definitive Who novelist, because I started reading the novelizations at the point when all the other authors were doing their own stories, and Terrance's voice became a sort of bland default.) Then this story? Most of the visual details of Starship UK tend to center its look in the 1940s/1950s -- evoking the spirit of the Blitz in the humans fleeing the solar flares together, and also reminding us that this was the repressive society which produced 1984. (All the Smilers needed was a "Keep calm and carry on" slogan on their booths.) And next week? The Blitz itself -- another event which didn't so much define the childhood of our generation as define the TV we grew up on.

All these settings... they're all veddy British, with that particular inflection. Far more than Cushing-style police boxes or a kind of Troughtony Bakerish Davisonoid McCoyified Doctor, this is the nostalgic element in Moffat's Who. Davies' stuff was also consciously playing up its Britishness, but from the word go it was equal parts nostalgic (Unquiet Dead, Empty Child) and modern (Rose, Aliens of London, et cetera). And I already miss the sense of the modern, urban, information-age-paced Britain in which RTD grounded things. So far, Moffat's season is basically taking place in Avengersland. And while I really like The Avengers... it's an old show now, from before I was born. I'd like to feel like Doctor Who takes place behind my sofa too.

Still, like I said, these are early days, and the three-episode attention span thing is coming into play; with a bit of luck, in a few weeks' time these niggling worries will be completely wiped away, and Moffat will continue to surprise me with his range. And at the end of the day, these aren't actually reflections on the quality of the stories; I know it's just my own personal reactions coming into play. I also know that I loved Beast Below in part because it evoked Cartmel-era innovation and overthrow-the-system radicalness... but at the same time, I know that the Cartmelverse is my sleepywetenglishvillage. Part of what I'm getting is a nostalgic echo of past innovation rather than genuine new territory. This story has a welcome bite... but of course, I want more. And I'm still hoping for something from Steven Moffat which comes from as different a place as Blink or Girl in the Fireplace did.

Oh, one last random moment of genius? Amy's little speech to the scanner about watching the world like a wildlife documentary... and then seeing the Doctor step into the frame, and beckon her into the TV. Bugger me sideways, now that's iconic.

Yeesh, I can't keep writing at this length, it's killing me!
Tags: doctor who

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    Chapter 4 done. 18,300 words — supposed to be around 16,000, but fortunately chapter 5 will be shorter. Throw in the fragments I've got for later…

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    Chapter 3 done, a couple of days ago now. About 12,800 words — though some of them will be moved into Chapter 4 or 5, because I'm about 800 words…

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    Chapter 2 drafted. Total 7589 words. After the better part of a month off between Christmas and my parents' visit, I'm finally inching back into the…

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  • (no subject)

    Chapter 4 done. 18,300 words — supposed to be around 16,000, but fortunately chapter 5 will be shorter. Throw in the fragments I've got for later…

  • (no subject)

    Chapter 3 done, a couple of days ago now. About 12,800 words — though some of them will be moved into Chapter 4 or 5, because I'm about 800 words…

  • (no subject)

    Chapter 2 drafted. Total 7589 words. After the better part of a month off between Christmas and my parents' visit, I'm finally inching back into the…