Back in Planet of the Ood the Doctor made a comment to Donna that I didn’t mention in my review, because I wanted to address it here instead. Donna makes a moral judgement about humanity turning a blind eye to the exploitation of the Ood and the Doctor has a go at her because she has turned a blind eye to the working conditions of the people who made her clothes. In fact, she probably hasn’t even thought about it. That scene jars a little bit unless the TARDIS makes the Doctor’s clothes for him or something, because he doesn’t seem like the kind of person to bother checking where his clothes are made. He certainly doesn’t stop to do that when we see him stealing them, on more than one occasion. But it links in with the theme of the episode, which tackles the human treatment of the Ood.
Here we are again with The Beast Below, with another gentle, innocent creature suffering under human exploitation, but it’s very different this time round. Because this is not so much a story about the exploitation, as about choosing to ignore it.
This is an episode with two big reveals and two solutions to a problem. Most of the episode appears superficially to be concerned with leading us to the discovery of the space whale, and how its suffering is being deliberately ignored in order to survive. The path we take to this reveal seems like one of Steven Moffat’s standard mystery stories although in reality there is no way to guess what is going on unless you are incredibly knowledgable about sci-fi tropes and probably not even then, because we are not actually given any workable clues. That’s because the episode is not really trying to do that. It is too busy giving us clues to a different mystery: the nature of the whale.
So at first it looks like the Doctor has got to the truth by making a decision he would always make, as we have been shown over the last 50 years that he is an anarchist who loves nothing more than to rail against authority. Without even knowing what he is protesting about, he decides to protest. In a way that’s unhealthy, but not as unhealthy as the reason why Amy doesn’t get to the truth when the Doctor does, making the choice to forget the uncomfortable truth. The episode doesn’t stand in judgement over her though. We are clearly shown that this is the decision that it is human nature to make. It takes somebody like the Doctor to fight an injustice irrespective of the consequences, and we cannot expect that of Amy in her second outing… until we get to the heart (or brain!) of the problem and everything is switched round on us.
To understand what happens next we have to make at least a passing acknowledgement that we are being shown an allegory for oppressive working conditions when we see what has happened to the space whale. What was explicit in Planet of the Ood is implicit here, but the theme is just as strong and the veil is thin. Britishness is plastered all over the episode, so it hits close to home.
At first we are shown the problem as being one without a perfect solution – that’s a strong allegory because if you widen it out to our inability to live our lives without turning a blind eye to how at least some of our wealth or comfort is created then we are in a similar situation. I doubt many people are able to check the origins of everything we wear or use. So we choose to forget. And the Doctor does exactly what humans often do when they uncover a nasty little hidden injustice – put a sticking plaster on it. Find a compromise. Make it not so bad without ever getting to the root cause of the problem.
So we can identify with the Doctor in that moment. We don’t envy him the choice and we can’t think of a better option. The Doctor’s anger is electrifying, and he is clearly just as angry at his own inability to solve all the universe’s problems, as much with the people who have created the problem. So just when it looks like this is going to be a downbeat episode that shows us that not all injustices can be fixed, along comes our new companion, pieces together the little clues we really should have been following, and changes the entire nature of the episode. Now there’s a companion with potential for greatness.
And that potential is derived from her origins as clearly shown in the previous episode, when Doctor Who took a dramatic shift from being a mild horror / sci-fi / soap opera show to being a mild horror / sci-fi / children’s fantasy fiction show. She is Alice, who went to Wonderland. She is the girl who stepped through the wardrobe doors, or found the door to the secret garden. The Doctor hasn’t yet discovered how to function properly within this new universe so he is failing because the nature of the fiction he inhabits has just changed around him, but he will learn and in the meantime he needs Amy, who fully belongs in the new style of Doctor Who, to take this from being a Davies-era story and remould it into a Moffat-era story.
She gives us the Happily Ever After.
The view from across the pond:
It’s Amy’s first trip in the TARDIS…
While The Eleventh Hour was an introduction to the Doctor, The Beast Below servers as our introduction to Amy. Like he does with Rose, his second outing with Amy has the Doctor take her to the future. Whether intentional or not, she is put to a test. (How she reacts to it all will determine if he follows his typical modus operandi and takes her to the past in the next story).
What makes this story interesting is that it appears she fails the test! Rose in The End of the World is trapped and doesn’t fail, she’s just trapped, but accepts what goes on with an open mind. Martha in The Shakespeare Code is actually instrumental in helping and even inspiring the bard. Donna prompts the Doctor to “just save someone” in The Fires of Pompeii. Amy watches a video then chooses to erase her memory and not tell the Doctor. For the Doctor, this is a betrayal. He says it unwaveringly: “You took it upon yourself to save me from that. That was wrong. You don’t ever decide what I need to know!” When she apologizes, he says he doesn’t care; she’s going home. His outburst when he realizes that he will have to cause the brain-death of a beautiful, defenseless creature is palpable. “Nobody human has anything to say to me today!” Matt Smith does an amazing job giving us a pained, grieving Doctor.
But Moffatt was still at the top of his game. He gave us the story of Amy; a grown woman but in many ways, she’s still a child. And one thing Doctor Who never does, is hurt the children; it’s written into the code of the show. “You couldn’t just stand there and watch children cry!” Amy makes this realization that the Star Whale came to help and loves children and she releases it from its pain; her instinct was the right one. In that instant, the Doctor realizes she is worthy of traveling with him and they are going to be best friends for a very long time. Smith has range and he plays the part well. Gillan is fantastic playing her grown-up child very well (and she has incredible eyes of which we get some outstanding close-ups. Good work, cameramen!)
The Beast Below has many funny moments (“This isn’t going to be big on dignity!”) and a lot of heart. The supporting cast is fantastic; who doesn’t love the queen? It’s not perfect and even falls into the “lesser Moffat” category because it doesn’t have the scope of some of his other stories. For instance, if the Doctor had seen the starship from another angle at the very outset of the episode, the mystery would have been shattered. But this is a great chance to get to know Amy. The Smilers are creepy looking but really add very little to the story. It’s all about Amy and her understanding of a being that is the last of his kind. (Do I mean the whale, or the Doctor? You decide.) The hug shared between Amy and the Doctor at the end says it all. You don’t watch this episode without feeling a sense of joy. Appropriately, it makes you smile…
I’ll end with this. The Doctor Who Experience was an amazingly fun event. While I was in Wales… (um, not “whales” as might be expected after watching this episode…) I tried getting some pictures of all of our favorite creatures. They don’t all smile for the camera. Not even the Smilers. Look at these two; neither of whom were happy about me and my camera. Maybe I didn’t get their best angles… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Victory of the Daleks