...a blog by Richard Flowers

Monday, April 12, 2010

Day 3386: DOCTOR WHO: The Beast Below


Hang on a minute! We thought the Big Fish people were doing "Song of the Space Whale"!

Here's Daddy's review:
They do say: "If voting changed anything, they'd drop you down a mile long chute into the belly of a space beast…" or something like that anyway.

This is splatter-gun satire mixed with a punningly literal interpretation of "steampunk": literal in the sense of splicing the steam-age ocean-liner-gone-to-seed look of Starship UK (with its unorthodox and non-technological "engine") with the Sex Pistols. God here being the Doctor, saving the Queen and her loyal fascist regime of smilers and winders.

The satire comes from the cynical use of the "voting booths" to cleanse the population of objectors by feeding them to the whale and in the blunt reminder that – even as heroic companion Amy does – we all choose to forget the nasty things that underpin our own fortunate positions afloat in the first class cabins of the ship of state.

There's also a distinctly Liberal (if covert) pop at arbitrary authority.

We are led to believe that LizTen is the heroic rebel queen, fighting to find out what's being done in her name. She rescues the Doctor and Amy from the smilers, is trying to use the same techniques as he does with the glasses of water and "Basically, I rule" is a tremendously funny double meaning. And Sophie Okonedo does indeed rule as future monarch Liz Ten (and it was nice to see the Demon Headmaster (Terrance Hardiman) finally get his wish to be Prime Minister).

And yet the quickly-glossed-over solution is that she is the villain.

It is on her orders that this system has been set up: enslaving and torturing the space whale; brainwashing and subjugating the people, subverting and denying the real higher authority, the democratic will of the people. Not only is it clear that she has again and again come to the Tower of London and reached the same decision, agreeing with her original plan and wiping her memory so she can continue to live without the guilt, but it also seems apparent that she will make the same choice again. She certainly doesn't look at all like she's going to push "abdicate".

In a sense, it's a shame that the "abdicate" button actually works: the Voting Booth is a lose-lose option: press "forget" and you're a complicit vegetable, press "protest" and you're lunch.

Though equally it's in character for the Queen to give herself the only vote that counts.

But look closely, and you'll see another arbitrary, autocratic authority making decisions for everyone else. Yes, it's the Doctor.

His solution is just as arbitrary and just as much involves taking away other people's choices (in the poor space whale's case permanently).

And let's add to that not a little bit selfish: he could easily free the space whale because he happens to have about his person a vast and powerful time-space machine almost certainly capable of carrying off the human population, and if not all at once then in sections, and can take them to any habitable planet anywhere in history. New Earth might be a good one. And yet he seems more than willing to lobotomise the beast rather than act as taxi-driver for a very short span of his years.

(I know, I know, "use the TARDIS" is ruled out as a solution because it breaks the cardinal rule of fairy stories that the hero has to find the solution where he is, not just be the guy who has it with him, but come on! If ever there was a case for having the baddies chuck the TARDIS overboard to stop the Doctor using it…!)

Unusually, I got to watch this Doctor Who not with my beloved Alex, but instead with my niece and nephew who are ten and nearly seven, so pretty nearly the target audience. They didn't seem to quite get it, ranking it below last week's opener and interestingly comparing it to "Midnight" as a "not very scary one". Now, to be fair that's an 8 out of 10 rather than a 10 out of 10 from the junior jury, but it did get me thinking that a lot of this story is intellectual rather than visceral. The real horror here is that the eponymous monster is not the innocent space whale but in fact our own baser survival instincts: what keeps mankind alive is bestial acts. And that seems to be quite a grown up horror.

Equally, Moffat continues his (on-screen) menacing of children, with key roles for girl Mandy and boy Timmie. Alex was a little disappointed with the "oh, he lives" ending of the whale not eating the children, though for once there was a terribly good plot reason in both the whale's motivation (yes, the space whale actually had a motivation which has to be a first) and the interlinked theme of the Doctor sticking his oar in because he can't bear to see children suffering (and to the thousand-year-old Time Lord, aren't we all children?)

Not that there was nothing here for the children. The Doctor getting the whale to sick up him and Amy (although not exactly consistent with the exterior view of the whale, which appears to have Starship UK on its back but its mouth out in space while the script and the interiors imply the starship is built entirely around the whale) was both brilliant and huge kids fun. And of course there were the smilers.

The smilers were deliciously creepy, though their relationship with the winders was left slightly unclear. Were the smilers clockwork robots like the, er, clockwork robots from Moffat's own "Girl in the Fireplace"? Are the winders supposed to be the people who wind the smilers up? If so, there's been a tiny trim too far in the edit, as we've lost the key scene where we see them do just that. All we do see (smilers that stand up from their booths to look just like winders, a winder whose head rotates to reveal another face just like a smiler) seems to indicate that winders and smilers are one and the same. Which, actually, would be a better reveal than that the smilers are just creepy clockwork robots (again).

That the smilers have three different faces on just two sides of their heads – the kids spotted that – is a nicely underplayed bit of fairy-tale magic. It also may be a subtle clue that unlike in the voting booth, there are more than just two binary choices.

After last week's confusion over the dating – and thanks to Simon for pointing out that Rory's hospital i.d., which can't be more than a few years old, is dated 1990 meaning Amy actually comes from near past – this week goes to the other extreme, not only firmly nailing its colours to the Twenty-Ninth Century mast, but pinning down a long-standing future-history dating question: when are the Solar Flares that we hear about in "The Ark in Space"?

(And the Doctor's rage at the end: "nobody human has anything to say to me today" clearly mirrors and reverses the famous "indomitable" eulogy in the Fourth Doctor's story.)

Or is it the Twenty-Ninth Century? The voting booth identifies Amy as a citizen of the UK and gives her age as 1306.

Interestingly this suggests that either she won't end her travels with the Doctor back in her own time, so the UK government never has a record of her death, or that her date of death is contingent on the TARDIS returning her – that is because she's been taken out of her own time she doesn't have a date of death yet. This latter may be the more likely as it ties thematically to her first statement on leaving the TARDIS that she must herself have been dead for many years. A cheery thought, as the Doctor observes.

But whether 21-year-old Amy comes from the 1990s or from 2010, an age of 1306 puts our landing on Starship UK between 3275 and 3295, i.e. the end of the Thirty-Fourth Century.

That's not a mistake: the Queen is revealed to be over three-hundred years old too, and since she's responsible for capturing and imprisoning the space whale during the Solar Flares that implies a three-hundred year space voyage after leaving the Earth.

Of course the Thirty-Fourth Century does tie in better with the Doctor's dating of "The Ark in Space"'s Space Station Nerva as a product of the Thirtieth Century – so at least humanity's last bolt hole isn't actually built after the planet gets roasted – but even that still slightly overlooks the existence of a Britanicus Base, built in a surviving Georgian mansion, that faces an Ice Age not a firestorm ("The Ice Warriors") and a not-Solar-fried-to-a-frazzle Philippines and Icelandic Alliance during World War V in the year five-thousand (i.e. the Forty-Ninth/Fiftieth Century) ("The Talons of Weng-Chiang" and heavily referenced in Moffat's own earlier stories, particularly the Time Agency of Captain Jack in "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances"). Of course, Moffat got the continuity reference to the Time Agents wrong too (because they're the paranoid fantasy of a deranged war-criminal) so it's not untypical of him to, let's say make the work of the continuity cops harder this way.

While we're on about continuity, the appearance of Magpie Electricals, first seen in Mark Gatis's "The Idiot's Lantern", still trading in the space year three-thousand-and-whatever might seem a little unlikely (what with the sole proprietor having been murdered by an alien in 1953), though no more likely than still selling TV's to Martha Jones in the space year two-thousand-and-whatever, but it does form a nice thematic link from the Coronation in "The Idiot's Lantern" to the Queen in "The Beast Below".

It's clear that Moffat is starting by following Russell Davis "formula" for a Doctor Who series: introduce new companion in the "present day", take her to the future, take her to a celebrity-historical in the past and throw the Daleks at her. The scene at the conclusion underlines this, where the Doctor stands in front of the huge picture window looking out into space and is reconciled with his new human friend and must be a conscious echo of the similar scene at the end of "The End of the World".

There are worrying signs that Moffat may be following Joseph Campbell's ponderous prescriptive mono-myth theory too. If Amy is the "hero" of the mono-myth, then first she is called to adventure (when the Doctor appears to her as a child), refuses the call (she is seen to accept a normal, mundane life both when she falls for the perception filter hiding Prisoner Zero's room and, through her wedding dress, when she choose to settle for presumably Rory – although in itself that's a subversion of the usual patriarchal big white dress as "happily ever after" for the girl hero) before finally receiving the supernatural assistance of her helper/mentor (guess who) and choosing to cross the threshold of (literally crossing the threshold of the TARDIS).

The journey through "the belly of the whale" (or at least across its tongue) is the part where the hero leaves behind the "known" world and begins her metamorphosis.

The most famous devotee of the cult of Campbell is, of course, George Lucas. So that dirty great "Star Wars" quote – standing on the space whale's tongue looking at its teeth – stands out as an enormous warning sign.

Still we only really need to worry if Churchill turns out to be the "wise old man" and River Snog appears as "the goddess" who help Amy to obtain the magic doodad that will save her people / glue the cracks in time back together. And that couldn't happen, could it…

Next Time… "I am your soldier!" Oh that is just awesome; best pastiche of a best-Dalek-line-ever ever! Could this finally be a "Victory of the Daleks"?



Alex Wilcock said...

Superb review, as ever - and fascinating to see what you think of one when we weren't together to compare reactions (first time since, ooh, 1989, or a bit of 2005 when I was late in)!

You're particularly right about the wrongness of the Doctor's third choice - though if we'd seen the TARDIS tractor-beaming a large chunk of Earth through space, it would have made the story even more blatantly a rewrite of some of Russell's (as you said, set-up of The End of the World, but also feel of The Long Game and Gridlock,population of Utopia...). Still, glad that both make the Queen very definitely the baddie - even cool kick-ass Queens with guns (did the Moff ever write for "Marple"?).

"yes, the space whale actually had a motivation which has to be a first"

I couldn't disagree with you more! Surely "The Beast Below" is just a new translation of "The Creature From the Pit," out next month...?

Oh, and groovy reference... Though you'd need a *very* big shop to keep that whale in, and you couldn't buy it for thruppence ;-)

Ryan said...

As for dating the new series. At the start of ep1 the TARDIS flies past the Millennium Dome with lights flashing around it. To me that would make the date pretty much Dec 31st 1999. Add 12 years to the main story, plus another two when he returns makes it around 2013-14 for the wedding?

Jennie Rigg said...

I still reckon that Rory's DATE OF BIRTH is 1990, and that "issued" was a typo we weren't supposed to notice. Or even that we weren't supposed to notice the date at all. It WAS a single frame...

Millennium Dome said...

"the TARDIS flies past the Millennium Dome with lights flashing around it. To me that would make the date pretty much Dec 31st 1999."

Unless the TARDIS is falling through TIME as well as SPACE.

But good call.


"I still reckon that Rory's DATE OF BIRTH is 1990"

slaps fluffy foot to head. OF COURSE! That make MUCH more sense now!

Richard Gadsden said...

"not exactly consistent with the exterior view of the whale, which appears to have Starship UK on its back but its mouth out in space while the script and the interiors imply the starship is built entirely around the whale"

My reading was that the starship was originally built around the whale, but when the whale was released, it was then outside the starship, and the big reveal was that it now had the starship on its back, where before it had been stuck inside.

Bob The Fish said...

I don't think Rory's ID was a mistake. It's given its own close-up in a sequence where we're seeing things that the Doctor noticed as significant, but didn't notice that he noticed. Would we get a close-up if the props department had accidentally put "issued" rather than "DOB" on the card? And I don't think that the short length of the close-up is any indication that it's not important - Moffat has long been a member of fandom and was active on message boards before he took over from RTD - he *knows* that the fans will be picking over details like this.

And then bear in mind that we're talking about Steven "Timey-Wimey" Moffat, here. There's something off about the dating in one of his episodes? I can't believe it's not deliberate (and also bear in mind that dream of Amy's where the TARDIS materialised to her as a little girl - was that really a dream after all, or the Doctor visiting her later in his own time stream and then making her forget again? And what about the crack on the monitor in the TARDIS that he looked at when she asked him why he chose her?).

Big crack in time and space + close-up of anachronism + Moffat script/arc plot = Something Going On, as far as I'm concerned.

Incidentally, the official kids' magazine "Doctor Who Adventures" gives the three dates in the episode as April 1996, April 2008 and July 2010. Not quite straight from the horse's mouth, but probably a fair indication that that's what Moffat intended.

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