21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: The Beast Below

There's something fairground-like about The Beast Below.

Looking at the story again after my initial first reactions in April 2010, the first thing that strikes me is that the setting reminds me a bit of a trip to the fair. A down-and-out fair on a rainy day, I'll grant you, but then we have... The Doctor and Amy dodging what looks like a non-stop line of hoopla stalls and market stands of cheap bling that fell off the back of a lorry. The Demon Headmaster skulking in a doomy ticket vestibule. The Doctor and Amy taking the unorthodox slide of a lifetime. And of course, too many kids. That should give you a clue as to the writer...

Who else but the current main man, Steven Moffat? Seems he can't get through writing a Doctor Who story without including some pasty-faced young scamp. Young Reinette. Young Amy. The gas mask kid. Nancy's entourage from the auditions of Oliver. The kid who's wired up to a great big computer. In The Beast Below, the Star Whale's receiving a whole quota of kiddiewinks who haven't quite made the grade in class. In my day, there would have been detention or an extra dollop of homework, but no, a bit of bad behaviour and you're chucked down a lift chute to the strains of YET ANOTHER pipsqueak who chants an inexplicable rhyme that makes no sense whatsoever – a bit like the clues left for hopeful contestants by The Wall Street Crash or whatever end-of-the-pier act they roped in on 3-2-1 that week in 1982.

What with all the kids running around, not to mention a cameo from The Demon Headmaster himself, I'm torn between summing up The Beast Below as an homage to 1990s kids' TV or a ride on the helter skelter. Kids love the helter skelter at first. There's all that breathless rush at the top of the slide, but by the time they've reached the bottom, there's that slightly disappointed feeling of 'Is that it?'

Which sums up my thoughts on The Beast Below. Back in April 2010, I reviewed this one with all that giddy initial excitement that you get on first viewing. The problem is, I've reached the bottom of The Beast Below helter skelter and I'm questioning whether it's anywhere near as good as I first thought it was. Yes, Matt Smith and Karen Gillan are wonderful and already have the makings of a great Doctor/Companion team. Yes, it's well shot and visually delivers. Yes, there's a steady conveyor belt of witty one-liners from the pen of Moffat. And please note, John, that the line is “There's an ESCAPED fish”. Not a missing fish. Or an AWOL fish. Or a fish that's packed its bags and travelled to Marbella. An ESCAPED fish. Comprendez?

But despite all of these plus points, The Beast Below now looks to me as one of the weaker offerings of Matt Smith's first season. The Beast Below carries on the established tradition of making the Second New Doctor Story the template for things to come. The Daleks sums up the BEM vision of Doctor Who better than the grunting apes of An Unearthly Child. Doctor Who And The Silurians begins a string of morally-based quandaries for the Third Doctor, as opposed to the straight-ahead horror of Spearhead From Space. The Ark In Space sets out the uncompromising Gothic horror of the first three Tom Baker years, in contrast to the UNIT romp of Robot. And so on.

The Beast Below, meanwhile, is the story in which Moffat's fairytale vision takes root. We saw some hints in The Eleventh Hour, but by and large, it was very much a Davies 'Alien Invades Earth' type of story but with a zesty twist of Moffat. On the other hand, we're plummeted into the new style of storytelling in The Beast Below. Gone are the big concepts and Earth invasions – instead, The Beast Below portrays a smaller-scale fairy tale fantasy world in space, complete with lost kids, tollbooth fairground guards and a well-meaning but ill-treated creature. Writing-wise, the emphasis is also on subtle, intricate details rather than big, broad brush strokes. There are small details that need to be paid attention to such as Amy's vote or the apparently meaningless glass on the floor.

Having said that, there are still one or two Old Regime aspects that are hovering around. For one thing, The Beast Below, like a good number of Davies stories, can be taken as a political allegory with its themes of brainwashing, voting booths and governmental superiority over the monarch. The most important aspect of this allegory is the way in which human beings are faced with a choice of either forgetting or protesting at the truth about Starship UK. It's demonstrated in a short video presentation, along the lines of one of those old Simon Bates certificate explanations, except Starship UK have roped in some crusty old Tomorrow's World-style boffin to explain. Basically, the big truth about Starship UK is that it's quietly tormenting a poor old Star Whale in order for the ship to continue about its business. Too many protests would mean that the whale would be freed, and the destruction of Starship UK.

The difference between Moffat's and Davies' political allegories is that Moffat's are a little bit more subtle. The fact that humanity turns a blind eye in order for it to carry on is just there. It's told to the audience but it's not dwelt upon in great detail. It's left up to the viewers to make their own interpretation – you could argue that the Starship UK scenario equates to good-meaning people who have every intention of making a difference, whether it's through charity, aid or even helping someone who's in trouble in public, but don't because they don't want to upset their stable apple cart. Or not. It's up to the viewer.

Out of all the Davies stories, The Beast Below has shades of The End Of The World (right down to the similar climatic shots of the Doctor and Companion looking out of a big window while musing on what's just happened) but in terms of story structure, it's compatible with Gridlock. Like this story, The Beast Below takes the traditional Doctor Who format and links it with an allegorical message (subtle or not). Both stories also rely on whopping great slabs of infodump – endless talky scenes that provide the necessary back-stories but nevertheless, slow the story to a crawl. Plus, both stories lack any sort of tension or even incident, come to that.

In fact, The Beast Below is the guiltier party here. All good Doctor Who works on more than one level: A moral message for the grown-ups and lots of scares and thrills and spills for the kids. The Beast Below on the other hand, just about functions on one level. It may contain some interesting visuals, good lines and a sound moral message, but by golly, The Beast Below is dull. Hardly anything of incident happens and when it does, it's strictly of the Cheggers Plays Pop method of jumping like a loon in coloured gunge. Hey, who said this was a kids' show?

Perhaps the most regrettable aspect of this is the Smilers. Er, what do they do exactly? They rotate their heads a lot and if you're lucky, they might actually get up off their metallic arses, but in the pantheon of Terrifying Doctor Who monsters, they are at the bottom of the pile, sipping tea with the Myrka and the Mandrels.

Which is a great pity because they are such a wasted opportunity. Looks-wise, the Smilers are a triumph. There's always something freaky about those old-style carnival dummies and waxworks, and the way in which the Smiler heads slowly rotate from benign to angry to demonic leer is very effective indeed. But that's all they do – they never actually do anything beyond this, and so they're not a convincing monster in the least. The Smilers are similar to the eerie marionette harlequins from The Girl In The Fireplace in that they look scary but do absolutely nothing. Mind you, at least the harlequins had razors – the Smilers don't even have a peashooter handy. All told, a great shame – if Moffat had made them something more than eerie window dressing, they would have been a truly memorable alien nasty. But hey, Everybody Lives, right kids? So no shooting or zapping or anything that would rock the Wimpy Who boat, please.

Instead, The Beast Below relies more on its script, premise and plot rather than even attempting to excite kids. But surprisingly, The Beast Below's plot has just as many gaping holes as some of the lesser Davies scripts. Which is odd, considering that Moffat's a master of weaving his plot strands together in an intricate, logical fashion. Here, he just crudely lumps them together as if he's making a hastily assembled clay model in precisely 30 seconds.

The problem with endless talky scenes is that after a few spins of the DVD, the plot holes loom large. For example, the fact that the technologically advanced Starship UK doesn't have the means to fashion some sort of engine. Or the revelation that the Whale doesn't eat the kids – well, what's the point of tipping them into its belly then? And why does that annoying kid start intoning some ominous rhyme – apart from attempting to provide a dramatic pre-credits teaser (which it doesn't anyway). And correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't the mouth of the Whale in space? If so, then how come the rejected kids end up on the ship, given that they should die Scooti Manista or Lynda With A Y style? Complete nonsense.

The more troubling aspect of this is the fact that the Doctor's apparently regenerated into a man without a brain. In the story's denouement, he's perfectly prepared to leave the Star Whale as a vegetable – all the while shouting Tennant-style in a big pompous speech about how humans don't have the right to speak to him any more. Presumably, this is meant to leave the viewer feeling all sorry for the Doctor who's faced with a terrible ethical dilemma. When in fact the viewer's probably screaming “Look around you, you great fool! The Whale Thing's being nice to the random kid!” Did it not even enter the Doctor's mind that he needs to force Liz 10 to 'Abdicate', thereby allowing the Whale to move torture-free of its own volition? Nah. Because it's all about Amy proving her worth as a companion. While making the title hero look like an incompetent fool. OK, so the Doctor's recently regenerated, but this is the sort of dilemma that a toddler could work out in a flash. The script shortcomings may be passed over when first viewing The Beast Below, but if you stop to think about it or see it again, the deficiencies are there, plain and simple. Apparently, there were teething problems with some of the early season scripts – this one and Victory Of The Daleks – but then why rush-release stories with scripts that clearly needed a lot of work in the first place?

Still, at least Moffat does compensate for these plot holes with a healthy dose of smugness. And characters don't come much smugger than Liz 10, a woman so self-satisfied she makes River Song look like a simpering nun. Liz 10 does relatively little apart from strut around barking crass inanities in a fake Cockney voice, the nadir of which is “I'm the blaahhdy Queen, mate!” Matters aren't helped by Sophie Okonedo's performance, which suggests that she'd come to the role fresh from graduating at The Dick Van Dyke Academy Of Fake London Accents. It's also a story that wastes great actors like Terrence Hardiman, a man who would have been pitch perfect for a major big baddie role (given his awesome turn as The Demon Headmaster). In the end, he's reduced to pottering about in a moth-eaten hoodie top like a slightly shifty school caretaker.

Thankfully, there are one or two elements that bear merit. The stylised direction from Andrew Gunn has vision, and he has a feel for bringing out the quirky aspects of Moffat's script with low-down shots of the revolving Smiler heads and that ethereal shot of Amy floating in space. He's evidently reading from the same I Love Star Wars book as Moffat too – not only is the scene in the Whale's belly reminiscent of the Empire Strikes Back bit when the Millennium Falcon's trapped in the mouth of a giant creature, there are plenty of arty Lucas-style screen wipes to propel the action along. Despite the deficiencies of the script, The Beast Below has much visual appeal, with a good hotch-potch of the ancient, traditional and modern.

The main saving grace of the story is the superb Matt Smith and Karen Gillan double act. Having already established a great rapport, Smith and Gillan at least carry this nonsense with considerable aplomb, both turning in excellent performances. Amy is a lot more likeable this time around, showing a sweeter side to her nature, especially in the last few scenes when she compares the benevolent Star Whale to a certain benevolent alien. Amy gets to prove her worth by deducing what's really going on, and uses both her loaf and her initiative to take charge over the dithering Doctor by allowing the Whale to have some peace at last.

Matt Smith's great though, isn't he? A complete contrast from David Tennant's Doctor, even if he's forced to make an out-of-character shouty, self-righteous speech about how “Nobody human has anything to say to me today!” Otherwise, the Eleventh Doctor is the complete antithesis of his predecessor, a quietly bonkers and self-deprecating figure who doesn't rely on big, ponderous bravado. Take the story of the Time War and what happened to the Time Lords: Whereas Doctor Ten would have laboured over this point for years with a wobbling bottom lip, Doctor Eleven quietly says: “Just me now. Long story. It was a bad day. Bad stuff happened.” Likewise at the end, the new Doctor doesn't stick around to say long, protracted goodbyes, even slipping in a crafty wisecrack about “Oh, the songs they'll write”.

Moffat's script does contain some good, funny lines in amongst the smug Liz 10 stuff, and it's notable that the Doctor gets the lion's share. Too many to mention, so I'll just narrow it down to “Sorry, checking all the water in this area – there's an escaped fish”; “You probably want to take a moment, get yourself in a calm place – go 'Ohhhmmmm'! It's – a – tongue!” or my favourite: “Say wheeeee!” This already feels like a Doctor that we've known for a good few seasons, not two stories, and while Moffat's right on the button with his dialogue, it's Matt Smith who brings this excellent incarnation to life with his understated knack for comic timing, age-old reflection and most importantly, portraying an alien from the planet of Gallifrey.

Good thing that these fine acting talents are here to save the day. Without them, it's debatable as to whether The Beast Below would get such an easy press. While it looks superb and contains some interesting ideas, the script ultimately isn't strong enough to sustain interest and contains more gaps than Shane McGowan's teeth. Lacking any sort of decent monster or any kind of notable incident, The Beast Below is one of the first to demand that the viewers pay close attention to what's going on, but considering that this story contains too many blatant plot holes, is this really such a good idea?

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