Wed
Apr 28 2010 4:26pm

Doctor Who S5, Ep 2: “The Beast Below”

Sophomore Slump. It happens to the best of us. It even happens to Steven Moffat.

The Doctor and Amy’s first adventure together in “The Beast Below” finds them in the distant future at a time when Earth has become so uninhabitable that entire nations fly off into space in search of a new home. When The Doctor and Amy arrive on the Britain of the future as it travels through space, they learn that the people are being controlled by a mysterious and extreme form of democracy. Britain apparently paid a hefty price for its journey to the stars, and when its citizens are of age, they earn the right to learn the truth about that price. They are then given the choice to forget the truth, or protest it, which would lead to dire consequences for the country. Everyone chooses to forget.

But there are those that know that something is deeply wrong, despite their lack of memory. The Queen of England, Liz X, for one. So, The Doctor and Amy help her get to the bottom of what’s going on, and discover the nasty side of both the British government and of The Doctor himself.

You’ll notice that I didn’t mention the Smilers, the strange automatons with reversible faces, anywhere in my story description. That’s because they were pointless to the story, which was a major problem with the episode. When I couldn’t put my finger on why I didn’t enjoy this episode as much as the first one, a friend wisely pointed out that the Smilers were “one Moffat thing too many,” and it’s true. We all know that Moffat has a fondness for things that look human, but aren’t, and the Smilers seem like something conceived in that vein. However, where the Weeping Angels (“Blink”) and the Clockwork Androids (“Girl in the Fireplace”) were each alien entities that were essential to the story—they were the beings against which The Doctor had to fight to save humanity—the Smilers were simply extensions of humanity, created to aid Liz X in protecting the British people against a truth they weren’t ready for.

 

So, the Smilers were totally unnecessary, and yet they were given entire scenes in which to be menacing. It was in those scenes that the story fell apart. Why, for example, were children who did poorly in school, as we saw in the opening scene, menaced by the Smilers and sent down below? Especially since the star whale wouldn’t eat the children anyway. In their carnival-like boxes, they weren’t as frightening as everyone in the episode believed them to be, and so the scenes devoted to them took the air out of the episode, and what was supposed to be a tense environment of people living in fear was a bit laughable; especially when, in the end, the Smilers weren’t initiators, but tools of the plot.

My biggest problem with the Smilers, though, is that they represent a missed opportunity for delivering an important message. Liz X apparently had the Smilers created to maintain order and keep the people from discovering the truth. She needed two-faced automatons for this? Her Prime Minister was clearly able to follow her orders. There weren’t any human beings in her future government or law enforcement agency that would accept torture in the name of saving the country? I find that hard to believe, especially since there are plenty of people in the world today who do just that. One of the major themes of the episode seemed to be that It Is Wrong To Torture a Living Being to Save Yourself. How much more frightening would it have been to see a bunch of people being okay with that, as opposed to having inhuman Smilers doing the dirty work. This wasn’t a case of The Doctor fighting aliens to save humanity. It was a case of The Doctor saving humanity from its own sometimes brutal survival instinct. It would have been much more powerful if the Queen simply had human guards who had no problem turning a blind eye to the harm being done to the innocent star whale. But I suppose it’s easier to have children hide “behind the sofa” from a monster than it is to have them do so in the face of the dark side of humanity.

“The Beast Below” was not without its strengths. Liz X was a great character, and her struggle with doing what’s morally right versus what will save her people was really interesting. The episode was also an interesting examination of democracy, and what it takes to be a free people. Had the Smilers not undercut that, the message would have been stronger still.

It was a wonderful Amy Pond episode, as she is pretty much responsible for resolving their entire problem. She does what the best companions do. She doesn’t follow The Doctor’s orders, but instead, uses what The Doctor teaches her to draw her own conclusions and make her own decisions. However, this going into rooms she’s not supposed to enter and leaping gung-ho into dangerous situations just because she “never could resist a ‘Keep Out’ sign” business is going to get her killed one day. I hope that there is a moment sometime soon where she is forced to realize that bravery and recklessness are two different things, and that sometimes the best outcomes are the result of cautiousness. I realized something interesting about Amy in this episode. While previous companions have been ordinary women in which The Doctor saw potential, women who had to rise to the occasion and learn to be brave, Amy has come into this fully-formed. She’s raring to go, almost to a detrimental degree, and so she will have to make the opposite journey from other companions. She will have to learn to pull back. I think a lot of her recklessness comes from her trust issues; her inability or unwillingness to become attached to anything. It’s easy to be reckless and go looking for trouble when you think that trouble is all the Universe has to offer you. I look forward to seeing what happens when Amy discovers that the Universe has good to offer as well. Will she want to live for it?

I’d heard criticism of The Doctor’s reaction to Amy in this episode from eyepatch-wearers on the internet, and I don’t understand it. He got angry. He’s allowed to get angry, and in that situation, his anger was warranted. Yes, he was wrong, and Amy ended up being right, but it’s also true that she has a lot to learn. However, Amy is extremely insightful, which is one of her strengths. The Doctor and Amy have a lot to offer each other, and I think the best thing this episode had to offer was to show us that. They will always be a great team so long as they continue to be open to what they have to teach each other.

This Saturday: Winston Churchill battles the Daleks! Awesome. Doctor Who airs Saturdays at 9PM EST on BBC America!


Teresa Jusino was born on the same day that Skylab fell. Coincidence? She doesn’t think so. She is a contributor to PinkRaygun.com, a webzine examining geekery from a feminine perspective. Her work has also been seen on PopMatters.com, on the sadly-defunct literary site CentralBooking.com, edited by Kevin Smokler, and in the Elmont Life community newspaper. She is currently writing a web series for Pareidolia Films called The Pack, which is set to debut Fall 2010! Get Twitterpated with Teresa, Follow The Pack or visit her at The Teresa Jusino Experience.

20 comments
Bradley Beek
1. beeker73
I've always been mildly interested in Doctor Who, but this is the first episode I have ever seen. Considering my lack of knowledge, I have two questions.

1- Where can a guy like me find old episodes (I mean really old, as in original seasons old)?

2- Admittedly, I wasn't able to see the whole episode, but how did the Doctor manage to come to his amazingly correct conclusions once in the Tower of London? It seemed like he made some pretty big leaps. I understand how he figured out that everything hinges on the Queen erasing her memory every time she gets too suspicious, but how did he know that she does so using the box in the corner that the Doctor wasn't actually able to see the business end of but knew its purpose immediately? If I just missed some part of the episode that would explain his stupendous intuition, then feel free to ignore this question.
Ben H
2. dripgrind
This series got off to a shaky start, but "The Time of Angels" was pretty good.
Angela Korra'ti
3. annathepiper
beeker73@1: A great deal of Classic Who is available on DVD. If you're a Netflix user, you might check to see if you can rent the discs that way.
David Goldfarb
4. David_Goldfarb
The bit about solar flares making Earth temporarily inhabitable was established in the original series: see for instance "The Sontaran Experiment".

This episode was definitely weak. Just for starters, notice that most of the plot would have been short-circuited if the Doctor had happened to bring the TARDIS in from below the ship instead of above it. Also, the ending was too happy. Yes, they stopped the torture of the spacewhale (and weren't they lucky that it hadn't been, y'know, embittered by that) but the human society was still a disgusting police state that thinks it's okay to murder children for not doing well in school. It would have been nice to address that at least a little in the dénouement.
Jason Henninger
5. jasonhenninger
I agree this was not a great episode, and the Smilers were superfluous. I think the pacing was funny throughout the episode.

You wrote: "How much more frightening would it have been to see a bunch of people being okay with that." I totally agree, and it would have given more emotional resonance to the story. A Doctor Who take on The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. Instead of returning to the familiar "society kept safe and endangered simultaneously through ignorance" plot, which the show has visited several times before, as in Gridlock, the Satellite Five episodes and The Doctor's Daughter.

That aside, I'm still digging the show. I think Matt Smith is a lot of fun.
Rob Hansen
6. RobHansen
Yeah, this episode was mediocre, as I'm afraid is the next one, but episode four is terrific.

beeker73: Alas, the original run of Doctor Who (1963-89) is not available in season box sets but only as DVDs of individual stories, and only then as each one is restored. Also, a lot of b&w episodes featuring the first two Doctors were junked in the 1970s and so no longer exist. The very first three stories from 1963 ('An Unearthly Child', 'The Daleks', 'Edge of Destruction')are among those that still exist, however, and were released as the 'In the Beginning' box-set in the UK a few years back. They may have been released as individual DVDs overseas.
Chris Dearman
7. ChrisD
Ooh, tough crowd. I liked this episode, though not as much as The Eleventh Hour, I'll admit.(I only rewatched this one six times.) I thought there was a lot of stuff to like, especially any part where Amy and the Doctor are interacting. "Is this how it works,Doctor? You never interfere with people or planets unless there are children crying?" was great, as was "The next word is the scary one, you might want to get yourself in a calm place". If you didn't at least crack a smile during that section you have a heart of stone.

Ok, the Smilers. I thought they worked. They were a combination of security camera, propaganda machine and enforcer all wrapped in one creepy package. I know I would have had nightmares about them as a small child. Also it's not like the Smilers were an outside influence making people do this. The point was that people did choose to live with the Smilers as well as torture the star whale, and they chose to forget that it was their choice. Also the winders hardly seemed to be mindless drones, it appeared to be their choice to enforce the order and become what they were, half Smiler or not.

If I have a criticism of this episode it's that it felt a little rushed, another ten minutes might just have helped smooth things out a little more. Liz 10 was great, but would have been nice to have seen a bit more.

I didn't think the Doctors outburst reflected particularly well on him. Somebody has waited 14 years since they were a small child for you to return. They make their first mistake, with the best of intentions, they don't even remember doing it and apologise immediately and you tell them you're taking them straight home? I can understand he's angry but I think he owes her an apology for that at least.

Amy Pond. I liked her in Eleventh hour but by the end of this episode I think I'd fallen a little bit in love, even if she is a fictional character, is that wrong? Smart, funny, brave and able to see the good in someone who's just chewed her out rather than just moping. What's not to like?

Is she reckless? Maybe a little, but nowhere in the same league as the Doctor. (I had echoes of him pushing the blood control button in the Christmas Invasion) How she solved this problem was exactly the kind of thing the Doctor would do himself.
rhigde
8. rhigde
I was rather disappointed by this episode as well. I agree with the "Too much Moffat" sentiment - You can't have your sinister robots and your twisted government too. Why? Robots don't need a government.

The thing that bugged me was this: If all the other countries on earth had left before the solar flares cooked the place, then surely Britain would have sufficient technology to do so as well without a convenient giant gelatinous flying purple walrus. If it's the last one, then the other countries couldn't be using the same method.

I didn't much care for Liz X. She had potential, but really came off as a caricature instead of a human being.

However, I have high hopes for the next episode.
Ian Brown
9. RunawayPenguin
It wasn't a bad episode, just a bit rushed. And yea, if they had seen the rest of the outside, there wouldn't have been a story to tell. But then again, there was a child crying, and off he had to go. Which, it's nice to see the doctor with more children these days.

Favorite line of the episode would definitely have to be "No, you look Time Lord. We came first." Just reminds you that to him, and the rest of the universe, we are the aliens, no matter how much alike we may look.
rhigde
10. illukar
It struck me as a welding together of the opening of one story to the ending of another. Kids being dropped (purposelessly, as it turns out) down chutes, and smiling clown faces in a War-era appearance 'Britain' as opposed to space whale morality at the end. The all smiles ending, even though these people had been feeding the "dross" of their society to the whale (and presumably intend to continue to do so?) left a very sour taste.
rhigde
11. mndrew
Ok, I'm going to push the button that so many have pushed before. We know that DW likes to bring back favorite old foes time and again, I have no problem with this. Knowing that, why, each and every time they face the Daleks, for instance, do they "Wipe them out for good this time!"? We know they will be back again in 6 or 7 episodes, so why not forshadow this somehow? This is gotten past ridiculous and gone straight on to silly.
rhigde
12. zenspinner
I do love the show in general but I have to say, this season feels kind of rushed. Every episode except the first has gone past at a breakneck pace and there's no place to breathe, no time for quiet exposition. The Moffat episodes before were always pretty rushed but the whole season's felt that way to me. I haven't gotten to know this Doctor hardly at all, and Amy's displaying levels of knowledge about the Doctor she really ought not to have, giving that so far the series is following their adventures in almost-real time (that is, there's not a lot of stuff we know to have happened between episodes like there were the last few seasons). She barely knows him.

I just hope it slows down a little bit, gives us a chance to relax a bit, get to know this new guy a little better.
Alex Brown
13. AlexBrown
Generally speaking, I did like this ep. It wasn't the greatest ep ever written, but it was fun and enjoyable. Yes, it totally had way too many Moffat stuff, but still. It was a nice set up for Amy, as well, to chuck her into the mix without overloading her. I am DYING to know why all the humans seem to have forgotten about the annual Christmas invasions and the Daleks and "Children of Earth" and all that. I know it has something to do with that frakking crack in time. My heart wants to believe that Clone Doctor and Alternate Universe Rose are trying to break free, but my head tells me no.

Still going to hold off on most of my Amy detailed comments until more of her actions are revealed, but, basically, while I like her a whole heck of a lot, I still think she sees herself as a Rose, but the reality is she's more like a Martha. And I don't know where people keep getting the idea that the Doctor has a crush on her. She most definitely has the hots for him, but the sexual tension seems to me entirely one-sided. Which is good. After Rose and Martha I think we need to stay a little more in the Donna-friend zone (or DoctorDonna, either one).

beeker73 @ 1: Watch the old eps for the fun, but not necessarily for the mythology. A lot has altered since 1963. For instance, they ditched the Doctor's granddaughter (though I sincerely hope Moffat brings her back in some context), and originally he was human, then half-human, and now he's totally alien. None of that is really spoilerage...they just sort of become unspoken evolutions. And I think Netflix still has all 4 series up on Watch Instantly, as well as a few of the old ones.

jasonhenninger @ 5: Much more frightening, yes, but not exactly the best for children, and it still is very much a family show in the UK. Heck, the Daleks were even referenced in passing in Diana Wynne Jones' new book "Enchanted Glass". You want your miserable, rotten ending, watch the ep "Meat" from Torchwood. They did the whole thing much better, in my opinion.
Ian Gazzotti
14. Atrus
I... quite liked this episode. I didn't mind that the Smilers didn't have a huge part, they were obviously there for the kids. Guess I'm just different.
rhigde
15. Brian2
It's a matter of expectations, I suppose. This would have made a much better than possibly expected Russell Davies episode, but for Moffat it was admittedly a bit weak. It's a set of ideas that look good on paper but in the episode itself don't quite make up a story. But I think that if there'd been time for another draft, it would really have worked.

First, the Smilers. They're the image you're really left with. A Janus figure, sure, but more to the point, they're literally two-faced, the brutal, ruthless side of society coming out (towards children!) when someone transgresses the perceived needs of the state. There isn't much to eradicate that impression. After all, what images do you hop to next? For me, it's the voting buttons; do you object or do you choose to forget that a moral choice even exists? It's another binary image, and it's natural to associate one with the other. So yeah, the Smilers don't have much to do with the plot, but they have everything to do with the theme. The ideas don't quite integrate with the story, partly because the business with Liz X loses the focus, but a little rewriting might have done wonders.

Anyway, that's entirely of a piece with the Doctor's anger. He's angry, first off, because he feels Amy came close to denying him a moral choice. (After all, she herself pushed the "forget" button.) In feeling that way, he's taking a very strong position in the matters the story is about. And he's angry, I think, at the whole situation, but most of all at the things he feels he needs to do, after which, he says, he'll be the Doctor no more. He's not worried about being fair to Amy. For him just then, it's life and death, and as far as he's concerned, Amy has to be told that, and if she's going to create potentially fatal problems, she has to go.

And then there's Amy coming in and solving the problem, rather than him, because he's so caught up in forcing himself to do the unthinkable that he's stopped thinking things out. That's just a really nice touch. The Doctor has been somewhat Doctor-like, in that he's been able to stand apart from the assumptions that the culture he's stumbled across are stuck in -- either you accept death for everybody for the sake of being moral choice, or you choose to blind yourself entirely, no alternatives; but he himself has lost perspective. Amy is reminding the Doctor of his own values, the softness and childlike qualities as well as the hardness. It's like what Donna used to do, but Amy is a bit more similar to the Doctor himself.

So what in Davies' hands might have been one more facile, rather arch comment on Society is for Moffat a way of talking about what it's like to make very hard moral choices in unforgiving circumstances, and how you can't let it close you off. I can't help thinking that to a certain extent it's Moffat working out the experience of being Scottish, but who knows.
rhigde
16. Last Hussar
The problem with 'New Who' (eccleston onwards) being rushed is due to the demands of US TV.

1) It has to be 1 hour with breaks- that means 45 minutes actual, which is what we get in the UK.

2)TV audiences are not trusted to follow a 4 part plot of 4 x 30 mins (Old Who). Look at the way long series (Lost, Flashforward etc) are set up- constantly telling stuff you already know.

My prefered option would be 2 x 45min, like the current Angels one
rhigde
17. KristenM
Between The Eleventh Hour and The Beast Below, there are already a couple of themes that are jumping out at me: The Atraxi are represented by a giant, all-seeing eye, and The Smilers are again, representative of a police state. I'll be interested to see if this continues to crop up. I do agree that it would have been much more terrifying to see knowing action on the part of humanity, but I think the point is that we, as human beings, often refuse to shoulder that burden. Which is the true horror: That some will take direct, abhorrent action in service of a goal they believe to be necessary, or that millions willfully blind themselves to actions taken in the name of protecting them? In the 21st century, this is certainly a relevant theme. In the UK, the ever-present eye of Big Brother isn't even sugar-coated by an analogue to the First Amendment of the US Constitution. The Liz X sections illustrate the bridge between the Smilers/Populace:The mask and the real, action and blindness.

The Doctor's response to Amy's forgetting makes perfect sense to me, if you look back at Ten's response to Wilf in part two of The End of Time. A weary rage, the burden of having to make choices because humans do the wrong thing so very often, make mistakes, and it costs him everything. That would be understandable, don't you think?

I'm very much enjoying the contradictory moments, because I think Moffat has seeded the series with touchstones and it's both reassurance and misdirection. Magpie Electric, anyone?
rhigde
18. THE SUPREME
***SPOILER*** THE FOLLOWING EXPLANES WHY AMY AND THE REST OF HUMANITY HAVE NO MEMORY OF THE DOCTOR. WHY THE DALEKS NEEDED THE DOCTORS TESTAMONY TO CREATE NEW DALEKS AND THE GREAT EVIL OF THE TIME LORD VICTOROUS. TO BEGIN, WE NEED TO GO BACK TO THE EPISODE, THE WATERS OF MARS. IN THE EPISODE CAPTAIN BROOKE TELLS THE DOCTOR ABOUT HER TIME ON THE STOLEN EARTH, LOSING HER PARENTS AND COMING FACE TO FACE WITH A DALEK. THE DALEK LOOKS AT HER FOR A FEW MOMENTS THEN FLIES AWAY. THE DALEK DOESN'T KILL HER BECAUSE SHE IS A VITAL PART OF THE DALEK ORIGN. AT THE END OF THE EPISODE THE DOCTOR HAS SAVED THREE PEOPLE AND GADGET, ALL OF WHOM SHOULD HAVE BEEN DESTROYED ON MARS. AT THIS POINT THE DOCTOR HAS CREATED A NEW TIME LINE. IT IS THE ROBOT GADGET THAT IS IMPORTANT. IT IS THIS ROBOT THAT BECOMES THE FIRST STEP IN A NEW PATH TO THE CREATION OF THE DALEKS. LOOK AT GADGET AND SEE IN IT A VERY BASIC DALEK DESIGN. THE SINGLE EYE AND THE TWO TOOLS/WEAPONS. THE TIME LORD VICTORIOUS IS THE CREATOR OF THE DALEKS.
rhigde
19. james skliarsky
>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

I do not understand the episode : "The Beast Below"

I have two questions please may somebody answer them....

..................................................
1) What are the smilers? i would understand if they were just robots but i just got confused when there was a half human one...
..................................................
2) what did the Queen see in the glasses that the Dr didnt? the Dr looked in one glass for vibrations but the Queen had lots of them, surely she wasnt looking for vibrations. then she asks the Dr what he sees.
..................................................

ONE CONFUSED PERSON :P

Maybe i shouldnt be looking too far into it and just enjoy the episode for what it is... anyway please answer...
Paul Andinach
20. anobium
James,

My understanding is that the Smilers in the booths are just robots. The half-human one was something separate - and actually I'm not sure I understand it either.

About the glasses - the Queen explains that to the Doctor when he's visiting her room: every time she sees a glass of water, it reminds her that she still hasn't discovered the truth, so she keeps a lot of them around her to make sure that she won't forget or give up.

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