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.