Last week, I never quite got around to doing meta on the new episode, but The Beast Below seems to have inspired me, so here are my thoughts:
The death of the UK Labour administration has been almost as long, protracted and painful as that of the Tenth Doctor, and Stephen Moffatt wouldn’t have required a TARDIS to work out that his first few episodes would be going head-to-head with a General Election. Elections, rather like DW reboots, rely on inducing a certain level of apparently voluntary amnesia on the part of the consumers. The new boss all too frequently turns out to resemble the old boss, and most of the best stories have been told several times before. Wisely, in The Beast Below, SM took this, rather than any more specific political issue, as his overall theme. This was his first real dystopia, and it was suitably creepy in a way that referenced both Orwell’s 1984 (which, it has often been remarked, tells you an awful lot about living in London in 1948) and more recent Nanny State initiatives telling us that we’d really rather not know what has to be done to maintain the illusion that Spaceship England is any more significant in the overall scheme of things than Airstrip One.
You could, at a pinch, draw an allegorical parallel between the Space Whale and the Bush Administration, and I suspect that the desire to subject Dubya et al to compulsory lingering torture in order to power the United Kingdom would surface in the minds of many people who would style themselves as liberals. My personal Beast Below would probably carry the words Rendition and Guantanamo Bay on its flanks. But, as I was trying to explain to my teenage son the other day as he railed at me for “condoning torture” by cherishing any lingering warmth towards the Brown/Blair administration, we’re all guilty of something, even if it’s only choosing to overlook what we don’t want to see. The point at which such behaviour becomes complicity is anyone’s guess, and there’s no way that DW is going to go there, particularly when they hope to get a larger American audience on board. Much safer to recreate an iconic, theme-park version of Tourist London and round it off with a cameo from Winston Churchill. It was cleverly done, the overall result still made you think, and it looked brilliant on the whole.
I’m beginning, I think, to understand why the POTB decided to call their reboot Series One. There were many moments in TBB that brought other New Who episodes to mind and maybe that wasn’t a bad thing. In a show with such a long history, just about everything has been done before, so it makes sense to abandon the futile attempt to tell brand new stories and, instead, concentrate on telling the old ones a different way. It pre-empts most of the invidious comparisons and is, after all, exactly what fanfic writers do all the time in their endless games of Just Change One Thing.
The introduction of a companion is a two-stage process and generally requires two episodes. First, the Doctor invades the companion’s life on Earth and she (it’s almost always a she) ends up joining him for what appears to be the ultimate gap year. Next comes the Ordeal of the Companion – the story where she’s pulled as far out of her comfort zone as it’s possible to go and realises what she’s let herself in for, ultimately proving that she has something important to offer the Doctor in the way of a second perspective, emotional support, or both.
The three examples of this from New Who have been The End of the World, Gridlock and The Fires of Pompeii. All were referenced at some point in TBB. In fact, I assumed from the trailer that we were headed for another Gridlock with a noir-ish dystopian city above and nameless horrors below. The twist, this time, was that it wasn’t the Macra downstairs; it was the Face of Boe and he was in agony. Cue for the first meaty moral dilemma of the season (and, by the way, wasn’t that a space whale we saw being carved up in the TW episode Meat?)
It’s a neat twist to have the monster as victim for once, and thanks, SM, for not including the line, “The real monsters are us!” or words to that effect. We get the message, thanks very much. The resolution of the aforementioned moral dilemma by means of a Doctor-like flash of insight from Amy was perhaps a little forced but this was, after all, the first DW episode since Turn Left that had to tell its story in a mere 45 minutes. In any case, what really matters is where the situation takes Doctor and companion on their emotional journey.
Here the new team faces a particular dilemma; the vast majority of us really don’t want any more Gallifrey grief. If we did, we’d watch the Tennant DVDs again because you won’t see it done better. However, obviously Amy’s going to ask that kind of question and, unlike Donna, she’s probably not mature enough to know when to shut up. Moff has used some clever slight of hand to get around this. Whereas the Tenth Doctor aged down in his general appearance and demeanour in the early days, it seems that Eleven was born old and the costume confirms it – maybe the tweed jacket wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Also, Amy has far more history with Eleven at this point than Rose had with Nine or Martha (or even Donna) had with Ten. These two narrative devices combine to endow Eleven with a surprising degree of authority, and I’m sure Matt Smith’s particular take on the part helps as well.
If you squint, it does seem a little unlikely that Amy would intuit quite so much about the Doctor at an early stage – she’s had a long time to work it out but absence tends to breed fantasy and have the opposite effect. The hug on what appeared to be the TARDIS bridge with a panoramic view of the city was unavoidably reminiscent of the moment of connection on a similar set in The End of the World, which set up the first intimate moment between Nine and Rose. And I doubt whether Liz Ten’s similarity (at least while masked) to the Soothsayers in The Fires of Pompeii was entirely coincidental. The parallels with Gridlock, that memorable combination of daftness and emotional open-hearts surgery from Dr Jones, has already been mentioned.
Incidentally, what a lovely moment of RTD-referencing silliness that mention of Victoria and Good Queen Bess the Shagged turned out to be – and will there be any connection between the command, “Listen” and the Great Silence mentioned last week? Certainly, if TEH concentrated on sight, then hearing seemed to be the sense in the spotlight this time around.
References to classic English fantasy continue to come thick and fast – a suitable subtitle for this outing might be Wendy Down the Rabbit Hole. I think it might be time for Moffatt to take a break from little girls in red and white now, before it starts to look creepy, but I do like the way he’s brought children right back into the centre of DW and I think it’s a shrewd move to reposition the show as fairy tale. The English record in fantasy is generally stronger than in science fiction. Play to your strengths, I say.
Finally, a lovely bit of TARDIS banter and Dalek squee – and Mark Gattiss gets his moment at long last. I can’t wait.