Sunday, April 11, 2010

Doctor Who - The Beast Below

*Spoilers within. You have been warned.*

After introducing us to the new Doctor last week, "The Beast Below" seems to be our proper introduction to Amy Pond, the Doctor's new companion. Having decided to follow him to the farthest reaches of the universe, and to see all sorts of amazing things, Amy actually got to see something beyond Leadworth, Gloucestershire, and not only helped The Doctor but...well, we'll get to that later.

After the opening titles, The Doctor was dangling her outside of the TARDIS in the depths of space, though thanks to "expanding the oxygen", she didn't suffocate, which would have been an abrupt end to her tenure as a companion. After a few moments in which Amy was able to marvel at the cosmos, the TARDIS came across a great floating hulk of metal called Starship U.K. Apparently, due to solar flares, the Earth had been abandoned, and all its peoples had taken to the stars until they could find a new home. The people of Britain (minus the people of Scotland, who have seceded) now live together on a slightly rickety, strangely quiet spaceship.

However, this being Doctor Who, things are not entirely fine on Starship U.K. There are hundreds of 'Smilers' observing the people and controlling the transit system. Resembling a demonic version of the psychic machine from 'Big', these terrifying machines sit inside glass booths and just watch, initially. Oh, and they send people down chutes to meet 'The Beast Below'. There's an atmosphere of terror over the whole ship. All the people are strangely quiet and uninterested in their situation, and spend all their time avoiding talking about...something. All except the children, who cry silently to themselves, and inspire The Doctor to find out what exactly is going on.

The central mystery of the episode was precisely what was going on, and Steven Moffat delivered a script full of clever misdirection that kept its central mystery hidden until the very end. The show relied upon the audiences' expectations by constantly giving us just enough information so that we could come to a conclusion, but not enough that we would be able to come to the right conclusion.

When The Doctor and Amy start asking question, a man in a dark cloak calls a mysterious woman in a red cloak (Sophie Okonedo), who sits alone in a room surrounded by glasses of water. We think to ourselves: Since she controls the men in the black cloaks, and they seem to be behind everything bad that's going on, is she a villain? But then she saves The Doctor and Amy from a pair of Smilers, and reveals herself to be Elizabeth X (or Liz 10) The Queen of Britain, and she's trying to get to the bottom of things as well. So, is her government engaged in a malevolent conspiracy behind her back? Yes, but again, that's only half the facts. It turns out that the entirety of Starship U.K. is being driven by a giant space whale, and the government have been torturing it to keep it moving for centuries. What's more, every time Liz 10 has uncovered this, the realisation that her only choice is between forgetting everything or freeing the beast, dooming everyone, has forced her to make the same terrible decision over and over again, to the horror of The Doctor.

This misdirection, even down to casting Terrence Hardiman, most famous for playing The Demon Headmaster, all served to make the central mystery all the more compelling, because every few minutes something would be uncovered that challenged what we had learned earlier, forcing us to keep up with The Doctor and Amy as the wound their way through the same maze of dead ends and red herrings we were.

As I said earlier, this episode seemed to be as much an introduction to Amy Pond as anything else. Sure, we met her in The Eleventh Hour, but that story was more about The Doctor finding his feet than letting us get to know the new girl. The Beast Below, by comparison, placed a very strong emphasis on Amy's role in the show, and on the importance of her own decisions. After The Doctor convinces her to do a little bit of detective work, which amounts to following a little girl and asking her what is making her cry, Amy starts to act autonomously; she picks a lock to see what's hidden inside a tent, when she is captured and given the choice of learning the truth of what is going on or having her memory erased, she chooses to forget, and when The Doctor is on the verge of making a possibly disastrous decision (to render the giant creature driving the city "a vegetable" rather than let it suffer), she is the one who realises that the creature is a benevolent being who wants to help, and won't leave if released, and saves the day.

Moffat's script allowed us to see just what sort of companion Amy is; she's strong, she's resourceful, and she compliments The Doctor. When he is so blinded by his anger at what humanity has done, he fails to see a possible way out, and comes close to making an irreversible, unforgivable error.

Likewise, the script nicely handled the sort of routine questions that every new companion has to ask of The Doctor: are you the only Time Lord? What happened to the others? Etc. Considering that we've seen four regular companions in five years (Not counting one-offs for the various Tennant specials.) these questions are more than a little familiar now, so it was refreshing to see the show deal with them swiftly, rather than dragging them out for a half a series. It also drew a nice point of demarcation between Tennant's Doctor and Smith's Doctor; whereas Tennant might have brooded over his loneliness, or hidden the truth about why he is the Last of the Time Lords, Smith responds frankly and gets it over with. He's angry and sad and lonely and everything that the Tenth Doctor was, but number Eleven isn't going to let it get in the way of the problem at hand.

Matt Smith also got to try on a new emotion for his Doctor this week; righteous anger. Upon discovering the truth behind Starship U.K., he became so enraged that he refused to listen to anything anyone human had to say to him, leading him to almost make that tragic mistake I mentioned earlier. Now, we've seen The Doctor get angry before, but I can't think of an instance in the recent series where his anger has actually clouded his judgement. That irascibility strikes me as quite exciting, given the otherwise avuncular characteristics The Doctor has displayed so far. It takes him a step away from the omipotent 'lonely god' figure he had become, and more towards the clever, curious, but not infallible, wanderer that the character used to be. It makes The Doctor human, without taking away his essential alien-ness.

Real character development. Creepy coin-operated psychics. Another great pair of performances by Matt Smith and Karen Gillan. A Terry Gilliam-esque spaceship/country carried through the vast desolation of space by a giant whale. There was a lot to like in this episode, and the icing on the cake was the promise of WWII Daleks next week.

Rating: 8/10