Sunday, 8 June 2014

.The Beast Below written by Steven Moffatt and directed by Andrew Gunn

This story in a nutshell: The last of the Star Whales is carrying the population of the UK on its back…

Fingers and Thumbs: This was the story that attempted to cement Matt Smith's portrayal of the Doctor. You can always forgive the main man for being a little erratic in his first story, experiencing the post regeneration highs (4th, 8th, 11th) or lows (5th, 6th, 7th, 10th), It is the second story that you turn to to see how they are settling in. In some case it can be an awkward experience because the stories are filmed out of order (Four to Doomsday, and indeed The Beast Below) and in others the Doctor suddenly seems to take shape (for Tennant I would say that was Tooth and Claw but Colin Baker certainly makes a much better impression in Attack of the Cybermen over The Twin Dilemma). The eleventh Doctor is 50% there in his second story and it is a really good half measure, offering powerful hints of what is to come and a world away from the flopping armed, motor mouthed caretaker of the universe that he would transform into in his third year. Searching the stars for a new home, the Doctor sounds so proud of humanity as he can be on occasion (The Ark in Space, The Impossible Planet) but this is mostly set up for his downfall at the climax when he realises how much they have let him down in this instance. The Doctor has the audacity to suggest that he always stays out of trouble and never interferes in the affairs of others - he's a card, isn't he? Let's call the Valeyard in to discuss this one at length. The Beast Below continues Moffat's obsession with shoehorning a child into practically every Doctor Who story in his reign, trying to mould the Doctor into some kind of modern day mythological figure. Which of course is exactly what he is to millions of tiddlywinks but I would rather drop this rather crude analogy if it might we could eliminate Timmy & Mandy & Elliot & Mels & George & Stormy & Lily & Cyril & Francesca & Angie & Artie and....the whole bloody playgroup full of them from the series. He can manage to fulfil his role as a superhero to millions of children just by being one, not by having one dribble in awe of him (or in most of these cases whine and moan at him and eventually come under his spell). The Doctor considers himself to be way worse than Scottish, which I'm still not sure is a compliment or an insult. He certainly likes being independent. Where Smith comes into his element is in stressful the wide-eyed wonder at the universe and revelling i his companions awed reaction to the far-out location he has taken her too. Watch his child in a sweet shop reaction to landing on a tongue, it's blissfully childish. Drinking buddy of Henry XII, tea and scones with Liz II and knighted and exiled on the same day and unnamed hanky panky with Elizabeth I - this is a man with a long and chequered history with the Monarchy. One of the things I really admire about Doctor Who is that the show is willing to make you questions your allegiance to the Doctor on the odd occasion. It keeps things interesting from time to time to have him behave in a manner contrary to how we would expect (as Colin Baker points out ad nauseum the Doctor is not human and shouldn't be expected to uphold the same morals and values) So the fourth Doctor can walk around like a dark cloud (Horror of Fang Rock), the sixth Doctor can cyanide a man to death and make a glib comment afterwards (The Two Doctors), the seventh Doctor can wipe out an entire planet (Remembrance of the Daleks) and the tenth Doctor can play fisticuffs with fate (The Waters of Mars). I don't necessarily agree with all of these instances, but I appreciate it is an opportunity to see the Doctor in a harsher light than usual, a chance to make the audience squirm and wonder why he is being so severe. Strangely enough it doesn't sit quite as well with the eleventh Doctor, at least not at this early stage. He's being set up as a magician, a nutty professor who sorts out children's problems with a wave of his magic wand (that pretty much sums this incarnation up perfectly). When he turns on Amy and gives her the verbal equivalent of a slap around the face (with knee to the gut for good measure) for taking away his choice to rectify the situation, he is really nasty and it doesn't sit at all well with the characterisation on display elsewhere in this adventure. Appropriately Smith himself seems unsure how to play this scene, it isn't a natural reaction from the character he has been asked to play. Moffat is feeling his way in with the new Doctor and trying things out to see what sticks so you have to cut them both some slack but it's true that this is a moment of enmity that wouldn't have occurred in later seasons. He has dark moments, but none where he is quite this vicious. His rant against humanity doesn't sit right with me either, the feeling is very ninth Doctor whilst the volume is more common of the tenth. Old, kind and the last of his kind, the Doctor looks out on a starscape and ponders his near fatal mistake. Its always a big day tomorrow for him, he skips all the little ones. He ran away a long time ago.

Scots Tart: ‘I’ve been dead for centuries!’ One of the most responsible takes on Amy in her first season and this is the blissful calm before my storm of rancor hits with regards to the character. As Amy would continue throughout the season she would become more and more unlikable and selfish (the nadir of the season is Cold Blood for her character where she is simply there to provide sarcastic quips and look uninterested by the whole affair) but the first few episodes see her as Moffat envisioned her, a fairytale little girl bewitched by the Doctor. I still wonder what it would have been like had the Doctor taken Amelia on his travels instead of Amy, this kind of fairytale adventure seems ripe for a younger child to experience. Things would get dodgy when it comes to the wedding/trying to bed the Doctor/threesome in the TARDIS storyline kicked in later in the season though. Amy spends the entire adventure in her nightie which really sells the idea that this is some kind of crazy dream. I would come down hard on Amy in subsequent stories for walking away from her husband to be on the eve of their wedding but taking a step back from her responsibilities...if it came to a choice between Leadworth and the whole of time and space I think I know what I would choose. Her full name is Amelia Jessica Pond and her age is 13,006, at least for this adventure. Moffatt teases us with the continuing story of Amy with her marital status declared unknown. Whilst Amy has been shown an awful truth about the star whale her recorded message to warn the Doctor is way over the top (it feels like it has been deliberately scripted for a trailer, one of quite a few moments in The Beast Below that is guilty of that - including the pre-titles sequence). Amy stands up for herself when the Doctor throws a furious tirade of abuse in her direction, defend her choice to protect him. Whilst Amy is proven to be smart enough to spot the whales benevolence, it does occur at the Doctor's expense. I would hope that a seasoned time traveller with centuries of experience with different species would consider all the options before opting for the severe measures that he does here. Let's put it down to a spot of post-regeneration fatigue and move on. Amy admits she is running away from her wedding, I wish we could have seen this kind of emotional conflict later in the season where all we got was a horny Scot’s girl who tends to favour one of her 'boys' at the expense of the other. Here it feels like she is genuinely frightened at the prospect of committing. ‘Got you.’

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I’m the bloody Queen mate. Basically, I rule.’

The Good Stuff: Starship UK is a great fantasy idea, skyscrapers reaching out into the stars. This is the kind of striking imagery that Doctor Who owns, when you turn on on a Saturday night and know exactly what you are watching. It's not a set up that you can believe for a second in if you go searching for the details beneath its flash veneer but as a statement of where the series is going an entire country floating about in space in a technological palace is about as historic as they come. Continuing the whimsical atmosphere of The Eleventh Hour, Amy holds the Doctor's hand and floats in space just clear of the TARDIS. Back when the show first came back the Doctor could take the companion to the past and the future to awe the audience with the possibilities (Rose, Martha and Donna all followed the present, past, future pattern in their first season) but the audience is onto that trick now and Moffat has to up his game in order to astonish. Amy gliding through space achieves that in one scene where Davies would make the same point over three episodes. All the mysteries surrounding the Queen are posed in the intruiging pan across the glasses of water, the mask and the rich velvet robe. These items sum up her journey in this story from masked investigator to tortured leader. Regardless of the disparity in plotting, the illogic in behaviour and the self-contradictory nature of the setting, this is still the story that gave us a scene featuring the Doctor and his companion being vomited out of a star whales mouth. Moments like that stick in the memory long after the inconsistencies have been forgotten. Where I might have an issue with her cockney mare version of the Queen, Sophie Okenedo makes the recording of Liz X truly poignant. They should have dumped the saaarf East London accent and had her play the role with some refinement throughout. Moffat is the master of dreamlike imagery - imagine the Earth as a broiling sphere in the sky, children screaming for help and a star whale answering their call like a miracle. Amy’s realisation pieces together scattered moments through the episode very nicely (although I still wish it had been the Doctor who joined the dots). There’s a great cliffhanger featuring Churchill and the Daleks, we've not had a teaser from within a story (usually they are bolted on the end as a trailer) for an age. The last shot is both epic (the whale) and foreboding (the crack). At this point Moffat had me in the palm of his hand with regard to the cracks in the universe. I've been waiting five years for it to be adequately explained. Still waiting.

The Bad Stuff: How irritating does that rhyming little girl in the teaser want to be? I don't understand what purpose she serves but to provide a sinister counterpoint to the events taking place. Who recorded this? Why did they play it when the kid was sacrifice? Is this an especially sadistic culture? I have seen this episode countless times and I still don't understand what the deal is with the Smilers. Are they people? Are they androids? Moffat is going for effect with their rotating heads and it works for a time but much like the rest of this episode when you stop to think about it for a moment they make no sense whatsoever. This is a society that can design buttons that can have a radical effect on your memory but is completely in the dark when it comes to building an engine to free the star whale from its responsibilities. How did Liz X change from a sophisticated, well spoken Monarch to a god awful cockney stereotype? She's a gun toting, wise cracking broad - pretty much Moffat's vision for the modern woman within his tenure. Why does she stalk the streets in a Phantom-esque mask talking with a husky whisper? There are more subtle ways of going undercover that wouldn't attract so much attention. Compared to what is going on elsewhere in the season (and certainly in those following) the direction of Andrew Gunn remains slovenly and static and both this and Victory of the Daleks lack a certain polish that makes so much of the new series stand out against its classic counterparts. I can't even get my head around the politics of Starship UK and I think in my scant 45 minutes watching it I have invested more time and energy into the ins and outs of the political system than Moffat has constructing it. Is it comment on a corrupt political system, which favours the government over the royals, compelling the people to forget about the worst choices that have been made and ruling via polling booths? Am I reading to much into this? The episode as presented isn't given enough depth to suggest a greater meaning like this. If 1% of the population protest the ship would just stop…what kind of democracy is that? Surely 1% is the minority? The polling booths are an unsubtle metaphor for the government suppressing information. I love the idea of the scenes inside the whales mouth but their realisation leaves a great deal to be desired; all carrier bars covered in slime and rubbish littered about. Can you think of a less dramatic way of revealing Liz X's tenure on the throne than scanning her mask? Wasting Terrence Hardiman on a peripheral role was an error. This is an actor who could have risen to the task of playing a really memorable subtly menacing villain and the truth is I can barely remember what he did in this story. Liz X is shown to be a remarkably humanistic individual...would she really have pressed the forget button over and over or would she look for a (frankly not to hard to find) solution to their woes? After being tortured for 200 years wouldn’t the Star Whale be pissed? Are they that altruistic and understanding? This story makes mention of the Time War so oft handedly that it feels like Moffat want to remind us of its existence but not let it dominate proceedings. That's fine but he doesn't have to sound quite so apologetic about it. It would have been appallingly disrespectful but it he wanted a fresh slate than he could have shoved the whole Time War up Amy's crack (just like he did with the more ambitious alien invasions of the Davies' era that he didn't want to deal with the consequences of). Oh wait, he does do that eventually.

Result: So many unanswered questions, undeveloped characters and gaping holes in logic, this doesn’t feel like a Steven Moffat script at all after his superlative efforts in the RTD years. The Beast Below is crying out for more time and a slower pace out and explore its ideas, to fill in some very important details and iron out our understanding of this world. I love the idea of Starship UK but the realisation, both on the page and on screen, leave a lot to be desired. It needs a bigger budget to bring its ideas to life and more of a chance for its (criminally wasted) guest stars to shine. It should have been superb but its frustrating and vague, selling itself on half arsed emotional moments that prove that Moffat simply cannot pull at the heartstrings in the same way that his predecessor did. Script editor Brian Minchin needed to be much tougher on this one and should have requested a rewrite to inject more richness in the plotting and the characterisation. I get the impression that Moffat was hoping that he could present a really cool idea for a story like a magician (and let's face it something akin to New York floating on the back of a Star Whale is pretty damn cool) and hoped nobody prodded to deeply beneath the surface. Matt Smith continues to compel but isn't helped by a script that makes his Doctor look thick and reactionary and for show runner Steven Moffat this is the first sign of fatigue that would set in as he takes on a weight of responsibility with the show. The difference in what he can produce when somebody else has to worry about the everyday running of Doctor Who and he can pour his heart and soul into one script per season is a universe away from his efforts when he is both answerable for the show and also its most prolific writer. The same amount of talent that is injected into one classic tale is spread about in five or six scripts a year and the latter suffer as a result. The Beast Below is the first example but there would be plenty more to come (A Good Man Goes to War, The Doctor, The Widow & The Wardrobe, The Bells of St John, Time and the Doctor). Re-watching this it reminds me strongly of a Sylvester McCoy adventure, outwardly stylish and wanting to impress (a bit like a cute puppy jumping at your knees) but not having the narrative chops or budget to quite pull it off: 5/10

1 comment:

David Pirtle said...

I thought this one was decent, but certainly it's a mess. I'd probably let it get away with a 6. I had a hard time not laughing when the claimed lobotomizing the star whale would be the worst thing he'd ever done. This guy's committed genocide many times over. When you write that you wonder what it would have been like for Amelia to travel with the Doctor rather than Amy, I had the very same thought watching The Eleventh Hour. I'd have loved to see this fairy-tale Doc with a 7-year-old companion. Of course having a child run off with a strange man in the middle of the night might not have been the best message to send to the kids in the viewing audience, and lord knows Moffat would have gotten letters, but I still think it would have been interesting.