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Saturday, 10 April 2010

Doctor Who: The Beast Below

Oh dear God... what has happened to Doctor Who? Twenty minutes in to The Beast Below I was bored out my tiny mind and wondering just what the heck was going on.

After The Doctor has recklessly endangered Amy's life by dangling her out of the TARDIS while it's in flight they land on Starship UK; a massive spaceship housing the entire population of the United Kingdom (except Scotland - who wanted their own ship) after the Earth was evacuated following the 26th Century solar flares.

There's a vast amount of running about, some utterly useless 'villains' in the shape of the Smilers (who do absolutely nothing, even when revealed to be more than just sideshow attractions) and a completely unsurprising twist that the ship has no engines because it's on the back of a giant space whale (of course, the space whale was originally due to appear in a Fifth Doctor story written by Pat Mills, of 2000AD fame, and has just been made as a Sixth Doctor audio adventure by Big Finish).

Rattling along like a funfair ghost train on its tracks, the story pelts ahead at a breakneck speed, with various images flashing by (none of which have any impact on the story or the protagonists, although an air of threat is created to give the illusion of danger), then comes crashing to a halt for a dialogue heavy-finale where the space whale/Doctor last-of-its-kind metaphor is laboured to death, The Doctor and Amy have a falling out, Amy saves the day, blah, blah, blah...

There's also a reasonably interesting - but also very heavy-handed - message about 'choosing to forget horrible choices so you can continue living the life to which you are accustomed'.

Given that The Beast Below was written by Steven Moffat himself, the story showed about as much subtly and finesse as an episode of the god-awful Australian K9 series, simply delivered with a higher production budget and more talented actors.

I really hope this is not a sign of things to come as The Beast Below made Love & Monsters and Fear Her look like high art. It's not that it was badly made (although the CGI was occasionally a bit off, we're not talking another Time-Flight here. I'd probably put it on a par with Voyage Of The Damned), but there was nothing new on display, in fact the storyline was nearly suffocating under clichés.

But its worst offense - which is pretty unforgivable as far as I'm concerned - is that it was dull, dull, dull. Everything happened so fast and loud that I just didn't care. None of the characters - including The Doctor and Amy - engaged me on any level.

Yes, it had the requisite Easter Eggs: a hoarding for Magpie Electricals (possibly as part of the 1950s revival that seemed to have overtaken the passengers' fashion) and a crack in the spaceship the same shape as the crack in Amy's wall, from The Eleventh Hour, but there was no suggestion (at this stage anyway) that these were anything more than rewards for diligent viewers who'd managed to stay awake for the 45 minute duration.

I'm sure kids will love it because it was fast, flashy and noisy, there were creepy looking creatures (even if they did nothing) and lots of shouting (which always means something is important) but there was an inescapable absence of substance and depth for anyone looking for anything more.

On the other hand, The Beast Below did offer us a nice coda with Winston Churchill (Ian McNeice) on the phone and the shadow of a dalek, giving this series, to date, quite an old school/Classic era feel as one story runs into the next.

Let's just pray to Santa that Victory Of The Daleks gets this show back on course.

25 comments:

  1. It seems as if this one hasn't been too popular! I liked it a lot; the whole point of it was to show Amy (and the audience, to a certain extent) what the Doctor is like, and they did a good job of that. All the other stuff going on was really just background to Amy and the Doctor getting to know each other.

    It wasn't an amazingly amazing episode; the Smilers were wasted, as was the Queen, and ultimately I think "Gridlock" made a lot of the same points in a better fashion, but it was nowhere near as bad as some folk are saying.

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  2. so glad im not the only one, what a load of rubbish,

    my main gripes:
    1) "Liz 10" how did she go from a quite formal regal figure in the "presentation" to a character from Oliver Twist?
    2) the "smilers", what exactly was the point?
    3) the whale, having been tortured for 200 years, suddenly decides it still wants to help? If it's intelligent enough to want to help crying children (which is a weak plot filler anyway IMO)then surely its intelligent enough to know that anyone who tortures you for 200 years isn't someone you should stick around with after they let you go

    admittedly it got better at the end once the badly written storyline was out of the way, but by that point i had just stopped caring

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  3. Kelvin - I could see what Moffat was trying to do here, but didn't see why it had to be at the cost of a good plot... for example, Severedsolo makes the point that, given the Smilers, were the visual hook used in all in the episode's promotion 'what was the point of them?' in the story?

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  4. I really liked it. The pair work well together. It reminded me of the early Ecclestones, when there was a sense of brio, before RTD weighed it down in misery (and Eastereggs). My main complaint was the deja vu feeling that it was too like early Ecclestones -- I'm all for recycling, but if Capt Jack pops up in next weeks Blitz story I'm going to complain.

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  5. Well, my son (aged 8) enjoyed it, but I don't think he understood it - some of the concepts were quite esoteric for a child, and what explanatory dialogue there was was buried under great slews of incidental music. What I can never get used to with these modern Dr Who's is how short they are; in the old days an idea like yesterday's would have been eked out over four or six weeks - it would probably have got very tedious, but at least there would have been time to explore all the ideas. These 45 minute episodes just feel to me like trailers for stories they couldn't be bothered to make.

    On the plus side, Sophie Okonedo should actually be Queen in real life.

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  6. Nick - I don't think you have any worries there. I'm pretty certain neither Captain Jack nor any other of the RTD-created characters are due to show up anytime soon; and certainly not this season.

    Philip - a very good point. If The Beast Below had been a modern two-parter (the equivalent of an old four-parter) there would have been more time to develop the story, give The Smilers some purpose etc and done away with the necessity for the simplistic, railroaded story we got.

    When the show restarted about five years ago, it took me a long-time to get my head around the idea of 45-minute episodes.

    It just didn't seem quite Doctor Who, but luckily RTD hired enough decent writers who knew the show of old, but could write for this modern/American format that - for the most part - it now works for me.

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  7. I honestly don't think the plot, meaning the missing boy, Smilers, the Queen, even the whale itself, was supposed to be the point of the episode. So yes, advertising the Smilers so heavily may have been a mistake, but that's a problem of the PR rather than the episode itself; then again, it is a children's programme, and the kids are going to more drawn in by a scary monster than they are a touchy-feely hug.

    I do agree that it could have worked better as a multi-part story, to give the other elements time to breathe, but then I keep coming back to the idea that all those other bits were not the point; they were just there to illustrate the Doctor and Amy getting to know each other, and they did that. It wasn't a brilliant episode, but I have no real complaints about it, either.

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  8. Surely the plot is always the point?

    I'd totally forgotten about the 'missing boy' (who then just turned up at the end).

    I refuse to accept that in doing an important "character development piece" all semblance of a decent, well-paced story has to be sacrificed.

    Perhaps I'm just expecting too much ;)

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  9. >I'd totally forgotten about the 'missing boy'
    >(who then just turned up at the end).

    I thought he turned up earlier when they found all the children working down below as slaves for the guys actually in charge. That's how we found out the space whale was saving the children and *still* saving them after 200 years - and thus likely to continue to save them once free. (A bit sad that the UK can't save itself and has to rely on a space whale).

    I kind of enjoyed this episode - as much as the average RTD episode anyway. In fact, my view of Moffat's two written episodes of this New New Who has been that he's very similar to Russell T Davies. Their episodes have their problems and when you look back at them they tend to be full of plot holes. But they are still generally enjoyable. A lot of style and not so much substance.

    The ending of this episode didn't work for me though. The Doctor seemed to get really uppity with Amy and, surprisingly, it was the assistant that saved the day whilst making the Doctor look a little clueless.

    I found it amusing that the Doctor told Amy that they are only there to observe and not interfere. Everywhere the Doctor goes he interferes!

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  10. Put me in the minority that liked it.

    I found it a compelling character piece and a nice slow down and get to know the characters after the fast paced of last week.

    I loved that it had homages to classic Who and even the whole leading in to the next story moment ala Hartnell worked.

    Is it the best ever? No.

    But it's still better than Fear Her.

    That said, I still find Love and Monsters a fascinating satire of Dr Who and its fandom.

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  11. Michael - actually I think, although there has been some criticism leveled at this episode, I'm pretty certain the majority of geeks kept their "Whovision goggles" on and didn't see much wrong with it ;)

    Nimbus - "I found it amusing that the Doctor told Amy that they are only there to observe and not interfere. Everywhere the Doctor goes he interferes!"

    I guess he was hoping to stop Amy from getting involved, but after 30 seasons it's a bit late to try and convince the audience that that's his M.O.

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  12. I had none of these problems with the episode, no the point isn't always about "plot", and I did like Fear Her and L&M as well.

    I'm writing a piece for Thursday that I hope will make you give it a second chance.

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  13. I always enjoy your articles and am always open to persuasion, Siskoid, but it's going to take a lot to convince me that wasn't a very weak episode.

    I have high hopes for next week though...

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  14. At this point, I'm not calling it week, I'm calling it misunderstood.

    Like much of the 7th Doctor's adventures, which this ep shared its vibe with.

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  15. I was actually thinking about it today and wondering if it's an episode I will look back on in a few years and say: "Now, I see what they were doing, it wasn't really that bad."

    But I was generally a fan of The Seventh Doctor anyway (Curse of Fenric and Ghost Light are two of my favourite episodes of the show) so maybe that will help in hindsight.

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  16. It portrayed the UK people as totally evil, then just rushed past that at the end. The whale came to help them, they imprisoned it and tortured it for 200 years to make it do what it was there to do in the first place - that's totally evil.

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  17. A fine observation, echoing Severedsolo's points further up.

    ReplyDelete
  18. A very thorough analysis, Siskoid, and it did remind me of some moments that I thought were good such as The Doctor's deduction that StarshipUK was a "police state" from seeing the little girl crying and his comment about 'not being able to call himself The Doctor anymore'; but I still think it was a tragically flawed episode - from script to pacing - that makes me wonder if I'm not going to enjoy Steven Moffat's reign as much as I'd hoped.

    When you consider the point The Commish raised, above, it just makes me think that Moffat wrote himself into a corner and couldn't come up with a believable way out.

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  19. Well I don't think the British people are evil, only desperate and misguided (how are they to know the whale is volunteering?).

    And of course, one man's "deep" is another's "hitting me over the head with it".

    That said, I do agree that the episode is flawed. It should have been twice as long to make all the pieces matter (rather than have them be one-offs that, Alice-like, are spoken to then discarded as the chapters roll on). Too big a canvas for what was needed at this point in the series, which is more character development.

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  20. You know, I think we might be approaching some kind of consensus here. Just viewed from different ends of the tolerance spectrum - Rachel always says I'm a "grumpy, old man" anyway :)

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  21. So far Moffat is 0-2 in my book. Granted, as an American, I'm extremely new to the Doctor's world, having only been introduced to The Doctor beginning with Eccleston's Ninth Doctor, who I really liked, and then Tennant's Tenth Doctor, whom I consider to be *my* doctor. Still, I was looking forward to Moffat's take on the show, yet so far, "meh."

    And thanks for mentioning the "dangling" thing. I was thinking along the same lines - the only thing between life and death for Amy at that point was The Doctor's one-handed grip on her ankle. What if the TARDIS had gone into one of its unpredictable convulsions just at that point? :)

    Perhaps because there are young children in my family, I again found the treatment of children in the opening sequence to be a bit disturbing (I wasn't crazy about young Amy Pond all alone in the house in the dead of night inviting in a strange man in "The Eleventh Hour", yes, the strange man was The Doctor, but not a great message for kids watching, I thought); and then, in the opening of The Beast Below, a little boy dropped down an elevator shaft into what looks like the gates of hell....(?) I was hoping in the new Who to see a bit less of what I'd found to be RTD's increasingly disturbing treatment of child characters....

    As for the episode's dialogue, the Queen's "...so basically, I rule...." line -- *eye roll.*

    God, I loved Doctor Who. But I may have to sit this thing out until it's time for the Twelfth Doctor to come on the scene - I know the general consensus out there is that Moffat's season so far is brilliant - but boy am I missing *my* Doctor.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Thank you for those perceptive comments, June. Wait a couple of weeks for The Time Of Angels... might be a bit scary for youngsters, but brilliant stuff the adults.

    Then again Doctor Who was always meant to be watched from behind the sofa, so you could brag to your mates at school the following Monday that you'd watched it!

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  23. Cheers, Acrobatic - I'll look forward to it, and I don't mind admitting that even as a full-grown adult I watched part of "Blink" from behind the couch. :)

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  24. My wife had to leave the room during Blink and was rather concerned that the Weeping Angels were back. She appeared to cope better this time - but then she had Twitter on her iPod to distract her!

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