Librarian in the TARDIS, Review 11.1
Title: The Beast Below
Written by: Steven Moffat
Team TARDIS: Eleventh Doctor, Amy Pond
Adversary: Hawthorne, The Smilers (is there really an adversary for this one? It’s sort of ambiguous)
Originally Aired: April 10, 2010
Number of Episodes: 1
Synopsis (from TARDIS Wikia) -
For Amy Pond's first trip in the TARDIS, the Eleventh Doctor brings his new companion to the 33rd century, where all of Britain's citizens live onboard Starship UK, searching for a new home amongst the stars as the Earth is being roasted by solar flares. However, the Doctor soon finds something amiss onboard the vessel. The citizens appear to fear "the smiling fellows in the booths" and ignore crying children. What is going on? What secrets does Starship UK hold at its depths, and who is hiding them? Soon, the Doctor is forced to make an impossible choice. No matter what he chooses, death is the only outcome.
Everyone praises “The Eleventh Hour” as a fantastic piece of television. As well they should. Matt Smith’s first full episode as the Doctor is a roller coaster ride of timey-wimey adventure and mystery and quirkiness meant to show the audience that David Tennant and Russell T Davies may have moved on, but Doctor Who is still in excellent hands. Things may be different, but this amazing show that you fell in love with a month ago is still that same show and it’s going to take care of you through the good times and bad.
(Well, for me it was a month).
Series 5 was so very different in tone and pacing from what I’d come to expect from Doctor Who. But for this initial season under the guiding hand of Steven Moffat, a few bits of the formula carried over. The first episode was to introduce the new companion (and Doctor, in this case). The next two were a story set in the future and a story set in the past. Then a two-parter, then a couple of rompy one-offs, another two-parter, two more one-offs to ramp up to the two-part finale. That’s the big picture we’re dealing with here. Keeping that formula for Matt Smith’s first season was a great way to keep the fans comfortable while everything else around the show changed. And, to be honest, some of us newbies needed that time to process everything that had happened and get used to how Doctor Who handles change.
Going into Doctor Who, I knew that change was a huge part of the show and I accepted that - even celebrated it. Well, I knew it in theory, at least. But until I’d experienced it for myself, it was all nebulous and abstract. I didn't really get it. One of the very first things that I found very jarring, was the tone of the stories (considering how much I go on about story and plot, this should surprise precisely no one). Series 5 has often been called the “fairy-tale season.” The stories in this season certainly do have an ethereal quality to them in the settings and the music and the characters. “The Beast Below” is a wonderful example of how things had changed. Even the clues to the mysteries that set the story in motion - the water glasses, Liz X’s mask, learning the truth of Starship UK and then forgetting - these make for a tone that is so very different than anything RTD ever did, but that we got hints of in Moffat’s writing before he became showrunner. Now, I love love LOVE fairy-tales, but it wasn't something I’d encountered in Doctor Who to that point and to suddenly hit that tonal-shift nearly put me off the show entirely. And it took me a while to be okay with Matt as the Doctor.
But I will tell you precisely when I was totally on board with the Eleventh Doctor. And it wasn't in “The Eleventh Hour," like it was for a lot of other people. It was in “The Beast Below.”
It’s really down to Amy Pond. Isn't that what the companion does - helps the audience cope with change? And now that I think of it, the whole “getting us through regeneration” phase was turned around in this case. The Doctor met Amelia Pond as a seven-year-old girl, but then she changed (well, he was late) and he had to come to terms with the fact that the girl he was knew was different. In many ways, “The Eleventh Hour” is the Doctor meeting young Amelia Pond and coping with the fact that she becomes adult Amy Pond the same way the audience was coping with the fact that Matt Smith isn't David Tennant (and some of us got through it better than others).
The moment Matt Smith became the Doctor - for me - is at the end of this story. And it’s not so much what the Doctor does, because the Doctor’s mad as hell about the whole situation - that part actually kind of scared me. But then Amy turns it all around and shows that the Doctor isn't really this angry, ragey character. All because she manages to put two and two together and figure out what’s really going on with the star whale and the children. She gets Liz X to “abdicate,” thus freeing the star whale and dooming everybody onboard.
Except... nothing happens. Other than a few tremors that uncouple the main structure from the star whale, Starship UK flies on as it always has. Because, as Amy says (emphasis added) -
“The Star Whale didn't come like a miracle all those years ago. It volunteered. You didn't have to trap it or torture it. That was all just you. It came because it couldn't stand to watch your children cry. What if you were really old and really kind and alone—your whole race dead, no future. What could you do then? If you were that old and that kind, and the very last of your kind, you couldn't just stand there and watch children cry.”It is worth noting that, to this point (more or less), the Doctor’s been traveling by himself. This is the first story in a couple of years that wasn't introducing a new companion. This is the first story since 2008 that we've had a steady Team TARDIS. The Doctor’s been hopping around willy-nilly and - he’s probably forgotten how to be the Doctor. We’re often reminded (whether in so many words or just by his actions) that the Doctor needs somebody. And Amy Pond - without even meaning to - demonstrates this so beautifully, simply by acting on the things that she’s observed and putting it all together in a way only she can. She’s been building up all these hopes over the years about her “Raggedy Doctor” and she (thinks she) knows what he’d really be like. To her everlasting credit, when the Doctor demonstrates one moment of anger and weakness, Amy stands up and basically says “This is not you - this in not how you’re supposed to be” and she reminds him of who he really is.
(And I’m gonna get a little schmaltzy here for a minute, and I know that fanboys don't like to get schmaltz in their Doctor Who, but it's worth it to me and I'm going to write about it).
I've talked about how when I started watching Doctor Who, I was in a rather desperate place in my life. I didn't have anything to look forward to. No goals, nothing that was very important to me. I was just going through the motions and I didn't feel like I had anywhere to turn to. And then I discovered this nutty little British TV show with its wonderful time- traveling alien and his companions and the fantastic adventures and stories and it just set my imagination ablaze. Even now, when I get lost in those dark corners of my mind, I watch an episode or listen to a Big Finish audio or read a novel or scroll around Tumblr. And there are other shows I watch that help through the tough times, but Doctor Who was the first show that made me realize that this was something good in my life. That looking at these stories and characters and analyzing them was something my mind loved. Something that would pull me out of the bleakness and sadness I’d been pushed into - and that it wasn't something to be ashamed of or hide from the the people in my life who love and care for me but Just Don’t Get It. My stresses and heartaches would still be there when I came back out, sure, but when I had the stories to turn back to, I felt like I could deal with them better (and there really is nothing like the sheer silliness of “Doctor Who and the Pirates” when you don’t feel like there’s anything in your life to laugh about).
At this point in my Who experience, Amy’s words resonated with me. Compared to the Doctor, the oldest human would be considered a child. And, considering how high-and-mighty the ancient race of Time Lords is/was, the Doctor probably shouldn't take on human companions. He ought to be above associating with such lowly creatures. But he does. Why? To show off? Partially. To have a friend? That too. But who does he choose usually? There are so many different companions from so many different backgrounds and their reasons vary widely. And this may be a stretch in many cases - but somewhere along the line, most companions express a wish for something new and exciting. They were bored with normal life. So, they ran off with a strange alien to travel through time and space and have grand adventures. Even when the adventures over, their lives will never be the same. And honestly - neither will mine.
So, there you go. One little line at the end of, “The Beast Below” helped me realize the good things in my life. That, coupled with the “Pile of Good and Bad Things” scene from “Vincent and the Doctor” encapsulates Doctor Who for me. Why it’s so important to me and why I love it so very much. In reality, it has very little to do with science-fiction and alien planets and time-travel, even though I enjoy those things. To me, it’s about loving something simple and brilliant and finding the good in it, even amidst the bad that everyone else keeps pulling out of it to fling in your lap. And honestly, I get tired of picking out bad things and fighting over it. Sometimes, I just want things to work out perfectly and be good all the way around. And the Doctor - with consistent reminders from his companions* - does that quite well. Which makes him (and his companions) the kind of characters I want to keep me company.
To end this review, here’s a video I made a while ago when I had video-making software that actually worked (don’t know what happened). It probably says much better in 3-and-a-half minutes what I've been trying to ramble on for five paragraphs about.
Doctor Who - My Pile of Good Things from Wildcat Media on Vimeo.
*Hold onto that “consistent reminders from his companions” thought for a future review - I’m going to come back to that).
PS - Liz X is an amazing character. Before I really got on board with the River Song storyline, Liz X was the one I wished could come back more often. I still harbor a long-shot hope that she’ll turn up for another cameo one day.
Next Time, on Librarian in the TARDIS -
Bonus Review #3 - “What’s so special about the 23rd of November 1963?” “As far as I know... nothing!”
Review 10.3 - Family. It’s About Time.