(Between the demise of the old Starburst and the birth of its new incarnation, there were fourteen Doctor Who stories broadcast that the magazine never got around to reviewing. This is one of them.)
If The Eleventh Hour was something of a false dawn for the new showrunnership, then The Beast Below must surely be where Steven Moffat makes his mark.
It starts enticingly enough, with some lovely special effects and the demonstration of just how magical flying in the TARDIS can be (we don’t often get to see these lighter moments); as Starship UK hoves into view, there’s a real sense of the new fairytale aspect of Doctor Who hard at work, and this enchanted quality continues throughout the episode. In the end, it’s what saves The Beast Below from sinking.
Starship UK is itself a strange combination of the Dickensian and of Moffat’s 1970s childhood, and into this atmosphere our time travellers wander, Amy seemingly not having had time to change out of her nightie. Hmmn. Another example of titillation and inappropriateness at the expense of realism? It’s not long before Moffat throws a googlie, though, with the Doctor exhorting his brand new companion, of just a few minutes’ standing (not long enough even to have changed out of her night-clothes), to go off and explore this future, outer space environment on her own. It’s almost a challenge to Amy to prove her companionship mettle (surely something she ought to have done before becoming a companion in the first place?), and is extremely out of character both for the Doctor and for Doctor Who. It smacks of Steven Moffat wanting to split the Doctor and Amy up and not knowing how otherwise to achieve it.
It's a portent of what’s to follow, as the next 40 minutes becomes a barrage of manufactured crisis, concocted coincidence and the kind of jumping to conclusions that can mar even the most sophisticated of set-ups. Best to turn off your brain and enjoy the look and feel of The Beast Below, and try not to think too hard about how it all fits together.
Liz Ten, for instance (if you can ignore Sophie Okonedo’s accent for a moment or two), is quite an inspired creation. Descended more from Miranda Richardson’s Queenie than she is from the real Elizabeth the first, she’s fun and funny, an extrapolation of how a Royal personage in space might actually be, and bearing an iconography borrowed from the romantic period fiction of later centuries and the other side of the Channel. She’d be quite at home in V For Vendetta – which is surely where the inspiration for her appearance and character came from. Quite an inspired creation then, albeit with the inspiration having come from elsewhere.
Speaking of which, the central mystery at the heart of The Beast Below must be disconcertingly familiar to Doctor Who fans of long-standing. The Star Whale, around which the plot revolves, (and the presence of which the pre-publicity for the series flagged up, thus undermining the creature’s eventual reveal) seems to have been borrowed from The Song of the Space Whale, a famously unproduced Pat Mills and John Wagner script that might once have been an adventure for the fourth or fifth Doctor. Mills and Wagner are presumably turning in their missing gratuities.
The Smilers are The Beast Below’s monster-of-the-week, as the publicity building up to the episode constantly reminded us. Steven Moffat’s forte lies elsewhere; the writer usually preferring to throw a concept at the screen rather than an actual monster. Small wonder that the Smilers have precious little to do, seem badly versed in the art of communication, and beg the question of how essential to the story they are at all. But Moffat knows he has to include the monsters, lest the toy manufacturers, children’s audience (and their parents, of course) and higher-ups at the BBC complain. A suitably sinister concept, then, chilling in their execution, but ultimately an unnecessary presence. They do have their moments, though, one notable instance being the Winder whose head revolves to reveal the Smiler within.
Terrence Hardiman is yet another example of a great actor being invited to take part in the series and being given little more than a cameo role, the part of Hawthorne, the chief Winder, hardly being a stretch for this or any man. It’s a shame that Moffat’s wonderfully constructed universes don’t extend to the characters that inhabit them. It’s something that he managed so well with The Empty Child, Blink and his fourth series Library episodes (all under the auspices of Russell T Davies, and yet not – we are told – under his actual care), so you do have to ponder what’s gone wrong. There’s a sense of the magician becoming so enamoured of his trickery, he’s forgotten how to sell it to an audience.
I’m not going to speak about the monumental leap of logic that Amy Pond makes in order both to re-establish her companion credentials with the Doctor and simultaneously save the day, nor about the other leaps of faith and fidelity (both in plot and character terms) the audience has to make for the climax of the story to work. Suffice it to say, if you turned off your brain when earlier advised, then the last ten minutes of The Beast Below will have been a whole lot more satisfying and enjoyable as a result.
On the other hand, if you managed to keep up with the plot and an eye on the detail, then the denouement on offer here will have seemed like nothing so much as the contents of the stomach the Doctor and Amy earlier found themselves within, hung out for inspection and found similarly fishy. But as an early example of where Steven Moffat might want to take his Doctor Who, The Beast Below actually shows an awful lot of promise. It just needed a tighter hand on the tiller, and a keener eye closer to home than its horizons (which were fine), and it could have been as brilliant and as beautiful a first instalment ‘away from home’ as was Russell T Davies’ The End of the World.
Still, we’ve got Daleks in Churchill’s back yard next week, as promised by a very Hartnell-esque cliffhanger, so things are looking up.
(If you’d like to go further into the programme’s past, I’ve collected together various reviews and articles that I’ve posted online over the years here: http://watchingdoctorwho.weebly.com/)