Monday, May 10, 2010

I Wonder If It Will Be Friends With Me?

Quite apart from the whole business of “forgetting the last five years”, it's tempting to interpret The Beast Below as a comment on a certain type of post-2005 DW story. You've got your big, impressive idea, visual moments and one-liners huddled together inside, but no engine. The answer – so obvious! - is to take whatever's lurking below the surface, that big quasi-magical lump of emotion and psychology and metaphor, and force it to do the work of the plot. Don't look too closely though, or you might notice that the whole thing's flying through space on the back of a fricking whale!

The Beast Below doesn't have quite that problem – there's an engine, but it's clapped out. Some parts are missing, others have been kludged together with second-hand materials, and the whole lot's on the verge of breaking down. It keeps making unpleasant clunking noises, although I should point out that the grinding sound is coming from my teeth. After last week's promising start, it's a let-down.

Let's start with the acting, because I've got something nice to say about that. Matt Smith's really dazzling, a great Doctor after just two episodes – strong echoes of the old black-and-white Doctors, but distinctive in his own right. Karen Gillan's great here as well, and sparks off Matt very nicely. Otherwise it's a bit ho-hum this week. Sophie Okonedo gets by as Queen Liz 10, but whose decision was it to have her use that rotten Mockney accent? (Is Starship UK ruled by the Pearly Monarchy?) Terence “Demon Headmaster” Hardiman's role, although major, is pretty nondescript. No one else sticks in my memory, apart from the grating child actor delivering the rhyming couplets on that screen in the pre-credits.

The script is just... what happened? It's Steven Moffat, for goodness' sake! Now I don't know what to believe! It wasn't all bad – there were a couple of nice lines at the start for the Doctor and Amy - but it was a near thing. Some of it was too schmaltzy for my tastes. I'm thinking particularly here of the rhyming couplets at either end of the episode, and the suggestion that miraculous, world-saving aliens are uniquely motivated by the tears of little children. (I believe babies' smiles and the first flower of spring are also efficacious in certain cases.) I even thought the incidental music was going to turn Disney at one point. Some of it was extremely ham-fisted, notably the use of the space whale (couldn't they even try to make up a silly sillier name for it?) as a metaphor for the Doctor. Let the court record show that, at the moment when Amy made an even less subtle attempt to compare the space whale to the Doctor, the jurors turned to each other and, as one, made sarcastic gesture-comments – Jo the side-to-side “trowelling it on” hand movement, I the overarm “sledgehammer”. And some of it was just bloody awful. I include all of Liz 10's dialogue under that heading.

Let's pop the hood and take a look at the story. The inhabitants of Starship UK are free to discover their nation's dark secrets whenever they like, or every five years, whichever is the more frequent, and they willingly, consistently choose to forget about it. Those who don't are immediately dropped through a hole in the floor, which is just bound to raise questions (although presumably as soon as anyone goes into a voting booth to find out the answer, they simply agree to forget it again). Why don't the voting booths offer the choice but just mindwipe everyone? Simpler system, fewer suspicious disappearances, nothing to police. Alternatively, with the system as presented, you'd end up with a society that self-selects for ignorance and low curiosity, so again nothing to police. The big question, of course, is: Why tell everyone about the big space whale at all?

And then you've got all the under-achieving schoolkids who are sent down to feed the whale, except the whale refuses to eat them, which apparently leaves them cluttering up the Demon Headmaster's brain-lasering chamber. This is a pretty remarkable situation – the secret overlord of Starship UK tripping over stupid kids every time he gets out of his chair. We might wonder why he doesn't just send them home, but perhaps if they're “too young to vote” it's because they're too young to be mindwiped. But doesn't he get sick of having more of them constantly filing into his secret lair? If he knows the whale won't dispose of them, why does he have them sent down at all? Are the education facilities really that poor? (Well, yes, apparently they're all taught by a scary fairground automaton in a box with terrible people skills. I think even present-day Britain is managing to do better than that.) It's just another completely pointless set of suspicious disappearances.

About the Smilers. ¿Que? They apparently can provide surveillance and enforcement on behalf of the Demon Headmaster, but it seems their chief purpose is just to freak people the hell out. As if the unexplained disappearances wouldn't do that anyway. It's obvious why Moffat included them – they fulfil the presumed need for a monster in each episode, and of course they look cool, the raison d'être for so many things on TV. But I'm struggling to understand what they actually do that couldn't be covered by some discreet cameras and a corps of discreet human minions, both of which the Demon Headmaster apparently also has. The Winders (but what do they wind? the Smilers?) then turn out to be “half Smiler”, whatever that means. Well, it ticks the “looks cool” box again. Doesn't actually serve any real purpose.

The big plot solution is so thunderingly obvious, it beggars belief that the Doctor could have overlooked it. It's pretty surprising that anyone on Starship UK could have missed it, come to that. “For centuries, space whales had been turning up whenever space-faring humans found themselves in trouble and helping them out. But when this one turned up in the same way exactly when we needed it, we weren't sure of its motives, so we thought we'd better drill a hole in its head and start frying its brain. And then make ourselves forget all about it.” The Demon Headmaster's had the answer staring him in the face the whole time – he can't have failed to notice how the stupid kids he keeps tripping over are playing with the space whale's deadly tentacles and not getting killed. The entire set-up of the story depends on the rank stupidity of all but the lead characters.

We'll never know why Starship UK was built without engines.

And finally, a gripe about the aftermath. Not five minutes after telling Amy that he unequivocally holds her responsible for a decision she doesn't remember making, the Doctor walks away from Starship UK leaving the Winders (and, nominally, Liz 10) still in charge. Nobody's been brought to book or held responsible for the space whale's suffering, for all the fuss the Doctor made about it. Liz 10's promised there'll be “no more secrets”, and the Doctor seems satisfied with this, but then she has the same excuse Amy had – she'd allowed herself to forget the truth (or quite possibly, she'd been intimidated into it by the Demon Headmaster and his freaky minions). The Winders don't have even this excuse, although they do still have – for all that we know – a big laser aimed at an exposed section of whale brain, and an army of sinister fairground automata. So much for “bringing down the government”, eh?

I'm actually wondering whether I should mark this episode as low as Fear Her, my only 2 out of 10 thus far. Fear Her was just bland as much as anything, whereas I find The Beast Below actively bad; and while I could at least appreciate the entertainment value of the 2008 series finale or Evolution of the Daleks as mindless spectacle, I can't even say that much about this episode. There's too much about it that irks me. I just know there's more that I've forgotten to mention above, but it looks like this post is long enough already. The only thing I see in this episode's favour is the performance of the leading duo. I'll give it 3 out of 10, subject to further consideration.


John Toon said...

And no, "The Black and White Doctors" was not a politically incorrect show that featured Billy Hartnell and Patrick Troughton with boot polish on their faces. Although I'd watch that.

Christopher Pittard said...

Oh Toon, so harsh on "The Beast Below"... have we now swapped Nu-Who places? (Wait until you see next week's Dalek episode, though...). I'm probably inclined to be generous because the tone is completely different to RTD; were you not even a little impressed by that pre-credit sequence (chock full of 'what the hell is going on here?', something we never got with Russ. Never)? Didn't you enjoy the sense of weirdness throughout? I suppose we'll have to disagree on Elizabeth X, but I thought she was hilarious. We could probably have done without the giant mouth scene, but as the point was clearly to shoot some jelly wrestling footage of Amy, I can let it go (so to speak).

I don't know... maybe I was a bit overimpressed by the restoration of a sense of mystery and a new Doctor who isn't a chummy twat?

John Toon said...

"Never", sir? Do you perhaps exaggerate for polemic effect? I mean, I don't have the time or the DVDs to check through them all, but lessee... "Bad Wolf"? Not an intriguing pre-credit sequence there?

Are you sure you're not watching through Moff-tinted spectacles?

And no, I wasn't impressed. I didn't get mystery, I got ham-bloody-fistedness. Oh no, DON'T go in the lifts, little Timmy, you KNOW what happens to children who get zero! Well of course he's going to get into the lift, he's bloody thick. And what do dangerous lifts do? I didn't get weirdness throughout, I got some admittedly atmospheric lighting and (ish) directing and an admittedly brilliant Doctor doing the best they could with a shite script. It hurts more because it's Moffat.

Incidentally, I don't disagree that Liz 10 was hilarious - with that accent and those lines, hilariously bad.

Strabec said...

It was a simple mystery story with not much substance to it. I got the feeling that Moffat was still trying to gently break fans of the RTD era into his style. Sadly Moffat's style is poles apart from RTD and therefore does not mix well. Either that or he is not that good at writing 'mindless spectical' as RTD was.

As to the Dalek one next. I was not impressed with that either. But I'll leave you to see and review it before commenting futher. Now the double episoder after that is very good!

John Toon said...

I've heard things about the next few episodes, of course - I've been spoilering like mad - but I'm trying to approach the episodes on transmission with a fresh eye. I do understand I'm in a minority on this one.

I think you're right that this is Moffat trying to cater for fans who liked RTD's (how to put it tactfully?) filler episodes. (To some extent, likewise the first episode, although with more success in my opinion.)

I wouldn't agree that the problem is a lack of substance - I can see plenty of metaphorical elements in The Beast Below, just not one single consistent metaphor (or at least, not one *primary* consistent metaphor). Is it a comment on political apathy in Britain, or on the way we turn a blind eye to those our society exploits, or those our society fails, or a straight take on vivisection (the Guardian reviewer's interpretation, absurdly over-literal if you ask me)? Does the whale stand for migrant workers, or the Doctor, or people who selflessly volunteer for the good of society and get kicked for it, or the Chinese kids who make our clothes, or is it just a MacGuffin? Is the message that we're guilty, complicit or just ignorant of society's ills - by voting, are we validating the electoral system and the things our electees do in our name, or absolving ourselves of all responsibility in the matter? All of these readings fit parts of the episode, but not all of it. At least with Gridlock you just had the world-sized motorway, and that kind of covered everything.

And that's another thing - the plot is damn-near-magically resolved by pressing a big red button. I *knew* there were more things bothering me. I'll start remembering more if I don't shut up now.

skeeter said...

You didn't mention that the Sapce Whale after being tortured for however many hundreds of years chose to not f*** off when released as he/she/it was surely entitled to.

And that laser torture device never had to have maintenance done - at which point they may notice the sudden increase in speed.

Dissatisfying but I felt worth it for some of the concepts e.g. a fleeting exploration of the downside of free will and the line "No one human is allowed to speak to me today" which proved to me that Matt Smith is capable of similar depths of emotion as his predecessors...

John Toon said...

Well, the thing is, if the space whale *had* effed off at that point, it still would've had a big hole in its skull. Its brain might have been sucked out into the icy vacuum of space or summat. In fact, the Demon Headmaster's still got it over a barrel on that score.

And yes... they couldn't sort out some proper engines, but they've got some means of generating enough power to keep a laser zapping away for hundreds of years. Hmm.