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Review: The Beast Below

The Beast Below is the second episode in the 31st Season of Doctor Who.

Review

It’s not that I thought it was terrible – and that’s a heck of an opening, isn’t it? – but rather that I think my expectations were just too high after the great season opener. To briefly recap: the Doctor and Amy discover to their horror that rather than an engine, there’s a captive star whale driving Starship UK. The Doctor is hugely upset at having to lobotomize the creature to end its torture but luckily Amy works out the star whale actually volunteered and presses the right shiny button, saving the whale and the Doctor from making a mistake. There were many good things to enjoy in the episode but many things that irritated me, and so I’ll start with them.

There’s no doubt that this episode was meant to be the one to show Amy Pond earning her spurs; the production team even says so themselves on sister show Doctor Who Confidential which aired on BBC3 immediately after. And I think therein lies the problem, because Doctor Who isn’t about the companion, it’s about the Doctor. And so I think my unhappiness with the episode really stems from that.

Don’t get me wrong; I like Amy. I think Karen Gillan has done a very good job in a very short space of time of making Amy quirky, likeable and feisty. One of the saving graces of this episode is the quality of Gillan’s acting; she makes Amy’s sense of adventure and horror very believable. And I really don’t mind the companion saving the day occasionally, but it’s the way that it’s done that irks me here.

It’s not believable for me that the Doctor doesn’t make the same connection that Amy does. He is shown throughout the episode (and the one before it) making all kinds of bizarre connections; there’s a child crying, there’s no engine noise, everyone’s afraid… and yet we’re supposed to believe that he misses something that Amy puts together? OK, so the story tries to show the Doctor being so upset and immersed with what he’s doing that he misses seeing what Amy does – the whale tentacle playing with the children (and that sounded a lot better in my head) – but no. Just. Not. Believable.

Another non-believable moment included the Doctor blowing up at Amy for making a choice not to tell him about the whale and pressing the ‘forget’ button, including his threat to kick her off the TARDIS. Again, the context of the story should have meant that I bought the Doctor’s anger at Amy’s presumption but I didn’t – mostly, I think, due to the dialogue. And finally, taking the bronze medal in the “Most Unbelievable Moment” competition is the whole hug thing, which seems to come out of nowhere. This part was much more touching in Doctor Who Confidential when it was actually underscored with music that pulled at the heartstrings, after a discussion explaining how Amy believed in the whale because she believes in the Doctor: really, neither explanation nor heart-tugging music should be necessary to achieve an effect that it should have had in the actual episode.

The last thing that really irritated me was the fact that the Doctor and Amy split up quite soon after entering Starship UK. It would have been nice in the second episode for them to have remained together for the whole episode so we can get to know them as a team.

So, yes. Have I mentioned I was irritated?

However, despite this, there were a lot of good concepts and ideas buried in this episode. I love that the fairy-tale direction of the show continues, and especially loved the closing with the rhyme (there is something magical about rhymes told in a Scottish accent). I also loved the idea of the ship being carried on the back of a whale (a nod to Pratchett’s Discworld, maybe, regardless of animal type?), and the idea of the star whale itself. And admittedly while the morality question was front and centre, it wasn’t used as the heavy bludgeoning instrument that was Star Trek IV. I also loved the Smilers and Winders (very scary, especially if you’re a child), and I quite liked the story of Liz Ten and the way that unfolded.

The best bit for me though was probably the moment in the whale’s mouth when the Doctor realizes that they’re standing on a tongue and when the whale throws up (really great special effects as they look at the oncoming wave of bile). I’m also really enjoying Matt Smith’s take on the Doctor; the eccentricity that he’s lent to the role reminds me of some of the slightly batty but genius professors that I had at university.

And what I especially love is the whole light-hearted humor that’s coming through in this series – something that was sorely missing in the angst driven specials that preceded it. From Amy hanging out of the TARDIS to the Doctor noting that he’s off to do what’s he good at – staying out of trouble badly – to the way Smith adjusts the Doctor’s bow tie before being ejected from the whale’s mouth, there are some really lovely moments.

Overall, the episode was enjoyable entertainment and it’s not a bad second outing. It’s just after such a stellar opening to the series last time out, my expectations were very high and this just didn’t make the grade.

Previously published at Geek Speak Magazine.

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