Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Andrew Gunn
The Doctor and Amy find Starship UK, a ship transporting the survivors of Britain to a new planet.
The Beast Below is a different story from Steven Moffat’s usual writing. Time travel is not a narrative device. There are clues to what is going on, but the mystery and resolution are nowhere near as complex as the usual tale he weaves. Honestly, for Moffat, this story is quite pedestrian. He is obviously riffing on The Ark in Space and, to a lesser extent, The Ark. The Earth has been made inhospitable due to solar flares, humanity has gone in search of a new home. Rather straightforward stuff, but the twist involves the dark secret that is at the heart of the police state of Starship UK.
The police state is represented by The Smilers, part clockwork men, part humans. The role of The Smilers is observation and enforcement of rules. Honestly, we shouldn’t think about The Smilers and the police state too closely. They are representative of something being wrong, even filling the role of danger and menace, but the more you consider how Starship UK became a police state, a police state that seems to have the sole purpose of hiding the existence of the Space Whale, you start to realize how many unanswered questions and holes exist in this plot. This can be frustrating. Doctor Who has always had plot holes, but often the world-building was thorough enough that we would often turn a blind eye (or make knowing jokes). Modern Doctor Who shows itself to be just as influenced by shows like The X-Files and Buffy, The Vampire Slayer as by the classic series. Plot-arcs with the occasional alien-of-the-week stories. The new series format doesn’t easily lend itself to the world-building of the past, and in the two parters (where you genuinely have the time to do so) telling epic and cinematic stories seem to be the higher priority. So, by its very format, new Who is probably going to have plot holes because we can’t linger too long on any individual detail since doing so would kill the momentum of the 45 minutes. With this in mind, we have no choice but to ignore questions like the ones above. How did the police state come into existence? Are the people cowed by more than just forgetting? We must move forward and not concern ourselves with details such as these. We have bigger things happening. Besides, look at our wonderful production values! Doctor Who has never had that before, eh?
“And once every five years everyone chooses to forget what they’ve learned. Democracy in action.”
I have seen reviews claim this story is a critique of British politics. I can’t make any claim to this, being from the US, but I can find an alternate meaning for those of us not living in the UK. Humanity will naturally exploit that which enables it to survive or achieve a certain amount of luxury. It doesn’t matter if you take the Space Whale to be a metaphor for climate, ecological stability, foreign labor, or even constant tinkering to improve the natural world. We constantly exercise dominion over the world, often to the detriment of the world or ourselves. In the case of The Beast Below, this is Britain subduing and torturing the Space Whale to take them to a new planet, an act that the whale would gladly do without the torture. In practical terms, this could be deforestation to create places of commerce or provide lumber and resources to societies that demand it. It could represent sweat shops where our clothing is made. We turn a blind eye to what becomes the support of our society, ignoring those who suffer for our comfort and security. We choose to forget. Keep in mind that the video Amy watches reminds voters that protesting would discontinue the program, “with consequences to you all.” This is a vague threat. Yes, it could mean we all die, but it could easily mean that our way of living would be over. The announcer goes on to say that forgetting would “allow you to continue to enjoy the safety and amenities of Starship UK.” The appeal is to safety and comfort.
In the end, this episode isn’t as grandiose as many of Moffat’s other stories. It tries to establish a bit more characterization for The Doctor, much in the same way The End of the World did way back in 2005. The atmosphere in the first half is rather nice and ominous, and The Smilers look wonderful . . . when they are in their hooded, human form. The Beast Below tries to make a statement, but is vague enough that you can get multiple meanings out of it, so long as the core of “humans can do some horrible things” is still maintained. But I get the impression Moffat is still easing us in to his reign.
And it looks like the next episode involves Winston Churchill and The Daleks. Nothing could possibly go wrong there, eh?