Sunday, 11 April 2010

DOCTOR WHO - THE BEAST BELOW




Spoiler warning! Press 'Read' or 'Ignore'!

After inflicting several thousand words on the return of Doctor Who upon you all last week, I honestly intended leave well alone and perhaps return for a mid season report. However like Vic and Bob, I just couldn’t let it lie! And so ignoring the rod manufacture/my own back equation, I’ve decided to review every damn episode in this season…

Last week’s opening episode, which ushered in the Moffat era, was a huge success; generally going down very well across the board and saw Matt Smith very swiftly winning the hearts of the general audience and the die hard fans alike. And this was no mean feat, considering David Tennant is pretty much tied with Tom Baker for the title of most loved incarnation of the Doctor.

And although Moffat didn’t stray too far from the templates laid down by Russell T Davies, The Eleventh Hour showed a tighter grasp of plotlines and characterisation, a better integrated sense of humour and a whole new level of brio. In short, although it didn’t deliver the darker, more adult Who some were hoping Mr Moffat to unleash, nearly everyone could agree that this was a show refreshed and reinvigorated.

But there were still many questions and expectations hanging over the next story. After all, as the old saying goes one swallow does not a summer make, but more pertinently, episodes in the previous series of new Who often varied in quality. So then, having got all those pilot episode constraints out of the way, where would Moffat take us next? Would The Beast Below see the show’s tone and style shifting further? And would Matt Smith’s performance differ now the regeneration had fully stabilised?

As it stands, a quick trawl of the reviews popping up all over the web show that this second helping seems to be somewhat more divisive. And while I wouldn’t hail this as a masterpiece, it is far from being a failure, and I can’t help feeling that some of the more negative critics out there are missing some key points.

The main bone of contention seems to be that the plot is a little thin and some are seeing this as a proof that the script demons of RTD are going to continue their reign of terror. Now I appreciate that from the trailers and teasers, a lot of folk would have been expecting something different. Having seen the sinister Smilers, I’m betting more than a few were expecting Moffat to be donning his King of the Scary crown and giving us another hunted by monsters with a catchphrase outing. And hence I completely understand why it is something of a let down to find out that the Smilers and Winders don’t actually do much in the story other than be a bit creepy.

And others have felt that the whole plot is a little too derivative for its own good. And again I can sympathise, the general set-up was very redolent of Season 3’s Gridlock and the reveal that the titular beast was a benign star whale was a little too close to the Torchwood episode Meat.

However in fairness, the whole future society living by the grace of alien monsters below is a very old saw in the science fiction toolbox. And if you look closely you can still see the words ‘Property of Herbert George Wells’ inscribed on the handle – because this is another of the myriad descendants of the Eloi/Morlock dynamics from The Time Machine. Equally one of the other big twists in The Beast Below; the ‘this has all happened before’ routine, can be found in the same toolbox.

But I’d argue this isn’t the Ghost of Thin Storylines Past manifesting once more. The key point here isn’t the originality of these tropes but what use a writer makes of them. And Moffat does build a solid enough story with them. But crucially he’s not relying on them to deliver the big punches, because it’s not the ins and outs of the storyline that are his real focus.

No, this isn’t meant be a scary tale of tunnel chases and grinning manikins – this is an episode about getting to know Amy. Yes, we were introduced to her last week, but it’s in The Beast Below we get a proper measure of who she is. In a way, this is her pilot episode. What was so great about The Eleventh Hour was that it was a story from the Doctor’s point of view, and so for the Time Lord/Companion dynamic to be properly set up, it’s only natural that Moffat would follow it up with an episode where Amy takes centre stage.

Now the Moff rattles through a good deal of the usual stuff the companion has to learn very quickly and effectively. Rather stint on the story to cover such topics as the Doctor’s species, what happened to the Time Lords, and basic time travel etiquette, he builds them into the action in a way that feels natural and doesn’t bore the audience who already knows all of these things. Similarly, the plot is structured to allow the audience to discover Amy’s real character through its events rather than clunky expository dialogues. And it’s here where the REAL plot twist occurs.

For although some are looking at this episode and seeing the same shallow treatment of big sci-fi ideas as in the Davies version of the show, I can’t help but feel that there is a crucial difference going unnoticed. And it’s a big one too – can you see the 10th Doctor as written by RTD being actually stumped by the plot threat and the companion saving the day?

What would probably happen if this was an RTD script is that Amy would mention children in passing and then Tennant yells “Yes, yes, yes you beauty, that’s it! I’m brilliant!”, burble the full solution to the dilemma like a puppy with logorrhoea, and then no doubt tow Starship UK to a safe planet with the TARDIS. And I wouldn’t rule out the Doctor actually riding the star whale like the universe’s smallest jockey in order to accomplish the happy ever after ending either…

See how that different that is from the Moffat end we actually got? Now that’s what I call a real tonal shift! And so I can easily forgive the fact that this episode wasn’t creating another addition to the Scary Monsters Hall of Fame, because what we have here is the creation of a fallible hero once again; an incarnation of the Time Lord who doesn’t have all of the answers, all of the time. And also The Beast Below presents a problem that isn’t one that can be solved with the invention of another superpower for the sonic screwdriver or some extreme extra-human cleverness on the Doctor’s part.

Although the boundless confidence and energy of the 10th Doctor was fun at the time, this tendency to omnipotence was getting all a bit much, to the point it was actually weakening the character. And Who has been down this road before, and funnily enough it was during Tennant’s rival for favourite Doctor, Tom Baker’s tenure. In the latter half of his run, the Fourth Doctor was suffering the same problem of being such a smart arse as to negate any real sense of threat in the stories. Indeed, Baker himself was so convinced of the Doctor’s god-like genius that he felt that he didn’t really need a companion anymore and mooted the idea of having a talking cabbage perched on his shoulder to provide the necessary expository questions.

But The Beast Below scales back the Lonely God motif of the RTD days, showing us a Doctor who doesn't know everything. But also it shows us why the Doctor really needs a companion - it's not because he's so powerful he needs a mortal to anchor his perspective but more simply because he needs a friend and helping hand as much as the rest of us. And just like us, no matter how intelligent or talented we are, we all need rescuing sometimes by the people closest to us.

So while the surface plot may not be dazzling, the redefinition of the character dynamics is laying the foundation for stories that won’t rely so heavily on deus ex doctor resolutions. And this is both an important change and a very welcome development.

However, debates over the plot’s strengths and weaknesses aside, what this episode did provide was excellent performances from the two leads. Karen Gillan really shone in this story, showing there is a lot of heart and intelligence to back up her feistiness. Although a typical fiery red-head would have made a good and interesting foil for the Doctor, I’m pleased that her character is turning out to have far more depth. And she can deliver the funny lines naturally too without slipping into broad comedy.

As for Matt Smith, well, he’s just magic isn’t he? His performance has lots of touches of previous Doctors – Troughton’s mischief, both Bakers’ alien quirks, Davision’s vulnerability, Pertwee’s scientist, McCoy’s twinkle and Hartnell’s irascibility – all tied up with his own weird energy. But he also brings a thoughtful gentleness underscored with a touch of melancholy. Now I really enjoyed David Tennant, but I have to say Smith has totally out Doctored him.

In conclusion, it’s all the little touches and not the big plot lines that make the difference here. And I think that The Beast Below works best when you see it as the second part of Moffat's new pilot. Now of course that leaves us back where we started the episode in a sense – waiting to see what Moffat and his merry band are going to produce when they tackle a story unfettered by character intros and bring a plot to the foregorund. And as it happens guys and gals, next week we’ve got Churchill meeting the Daleks in a Mark Gatiss script … and if that’s not an opportunity for a full blooded slice of Who adventure I don’t know what is. In Moff we trust - oh yes!

2 comments:

ennio said...

Always confused - is it 10 or 11 doctors now?

And I wonde what the significance of the rip in the 'shell' of the whale was at the end? Another episode looms methinks :)

Monkey Boy x

Jim Moon said...

The cracks in the 'shell' are the same as the cracks in Amy's bedroom in the Eleventh Hour. And they also appear on a scree n in the TARDIS at the end of that first episode too...

Matt Smith is the Eleventh Doctor!

Or is he??? I'll be looking at the many regenerations of every one's favorite Time Lord in depth in a week or so...