The Good: Morality, Dilemma, Plot progression, Performances, Moments of character
The Bad: Exploitative quality, Moments of simplicity.
The Basics: "The Beast Below" is an excellent idea where those surrounding The Doctor outshine the new Doctor!
When the new Doctor was introduced to Doctor Who fans in "The Eleventh Hour" (reviewed here!), writer Steven Moffat had a task that was actually much harder to plausibly pull off for viewers than he might have realized. The pressure was not on to redefine The Doctor, but given the space between David Tennant's Doctor losing Donna Noble and not taking a new Companion, onus on Moffat was to convince viewers that Amy Pond would be an individual The Doctor would want to spend time with, long-term. To do that, the final scene of "The Eleventh Hour" introduced the new, steampunk TARDIS operations room and almost explicitly asks "why me" for Amy Pond. "The Eleventh Hour" presented The Doctor as a funloving madman, which made it seem like Amy Pond would ground The Doctor as she was the girl who waited fourteen years for him. "The Beast Below" picks up the very night "The Eleventh Hour" left off.
"The Beast Below" serves, in many ways, to act as a pilot which will allow completely new viewers to get into Doctor Who. Amy Pond begins "The Beast Below" asking all of the key questions a young woman might if she found herself in the TARDIS, meeting The Doctor for the first time. As a result, the episode begins with a lot of exposition, which acts as a primer for Doctor Who in general, as opposed to setting up the specific plot for "The Beast Below."
Amelia Pond, still in her nightgown, interrogates The Doctor on his nature and that of the TARDIS. He does his best to give her answers and reassure her before shoving her out of the TARDIS into space, where she is able to float outside the gravity field, but within an air pocket, from the TARDIS. Making a trip to the future, the pair discovers a starship, which is essentially a giant city representing the United Kingdom after the Earth has been hit by solar flares. On the ship, a child is evaluated by a creepy machine as having received a "zero" and he disappears. His friend, Mandy, waits for him at their promised rendezvous location and when he does not arrive, her crying in public unnoticed by the adults around her draws the attention of The Doctor. When Amy meets up with Mandy, Amy goes into a blocked road and is nearly attacked by a giant scorpion tail before she is knocked out by gas from a creepy man.
While The Doctor is met with a stranger, having both realized that the starship does not seem to have a recognizable power supply, Amy wakes up in a booth where a video tells her she will learn the truth about Starship UK. Given the option, Amy erases her memory of the truth she is told and records a message to herself telling her to find The Doctor and get off the ship. The Doctor arrives and chooses a different option for him and Amy. They find themselves in the mouth of a massive beast and, after getting ejected from the creature, they are rescued by the stranger, Queen Elizabeth X. The Doctor, the Queen, Mandy, and Amy flee the Smilers and are taken to the tower, where they learn the truth about Starship UK and have to choose how to procede with their new knowledge.
"The Beast Below" continues the weird exploitation of Karen Gillan as Amy Pond. Pond was introduced as a kiss-o-gram in the first episode, which was an excuse to have her running around in a skimpy outfit which, admittedly, is hard to complain about. But in "The Beast Below," Pond is no longer in her costume; she is wearing a nightgown. This creates an odd moment that is unfortunately uncharacteristic for Amy Pond; when The Doctor points out that she is walking around the future space ship in a nightie, she freaks out, but does not close her robe. That contrast makes no in-episode sense, so it makes the use of Gillan (who is a talented actress) just feel cheap.
Beyond that, "The Beast Below" is a good alternate introduction to Doctor Who and the new Doctor. The titular creature creates a smart moral dilemma for The Doctor, though that dilemma seems very simple. The mystery to make the dilemma explicit is well-executed.
Unfortunately, while the set-up for the moral dilemma of "The Beast Below" is good, the final act reduces the character of The Doctor. The Doctor throws a temper tantrum and reduces the options for Starship UK to three. Even before Amy comes up with a third option, there are more solutions to the moral dilemma. Amy plays a hunch that is exactly the type The Doctor (in his various incarnations) does and The Doctor gets pissy. In other words, by this second episode with Matt Smith as The Doctor, the character's support mechanism outshine the protagonist.
The performances in "The Beast Below" are unremarkable until the final act and there everyone rises to the occasion. The real surprise is how the child actress Hannah Sharp plays perfectly off the virtual tentacles like a pro (getting eyelines and such correct for CG objects is something many adult actors fail to get right!).
Ultimately, "The Beast Below" is an intriguing set-up that leads to an interesting moral dilemma that is well-resolved without truly highlighting The Doctor as the great hero, intellect, or moral compass of this phase of Doctor Who.
[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Doctor Who - The Complete Fifth Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the debut season of Matt Smith as The Doctor here!
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© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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