Tuesday, 28 November 2017

The Beast Below

Chapter The 71st, in which the UK government are corrupt robots running a horribly exploitative scheme (so, not like real life at all).

The Doctor takes Amy on her first trip in the TARDIS to Starship UK in the far future. This is a vast spaceship housing the survivors of the United Kingdom travelling to a new home after the Earth was threatened by a giant mutant space goat or solar flares or something. The Doctor uses the special deduction powers he's acquired since the showrunner started simultaneously working on Sherlock and discovers that there's something wrong with this society. Helped by a schoolgirl and the queen, Liz 10, the Doctor and Amy discover that Starship UK has no engines and instead is strapped to the back of a space whale whose brain is being regularly zapped to make it fly them ever onwards. The Doctor is faced with a dilemma: free the creature, risking millions of humans, or let it carry on in its torment. Before he does anything he might regret, Amy realises that the whale is friendly and wants to help, and everyone lives happily ever after. Of course, they will be living happily ever after in a police state which feeds kids to space creatures if they use the wrong lift, and this hasn't been fixed when the Doctor leaves, as the same government and head of state are still in place. It'll probably all work itself out for the best without bloodshed, though, as that's what usually happens with repressive regimes, isn't it? Isn't it?!

Watched from the blu-ray on my ownsome. The house is very busy at the moment, and I haven't found any time to watch Doctor Who for a good bit, so grabbed a slot late on a Friday night, when everyone else was abed, for 45 minutes of early Matt Smith. Full disclosure: I had consumed wine, and continued to do so through the performance. The blu-ray box set featuring this story uniquely removes the Next Time trailers from the end of each episode, but as this story anyway ends with a whole scene as a taster for the following Dalek story, it's not much of a loss.

First-time round: 
On its first broadcast on BBC1 in Spring 2010, possibly live, probably timeshifted a few hours so  the Better Half and I could watch when the kids (at the time, there were only two) were safely asleep. No particularly strong memories. I was cautiously optimistic with the series and the new Doctor at this point (but I hadn't see the following Dalek story yet, of course).

I may be wrong, but that quite long scene at the end of The Beast Below teasing the next story suggests to me an episode that was running short. Even if it was as always scripted, it betrays a lack of confidence in the material of The Beast Below, doesn't it? It's a trifle undignified to end practically begging the audience "Yeah, okay, this was a bit nothingy, but next week there's Daleks and WW2, so come back, come back - please!". The writer Steven Moffat has subsequently expressed disappointment with this story, so he clearly has issues with it. But in and of itself it's perfectly serviceable. It may be that its position in the overall series was no longer working for Moffat, as he would from this point onwards start to tinker with series structure.

The previous showrunner had a very rigid template for the start of a season: three relatively lightweight single-episode stories, one in the past, one in the future, one contemporary, then hit them with a bigger story - two parts, big cliffhanger, develop the themes of the season, then carry on. Moffat follows this for his first series in charge, but generally dispenses with those first three lightweight stories thereafter (with some echoes of it in his final year, when he's to a certain extent trying to reboot things). Instead, he moves his episode(s) slightly more to the middle, usually, and has a second big launch point (Let's Kill Hitler, The Bells of St. John) or in later years explores a more left-field idea for a Doctor Who story (Listen, Extremis). Steven Moffat, unlike Russell T Davies, didn't want to write any simple, small stories. Which is fair enough. The Beast Below is probably his only one, I'd say: it doesn't kick off or conclude a series, has no tinsel, and it isn't trying to push at the boundaries of what Who can be. It just sets up the Doctor and Amy, how they operate on an away mission, as it were, and restates the Doctor's mission through Amy's eyes.

It's probably a little too simple. Take out the faffing about in the TARDIS at the beginning and end, and the story has been and gone in not more than 35 minutes. Still, Moffat crams in lots of ideas and reversals in this short duration. But the dramatic question of how to defeat the bad guy and solve the dilemma is that it isn't a bad guy and you don't have to solve the dilemma. It's a little too easy. The real bad guys don't really get any comeuppance either, which is not satisfying as they are quite bad. The Smilers on a conceptual and visual level - a representation of oppressive authority as cheap, old arcade automata - are very strong. One of my earliest memories is of a terrifying laughing clown in a similar booth in Weston Super Mare, and having shared this memory with people over the years and found similar devices - or in one case possibly even the same device - frightened them too, I attest that Moffat is again being successful at harnessing the power of childhood creep-outs for dramatic value.

Smith is great, absolutely hitting the ground running; the art direction excels too, with its tourist shop meets Terry Gilliam's Brazil approach. There's some great lines, like the Doctor's description of what he does "Stay out of trouble... badly" and many others. But how the little girl reading the poem at the beginning is supposed to fit into things is not clear, and those black scorpion-like prongs that spring out all over the starship are out of scale for the beast as we eventually discover it, and don't look anything like any bit of a whale.

Both stories are Steven Moffat showrunner era future-set stories where innocents are snared into exploitation on an intergalactic scale. At the beginning of both there is a focus on water (although it's in drinking glasses in The Beast Below). And both have a proposition meaning 'lower than' in their titles.

Deeper Thoughts:
I can't not write about Brexit again, really, can I?.  As well as a joke about Scottish independence, The Beast Below gives us another  prescient metaphor: the UK breaks away from other nations, thinking it can go it alone, but fumbles it: essential parts of its infrastructure can't be funded, and things risk coming to a standstill. The government becomes increasingly authoritative while the head of state turns a blind eye; they just about keep things running but only with a fearful populace in utter denial, and an underlying, barely visible exploitation at the base of everything (of an immigrant creature, it should be noted, but I won't get into that today). This is all supported by referenda made pointless because heavy-handed propaganda (dubious in its veracity) persuades a majority of the voters that they have no choice. Anyone with an opinion against the will of this majority is dismissed.

Does this remind one of anything? Obviously, Remainers aren't fed to ravenous space beasties, but that's only because there are no ravenous space beasties to hand: if there were, the Daily Mail would be regularly calling for 'traitors' to be fed to them on their front page, you can bet. How did Steven Moffat know?! The story was written and aired during the fag end of the New Labour years, shortly before the hung parliament and the formation of a coalition which unseated Gordon Brown. No one, literally no one, predicted the events of Brexit on the night before the referendum (Nigel Farage was as shocked as anyone the next morning), so how does this look like a satire of the impacts of Brexit six years before that vote?

The terrible truth that might explain this is that the UK's bumbling, fumbling approach, often also corrupt and costly to human life and happiness, my country's way of ploughing on regardless and not accepting reality, is hard-wired into us. It doesn't matter which party or figurehead is in place, the impact will still be the same, and the satire will still resonate. The Beast Below tells the story of the UK as a faded power, long past its glory, wallowing in nostalgic imagery that's chipped and worn. I can't with honest heart say that isn't an accurate picture. Is there an answer? Is Brexit a no-win situation, like the 'which button to press' dilemma presented in The Beast Below? How long can we keep going before we have to realise there's no engine and we need to eject? Time will tell. It usually does.

In Summary:
Starship OK (but only OK).

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