Friday, 23 January 2015

Cautionary Whale

Doctor Who
The Beast Below
Series Five, Episode Two


You know how great The Eleventh Hour was?  How it managed to introduce characters and ideas, explain them, show them off, and all in a way that was thoroughly entertaining?  Well, you may want to wait before watching the next episode.  It's a teensy bit of a comedown.

The Beast Below does certain things that need doing for the series to work.  Fair enough.  We need to see Amy accept the "job" of companion, and understand that it's not just about hopping into the TARDIS.  We need to see why the Doctor needs a companion in the first place.  None of this is news to Doctor Who fans.

The Beast Below is preceded by a great 3-minute short.
Why not watch that 13 or so times instead?
And stuff like that can be done in an entertaining and subtle manner.  Just look at The Eleventh Hour.  This week, we're jumping through the same sort of hoops, but with nowhere near that level of subtlety.

The Beast Below is (god 'elp us) a satire, and you know what that means: Clang! Goes The Frying Pan Of Obvious.  Amy's journey from passenger to full-blown companion is obvious.  The Doctor's need for a companion is obvious.  The satire itself is obvious, but then, it's satire.  The whole point is that you're already familiar with it.

So the TARDIS arrives on the Starship UK, a floating haven for This Sceptred Isle, driven away by the super nova that roasted the Earth.  And something is rotten here.  Secrets are in the air and a child is crying, so naturally, the Doctor cannot resist helping.  Amy says so: "Is this how it is, Doctor?  You never interfere in the affairs of people or planets, unless there's children crying?"  "Yes."  Strictly speaking, that is a new spin on the Doctor's desire to help people.  Does he normally reserve his helpfulness only for adorable kiddywinks?  I thought he helped everyone.  B.A. Baracus did a lot of pro bono work for children, much to the chagrin of The A-Team.  Perhaps Steven Moffat is thinking of him.

Anyway, this child is crying because her friend is missing.  He got a bad grade at school, got frowned at by one of the robotic Smilers that oversee everything, and was dumped down a trap door, presumably to his doom.  People seem to know this sort of thing goes on, but they won't do anything about it.  The Doctor arrives and spots something odd about a glass of water: it's not vibrating, despite the gigantic ship's engines beneath.  It's up to Amy – decides the Doctor – to find out what's going on.  (Well, it's up to both of them, but he sends her on a mission of her own.  Which is odd, as one of the first things he said to Amelia last week was "Don't wander off".)

After finding herself imperilled almost immediately (cheers Doc), Amy finds herself in a voting booth.  People are told the truth about Starship UK and are given the option to Protest or Forget.  (Apparently if more than 1% hit Protest they will stop what they're doing no matter the consequences.  They say this, but Protesters are immediately flushed to their deaths, so I'm guessing that's just a fib.)  The Protest/Forget thing is about as blunt as satirical concepts get.  Insert any moral injustice here, and presto!  What Terrible People We Are.

The truth being suitably horrible, Amy hits the Forget button.  The Doctor is disappointed, and so (later on) is Amy.  Which is a bit strange.  She doesn't want to forget about it at the end of the episode, but she's exactly the same person she was at the start.  What gives?  Hey ho: the Doctor hits the Protest button, Which Tells Us What Kind Of Person He Is, and down they go to find the truth.

Dramatic chord!  The Starship UK is strapped to the back of a star whale, the last of its kind, and they are torturing it to keep it under control.  If they stop torturing it, the starship will (probably) disintegrate.  Everyone, including the Queen, knows about this and chooses to forget, because there is no alternative.  (Hold that thought.)  The Doctor decides the only humane thing to do is kill off the whale's higher brain functions so it won't feel pain but will continue to function.  (Keep holding.)  It's this, or he lets the torture carry on, or he kills the whale and dooms everybody.  It's an Impossible Choice.  We know this because he says so.  CLANG!

Aww!  The cutesy wutesy whale won't eat kids!  How nice.
So: how old is "old enough to eat"?  Does it eat teenagers?
It's aware that children are adults-in-training, right?
The trouble is, it's not as simple as that if you bother to think about it.  They need the star whale because the ship "can't fly".  Okay.  Why is that?  I found no answers in the episode.  What happened to all the other starships?  Did their engines work?  Why did all the other starships get a head start?  Can't they be contacted for parts or assistance?  Isn't anyone on Starship UK able to think of an alternative means of transport, or even research it?  Seriously, even the Doctor can't think of anything?

What about the journey, which the whale must complete at all costs?  Where are they going?  Are they going to the same place as all the other starships, or is everybody settling on their own planet?  (Given that they scythed off into separate country-ships, which is a depressingly jingoistic little side-note, that seems likely.)  And for the bonus point: why can't the Doctor bundle everyone into the TARDIS and ferry them to where they need to go?  Yeah, yeah, that's the snarky answer to everything, but it's embarrassingly applicable here.

In order for all of this to work, a great many things need to happen because they just do, okay?  Also a great many people need to have severely unenquiring minds, including the Doctor, and you.  Which is probably another casualty of the dreaded satire, but regardless, none of these things are hallmarks of a brilliant story.  When Amy finally comes to the rescue, realising (via the subtle power of flashback – always a good sign!) that the whale volunteered in the first place, it's a serious leap that no one else (including the Doctor) thought of that already.  It's just another obvious option discounted by everyone else, so that Amy and her amazing companion-ness can save the day.  Okay, you've set up your super-duper companion in the process, but it comes at the expense of everyone else's IQ.  Including Mr Alien Genius over there.  Whoops.

And we're not done being stupid.  Amy doesn't just realise that the star whale's going to keep on truckin' if they leave it alone.  She realises it because the star whale is like the Doctor.  We know this because she has a flashback about the whale and the Doctor, and then looks at the Doctor when she's talking about the whale.  "It came because it couldn't stand to watch your children cry!"  Dear god, that's clumsy, and it doesn't even work since "He only helps when children cry" is something they made up this week.  But then there's a whole other scene where Amy goes through it again for those of us with hearing difficulties.  "Very kind and very old and the very, very last.  Sound a bit familiar?"  YES AMY, FOR GOD'S SAKE YOU CAN LET IT GO NOW.

So the Amy Is A Companion stuff, which the episode is mostly about, is painful.  And so is the Doctor Needs A Companion stuff, because it means robbing him of the power to spot the bleedin' obvious (despite being capably Holmesian about those glasses of water), and the power to think about a problem for more than two minutes before picking a solution.  As for the Doctor's character, we learn that he's old and lonely and helpful, but there must have been subtler ways to tease this out of him than flashbacks and comparisons with a star whale.  All that stunning character-building finesse we saw in the "Doctor and Amelia" scenes last week has utterly disappeared.  It's a clang!-fest.

"Dave... do you think what we're doing is wrong?"
"Why do you ask?"
"Well, it's just that you've designed them with an optional Evil Face."
"That's not evil.  That's... decisive."
"And another thing: there's three of them.  How does that–"
*hits FORGET*
Matt and Karen are fine, although they're working within pretty stiff constraints.  The Doctor does a lot of high-and-mighty Impossible Choice stuff, which every Doctor must do at some point, hey ho, but there are some natty Matt Smith-y acting moments as well.  I particularly like his enthusiasm in the face of danger, and that insane "Wheee!" when he and Amy fall down the chute.

As for Amy, there's more of her wedding jitters, which pretty much define her at this point, and there's a bit where she's revealed to be, um, a talented lock-pick?  Amy spends most of it looking wide-eyed and learning Important Companion Lessons; it's more about Being A Companion than being herself.  The moment where the Doctor is 100% ready to boot her back home because she "failed" is an eyebrow-raising affront to the bond they established last week.  We just have to forget how much they mean to each other, because um.

If you take away the satire, the Important Character Points and (giggle) the Impossible Choice, there's not a lot else.  Liz 10 is fun, albeit embarrassingly one-note; "I'm the bloody Queen, mate" is a funny line.  Terence Hardiman does a good "suffering for his sins" expression, which is pretty much all his role requires.  And we have the Smilers, which are faintly creepy, albeit totally unexplained and shoehorned in there for toy sales.  (Since all the Protesters get flushed, what are they for?  Why do they need "half-human" Smilers as well?)  I would ask why getting a bad grade in school warrants flushing-to-your-doom just the same as Protesting, but that's probably part of the satire – use the whale as an excuse to weed out whomever you like.  Which suggests there's a lot more wrong here than just the whale torture, but clearly everyone's too obstinate to sort it out themselves.  Oh well, we don't go into it.  Good luck with that, guys.  *wheezing, groaning sound*

After an episode burning with new ideas, or at least a few new spins, The Beast Below comes as a ghastly shock.  You've seen it all before.  Fortunately, it shouldn't be too hard to hit the Forget button.

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