If one of the keys to keeping Doctor Who successful is finding new ways to scare successive generations of children, “The Beast Below,” the second episode of the Steven Moffat era, has to be considered a raging success based on its opening scene alone. As schoolchildren file past an automaton teacher cast in the likeness of a creepy old carnival attraction, they’re praised and sent on their way. Unless they’re not, like our poor Timmy. Given a zero, Timmy watches as the wooden schoolteacher’s head changes from kind—if still creepy—to stern. Soon he’ll see it has a third face, assuming he got a chance to see it before falling into open space to his apparent death.
Scared yet? Like the stone creatures of “Blink,” these wooden authority figures appear at once familiar and threatening. They’re uncanny in the original sense of the word, and Moffat finds ways to make the uncanny serve as a pipeline to terror. So is it worth quibbling that they don’t really make that much sense as authority figures in the democratically chosen dystopia of “The Beast Below”? Why would Starship UK choose these particular beasties, 20th century remnants from a Blackpool tourist trap, to keep order? The only answer I can think of is that its secretly run by Steven Moffat.
In fact—spoilers ahead, of course—the whole system kind of falls apart under scrutiny. If the Starwhale refused to eat children all those years, where did all those children go? Were their memories erased before being sent back above? But didn’t everyone think them dead already? If the age-retarding technology used to keep Liz 10 (spirited guest star Sophie Okonedo of Hotel Rwanda fame) was public knowledge, wouldn’t the public demand access to it? Did everyone just agree to keep it secret, and keep it exclusively for the Queen, out of respect? Did they just forget when they hit the “forget” button?
I could go on, but I won’t because I enjoyed “The Beast Below” too much to nitpick it (too much) and I think the “forget” button can be used to explain away almost any perceived flaw in the system. It’s pretty convenient that way. So what of the rest of the episode? As has become tradition, the Doctor’s first adventure with a new companion throws said companion in the deep end. Amy begins the episode floating in nightgown-clad delight outside the TARDIS—any resemblance to Peter Pan’s Wendy is purely coincidental, I’d wager—but scarcely has time to say “fish fingers and custard” before she’s forced to think for herself in a none-too-welcoming vision of a future United Kingdom. (One that comes complete with a Northern Ireland but, pointedly, no Scotland.) Let’s pause a moment before joining her. That voiceover narration and the frequent references to her impending nuptials—and her reluctance to reveal her engagement to the Doctor—suggest Amy’s overarching story will play a bigger role than even Rose’s story in the season (seasons?) to come. Well, that and the too-thick-to-ignore chemistry between Amy and the Eleventh Doctor.
But that’s for the future. For now we get a neatly done story of a world based on a terrible, mutually agreed-upon lie. It’s a resonant metaphor for living in a world where staying sane requires ignoring the exploitation keeps things running. (Slaughterhouses or sweatshops can easily be subbed in for the Starwhale.) On the way to discovering that lie, Amy and The Doctor encounter a grungy, but functional, future-Britain that lives in terror of being cast into the belly of the… well, you know the title of the episode. The Doctor and Amy end up there themselves, in a scene that owes more than a little to the trash compactor scene from the original Star Wars. (Yes, I’m too old and stubborn to call it A New Hope.) Also on hand: Liz 10, a high-spirited monarch whose repeated, and repeatedly forgotten, refusal to abdicate the throne, free the Starwhale, and presumably destroy everyone aboard Starship UK keeps the whole place running.
I’m not sure all these elements—the Starwhale, the carnival attraction tyrants, the spunky Queen—really fit together all that well, but the episode moved along so briskly and it build to such a powerfully emotional finale, I didn’t really mind. About that last point: That last minute reprieve is something of a cop-out—and something of a Moffat trademark—but I felt swept along enough by it for the work. Sure, the Starwhale’s affection for children is an almost-maudlin touch, but I liked the parallelism between the Starwhale and the Doctor, a detail that also allowed Amy to better understand with whom she’d cast her lot.
One more thing: Is everyone else still on board with Smith and Karen Gillan? Because I sure am, particularly after that tense moment toward the end when the Doctor seemed determined to ditch his fetching new friend. He might have gone through with it, too, if Amy hadn’t seen something he couldn’t and rescued him from what looked like a Kobayashi Maru scenario. It’s becoming clearer how these two will work together. She needs him to reach the stars (and put off her wedding.) But he needs her, too, for reasons he can’t yet explain. Perhaps Winston Churchill can help him sort it out.
• Having the Doctor talk about his strict policy of non-interference then disappearing to comfort a crying child nicely established what sort of Doctor Number Eleven would be, wouldn’t it? Principled but, you know, flexible.
• That “Are you a parent?” line kind of hangs in the air, doesn’t it? Will we be seeing the Doctor’s Daughter again or is there some other mystery that needs to be addressed?
• “Dunno… I think a lot. It’s hard to keep track.”