The Beast Below in Perspective
Adam James Cuthbert looks back over the underated Series 5 episode.
It’s been nearly four years since Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner commenced. By now, the regular readers of this site should be familiar with my views concerning his ongoing direction of the show. But don’t get the wrong impression. It’s not cynicism I feel so much as disenchantment in someone I previously esteemed as an idol: the cracks run deep in the porcelain.
With that said, I’ve taken my time to ruminate on his beginnings. I’ve always held a passion for stories like Silence in the Library and The Beast Below. Stories that cultivate in the mind, peeling back their multifaceted surface to unearth an enriching and, significantly, human sensibility: stories of love, loyalty, tragedy, and pathos. There are stories that pertain to a crisis of conscience, and the brooding ramifications on the Doctor, as well as his companions. To me, the aforementioned stories epitomise Moffat’s strengths as a writer. Both stories depict a futuristic, conventionally sci-fi, setting that is besieged/dominated by an internal menace (the Vashta Nerada spores that hatched in the books; the police state of the British government and its ubiquitous Smilers). The Doctor and his companion, assisted by guest characters knowledgeable on the respective worlds’ histories, gradually discover the mystery at the heart of the narrative: of the sacrifices involved, and a world that could be engulfed in destruction. The Doctor’s darker side also manifests, as he vocally, haughtily, challenges those who would defy him. The compassion, independence, yet the unwavering loyalty, of his companion stop him from committing an act of sacrifice (notable in Amy’s case, given her unfamiliarity with the Doctor’s mannerisms). The Doctor is melancholic, but lightens up for the next adventure. In both cases, Moffat’s trademark of experimenting with the nature of time is showcased, to considerable dramatic effect: the asynchronous timeline of River Song’s relationship with the Doctor, and Liz Ten’s 300-year reign. Crucially though, Moffat takes his time to delineate, and invest the audience within, his setting, thus enabling us to fully appreciate his high-concept ideas. Finally, through the technique of defamiliarisation – adapting everyday objects/persons and distorting our perceptions of them – Moffat demonstrates his flair for the macabre, while reassuring his audience not everything is as it seems. This aids the effect of the climatic ‘unveiling’ of events.
The Beast Below, in my experience, is often neglected by fans in appraisal of his recent work. Moffat himself has spoken of the story with regret. The purpose of this article is to justify why I believe it’s one of his best contributions by analysing the story’s content.
“Expect no love from the Beast below.”
The Beast Below depicts Starship U.K.’s journey through the stars, circa the 33rd century. The ship is divided into numerous ‘counties’ representing the erstwhile British geography. It’s revealed the ship left Earth centuries ago when solar flares threatened the planet. The ship was constructed around a Star Whale, the last of its kind. Life operates on a ‘back-to-basics’ principle: 20th and 21st iconography/trappings are evident in the background, thus situating the narrative within a retro-futuristic location (i.e. telephone boxes, bicycles, the London Underground as inspiration for the ‘Vator’ transportation systems for commuting). The backdrop is vividly adorned (eagle-eyed fans will spot Magpie’s from The Idiot’s Lantern) and populated to create a sense of bustling public life. While it’s an economical means to depict a futuristic setting, from a storytelling perspective, it’s an effective ploy to appeal to a contemporary audience via recognisable imagery. The challenge lies in perverting these images, thus enticing the audience, as we question the nature of appearances. This works manifold. At first, the Star Whale – the eponymous “beast” – appears feral and violent, an unthinking brute. It’s later revealed the creature possesses a conscience and benevolence of its own, thus condemning the humans of Starship U.K. to confront the corruption and instinctual behaviour of their past. Indeed, life on Starship U.K. is essentially a tyranny, with the public controlled by political intimidation and propaganda. For example: within the voting booths, a video, presumably archived, informs the potential voter that “if just one percent” of the population object to the Star Whale’s treatment, the project will be terminated, with “consequences for you all”. Everyone is, more or less, in-the-know, but nobody dares voice their objection, for fear under the omnipresent surveillance of the Smilers and security cameras. The monarch, Liz Ten, finds herself at the heart of a political conspiracy she herself instigated. She’s aghast at the drastic, albeit justified, actions her government took to save their people. Every decade, she follows in her own footsteps, relearning past knowledge, only to erase her own memories, in an infinite loop, her government acquiescing to her strict orders. The monarch, after all, must keep her people strong in times of duress. Sophie Okonedo gives a fine performance. While Liz does lean towards a caricature of a ‘badass’ heroine (“I’m the bloody queen, mate. Basically, I rule”) Moffat underlines her characteristics with appropriate sympathies. It’s a disconcerting yet poignant image when Liz’s recording to herself leaves her heartbroken by informing her of forgotten history, yet tries to console her.
“Nobody human has anything to say to me today!”
The Beast Below was partly written with the intention that the Doctor would be faced with an indelible failure in hindsight. Like The Waters of Mars which precedes it, The Beast Below sees the Doctor’s ego taught humility, as he recognises his shortcomings. Like the former story, The Beast Below explores the significance and necessity of a companion in the Doctor’s life, exactly to prevent him from succumbing to his darker impulses. This is dramatised through Amy’s humanity contrasting and defying his alien arrogance, bringing him back to earth. The Doctor’s disgust at the Star Whale’s treatment clouds his rational judgement to the fact the Whale wanted to help humanity. It is Amy who recognises the Star Whale spares the populace’s children, through her aplomb and perceptiveness of her surroundings. Amy’s actions in cancelling the project were arguably a calculated risk, as the Doctor later remarks, potentially endangering the lives of hundreds. Fortunately, the Star Whale is forgiving. One of the most memorable facets of the story is the poetic analogy between the Star Whale and the Doctor, with the former’s altruism reflecting and reinforcing the latter’s. This helps to ground this mercurial and fey Doctor, while establishing the show’s new core dynamic. Although I’ve recently found Moffat to misunderstand the role/nature of the companion, born of a tried-and-tested methodology, here, at least, he triumphs. Amy is well-written throughout. She’s shown to be clever, capable of deductions and learning from experience, yet impetuous, inquisitive, and compassionate, respecting alien forms of life as equals of humanity. She’s the proverbial ‘stranger in a foreign land’ but confident enough to explore and establish new friendships, illustrated in her amicability towards the young Mandy – qualities befitting the archetypal companion. Amy’s uniqueness, of course, lies in her backstory – leaving on her wedding night, afraid of commitment – which, here, is all that’s necessary. The ‘fairy-tale’ leitmotif of the series actually works favourably, via the sustained and lyrical atmosphere (as fairy-tales are associated with tales of morality, usually with an obstacle/danger to be surmounted), but also Amy’s ‘runaway bride’ journey (at this stage), in search of her own identity.
“If you were that old, and that kind, and the very last of your kind, you couldn’t just stand there and watch children cry.”
Finally, it must be said the Doctor himself is characterised somewhat generically. He’s more an amalgamation of Doctorish traits, rather than a distinguished persona within his own right. As Lance Parkin once described him: “He was an adventurer, a bookworm, a champion, a detective, an explorer […] he was youthful and he was a zealot” so this is true of his portrayal in The Beast Below. Not only does he inform Amy (and the audience) of the specifications of Starship U.K., but he’s energetic and childish. He acts as a mentor-figure, prompting Amy to make her own conclusions about their environs, and entrusting her to tasks, as they venture through the ship’s markets, but also an avuncular figure to young children, tactfully responding to Mandy’s cries when other adults overlook her. Any criticisms can be mitigated, however, due to writer and actor, at the time, still defining this Doctor’s demeanour.
In conclusion, The Beast Below is an unacknowledged masterpiece that represents the acme of Moffat’s writing. The story demonstrates an expansively rich and ambitious scope of ideas, creating a truly sophisticated sci-fi landscape. The spectrum of ideas are individually given sufficient time in which to be unpacked and detailed. This immerses the audience within a world of refreshing complexity, yet does not detract from the poetic simplicity of the characterisation.