In Doctor Who, the second episode of each season is always a pretty significant one, especially if there’s been a recent change in the cast. Ideally, it needs to keep the momentum going that the season premiere started, show the new companion the ropes (and hopefully endear them to the audience), break in their new dynamic with the Doctor and strengthen their bond for the rest of the season. In the Davies era, “The End Of The World” and “The Fires Of Pompeii” were both pivotal episodes for giving Rose Tyler and Donna Noble depth as characters, while “The Shakespeare Code” let a lot of Martha Jones’ better qualities as a companion shine. Steven Moffat has stated that “The Beast Below” is one of his least favorite scripts, and I feel like that’s a shame. The biggest flaw in this episode is that its pacing can feel too rushed in places.
Unlike the last episode, which really benefitted from being an hour long, “The Beast Below” speeds along, jumping from plot twist to plot twist, because this story needs to unravel all the layers of a huge government conspiracy that’s been going on for years, and develop the Doctor and Amy Pond’s new relationship in a meaningful way in just forty-five minutes. It feels especially strange how the Doctor seems to know all the details of Starship UK’s stifling environment as soon as he and Amy get there, in order to move the plot forward as quickly as possible. But with that much having been said, I really like “The Beast Below”: I feel like the character-building in this episode went a long way towards making the Eleventh Doctor and Amy Pond the great duo they wound up being. If “The Eleventh Hour” introduced us to a fun group of new characters, and put all the necessary pieces in place for them to grow, “The Beast Below” re-establishes the show’s sense of morality for any newcomers, as well as what the Doctor stands for as a character: fighting injustice, helping the oppressed and spreading a little kindness to strangers along the way. Plus, the futuristic setting of this episode is really cool.
Now that his regeneration has passed and he’s settled on what kind of man he is, the Eleventh Doctor is thrilled to have a chance to show off to Amy Pond and introduce her to his way of life: there are so many different wonders of the universe he can share with a brand new set of eyes. However, he lets her know very early on that they won’t just be doing a bunch of sight-seeing as passive observers. Occasionally, they’ll step in and get involved with problems they come across: expose deception and corruption, fight injustice, and help out a few strangers. The Doctor’s willingness to get involved with conspiracies and social inequalities is what sets him apart from other time lords, who strictly adhered to their isolationist traditions. He seems to decide to give Amy a test, to see if she really has what it takes to travel with him.
As usual, the Doctor is way ahead of everyone else in this episode when it comes to noticing all the red flags the Starship UK is giving off: whether it’s the locals ignoring a child in distress, the creepy Smiler things monitoring everyone’s behavior all the time, or the ship somehow flying through space without the aid of any engines. For a supposedly free nation, futuristic Britain seems more like a dictatorship, and the Doctor is determined to get to the bottom of it. Like Nine and Ten before him, Eleven is a thrill-seeking wanderer who loves discovering new things, so he can get excited at inappropriate moments, like the scene where he and Amy wind up inside a star whale’s mouth and the Doctor couldn’t be more pleased about it. While Matt Smith turned in a very impressive performance in “The Eleventh Hour”, I think “The Beast Below” is the first major showcase for just how good of an actor he is, when all the clues of this mystery click into place for the Doctor.
Matt Smith is very good at breaking down a monologue, selling the passion and conviction and occasionally righteous indignation in the Doctor’s words. There are micro and macro examples of this scattered across his tenure, like his final confrontation with the Silence in “Day Of The Moon“, his riverside chat with Amy about why he travels in “The Power Of Three“, or his climatic speech to the Old God in “The Rings Of Akhaten“. In “The Beast Below”, we see his Doctor get well and truly pissed off for the first time, from how disgusted and disappointed he is in humanity, and it is a gripping scene. Eleven’s anger tends to burn cold and there’s usually a build-up to him losing his temper: throughout the climax, the Doctor grows more and more harsh and standoffish until he finally winds up lashing out at everyone else in the room – particularly Liz 10 and Amy, who betrayed him the most.
The Doctor decides to put a poor, abused star whale out of its misery, and he’s clearly ashamed of his decision while he’s making it, because it goes against everything he stands for, but he can’t think of a better solution to the problem without killing everyone else onboard the Starship UK. In the previous episode, Eleven was presented to us as an intelligent, hyper-competent badass who could save the world within an hour and scare off an armada. “The Beast Below” is our first major look at his personality flaws, and it certainly won’t be the last one. The Doctor lets his anger get the better of him, lets it blind him, and he almost makes a horrible mistake – a mistake that Amy prevents with her own judgment call. As Donna Noble astutely pointed out once, he is not infallible, and sometimes he needs someone to stop him or overrule him. The Doctor hasn’t traveled full-time with a friend since he lost Donna, but his heart has finally healed from that loss and he’s ready to start anew, so he accepts Amy into his life as his newest sidekick.
Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) takes her first trip through time in this episode, journeying into deep space hundreds of years into the future, to see humanity flying among the stars. All the sights and sounds of the future are a bit overwhelming to her, but she absolutely loves it and considers herself to be very lucky, getting to see something very few people ever get to see. After fourteen years, she finally gets to live out her girlhood fantasy, but pretty soon, she’s faced with the reality that the Doctor’s lifestyle won’t always be fun or easy or pretty. As the Doctor decides to start snooping around Starship UK, he encourages Amy to think like a detective, question the locals and prove that she’s companion material.
In this adventure, Amy realizes her encounter with the Doctor as a kid wasn’t a special case, and catches onto the fact that he’s very compassionate towards children, gaining some more respect for him as a result. “The Beast Below” draws attention to the fact that while the Doctor and Amy are well on their way towards becoming friends, they still don’t really know anything about each other yet. Amy asks the Doctor a few questions about his background and predictably gets mixed answers, while she’s still keeping her engagement to Rory to herself. Now that some of her excitement about leaving Leadworth is starting to calm down, reality is setting in about what she left behind. Amy obviously cares for Rory, but she has her doubts about whether or not she’s ready for a long-term commitment like marriage yet – for settling down in her tiny little village – and she’s not sure if she’s ready to face them (something she’ll finally come clean about in “Flesh And Stone“). In the meantime, she tries to help the Doctor with his case, and tries to absorb everything he has to teach her diligently.
In an interesting and impactful development, Amy actually fails her test as a potential companion early on. She learns the truth about the beast in the ship when she’s brought to a voting cubicle by some masked men, then she decides to wipe her own mind and cover it up, to spare the Doctor from having to make a sadistic choice about its welfare. This completely goes against everything he tried to teach her about personal accountability and helping people in need, and he lets her know that. In fact, she fails her test so badly, he decides to give her the Adam Mitchell treatment and take her back home, because he doesn’t feel he can trust her anymore. Imagine how crushing that news would be: Amy waited fourteen years for the Doctor to make good on his word, only for her to disappoint him and blow her chance on the first trip. Naturally, she’s devastated.
But just when it seems like this episode is going to wrap up in the most depressing way possible, Amy starts thinking like a detective and makes good use of everything she’s learned, piecing together the final clues of the beast’s true nature that even the Doctor missed. She realizes the star whale came to humanity’s aid centuries ago out of compassion for a species in need, particularly their children, the same sort of kindness she’s seen from the Doctor. Amy does the right thing, takes a gamble and gives the whale its freedom back, which it then uses to keep helping humanity on their journey (which ironically means that that whale officially has better moral character than most of the humans onboard that ship). Afterwards, Amy stands by her gut feeling that she made the right choice. She proves herself to be a person who’s capable of great insight, and someone who can learn from her mistakes. The Doctor’s faith in her is restored, their newfound friendship is cemented, and the heartwarming ending of this episode was definitely the point where I started to grow fond of Amy Pond as a character.
“The Beast Below” is set during the 29th century, during a period in the future when the Earth is being roasted by solar flares, forcing humanity to fly out among the universe in search of a new home. For the citizens of the UK, they’re all trying to avoid a terrifying secret at the heart of their starship, while also trying to avoid stepping one toe out of line, out of fear of being punished or silenced. A mysterious masked woman named Liz 10 spends her days trying to figure out what the government is keeping covered up from the public, blissfully unaware that she’s a part of it.
“The Beast Below” is a lot like “The Fires Of Pompeii” or “The Rings Of Akhaten”, in that the first thirty minutes make for a very solid and entertaining episode of Doctor Who, and then the last fifteen minutes elevate it into being something special. Steven Moffat loves a good bit of misdirection: he spent the first half of this story building up the titular beast living in the ship’s depths as some kind of ravenous threat to everyone onboard, when it actually turns out to be a victim of human cruelty. In their desperation to evacuate a dying world, Britain’s leaders captured a star whale, tortured it, built a ship around it and rode on its back into space. They’ve survived all this time from alien slave labor, an atrocity so horrific the ruling queen had to repeatedly mindwipe herself, because she couldn’t live with what they had done. Memory loss is a pretty common motif in Steven Moffat’s stories, often as a source of paranoia fuel, and here it’s used in a devastating way for this morality tale.
Like their queen, the ship’s inhabitants choose to mindwipe themselves every few years to remove the burden of that knowledge and avoid responsibility for what they’re complicit in through inaction. They basically decide to prioritize their own physical and mental well-being over the star whale’s suffering. Is it any wonder the Doctor is so furious when the truth finally comes out? Mind you, the ones who do decide to take a stand and protest are fed to the beast anyway (Liz, what the fuck?), preventing them from making any kind of difference. Russell T. Davies wrote several episodes of Doctor Who that were meant to be social commentary on how humanity can be pretty messed up sometimes (“Midnight” being the most notable example), but I believe “The Beast Below” is the first time Steven Moffat has taken a stab at such a topic, and the last act is pretty unrelenting when it comes to showing how people can turn a blind eye to someone else’s pain for years because it benefits them.
The dilemma in the third act appears to be a sadistic choice between letting the whale suffer or letting every human onboard the ship die, which Amy refuses to give into. Instead, she takes a third option and finally grants it its freedom, and from there (despite what the humans’ leaders did to it), it still decides to complete its original mission and get them all to their destination, because as Amy explains, it always had a remarkably huge heart. This final twist makes for a very poignant and heartwarming ending, and exactly the sort of one you’d expect in a Moffat episode, since he’s always championed the strength of kindness in the universe and acknowledged that it can come from some pretty unlikely places.
Andrew Gunn serves as the director for “The Beast Below”, and his lively, imaginative vision progresses the Moffat era’s new style of being darkly enchanting. There are a lot of visuals in this story that are framed incredibly well, like the tensely-shot opening scene where a little kid is dropped down an elevator shaft to die; or the gorgeous zoom-in shot after the credits, where the Doctor is letting Amy Pond float outside his TARDIS so she can admire the local star-systems; or the Doctor and Amy’s reconciliation on the starship’s observation deck, hugging in front of a beautiful vista of the cosmos. The CGI work from the Mill gets better and better all the time this season, and they produce some pretty impressive establishing shots of the Starship UK floating in space in this episode, including the final reveal of what the star whale looks like at the end.
Building off of the new direction he established for the series in “The Eleventh Hour”, you can tell Murray Gold had a lot of fun writing the score for this episode, starting with the menacing title track, “The Beast Below“, which makes good use of a malevolent choir. “Amy’s Theme” is just as euphoric and carefree as it ought to be: Amelia waited fourteen years to live out her dreams of seeing the world, and they turn out to be even better than she thought they would be. Notably, there’s a tone shift halfway through this track, with the latter half becoming a lot more ominous and foreboding. This would seem to suggest that Amy’s time in the TARDIS won’t be all fun and laughter like she imagines, and considering all the messed-up, traumatic stuff that happens to her and Rory before their time on this show is over, that’s certainly an accurate bit of foreshadowing. “A Lonely Decision“, the music from the climax, is easily the standout piece in the score: the strings and the choir in this track are so beautiful together and so uplifting, it’s an excellent example of how music can touch your heart.
In spite of the pacing issues it has, “The Beast Below” is a pretty worthy follow-up episode to “The Eleventh Hour” that did exactly what it set out to do: it made me want to see more of the Eleventh Doctor and Amy Pond as a duo, and it sent out a very nice message about what Doctor Who is all about.
* “A horse and a man, above, below. One has a plan, but both must go. Mile after mile, above, beneath. One has a smile, and one has teeth. Though the man above might say hello, expect no love from the beast below“.
* The Doctor is quite rightly outraged by the star whale’s treatment during the climax, but I feel like this episode doesn’t dwell much on how horribly human dissenters and rulebreakers were treated by Liz’s government as well. The only reason why some child murder did not go down in the first scene was because the whale refused to eat children.
* “My name is Amy Pond. When I was seven, I had an imaginary friend. Last night was the night before my wedding, and my imaginary friend came back“.
* “This is the United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland. All of it, bolted together and floating in the sky. Starship UK. It’s Britain, but metal. That’s not just a ship, that’s an idea. That’s a whole country, living and laughing and shopping. Searching the stars for a new home”.
* If you’re wondering why Amy is going on an unexpected adventure in her pajamas in this episode, it’s a nod to “Peter Pan”, one of Steven Moffat’s biggest inspirations when he was designing Amy’s relationship with the Doctor.
* “So is this how it works, Doctor? You never interfere in the affairs of other peoples or planets, unless there’s children crying?” “Yes”.
* “You sound Scottish” “I am Scottish, what’s wrong with that? Scotland’s got to be here somewhere” “No, they wanted their own ship” “Heh, good for them. Nothing changes”.
* “Here then, is the truth about Starship UK, and the price that has been paid for the safety of the British people. May God have mercy on our souls”.
* “Any time after you’re sixteen, you’re allowed to the see the film and make your choice. And then once every five years” “And once every five years, everyone chooses to forget what they’ve learned. Democracy in action”.
* “How big is this beastie? It’s gorgeous! Blimey, if this is just the mouth, I’d love to see the stomach! Though not right now”.
* “Right, then. This isn’t going to be big on dignity. Geronimo!” Stay classy, Doctor Who.
* “Liz Ten. Elizabeth the Tenth. I’m the bloody Queen, mate. Basically, I rule”.
* “Doctor, there must be something we can do, some other way” “Nobody talk to me. NOBODY HUMAN HAS ANYTHING TO SAY TO ME TODAY!!!” Hot damn, Matt.
* “The Star Whale didn’t come like a miracle all those years ago: it volunteered. You didn’t have to trap it or torture it, that was all just you. It came because it couldn’t stand to watch your children cry. What if you were really old, and really kind and alone? Your whole race dead. No future. What couldn’t you do then? 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”.
* “Amy, you could have killed everyone on this ship” “You could have killed a Star Whale” “And you saved it. I know, I know”.
* “Hey, gotcha” “Ha, gotcha” Aww…
* “Have you ever run away from something because you were scared, or not ready, or just, just because you could?” “Once, a long time ago” “What happened?” “Hello”.
* “In bed above, we’re deep asleep, while greater love lies further deep. This dream must end, this world must know, we all depend on the beast below” Aww…
* The crack in Amy’s wall turns up again, on the side of the Starship UK. Well, that doesn’t seem ominous at all.