Dr. Who Take II: The Beast Below (A Super Quickie – Spoilers)

BBC 2010

For those who thought I was exaggerating about some of my long time Dr. Who fan companions who said they would not watch after last week’s episode, I am sad to report, I watched this week’s episode alone. That’s right, they were that turned off by last week. I, on the other hand, am semi-glad I watched again this week, because many of the things that turned me off last week were absent from this episode. As I predicted, the show’s “new” creative team knows a considerable amount about the genre and the reboot and really can give us something good if they try. That said, this episode’s plot was still re-tweaked re-hash from the last 5 years and worse, the Doctor comes across as morally reprehensible. Here’s the breakdown:

Plot:

Dr. Who and Amy Pond arrive on a ship with a mysterious and seemingly dangerous creature at the heart of the ship that the inhabitants mostly do not know about.

Sound familiar? It should. Remember when David Tennant arrived on the space ship with the alien that was eating people while they walked around in a daze? Moffat’s only new contribution to the rehash is to shift the alien’s motivation.

BBC 2010

They are also policed by creatures called The Smilers, who also seem like a mix of other villains from both Torchwood and Dr. Who past. I think they are supposed to be scary, but truthfully, how many times can we see statues move, change expression, or otherwise come to life before we point to every statue on the show and think “I bet that is an evil alien or at least made by one!”? Worse, the Smilers have me thinking of a particularly famous Buffy episode … I’m just sayin’, Whedon does it better by a mile.

(And while I am being nitpicky, didn’t the queen’s guard look like he had been shopping in Obi-Wan’s closet? But that I hope was a nod to scifi geekdom more than ripoff.)

Gender:

This episode gives us two adult female characters and one little girl, all of whom are central to the plot. The little girl is mostly absent from the episode, except as the motivation for the Doctor’s arrival and for the final plot twist. She acts as an archetype, damsel in distress, spelled out for us on more than one occasion because they writers are not content to just give us a stereotype, they have to make sure we know it is one.

The other two women, Pond and Liz 10, are strong, intelligent, self-sufficient, and essential to the plot. While Pond, fully clothed this time out, offers the heart of the show this episode, Liz 10 is all action. When the Doctor can’t seem to rescue himself or Pond from the mouth of the ship, Liz 10 comes to the rescue doing her best impression of a caped crusader meets a Martha Jones – Gwen Cooper hybrid. Both female roles are much more solid, much less stereotypical, and far more respectful overall than last week.

BBC 2010

Race:

Liz 10 is Afro-British and also the Queen of England. On the one hand, there isn’t much to say about race in this episode except for the “surprise” shift in the image of The Crown. On the other, Liz 10’s leadership oscillates amongst seemingly duped monarch, under cover spy, and morally reprehensible torturer. She is almost always clueless about her own rule, her own age, her own cabinet, etc. And while I liked her personality, I cannot decide whether her cluelessness and culpability are a comment on the promise of hope and change versus the realities of status quo or something all together more insiduous.

I feel the same ambivalence toward the white porcelain mask she wears when doing her sluething; when she is the duped Queen, she appears in her own smiling face, but when she thinks they are not looking, she dons a white mask and roams the ship. Again, the meanings are likely multiple, with both astute comment on the meaning of the British subject and problematic equations of good and evil with racial stereotype.

A similar shift happens with one of her guards who is Afro-British when he walks in and asks her to do something and then his head spins into an angry smiler when she refuses; smilers are white. The seeming reversal of race-moral character is incomplete since both versions of the guard want her to do something she does not want to do and both are in on the torture.

There is something there in the messages about race, but they are so subtle as to be innocuous. Honestly, I think we’ll have to wait for more episodes before I can really weigh in on race issues. (I have already mentioned some of the positive shifts in ethnicity issues on the show in the previous review)

Matt Smith as Dr. Who:

The good news is that Smith has already moved away from his bad Tennant impression. This means that the yelling, strutting about, and general mania are all gone from his performance. While I find his interpretation of Tennant insulting, the fact is I’m glad most of the truly annoying parts of his inaugural performance was him trying to be David and not the way he was approaching the role for good. Smith did an outstanding job of showing the more serious side of the Doctor this time out as well. His range of emotions was spot on for what his character goes through in this episode and he revealed an angry streak that could lead to some fascinating episodes in the future.

That said, the jerky movements, cocky stride, and condescension of last week seem to be core elements of Smith’s Doctor. Some of these things, like the jerky movements, are off-putting, others are a matter of taste. There have been cocky Doctors before and I have liked many of them … and, yet there is something about Smith that still does not sit right for me. All I can say is that I’ll probably like him well enough in a year or two, but I think the condescension coupled with the morally challenged nature of this doctor are really pushing the bounds of what we have all come to love about Dr. Who.

Moffat’s Doctor (or specism):

Moffat continues to flatten out the wonderful complexity of the main character or at least allow the writers and actor to do so. This episode was particularly egregious in the sense that the Doctor was willing to murder the last of a majestic species to save a few 1000 British people who were either directly involved in or complicit in the torture of an animal for 100s of years for their own benefit. Worse, he made the choice to side with abusers while being indignant about the abuse.

While, thanks to Amy, the episode ends on the moral high ground, the Doctor’s decision left him morally reprehensible in my eyes. Dr. Who has killed many creatures in his time but most of those creatures were guilty of torture, abuse, domination, or simply snacking on humans because the could. To kill a majestic creature who had been aiding the survival of the human race so that a handful of British subjects could continue to live docile lives in space is offensive at best. When one factors in that the origin story, in which the British did not move fast enough to save their own country nor take time out to determine what the creature wanted when it originally appeared, and the fact that 100s of years have passed since the torture began without a single person in power trying to figure out an alternative way to power and navigate a space ship (something everyone else in the universe manages to do just fine), the Doctor’s choice to save the humans over the space whale is incomprehensibly wrong.

We’ve just spent 4 years watching the Doctor confront the demons of being a Time Lord. From the very beginning of the reboot, we are told he is the last Time Lord because of a war that ended his race and that war has left huge scars. As the years have moved forward, the Doctor has sworn over and over again that he will not commit nor participate in genocide, and he has only gone back on his word when to do so meant preventing the genocide of another species. The space whale has killed no one, threatened no one, and does not have the ability to commit genocide, and yet Mofatt’s Doctor Who would kill the whale to save the human beings who trapped and tortured it for 100s of years, for no other reason than he likes human beings.

Gone is the Doctor who questioned his emotional and physical impact on companions, worlds, even time. In his place, a cavalier and self-righteous #11 who brazenly calls back fleeing aliens who threatened the earth just to chastise them up close and decides to kill the last of a majestic race just to save a handful of humans who tortured it shamelessly for 100s of years. Who is this man and where is his moral compass?

Final Verdict:

The look and feel of the show is still recognizable Dr. Who magic. For those who do not recognize or care about the unabashed rehashes every week, the storylines are obviously in keeping with what we have come to expect. And while there are things that still remain disconcerting, the leap from episode 1 to 2 this season has been large enough to quell my fears. I’m still watching, and if you are, please feel free to weigh in.

3 thoughts on “Dr. Who Take II: The Beast Below (A Super Quickie – Spoilers)

  1. I totally agree about The Dr actually really considering to KILL the star whale that is morally against everything that he is supposed to live for!
    My question is, why do you think the British Subjects let it happen, what made them want to forget everytime?
    I know what I think, but I want to know your opinion.

    • I think it is part of the larger colonial narrative that runs through Moffat’s work on the series as a whole. And like that larger narrative, it ultimately fails to provide a unique or decolonized perspective while wearing a thin mask of borrowed morality.

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