Doctor Who – The Beast Below

Weird, weird episode. Mostly — but not always — in a good way.

The Good

Matt Smith is perfectly cast in the role, and is delivering a truly eccentric lead performance. I’m slightly less won over by his more ‘dramatic’ moments and he doesn’t really sell me on the Time War, but for the most part I love love love his interpretation of the Doctor. While he still has recognisable elements of Tennant’s and Eccleston’s Doctors, the combination of Moffat’s dialogue and Smith’s performance makes him seem genuinely off-kilter in a way we haven’t really seen since Tom Baker. He feels like a fusion of classic Who and new Who. What I most like is that he’s at a tangent to everyone else in the room — from his observations to Amy that something is amiss, to the glass of water/missing fish, to the entire ‘tongue’ scene (that just sounds wrong). Great comedic tension, too, in the way the Doctor presents himself to Amy as an impartial observer.

Amy gets to demonstrate once again a wilful disregard for authority and her own safety, gets to argue with the Doctor to the point where she’s fired as his companion, and gets to save the day. Not bad for episode 2. Her ambivalence about her wedding is nicely played and I’m much clearer on where she stands emotionally.

I love the slightly fever-dream quality to the story and setting. The whole thing feels like a trip to Faerie more than it does the far future (something that’s a weakness as well as a strength). This isn’t quite ‘Paradise Towers’ (thank god) but it’s as bizarre as any setting we’ve seen on the new Who since probably ‘Gridlock’ with its wildly unconvincing satirical version of motorway congestion. Here the satire is on politics, but it’s just as broad — albeit amusing and unsettling in equal measure. I love all the voting booth stuff though.

I like the hook for next week. For some reason having stories run together appeals to me.

Whatever else can be said about it, this episode establishes a confidently weird tone and sets itself apart from a lot of the conventionality and tiredness that’s beset the series recently. Very welcome to see the show taking a few risks.

The Bad

It’s really pretty obvious what’s going on from quite an early stage, which was fine last week but less so this week. Fortunately there remains much to entertain, but still…

The basic conceit of the captive space whale underpinning the story is quite contrived, and I can’t quite decide if making everything about the episode feel like a story from 2000AD helps or hinders it. My gut feeling is that when you have a whopping big contrivance at the heart of your story you need a greater sense of reality in the rest of the episode to ‘sell’ it.

Liz Ten is about the thinnest character ever to reach the screen. She more or less works as a one-dimensional plot device and a few cheesy one-liners, but as little else.

Amy’s intuitive grasp of the connection between the Doctor and the whale is a) overwritten b) over-explained and c) feels too early in their relationship for her to have properly grasped. (EDIT: Moffat claims in Dr Who Confidential that, since she met him as a child, Amy knows the new Doctor better than he knows himself, but I’m not sure that justifies her quick assessment of him as a lonely survivor.) I still need a bit more on Amy, as she’s still more a bundle of reactions than a character for me.

Murray Gold is back to his bad old ways this week. His bombastic music singlehandedly strips all the creepy unease from the Smilers in the lift sequence in the teaser, and they never quite recover for me. I’m not convinced by the new theme music either, although it felt a bit better this week than last.

The Verdict

Enjoyed it a lot: even when it fails it does so in interesting ways. Most of all I’m still in a honeymoon period with the new Doctor, and it’s going very well so far.

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