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‘Doctor Who’ – The Beast Below

Forget Daleks, Smilers are just another reason this series should be watched from behind the settee

This review contain major spoilers.

Starship United Kingdom: the future of the human race. Solar flares roast the Earth and the entire civilization is forced into the stars, leaving behind a dying world.

It is an ambitious premise, and “The Beast Below” does it without any of the Hollywood clichés that other such disaster scenarios are bound to. There was no mention of only taking the best and brightest (it was an all or nothing deal), no murky politics, and no sign of an arc to save the Earths plant or animal life. The result: a very human odyssey.

However, there is a darkness lurking in the ship (which happens to have no engines) that will threaten humanity’s future. The only clue to the thread lurking below are the Smilers : sinister mechanics that the entire population is terrified of and will not go near.

Before he became showrunner, Steve Moffat was the best writer in the “Doctor Who” team. Each and every episode he crafted was a thriller chiller. “The Beast Below” is no exception. Packed to the gunnels with terrifying imagery (the Smilers turning nasty for instance), the episode is one that is best viewed from behind the sofa.

But, in a change of pace from the usual monster mash-up, what terrifies the most in the episode is that the real monsters on Starship UK are not the Smilers : it is the Human race.

In our hour of desperation as the planet burns, a Star Whale arrived to save the day.; a volunteer to save a dying race. And humanity repaid such generosity by enslaving the beast and sentencing it to decades – if not centuries – or torture.

Previous seasons never shied away from those darker human impulses but what “Beast Below” illustrates is the willingness of the everyday man and woman to simply ignore the creatures plight for their own survival. It comes in stark contrast to other science-fiction shows, such as Star Trek, which spends so much time illustrating the potential and selflessness of the human race. Instead of leading by such example, “Doctor Who” offers cautionary tales of how menacing people can really be.

Again, Matt Smith does an commendable job as the Doctor, however when it finally revealed that the Whale is the last of its kind (a scene which is simply gushing comparisons to The Doctor’s own solitary life), it is hard not to feel like something is missing. It is a sequence that his predecessor, David Tennant, would have pulled off with tremendous ease.

Alas, Matt Smith is not David Tennant but where is acquits himself well is in his dealings with Amy Pond (Karen Gillan). Old Pond, as she is called in the episode, continues to bring a deep level of enchantment to the series, like Alice down the rabbit hole, and really sells the emotional trauma of Britain’s disturbing decision regarding the Star Whale.

What Worked

The tie-in to the next episode was filled with so much fun and cheesy campness you can’t help but smile. Winston Churchill, arguably the most prominent of Britain’s leaders, gives the Doctor a phone call for a bit of help. In the background: the shadow of a Dalek. It is intriguing stuff and a wonderful way to market the next episode from within the episode.

There is also a subtle little dig (or perhaps a salute) to the Scottish mentality : when the United Kingdom were packing up and leaving the planet they demanded their own ship. As Amy said, “Good for them : nothing ever changes.”

Amy as a companion continues to be one of the most accessible than the series has included. To the viewer, she’s new, fresh and exciting, bringing a level of wonder to the series. Her every encounter with the fantastical is mirrored in the viewer and, thanks to the development of the character, she also comes with a substantial relationship with the Doctor : one that would normally take several seasons to build.

And, this week’s visuals are also notably more impressive than they were from the previous episode. With a Dalek invasion on the horizon, we can only hope more will follow.

What Didn’t Work

Although the politics of the episode will surely escape the shows younger audience, the broadcast of such a subject matter as the UK heads into a general election has to be slightly suspect.

Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due

“Doctor Who” stars Matt Smith and Karen Gillan. “The Beast Below” was written by Steve Moffat and directed by Andrew Gunn.

“Doctor Who” airs Saturdays on BBC One in the United Kingdom and will begin broadcast on April 17 on BBC America.

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