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New Who 5.2: The Beast Below

I did watch this last Saturday while staying at hollyione's house, but missed the first couple of minutes and spent parts of the episode chatting, so have re-watched it this afternoon in order to do it full justice.

I wasn't sure whether I'd liked it last week. I felt that it was addressing some potent issues through the central theme of the relationship between the occupants of the space-ship and the star-whale, and really liked some of the dilemmas that presented. I also liked how busy and active it was, with hundreds of small themes and ideas popping up every minute, all clamouring for space. But I worried that the revelation that the whale actually wanted to be enslaved all along was a bit of a cop-out (enacted along similar lines with the Refusians in The Ark), and found the way that montages of earlier clips and repetitive dialogue were used to ram home the final revelations about the star-whale and the parallel with the Doctor a bit heavy-handed.

On top of that, I had my qualms about the way the occupants of the space-ship were characterised as purely British (for values of 'British' which really just mean 'English'), especially when it was revealed that the next episode would be all about Britain too. This seemed to me a rather narrow and parochial view of humanity's future by comparison with the vision usually peddled in Classic Who - and indeed in the RTD era. OK, I fully accept that the vision of future humanity which we see in The Ark in Space (with which this story has an obvious dialogue), and in most other 'future of humanity' stories, is actually white and British in practice. But at least lip-service has usually been paid to the idea that at some point in the future all the races and nations of the Earth might have merged into a single, undifferentiated human race - and there are some occasions, like with the characterisation of Mavic Chen in The Daleks' Master Plan, where a little more effort was put into working out the real implications of that.

Watching again, though, I found most of these concerns put to rest. What really changed things for me was one of the Doctor's lines explaining to Liz 10 what the strange creature in the bowels of her ship was doing: "It's not infesting you, it's not invading - it's what you have instead of an engine." Now, obviously the human exploitation of the star-whale can stand as a metaphor for all sorts of exploitative relationships in the real world, but that line made me see it above all as a metaphor for economic migrants, who are frequently seen as 'infesting' or 'invading' modern Britain, and yet who are actually helping to drive our economy in the absence of the old manufacturing industries (i.e. engines) which we used to rely on. Seen like that, it suddenly became much more understandable that the ship should represent the population of Britain alone, since it helped to bring out the resonances of a specifically British situation in the present day.

As for the idea that the whale wanted to carry the ship of its own volition, and didn't need to be tortured - well, that also becomes more understandable if it is seen as a metaphor for economic migrants, many of whom would indeed love to just be given the chance to contribute to our economy, without being tortured with prejudice and exclusion along the way. And in any case, I felt that in dramatic terms the dilemma and tension which the Doctor and Amy were able to go through as a result of that being a possible resolution also made it worth including it in the plot, for all my earlier qualms. I hadn't been quite sure, either, about the wisdom of putting a new Doctor in such a problematic position that he has to try murdering a star-whale so early on in his tenure, when we are still getting used to him and need reasons to trust him. But again, watching it a second time, I actually felt that it was really well-played. His quiet despair at the impossible moral dilemma, followed by his angry out-burst when challenged about it, made it very clear to me where he was coming from - but without the emotional overplay that we would have had from Ten / RTD. And Amy's sudden discovery of her ability to work out what the solution was by observing the small things, and to take a leap of faith, was a really powerful moment of character growth for her, too.

So, yes. I think I like this Doctor, and I like this era. I liked his touches of surreality - like 'there's an escaped fish' when he is testing the water at the start of the episode. And it was kind of refreshing and encouraging to see how calmly and lightly he let Amy know that he was the last of his kind, too. Unlike a lot of people, I did actually like Ten's angst. But it's nice to know we'll be getting something different in the future. And yet there is no doubt that there is a great deal more going on beneath the surface with this Doctor - and I'm looking forward to seeing how that plays out. Amy, too, is panning out nicely with some interesting issues. She's now stating outright that she was willing to run away with the Doctor partly because she wasn't sure she was ready for her wedding, and there were a couple of points where the question was raised as to whether, some time in the past from the perspective of this story, she had actually gone through with it or not. From Moffat's previous history, it's pretty obvious that she will - she'll do her growing with the Doctor, and come back ready to take that step into adulthood and responsibility, while the Doctor will watch slightly awkwardly from the back of the crowd, and then slip off when no-one is watching. And that's OK - that's the right arc for her, and I'm ready to see it unfold.

Some other minor issues:
  • Obviously, the crack is still there in the hub of the ship. I'm getting a bit bored of it now.
  • The little girl on the screen in the Vator looked a lot like the test card girl - just part of the nostalgic British scene-setting, some more profound comment on the nature of television, or an actual clue about future developments in the series?
  • And on similar lines, we got at least two good looks at a branch of Magpie Electricals - just another attempt to create a feeling of coherence and continuity in the Whoniverse, or again a pointer for later on in the series?
  • Also, three cheers for the Doctor telling Amy at the beginning, "We are observers only". I'd made quite a lot in my paper that very morning about this being how the Doctor started out, but the stance then being progressively abandoned over the first three seasons of the programme. So it was rather nice to get validation on that less than twelve house later by seeing the exact same issue being addressed in the modern day.


OK, I think that's everything, so I am ready to watch this evening's episode. Awesome!

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Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
rhube
Apr. 17th, 2010 05:45 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you enjoyed it. Really interesting analysis. Funny how you bring out problems I sort of had with it, but was content to gloss over as 'Well, considering it's Doctor Who...' (I love the show, but that love has to come from a 'warts and all' place). I completely missed the point about the star whale being like a migrant worker (distracted by analogies in my mind to Alien Earth and the Hegelian master/slave dialectic - a beautiful book, if you haven't read it, I thoroughly recommend it) but now I realise that you were absolutely right. And that makes the whole thing much more interesting than all the people who clammered to point out that 'Star Whales are not a new idea!'

I liked Ten's angst in general, but felt it was often undermined by being overworked, or two prominent; which was a shame for me, as (being a fan of all things angsty) I didn't like being brought out of the angst by moments when it seemed inappropriately highlighted. The new Doctor's attitude is a relief because it balances that. Part of the problem is that any note sustained too long gets stale. I imagine that when I return to Ten after a bit of Eleven it will all be revitalised for me.

I hope that Amy does go through with her wedding. I've had enough of companions pining after the Doctor. Not least because I like a good Doctor/Companion love story. I thought Grace, in the TVM, was perfect, from that point of view. Although I wanted her to go with him, I thought the fact that she was the sort of woman who would say 'You come with me' was exactly what made her the sort of woman the Doctor would fall in love with. Riversong hits the right notes there for similar reasons. I hope they do good things with that. Not that there are any hints of an Amy/Doctor relationship, but I would hate for her to be pining after travelling with him.

La, anyway: looking forward to the new ep, once it's finished airing live and is up on iPlayer again...
strange_complex
Apr. 17th, 2010 06:37 pm (UTC)
'Star Whales are not a new idea!'

Yeah, I get annoyed with people who make this kind of comment, too. Most of Shakespeare's characters and stories were not 'new' - but the point is that they were done well and made to say new things. That's what matters.

I'm glad I'm not the only one who liked Ten's angst - it's easy to feel like I am sometimes! As for Amy, I think there was a brief hint of an attraction towards the Doctor this week (though I won't say anything more until you've seen it). But I'm still reasonably confident that she'll see it for what it is, deal with it sensibly and go onwards to her happy ending with Rory all the same.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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