Sunday, 11 April 2010
Reaction: THE BEAST BELOW
Written by Steven Moffat, directed by Andrew Gunn, 2010
It’s pretty much impossible to avoid comparison to The Long Game with this story… But, quite helpfully, that just demonstrates how much richer and more complex this series seems to be shaping up to be, even so early in its run. A community in space, check; disappearances, check; a beast in the bowels (well, or the top floor); check… Yet, while familiar, this also feels like a quite different kettle of fish.
Though not a perfect story, I already love The Beast Below - perhaps not as much as The Eleventh Hour, though it cruises the same funny/creepy sensibility. It certainly has its flaws – notably not hanging together as impeccably as some of Moffat’s other stories, and also feels slightly rushed due to the sheer amount of elements (the Smilers, for example, seem quite superfluous). Nevertheless, for its production design alone, which is wonderful, this story feels worthy of being cherished. The presentation particularly of the London market is very reminiscent of the rundown off-kilter melanges of the absurdist dystopia of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, London Below in the BBC’s Neverwhere, and especially the Meanwhile City of last year’s Franklyn.
Though the ‘contemporary clothes in space’ approach is one of the elements broadly comparable to The Long Game, it works far better here, due to this story’s unifying theme, and because it’s dealing in archetypes – the market especially comes across as a sort of Anglophile Blade Runner, with its bunting and bicycles (I like the touch of the rain-slicked ‘streets,’ even inside). In fact, I wish more had been made of the bowler hats and lollipop ladies, Bakelite TVs and Tube-style ‘Vator’ lifts.
There’s a tactility and realism to objects like red phone boxes and ring-dial phones (understandably) which enlivens futuristic environments that could otherwise be soulless and unconvincing (see Planet of Evil, off the top of my head). Couching as many elements as possible in familiar visuals is a very welcome approach – for example, there’s no real reason the information video in the voting booth should be delivered as if by a newsreader, but at the same time, it helps audience acceptance.
In fact, I loved the Starship UK so much I can forgive what felt like an underuse of both the Doctor and Amy, and of the wonderful Sophie Okonado. (Incidentally, I wonder how many Oscar nominees/winners have appeared in Doctor Who? Not that I’m trying to suggest Academy Awards mean anything – the very idea!) Liz 10 is clearly cut from the same cloth as the soon-to-reappear River Song, but that’s not unwelcome. Actually, the concept of a gun-toting black cockney queen is totally brilliant! The Memento-like revelation that she has willingly and repeatedly erased her own memory is neat, but the overall situation doesn’t seem quite diabolical enough to prompt, say, Amy’s reaction. Maybe it’d have rung more true if they’d been willingly sacrificing the children… (Or something.)
(Incidentally, perhaps The Guardian have the right idea: "Maybe Liz 10 should come back in some sort of annual recurring capacity, bitching off against River Song?")
Two stories in, and I’m already in love with this version of the series; in some ways it isn’t a great deal removed from the Davies version, down to similar scenes and ideas (ie, the inevitable – if understandable – ‘last of my kind’ scene, and down to the Doctor’s so-wrong-it’s-right devirginization of Elizabeth I being brought up). It is still broad and humorous, but there’s a complexity alongside the accessibility, and I much prefer the tonal sensibility that these two stories seem to portend. The idea of ‘Starship UK’ could be a total joke, but comes to be treated far more interestingly than it would seem to have any right to.
In terms of the direction, Andrew Gunn has created lots of moments of visual loveliness, even making a soft-edged wipe work outside of Kurosawa! The initial shot of Liz in her suitably magisterial rooms with the glasses spread out in front of her is a particularly beautiful and fabulously uncanny visual. And - maybe looking forward to ‘the Moffat era’ has made me hopelessly biased about this series - even Murray Gold’s music seems improved; I almost found myself liking the crunching electronica and choral elements. Unprecedented!
My main reservation would be that I already feel I’d like to see the regulars have some space and time to spread their wings. For example, it seemed quite glaring that Amy didn’t really have any time to consider the implications of gadding about the universe with her erstwhile imaginary friend - but I’m sure all this will come.
In fact, I realise I didn’t mention the new Doctor (and it’s hard to believe he actually is still new!) and Amy last week, mainly because they were both so obviously well-suited to their roles. Matt Smith is effortlessly Doctorish, but without feeling predictable, and brings an idiosyncratic physicality to the role – all hunched and bony (I definitely concur with the ‘drunk baby giraffe’ comparison), and his halting, weirdly-enunciated delivery. His righteous anger doesn’t quite come off, but, equally, it’s nice to see the Doctor underplayed.
Finally, the sixties-style lead-through to Victory of the Daleks is wonderful, with the idea of a historical figure ringing the Doctor up for assistance treading a fine line between Batman-style campness and making perfect sense (of course Winston Churchill would know the Doctor!). The best thing about it though is the Doctor addressing Churchill as “dear”.