5.2 – “The Beast Below”
For her first jaunt in the TARDIS, The Doctor takes Amy into the future and into space. They arrive on the colossal Starship UK, carrying the population of the United Kingdom, centuries after escaping Earth and the solar flares that rendered it uninhabitable. As the Doctor investigates the strange workings of the ship, Amy is captured by the sinister Smilers and Winders, and the pair are soon forced to choose between destroying the ship and it’s passengers or forgetting the terrible secret of Starship UK.
At first glance, “The Beast Below” is cracking stuff. You’ve got big ideas, creepy things and a Doctor and companion learning to click together. However, this series of strong elements don’t quite gel, rendering the episode less than the sum of its parts. It starts well enough; the idea of Starship UK is well presented, it’s all very retro-future with lots of old fashioned tube stations and wooden school desks and the vast tower blocks that make up the ship are named after various counties. But the scared children and sinister Smilers that snatch them away are a bit cliche (it all seems a bit similar to “The Empty Child” and its children of the blitz).
Amy and The Doctor flow neatly into the starship; clearly this is a trial run. The Doctor deliberately challenges Amy to notice what’s wrong and it’s good that Amy doesn’t just pass with flying colours (at least not at first). Karen Gillan’s performance captures a mixture of excitement (she’s on a giant spaceship way in the future, after all), compassion (Amy knows just what being a frightened child is about), genuine fear and bravery (because her compassion overcomes her fear). But it’s also good that Amy makes the wrong choice – does she threaten the safety of the ship’s passengers once she learns that the whole thing relies on the ongoing torture of the Starwhale it rides on, or does she choose to forget the horror and let the ship sail on? Amy chooses to forget. She’s a flawed human being, afterall, not a superhero.
The Doctor, on the other hand, wants some answers and Amy’s initial choice causes him to threaten to leave her back on Earth. It’s this friction that is the story’s key strength. Ultimately, “The Beast Below” is about Amy stepping up to become THE companion. Matt Smith and Karen Gillan are great together, sparking as Amy takes her first steps into the adventure, carrying mutual disappointment as their relationship stumbles, being thrilled and disgusted as they are covered in Starwhale sick and ultimately realising that they’re both in this for the long haul.
With their developing relationship being so strong it’s not surprising that it also overshadows some of the story’s other themes, primarily the conflict around choosing to ignore the suffering of others for the sake of the comfort of your group. The story’s resolution is where it really falls down; it’s a stretch that The Doctor’s only solution is to effectively kill the Starwhale. While Amy recognising The Doctor’s loneliness and compassion in the Starwhale is a neat piece of symmetry, surely The Doctor would see what the Starwhale was doing when it went to Earth to save the children in the first place? Surely The Doctor would try to reach out to the Starwhale first? It all seems a bit obvious in the end that the episode is meant to show us just what a great companion Amy will prove to be, at the expense of the story itself.
Ultimately the problem with “The Beast Below” is that it’s trying too hard to be a character piece when it could just have told us a smart, enjoyable story about all too relevant social evils. The story should have let the audience find the charm in the characters for themselves, leaving Amy and The Doctor to get on with sorting out the moral dilemma. A watchable 6/10.
Written and edited by Richard Barnes