The Beast Below
written by Steven Moffat, directed by Andrew Gunn, originally broadcast 4.10.10
Review below. Spoilers.
One of my least favorite moments in all of Doctor Who occured in the episode “Planet of the Ood.” Donna can’t believe that humans use the Ood for slave labor in the far future, and the Doctor askes her quite pointedly “Who do you think made your clothes?” Now, like a lot of that episode, his words kind of beat you over the head with their message, but at least the Doctor’s making a good point. Donna then sarcastically asks if he drags humans around the cosmos just so he can take cheap shots at them, to which the Doctor immediately apologizes.
That’s right. He apologizes. Totally undermines the point of the whole story. It’d be like if, at the end of Spartacus, when the soldiers were asking where they could find the titular character, everyone stood up and said “I’m Sparta- naaaaaaw, just kidding. It’s the guy who looks like Kirk Douglas.”
“The Beast Below” is the opposite of that. It’s “Planet of the Ood” done right. It doesn’t smash you about the ears with its point. It doesn’t neatly divide the world up into two sets of people; the good (the Doctor, Donna, and the Ood) and the bad (pretty much everyone else in that story). All it does is present a society based on a completely corrupt system where people actively choose to ignore what’s really going on. No, not just ignore – forget. People actively choose to forget here. The Doctor’s the only one who really sees through it, of course, because that’s what he does. Everyone else in the story (with the possible exception of the children) choose to forget what they’ve learned. Even the people we’re supposed to like. Like the best allegorical science fiction, it shows us what the human race is really like by holding up a distorted mirror. The distortion is the futuristic setting, the “Smilers”, the space whale. The reflection is of us. We can learn about how we’ve stripped the Earth of its resources, polluted it, enslaved and killed millions, kept the wrong people in power for the wrong reasons, all in the name of our own comfort. We can read articles and watch documentaries and even speak out against these things, but at the end of the day, if we want to stay sane, if we don’t want society to collapse in around our ears, we choose to forget. Even the “good” people choose to forget.
Look – if “The Beast Below” doesn’t go down as one of the greatest Doctor Who stories ever, up there with “Genesis of the Daleks” and “The Girl In The Fireplace” and “Human Nature” and “The Caves of Androzani” and Interference and “The Chimes of Midnight”…. then I just don’t know what your definition of good is anymore. Which is, I guess, the point of the story. Which is how it should be. Actually… that raises an interesting (and severely geeky) point… all the stories I just mentioned except for “Fireplace” and “Chimes” also ask pretty profound questions about good and evil, about individual responsibility, and whether humans are good by nature. “Genesis” of course has that great monologue where Tom Baker ultimately decides not to strangle the Daleks in their cradle because he doesn’t have the right to commit genocide, even on the most evil race in the galaxy. We now have Matt Smith’s first truly classic story, and it’s only his second.
I could gush for hours, about the wonderfully retro set and the horrific tentacled beasties and the way the plot hinges on Amy observing and remembering bits and pieces throughout the episode and, ultimately, seeing something the Doctor doesn’t, and about the Doctor feeling betrayed that Amy chose to forget about the beast below, even if she doesn’t remember doing it, and about that crack at the end, and about how next week we’ve got Winston Churchill and Daleks to look forward to… but gushing is boring. It’s hard to write compelling gush. I’ll just leave it open to the peanut gallery – what did you think? Best episode since at least “Turn Left”, or what?