Warning: spoilers throughout.
“The Beast Below” shows the “Doctor Who” crew settling in quite nicely. Since “The Eleventh Hour” had to deal so much with exposition and getting its characters in place, this follow-up offers us our first real glance of what the day-in, day-out Eleventh Doctor will be. Turns out he’ll be fantastic.
Just watch Matt Smith in this thing. His is a performance built around nuance and quirk and all those wonderful, wonderful tics. Smith offers mannerisms, tone of voice, even just a glance here and there that suggests hundreds of years hidden away behind such a young face. He may be the youngest actor to play the role, but there are moments where we realize we haven’t seen a Doctor this old since the days of Hartnell.
Age has not damped his scoundrel-ness, however; this new Doctor is a bit of a pickpocket – and not a very good one, it turns out. But that makes it all the more delightful, watching this hero blunder away with great pride, convinced he’s outwitting them all, blissfully unaware when a mere kid has him pegged.
He’s also more hot-tempered than we would’ve expected from the previous adventure. He shows no patience for mistakes, not even mistakes made by poor Amy Pond, who can’t really be blamed for being a bit overwhelmed by a secret so horrifying most of the population of this floating future UK has chosen to have it wiped from their memories. She thought it so awful, she even left him a message begging him to turn back – precisely the sort of message you never leave for the Doctor.
Ah, but Amy might have a little of that spark, too. That rebellious little grin she gives young Mandy (Hannah Sharp) when they come across the suspicious construction zone – “Never could resist a ‘keep out’ sign” – reveals a bit of the Doctor’s energy rubbing off. It seems the Doctor made a wise choice in picking Amy as a companion, and if he’s training her (as it appears, what with the dropping her right into the middle of an investigation and all), she’s picking up quickly.
(The Amy-as-Doctor parallels get really good at episode’s end, when she rambles on about running away from her life, just as the Doctor did, way back when. A nice touch.)
But back to that horrifying secret. The first half of “The Beast Below” is a ripping mystery built around that classic “Who” standby of future gimmickry – in this case, a Britain suspended in space, ruled by a charming, butt-kicking queen “Liz 10” (Sophie Okonedo, and how wonderfully subversive to suggest a little color will seep into the royal lineage in the coming years). Ah, but what’s keeping Starship UK afloat, asks a Doctor who notices the absence of a roar of engines? (The bit of business where Smith studies a glass of water on the floor works to draw us in while simultaneously painting the Doctor as quite the madman.)
The second half reveals the awful truth and plunges us headfirst into an impossible decision. Our first impulse is to rescue the space whale who’s been hideously tortured for centuries, but that would cause the death of the thousands of humans on board. And yet can we spare the lives of those humans if it means the continued torment of an innocent? The Doctor considers a third, only mildly less despicable option: a sort of lobotomy for the beast, thus ending its pain while keeping the humans who abused it alive.
The choice angers the Time Lord, to the point of self-withdrawal. For all the love of humanity the series has poured out over the decades, “Who” also reminds us, again and again, of our species’ cruel side. He growls at Amy about her choice to forget (and, worse, to ask the Doctor not to meddle); perhaps he regrets his outburst, but he still cannot refrain from softly mentioning “you’re only human” as if it’s an insult – which, from his point of view, with an entire nation surviving on a nastiness it freely elects to ignore (ah, the delicate art of sci-fi as social commentary!), an insult it most certainly is.
This third option drives the Doctor to great shame; there’s a sad beauty in the line “…and then I’ll find a new name, because I won’t be the Doctor anymore,” as he realizes he and only he must do the undoable. The three Doctors of the new series are men made of their past regrets, scarred with memories of the undoable. We thought perhaps the Eleventh would be too full of life to reveal such a emotional weight, but here it is, bubbling up once more. His sorrowful scream of “Nobody has anything to say to me today!” is among the saddest the series, new or classic, has seen.
But then! Oh, Doctor, humans may be capable of great evil, but they’re also capable of such great imagination as well. It’s not the Doctor who makes the final leap of faith, it’s Amy, with all her humanity, who realizes the whale would continue its mission of salvation without being forced. It’s a hunch of which she’s so certain she’ll gamble the entire nation on it – a hunch so inventive not even a Time Lord could’ve considered it. Sure, the metaphors about “very old and very kind and the very, very last” get laid on a bit thick, but it’s also such good writing and sweet storytelling that we don’t mind when Moffat spins it by us one more time in the episode’s finale minutes.
And wait a sec, is this how the new series is going to end each episode, with a built-in link to the next adventure? Oh, but I hope so – the business with Churchill and the Daleks got me more excited about next week’s episode than the “next time” trailer that followed.
It’s going to be a long seven days’ wait.