Once every five years everyone chooses to forget what they’ve learned. Democracy in action.
An often excellent episode, The Beast Below struggled to fit in some emotional bonding between this new Doctor and his companion (and the audience). Amy hasn’t had time to change out of her sleepwear before being thrown into an adventure of unimaginable horror – and nearly thrown out of her tenure as a companion after only a few minutes in the Tardis.
Part of the splendid set and character design, the Smilers had an image worthy of gracing a generation’s nightmares but didn’t really do much. They embody the police state the Doctor immediately sees – continuing the Sherlock Holmes-esque attention to detail that led him to a solution last week – but they are not the horror, and neither is the titular beast below who carries the remnants of the British, Welsh, and Northern Irish people on its back. The true monsters, as Rod Serling continually remonstrated, are us.
Except that’s not quite it. Every other country in the world, when the Earth was blasted by solar flares in the 29th century, was able to get it together to make colony ships and seek their new fortunes. Only England and its hangers-on – once the Scots abandoned them, bless their wise ginger heads – were left behind, listening to their children cry, and not building a fecking spaceship! Even though they were entirely capable of whipping up an airtight city/massive torture device, sans blueprints, once they’d “trapped” a beast capable of carrying one.
Perhaps they were waiting for Rupert Murdoch to do it for them, having voted against a 2% VAT raise that would have funded a publicly built ship?
No, the horror is specifically within “us” the British people, who cannot conceive of altruism. The Doctor (admiringly) describes the ship on first glance as an idea, as “Britain but metal.” They are searching for a new home, but bringing the worst of the old one with them, the paranoia and self-made horror that they give themselves the option not to face.
The episode not only captures a peculiarly self-loathing twist on The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas but the UK’s pre-election gestalt, being presented with two choices that are not choices at all, but allow one to stop contemplating the self-made nightmare we live in and – more importantly – accept that this is how it must be rather than seeking the hard work of possible solutions. It was the designers of the city who chose to feed “protesters and citizens of limited value” – including children who tested poorly – to the Beast. That can’t be blamed on the panic that would drive a people to trap and torture a benevolent creature who intended to rescue them from the beginning (and continues to do so even after centuries of torment). This is heart of darkness territory.
It’s deliberately written into the text, providing one of my favorite Doctor Who characters of the last few years: Liz Ten, a middle-aged, confident, compassionate Action Queen who seeks to truly serve her people even if it gets her sent to the Tower – historically not a good end for a monarch.
Even Liz Ten, lionhearted, dutiful Liz Ten, chooses every ten years to continue this nightmare. She was, in fact, one of its architects. What hope is there that the rest of us wouldn’t slam down that ‘Forget’ button in a heartbeat, facing the same choice?
The Doctor proves to carry this within himself as well, even before he realises this is more than another fun adventure. He judges his new companion rather harshly, without thinking – “Oh lovely, you’re a cheery one!” – and presents her with his own unfair binary decision. When Amy hesitates about running off into an unknown police state, on her own, in her pyjamas, he replies shortly: “This or Leadworth. What will Amy Pond choose?” And he’s gleeful when she meekly accepts: “Ha ha, gotcha!” It seems that neither a pep talk – perhaps including his new Number One Rule of “you don’t ever decide what I need to know,” on pain of immediate abandonment – nor a quick detour into the Tardis to get a pair of pants on was a viable option.
And he’s awfully quick to snap out “Nobody human has anything to say to me today!” after being able to at least face the horror, unlike everyone else, if not think through it. Fortunately, Amy out-Doctors the Doctor by seeing an obvious detail once his anti-human blinders were crazy-glued to his temples and saves both the poor beast and the vaguely intra-genocidal race on its back, and there’s hugging all round, and we can safely move on to the rest of the season without dissolving into blobs of self-loathing recrimination.
To sum up, pretty dark stuff for a children’s show. Pretty dark stuff for a post-watershed adult show, really. I like it, a lot, and I like that the hero-lead of an action show has the character depth to fuck up so badly and come back from it a little wiser.
…but is this Doctor Who?