Friday, 16 April 2010

Doctor Who: The Fairy Tale Continues

[Includes spoilers]

We have been told many times in the publicity for the new series of Doctor Who that it was going to be something of a fairy tale. The sublime first episode, The Eleventh Hour, established that feel and now, in the second episode, "The Beast Below", it continues the fairy tale feel in promising but quite different ways. The hallmarks of the most memorable Fairy tales are the scary bits. They speak to children's fears and so help them to overcome them.

Before the credits are rolling, the dark background of this story is established. Timmy gets a zero at school, the already sinister "smiler" becomes even more sinister, and the child soon finds himself in some kind of abyss.  Once again, the scares are there for child viewers of all ages, but they are also experienced directly by children in the story itself.  If Doctor Who is a kids' show, Steven Moffat is constantly reminding us of the fact by featuring children in the show. The very reason for the doctor's intervention is the sound of the child crying.

"The Beast Below" was an excellent follow-up to the series opener last week. We are fascinated by the new doctor, and learning more about him all the time, and are sometimes surprised by what we see. His outburst at the end, reminiscent of several of the former doctors' crosser moments, was pretty shocking.

Meanwhile, Amy Pond is already one of the most compelling of the doctor's companions. That she spends the entire episode in her nighty is a masterstroke of that same fairy tale tone. For Moffat, it made her Wendy to the doctor's Peter Pan. For me, it was a reminder of those dreams when you realize you have gone out in your pyjamas. Amy is only gradually waking up to the remarkable turn in her life's story. This is Amy exploring starship UK, before she is covered in sick, at the hole in the road with "Magpie Electricals" clearly visible:

It's the night before her wedding and here is Amy, in her nighty, at the back of beyond, thousands of years in the future, with her childhood fantasy friend. And what's more, it turns out that she is good for him, and ends up saving the day.

It was never likely that the second episode in this new series would be as good as the first. It is not as funny, as clever or as exciting, but that would hardly have been possible after such a fantastic start, all the more so given the length of this one, back to the usual 42 minutes or so. In fact this one could have done with another 10-15 minutes to give us chance to observe everything carefully. I bet there were a few kids who lost the plot here a few times.

There were plenty of things to like, though. Liz 10 was fun, and just the kind of character we have seen over the last five years or so, and the utterly ridiculous idea of "Starship UK" floating in space on top of a space whale was as bonkers as anything in Russell T. Davies's era. And I, for one, like bonkers. And so it turns out that new show-runner Steven Moffat is in fact one of Russell T. Davies's biggest fans. "The Eleventh Hour" was not just a one-off. Although things are different -- new doctor, new companion, new TARDIS, new tone -- we are clearly watching the same show. In the best tradition of Doctor Who -- always the same, always different.

This one is round about a 4 for me, perhaps nudging up towards a 4.5, and so as I go down a bit and Loren comes up a bit (The Busybody: The Beast Below (AKA: The Last of the Starwhales), we might even meet in our ratings next time, in what looks like a superb episode, "Victory of the Daleks".

On the podcasting front, there has been a wealth of excellent podcasts on this episode over the last week, and most people are loving the series.  Among others, I enjoyed the new Whocast (with Paul and Seb back), Podshock (including a remarkable review from Darth Sceptical who gave it zero!), Radio Free Scaro (all three of whom still love the new series and I am so used to the acerbic comments that it takes some getting used to), The Doctor Who Podcast (from the guys who used to do the Whocast - listen out for Tom's guffaws), and The Oodcast (always very funny).  And, of course, my personal favourite, the Two Minute Timelord.


Loren Rosson III said...

Nice thoughts, Mark, and I added another paragraph to my review about the remarkable parallels between this story and Full Circle from the Tom Baker years. It's curious that the faults some critics are finding with The Beast Below are hailed as the strengths of the E-Space story.

And speaking of E-Space, I hope you've revisited that masterpiece!

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Loren. I am impressed with all the different parallels that people are seeing here. Others are seeing parallels to the Ark in Space and the Creature from the Pit. I was reminded of the "Meat" episode on Torchwood, and the Long Game episode of Doctor Who. I suspect that it's another sign of Moffat's writing skill. There is, of course, a fine line between being derivative and being rich with intertexture, but Moffat seems to be managing the latter.

E-Space will have to be a treat for the summer. The cling wrap isn't even off the set yet.

Loren Rosson III said...

The parallels to Ark in Space and Creature from the Pit aren't quite as significant as Full Circle. Like Moffat's story, Full Circle has no real villains to speak of (people being their own worst enemies). And the plot ingredients are exactly the same: cyclic patterns of a society going nowhere, unethical treatment of other species, and collectively willful ignorance.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that The Beast Below is a Full Circle rip-off -- in the way that Eleventh Hour is clearly a rip-off of Smith and Jones. Moffat's story does more than rehash the politics of societal decay; it puts it in a fairy-tale context, and then layers it with commentary on the Doctor's nature as the last of his kind. The result is a pretty unique little "beast".

Mark Goodacre said...

I look forward to watching that one.

I don't think "Eleventh Hour" is a rip-off of "Smith and Jones", though there are some enjoyable similarities. The main plot of the doctor's encounters across 14 years with Amy has no parallel in "Smith and Jones" even though they are both new companion episodes.

TonyTheProf said...

Coming at a time of election in the UK, this has some political satire (if rather blunt); the bit where Amy releases the Doctor and Space Whale are alike is a good idea, but repeated two or three times, almost one after the other - just in case the audience didn't get it?

A nice episode, but I liked the quite reflective pauses of the RTD stories, where this seems mostly all pace.

I thought the "Demon Headmaster" actor was rather underused.

Mark Goodacre said...

Yes, agree on all fronts.