Post Game TV Recap: DOCTOR WHO S5E2 "The Beast Below"

Got a whale of a tale to tell you lad, a whale of a tale or two...

This season's Doctor Who has hit the ground running with its tremendous first episode. But can The Doctor and Amy keep the action going on a self-propelled British Isle wending its way through space with a multitude of mysterious...mysteries?

Well, let's find out - hang tight, spoilers up, and Chelonia e Mobile!

The Beast Below

by Steven Moffat

Directed by Andrew Gunn

The show starts with a stirring image - a massive structure in space, looking for all the world like someone lifted Great Britain and slapped a hull on her.  As we pan past, we realize that's exactly what's happened - Britain now exists on the ship, with entire districts and cities taking the form of massive buildings, all marked clearly.

Within the ship, a remarkably traditional looking class full of students are lining up to get their grades. One boy, Timmy, is hesitant to step up, but finally does so.  We see that the teacher is not human at all, but a smiling doll-like figure in a glass booth, looking like an old penny arcade fortune teller, clad in judge's robes.  As Timmy steps forward, the figure's head spins around to reveal a frowning face as it reports he has gotten a zero for the day.  His friend Mandy warns him that he'll have to walk home, as if he takes the elevator it's said he'll be "sent below".  He chooses not to heed the warnings and sneaks into the next elevator.  Another smiling figure in the car spins to a frown as a recording of a cautionary nursery rhyme plays on a video screen.  The lift races to the bottom level, the floor opens, exposing a sheer drop into what looks like fire and general unpleasantness. The figure's head rotates again to a horrifying scowl, and we careen into the opening credits.

We return to a much more pleasant scene - The Doctor is treating new companion Amy Pond to a sight unseen - he's suspending her outside the TARDIS, holding her by her heel as Thetis held Achilles.  As she floats in space we get a brief recap of her life (and the previous episode), meeting the Doctor and him whisking her away on the eve of her wedding.  As they look down, The Doctor spies the flying Britain and explains that the people of Earth had to escape the planet from the threat of solar flares, returning years later "when the weather improves"  It's more than a ship, it's the literal country of Britain, heart and soul, the thing and the whole of the thing.

Amy is keen to explore, but The Doctor warns her of an important fact.  They are observers only; they can only look and experience, but never interfere, a rule he's adhered to all his...why are you laughing?  OK, yeah, I know... They land and start scanning the ship, finding a small girl (Mandy from earlier) sitting alone crying.  No sooner does Amy make a comparison to documentary filmmakers, never helping the plight they see does she realize that she's alone on the TARDIS, and The Doctor has already left the ship and started to console the girl.  Watching him on the view screen, he motions her to come out and join him.  She does so happily, having so much fun she's yet to even change out of her nightie and robe.

The TARDIS has landed in a main atrium upon Starship UK, in which a massive street market has been set up.  She's giddy with the experience, but The Doctor asks her to not just see but perceive - there's something wrong here, and he wants her to figure out what it is.  She points out things she finds odd (to which he counters there's also a girl in a nightie walking about).  He shows that life has reverted to a simplified form of normalcy, but that there is also an underlying fear, almost a police state mentality.  He grabs a glass of water from a cafe table and, oddly, sets it on the ground, observing it.  He jumps back to the original conversation, pointing out Mandy, who is still crying. They go to help her, unaware that a tall man in a robe and wearing a large clock wind-up  key around his neck is observing them.  He makes a call to an older man, presumably his superior, asking if they plan to report the events to "her".  The superior says they must, as they are under orders to. He calls a woman clad in a flowing red cloak, seated on the floor, surrounded by glasses of water.    She says she'll check the monitors for the man, but picks up a porcelain mask and rises, suggesting she plans to investigate personally.

Mandy is still sitting alone, crying. The Doctor notes that children cry to attract attention, but when they cry silently, there's really something wrong.  Also, no one is helping her, which suggests they know WHY she is crying, and know they can't do anything to help her.  It's something they can't stop, which means it's everywhere, which implies a police state.  She runs off, and The Doctor tells Amy where she's going.  He happened to lift the girl's wallet...after several attempts.  He tells Amy to follow her, and among other things, ask about the smiling figures in the booths, which seem to be everywhere.  While the rest of the ship is worn and dirty, there's a radius of almost two feet around each of them, as if no one has gone near them at all.  While she investigates, he plans to "stay out of trouble...badly."  Amy observes that The Doctor's non-intervention policy is only broken "when there's children crying".  He smilingly agrees.

Amy heads off after Mandy, only to find Mandy off to the side, waiting for her mysterious follower to catch up.  Amy returns her wallet and they walk on together.  A large construction tent (with a large "Magpie Electricals" banner on) blocks the road; Mandy looks nervous and says they must go another way as there's a "hole in the road".  She's resigned to the detour, but Amy walks ahead, never able to resist a "keep out" sign. She begins picking a lock with a hairpin as Mandy ensures her they should go back, saying that they're not supposed to talk about the holes and "below".  Mandy notes that Amy sounds Scottish, which surprises her, as Scotland demanded their own starship, which Amy finds delightful.  They start to chat about how Amy got there, which makes her remember that she's due to be married "A long time ago tomorrow morning", and she wonders what she did, or will do.

As Amy investigates the tent, Mandy keeps an eye on a nearby boothed smiling figure who has rotated to the scowly face.  In the tent, there is indeed a hole in the road, and sticking up from it is a giant barbed tentacle, like the tail of a scorpion.  She backs out in fear, and waiting for her outside are three more on the men in robes and wearing keys from necklaces. One points a ring at her, spraying her with a gas that renders her unconscious.

The Doctor is down in the bowels of the ship examining the walls and electrical conduits.  He realizes he is not alone - the mysterious woman in red, now wearing the white mask. She knows who he is, and asks what he saw in that glass of water.  There were no ripples - a ship this large should be vibrating as its engine ran, like a steamship or airplane.  Also, he realizes the panels and conduits around him are just props - they don't connect to anything, and behind the walls, nothing.  It's like there was no engine, something with which the mysterious woman concurs. She speaks of a dark secret at the heart of the ship one that she's been trying to discover but to no avail.  She asks for his help, and gives him a device that will lead him to Amy.  She explains that her name is Liz 10, and will contact him when the need arises.

Amy awakens in a small room containing a figure in a booth, a panel of (Magpie-brand) monitors and a desk with three large buttons.  She is in a voting cubicle. The computer scans her DNA and identifies her as a British citizen, age...1306, Marital status...unknown.   A recording explains that she will soon be told exactly what is going on upon the ship.  Once she learns, she has the choice of protesting, with the understanding that if as little as one percent of the voting populace does so, the ship will shut down, killing all aboard.  If she finds the information too horrifying, she can press the "forget" button, erasing the information from her memory.    A riot of images are fed to her, and as soon as it completes, she slams her hand on the "forget" button.

Amy awakens in a small room containing a figure in a booth, a panel of (Magpie-brand) monitors and a desk with three large buttons.  She is in a voting cubicle. A recording plays...of herself, visibly upset, begging her to find The Doctor and get him off the ship before he discovers what's going on.  The door to the cubicle opens, and Mandy and The Doctor are waiting outside.  Scanning the booth, The Doctor realizes that she's had about twenty minutes of her memory erased.  She's not sure why she'd do that (obviously); Mandy explains that EVERYONE chooses to do so when they get to vote, starting at 16 and then every five years..

The film won't even play for The Doctor as it doesn't recognize him as Human.  "You look human," says Amy; "No, you look Timelord," counters The Doctor.  Amy inquires about the rest of the Timelords, and The Doctor hems and haws a bit, remarking that it's something he'd love to forget, but he doesn't.  He warns Amy to be careful, and pounds the "protest" button.  The door slams shut, the figure rotates to a scowl, and the floor slides open.  Outside, the cubicle unlocks and is now empty.  Mandy is alone and frightened, and backs into the mysterious woman in red.  She removes her mask, Mandy immediately recognizes her, and smiles.

The Doctor and Amy slide down a long conduit into a wet mess of garbage.  Specifically, only food refuse and other organic matter.  It seems to be coming from all over the ship. Also, the floor is soft and spongy, tongue.  They're not in a trash compactor, they're in a mammoth mouth, and the front door is shut.  Their moving around triggers the swallow reflex, and they start to get drawn down the gullet.  The Doctor, having no option, uses the Sonic Screwdriver to trigger the gag reflex of the beast and...well, they get away, let's leave it there.  They end up in a pipe outside of the monster's mouth, where they find a door.  The door has a switch, marked "forget".  It's clear that the vote is a Hobson's Choice "take it or leave it" scenario - citizens who DO protest are fed down the pipe to feed this beast, and should they survive, they can only escape by choosing to forget after all.  At the other end of the pipe, two booths with smiling figures spin to angrier faces as The Doctor confronts them.  Finally, the booths open, the figures rise and begin to advance on the pair.  But from behind them, the mysterious Liz 10 appears, guns blazing, shooting the mechanical figures down.  She and Mandy found them by tracking the device she gave The Doctor earlier.  She asks what's going on; The Doctor says she ought to know, as she voted, and either knows, or chose to forget.  Liz corrects him - she's never voted, as technically she's not a British subject.  She's not merely "Liz 10", she's Queen Elizabeth X, monarch of Britain and the Starship UK.

Escaping from the chasing figures, The Doctor also gets his first look at the alien appendages Amy saw earlier in the construction tent.  They are part of the creature they were just in - it's sending these tentacles through the ship for some reason.  Liz is furious that this thing is being fed by her subjects, and storms off to learn who is doing it. The administrator from earlier alerts the robed men (referred to as "winders") that the queen has gotten too close, and to move in. 

Back in her chambers, she explains that she's been trying to find out what's going on behind her back for her whole reign, ten years...and The Doctor made more progress in one day.  She came to power when she was 40 years old, and is kept young by slowing her body clock, "So I keep looking like the stamps".  As The Doctor makes an intuitive leap, a team of Winders enter the room.  Now that she has gotten so close to discovery, they have come to show Her Highness what she wishes to know.  When she asks why she should come with them, the Winders' heads spin within their hoods, revealing the scowling faces of Smilers.  When she asks who ordered these plans and actions, they explain they came from "the highest authority".  She counters that she is the highest authority...and they agree.

They are taken to the lowest level of the ship,  its Tower of London, specifically...the dungeon.  The Administrator, whose name is Hawthorne, greets her and explains that all will be explained.  A group of children are guided out the room past them; Hawthorne explains that as they discovered, people who protest (and  others deemed "Citizens of limited value") are fed to the beast, but for some reason, it will not eat children.  Amy and The Doctor are the first adults spared.  The Doctor comments that they are in the torture chamber of the Tower of London, but luckily, they're not the ones being tortured.  The massive beast they found IS the engine of Starship UK.  It's being made to carry the ship like a brobdignagian pack mule, impelled to move forward by constant electrical shocks to its exposed brain as one would put a mule to the whip.  The Doctor opens a panel, allowing one of the tentacles to enter the room.  He uses the sonic screwdriver to lower the pitch of the monster's call; it's a tortured wail.

Liz 10, horrified, demands the beast be released.  Hawthorne and the Winders do not reply, as they again explain that their order come from  from "the highest authority".  The Doctor's figured it out.  Liz has not been in power for ten years; her life clock was indeed stopped, but over two hundred years ago.  He guides her to a table containing another monitor, and two buttons, reading "Forget" and "Abdicate".  Hawthorne starts the recording; it's a recording of Queen Elizabeth X, at the beginning of her reign.  Her voice is more regal than "Liz 10's" is now, though she looks exactly the same. 

She reveals the truth to herself.  The creature is a star whale, possibly the last of a species that used to roam space and may have helped guide the first space travelers between the stars.  As the clock for Earth wound down coming up to the oncoming solar flares, all the other countries had made their escape, but Britain's ship had failed.  The Star Whale came, almost miraculously, and the shipbuilders did the only thing they could do.  They captured it, tethered the ship to it and set off with the people of England on its back.  She gives herself the option; forget what she has learned and return to the throne unburdened by the truth, or select "abdicate", in which case the beast will be freed, dooming Britain.  It's plainly obvious that this exact scenario has been played many times before, with Liz discovering what's going on, only to decide to reset and start all over again.

Amy realized that this is what she chose to forget, and can't grasp why she would.  The Doctor realizes why; to keep him from coming to this point and having to make an impossible choice between the whale or the people of Britain.  His livid that she would try to make that choice for him.  Once he does what he must, he will take her home. He prepares to do the most horrifying thing he's ever done - lobotomize the Star Whale, so that while it will still live and drive the ship, it will at least stop suffering. They try to talk to him, but he lashes out at them, screaming, "Nobody Human has ANYTHING to say to me today!"

The Doctor goes through his nightmarish work in silence, and Amy sits watching.  Some children enter the room, including Timmy from the beginning of the story.  Mandy races to greet him but he recoils frightened.  Not at Mandy, but at the Whale's tentacle rising up behind her.  Amazingly, it doesn't attack them - it taps Mandy on the shoulder, and the two actually start petting it.

Amy's mind races, putting together all the details she's seen, as The Doctor suggested.  She tries to get him to stop what he's doing, but he ignores her.  So she grabs Liz 10, drags her to the monitor, and slams her hand down on the "Abdicate" button.  Everybody panics...until they notice that the ship is not disintegrating.  Indeed, they're speeding up.  Amy realized that the Star Whale came to Earth on purpose to help - all the horrors the people of Britain did to it were never needed.  It came because, like The Doctor, another last of his kind, it couldn't stand to hear the children cry.

The queen gives her mask to The Doctor as a gift, promising no more secrets on the ship.  The Doctor is still amazed that Amy took such a chance with all those lives. She knew what would happen, as she had just seen the same thing with him, another who is the last of his kind, and all he wants to do is help.

Heading back to the TARDIS, Amy tries to tell The Doctor about her wedding plans back on Earth. She asks if he's ever run away from something because he was scared, or just because he could.  He said he had once, and it pretty much resulted in...him.  She tries to explain, but is distracted by a phone ringing in the TARDIS.  As he prepares to launch, she answers the phone; it's Winston Churchill on the line.  He picks it up happily, chatting like old friends.  Winston needs his help - as he speaks, across the wall of his office is the unmistakable silhouette of a Dalek.  The Doctor promises him he'll be right there.

As they take off, we get a view of the outside of the ship with two changes.  One, we now get to see the Star Whale beneath the hull, bearing its burden, and two, near the back of the ship is another of those mysterious Cracks, as we saw in Amy's room and the display of the TARDIS.

This is a very unique episode for a number of reasons.  First off, while The Smilers and Winders are certainly sinister and scary, they're not actually bad guys.  Indeed, unless you want to say Liz 10 (and to a lesser degree the whole of Britain) are evil for their choice, there's no bad guy in the episode at all.  It's more about a horrifying choice made for the sake of the survival of a nation of people, made all the more tragic by the discovery it wasn't necessary.  While there's no "punishment" for the act, the lengths the Britons go to keep themselves from going mad over the decisions made implies there will be a great deal of contrition and recompense in the coming years.  Like The Doctor in the episode, The British people were (or at least thought they were) faced with a no-win scenario that could only result in either crushing guilt and sadness, or death.  A very neat idea, one that could easily spark conversation with one's children about the difficulty of making life's choices. 

Also, for the second time in two seasons, The Doctor is wrong.  He tried to save everyone without loss of life in last season's Midnight, but finds out his "nobody dies" philosophy falls short and almost costs him his own.  Here, however, Amy Pond stops him short of doing something he'd never forgive himself for, quickly establishing herself as someone who can absolutely stand shoulder to shoulder with The Doctor.

The set design of the episode is quite wonderful - Britain exists in microcosm on the ship, and much of its culture is adapted subtly to its new home.  instead of subways ("The Underground" as they call it), elevators take citizens from place to place, with the recognizable logos and imagery translated to their new use.  Pedicabs take the place of the classic black British taxis and barrow markets now sell recycled electronic components as well as fresh produce.  It all has the feel of "If you wanted to remember where you were from, but could only bring the bare essentials, what would you bring?


Sophie Okonedo (Liz 10) was nominated for an Oscar for her role in Hotel Rwanda in 2005 and for many other awards for her roles in films like The Secret Life of Bees and Skin. She just played the titular character in Mrs. Mandela, with Nelson Mandela played by David Harewood, who played Joshua Naismith in last year's two-parter The End of Time.  Small world, innit?

"Bit unusual on  a spaceship, bicycles..." - Not to The Doctor - he suggested them to the staff of Bowie Base One in The Waters of Mars.

"Just me now...long story, it was a bad day, bad stuff happened" - The Doctor is referring to The Time War in general, and in specific to the events of The End of Time.

"So much for the 'virgin queen', you bad, bad boy.." - Liz 10 mentions a number of interactions The Doctor has had with the royal family of England in the past, including the events of Tooth and Claw and verification of an offhanded comment made at the beginning of The End of Time.

BACKGROUND BITS AND BOBS - Trivia and production details

WON'T YOU GUESS MY NAME - like The Flood in Waters of Mars, the actual name of the baddies in this episode is never actually explained.  Amy just starts calling them "Smilers" and other characters back her up/ prove her right.  As with the previous adventure, it's safe to assume that a scene where their name is given was cut out.

THIS LOOKS FAMILIAR, STRANGELY FAMILIAR - This episode touches on a number of popular science fiction tropes, using them all in new and interesting ways:

Flying cities - James Blish wrote one of the most popular examples of the sub-genre, the series of stories collected in the collected edition Cities in Flight. The rock band Boston also used the imagery of cities flitting through space on several of their albums.

The idea of an arcology (a massive building containing a virtually self-sufficient eco-system for a whole city) has been seen in plenty of SF novels, and in comics as well, like the City Blocks of Mega-City One in Judge Dredd and the towering structures of North-Am in Magnus Robot Fighter.

Space Whales - People love whales, and Sci-Fi writers love writing about them, or beasts that reflect them. There's a whole page dedicated to them at Somtow Sucharitkul (AKA S.P. Somtow) wrote Starship and Haiku, a moving novel in which the people of Japan learn their connection to whales makes their centuries-long hunting of the beasts far worse than they ever could imagine. In X-Men, Chris Claremont introduced us to the lobotomized space whales of The Brood. And if you don't know your Latin, or have never read any Terry Pratchett, SHAME on you The crazy Discworld rides through space on the back of the great Star Turtle A-Tuin, resting on the shoulders of four great elephants.

Go back to your lives...forget, forget... - The idea of a plot so secret that the crew have to erase their memories of it has appeared often as well, for example, in Star Trek TNG, Red Dwarf and even in Kurt Busiek's Astro City: Beautie one-shot.

The Tom Baker episode The Ark in Space also mentions Earthkind's attempts to escape the solar flares scorching the planet - Space Station Nerva tries to save people by placing them in suspended animation until the unpleasantness passes, only to be threatened by The Wirrn, a race with bubble wrap for skin.

The episode also bears some similarity to Gridlock; the idea of the people of Earth/Britain locked in a cramped new lifestyle that they endure with their famous pluck.   Like this episode, the future New Earth also has a "beast below", though a far less benevolent one - the feral Macra.

Both that and this story are reflective of the way the people of London survived The Blitz, quietly accepting the horrific turn their lives have taken and accepting them into a new paradigm.  It's also touched on in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, and will be tributed again in next week's episode.

HECKLE AND JECKLE GO ALL HIGH-TECHLE - The specter of Magpie Electricals reappears in this episode.  First seen as the company offering cheap television sets under the control of The Wire in The Idiot's Lanterm, the brand has made many appearances in the program since.  Martha Jones, Sarah Jane and Wilfred Mott all own Magpie brand electronics in various episodes of the series, and her in this episode the brand has moved with England to the stars.  Since we've seen mentions for some time now, likely it's more of an in-joke for the producers, or perhaps a way to help flesh out the world of the show by creating brand names people will recognize.  Quentin Tarantino does this in all his films, with many people smoking Red Apple cigarettes or eating at Big Kahuna Burger.  Nickelodeon's The Adventures of Pete and Pete was filled to bursting with products by KrebStar Industries.

BIG BAD WOLF UPDATE  - But if you want to talk about the "MΨTH" brand from last week's episode, that might be another thing entirely.  The logo on Jeff Angelo's laptop is HUGE, and is not an actual brand of PC in Britain. They're also the manufacturers of the medical equipment in the coma ward.  It's not been seen again yet, but we've not had a modern-day episode again yet either.  We saw the ATMOS exhaust scrubbing and GPS device appear as a cameo in Partners in Crime before it made its official appearance as a plot device in The Sontaran Stratagem, so there's precedence for evil invention inveigling their way into society.  Now it too might be an attempt to create a unifying brand to flesh out the world a' la Magpie, but twice in one episode...well, to quote Auric Goldfinger, "Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action."

Whofen have been running wild with theories for the name.  One of the most alluring is that the greek "Y" (actually the letter Psi) in the computer name is the astrological symbol for the planet Neptune - Neptune being god of the sea.  Perhaps a reference to the Sea Devils?

The mysterious crack in space appears again at the very end of the episode, more as a tag to tie the story to the story arc that seeming to have any actual effect on events of the episode.  The pattern seems to be that where the crack appears, strange things happen, and The Doctor follows.  There's a strong implication by patient Zero that the two are linked, but it appears that the crack appears before the Doctor does, seemingly ruling out that he's (directly) causing it BY his appearance.

NEXT TIME ON DOCTOR WHO - Daleks in London.  During World War II.  Helping Britain...against the Nazis? And somehow, Amy's never heard of them?  The Hell?

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