Doctor Who: The Beast Below

It has a starwhale, spooky Smilers and Sophie Okonedo, but is this one a stinker?

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Ha ha! A starwhale. Anyone see that coming? As many fans will know, a similar idea has been knocking around Doctor Who since the early 1980s, when The Song of the Space Whale was commissioned but never filmed. Everyone loves a whale. And so cute tonight – the little we saw – and lilac.

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As The Beast Below unfolded, I sensed I was either going to love it or loathe it… A bold surreal concept reminiscent of Douglas Adams, whose work I admire without always liking; and a skewed future society recalling Russell T Davies’s stabs at dystopia (The Long Game, Gridlock), as well as Paradise Towers – a seventh Doctor serial I cannot abide.

Well, on balance, The Beast Below, neither moved me to wave a Save the Starwhale banner nor reach for the nearest harpoon. I feel more like I was standing on a headland catching glimpses of a distant but beautiful leviathan.

To be fair, it’s intriguing to see Steven Moffat trying out unfamiliar styles. We’re used to his darker, more adult-pleasing stories, The Empty Child (2005) and Blink (2007), but he insists that Who is fairy-tale territory and appears to be pitching these first two episodes at a younger crowd.

Feeling out of the loop tonight, I thought I’d canvass the opinion of my niece and nephew Kaia and Finn. One thumb up and another thumb down, but there was a cushion on standby for the Smilers. How spooky are they!

Moffat is masterful at exploiting simple things that unsettle children. In previous scripts, he’s scored with gas masks, clockwork toys, statues, shadows…and now it’s a take on those heads with disconcerting rictus you find in booths at funfairs.

Unruly children will surely have sat up straight at the opening scene as punishment is meted out to an underachieving pupil. Very black. I can also imagine browbeaten teachers across the land taking quiet satisfaction there. And I love the image of Starship UK with its tower-block counties, contentiously “bolted together” with Northern Ireland, if not Scotland, who have gone it alone. (“Good for them,” says Amy. “Nothing changes.”)

Matt Smith and Karen Gillan continue to impress. He’s a sexy bundle of energy and eccentricity while she has a presence that can transcend even a sick-covered nightie. Moffat likens the pair (on Doctor Who Confidential) to Peter Pan and Wendy – an impression reinforced when the Doctor grasps Amy’s ankle so she can float about in a starlit sky. Magical.

The last word for Sophie Okonedo. Oscar-nominated for Hotel Rwanda and heartbreaking as Nancy in Oliver Twist, it’s refreshing to see her having fun for a change, gun-toting and dashing about in ringlets and crimson cape. Liz Ten’s mockney may not entirely work, but with “I’m the bloody Queen, mate!” she gets a mildly rude word under the radar.

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This is fairy tale with a faint subversive streak.