The Beast Below ★★

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

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Story 204

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Series 5 – Episode 2

“I’m the bloody Queen, mate!” Liz Ten

Storyline
For Amy’s first trip in the Tardis the Doctor takes her out into space in the far future. The people of Britain are crossing the universe aboard the Starship UK in search of a new home. The queen, Liz Ten, is nominally in charge, but alarming mechanical figures known as Smilers are menacing the population, especially the children. The Doctor discovers the whole ship is being conveyed by a Star Whale. It began the task in a desire to save the children but is now being tortured by malign monk-like cyborgs known as Winders.

First UK transmission
Saturday 10 April 2010

Production
August to November 2009. At the Bunker, Joint Resilience Unit, Swansea; Neath Abbey; Johnsey Estates, Pontypool; The Orangery, Margam Country Park, Port Talbot; Upper Boat Studios, Pontypridd; ITV Studios, Cardiff.

Cast
The Doctor – Matt Smith
Amy Pond – Karen Gillan
Liz Ten – Sophie Okonedo
Hawthorne – Terrence Hardiman
Mandy Tanner – Hannah Sharp
Timmy Winters – Alfie Field
Morgan – Christopher Good
Peter – David Ajala
Poem girl – Catrin Richards
Winder – Jonathan Battersby
Voice of the Smilers/Winder – Chris Porter
Winston Churchill – Ian McNeice

Crew
Writer – Steven Moffat
Director – Andrew Gunn
Producer – Peter Bennett
Music – Murray Gold
Production designer – Edward Thompson
Executive producers – Steven Moffat, Piers Wenger, Beth Willis

RT review by Patrick Mulkern
Ha ha! A starwhale. Anyone see that coming? As many fans know, a similar idea was 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 in this episode – the little we see – and lilac.

On first viewing, 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 moves me to wave a Save the Starwhale banner nor reach for the nearest harpoon. I feel more like I’m 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. At this early stage we were 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, on the night of transmission I canvassed 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 here 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 likened 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 a fairy tale with a subversive streak.