Once every five years, everyone chooses to forget what they’ve learned. Democracy in action.
In the months leading up to Twice Upon a Time, I had this idea that I should write a short piece about each Twelfth Doctor episode, publishing one a day until the actual regeneration. I didn’t, in the end, in part because of my awful time management skills, but also because I could never quite work out where to begin. Deep Breath was the obvious choice for obvious reasons, but maybe I should start with The Day of the Doctor, because that was Peter Capaldi’s first appearance as the Doctor? Except, of course, the story of the Twelfth Doctor is as much the story of Clara Oswald as it is anything else – so maybe I should start with Asylum of the Daleks?
Eventually I decided that the most sensible starting point for a series of articles about the Twelfth Doctor was, obviously, The Beast Below. (The idea made me laugh, but it’s also a large part of why I never actually got around to doing it.) The thinking, anyway, was that this story introduced a lot of those ideas about names and identities that came to be such a huge part of the Capaldi era – “and then I find a new name, because I won’t be the Doctor anymore”, seemingly just a stray little aside, containing within it most of the next seven years. Obviously, one of the things that was most striking to me about last week’s episode was how many of those ideas and concepts arrived fully formed from the start (my sense is that what this series is going to demonstrate, more than anything else, is quite how thematically coherent Moffat’s writing actually is), but even still, The Beast Below feels like it’s secretly the key to understanding Steven Moffat’s take on Doctor Who. It’s got a long legacy: it’s not exactly that you can feel its influence on The Day of the Doctor, on Kill the Moon, on The Doctor Falls, so on, but rather this episode is where a lot of those ideas crop up for the first time.
Which isn’t a surprise, really – The Beast Below is as much redefining what Doctor Who is and can be as The Eleventh Hour was, not only as the first episode Moffat wrote of his own accord (i.e. not writing to a premise offered to him by Russell T Davies), but also as the first “normal”, non-event episode of the show since Midnight. First and foremost, The Beast Below is an attempt to establish a whole new register for Doctor Who.
One thing that’s striking about The Beast Below is how it repositions Doctor Who as a fairytale, finishing the reinvention of the series that began with The Eleventh Hour – the show is no longer, as it was under Russell T Davies, so wholly and entirely at home in the television schedules. Moffat, for all his strengths, would never think to write the evil television shows of Bad Wolf; instead, Doctor Who is grounded in a different vocabulary, and it’s to be understood and approached from a different lens. It’s not a populist drama in touch with the zeitgeist anymore (or, at least, not in the same way) – it’s framed in terms of a different type of storytelling now.
That’s all over The Beast Below: Amy has her Wendy Darling moment; Sophie Okonedo is a storybook Queen by way of Star Wars; the Doctor is at his most Sherlock Holmes; even the nominal villain of the piece is the Demon Headmaster. What’s more interesting, though, is that recurring motif of the poem to introduce and close the episode. It’s a device Moffat will get a lot of use out of over the next few years (sometimes more successfully than others), but here it’s essential – establishing the story as something to be retold and recounted, like a fairytale or a fable or a myth. (The whole ‘world’ of Starship UK is constructed that way, really – not strictly a coherent setting, but an abstraction, all leading to that final reveal.) That’s what the episode hinges on: it’s all about which stories are told, by whom and to what end, which are remembered and which are forgotten, and which should be accepted, which should be rejected, and which should be rewritten. Much has been written about how The Beast Below compares to The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas (this piece in particular is one I’d recommend). That story, as part of its thought experiment, asks if a utopia might be made more credible by the necessity of suffering, but it concerns itself primarily with what happens next – The Beast Below is rejecting that story, and insisting against the necessity of that suffering.
That’s how The Beast Below offers the key to the Moffat era. It’s the next evolution of that idea in The Eleventh Hour – not only to say that the Doctor and Amy and their world are stories, but that you can choose which stories to tell. It’s not just a case of making it a good story, it’s a case of making it a better one. It’s Amy that notices that, insightful enough to understand what the Doctor doesn’t, a clever repositioning (and advancing) of the Davies era “companion as the Doctor’s conscience” conceit.
What’s interesting, then, is where else The Beast Below applies that lens, to this idea of national myths. In a way it’s surprisingly daring, pointed and angry in a way Doctor Who often isn’t but could stand to be more – an episode about how any idealised fairytale Britain is a myth built on the back of suffering, one that consistently chooses ignorance over reckoning with its sins. (Incidentally, contrast that with The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, where everyone knows the truth about the suffering – in The Beast Below, there’s this conscious decision to forget rather than just regret.)
There’s something admirably blunt about doing this story – about a government committing torture and a population that ignores it, prioritising their comfortable lives over the harm that causes – in the weeks before an election. It’s perhaps being charitable to call the story radical, but there’s an awareness and a potency to it that doesn’t always surface in Doctor Who, and leaves The Beast Below feeling genuinely quite sharp in places; I suspect the series today would be in a much healthier place if it took a few lessons from The Beast Below. Not, of course, that those lessons were entirely understood at the time, which is particularly obvious as we lead into next week – Doctor Who spends forty minutes here puncturing national myths, then slips into one itself. I’m yet to rewatch Victory of the Daleks, though I suspect it’ll make an interesting-if-not-flattering comparison piece to The Beast Below, especially with a decade’s worth of hindsight.
In a way, though, that’s The Beast Below all over. As much as it finishes the reinvention started by The Eleventh Hour (you could almost argue they form a two-parter together, really), at the same time it doesn’t quite stick. It might be the key to the Moffat era, but it’s also an oddity within it, sitting awkwardly and never quite replicated. It’s a shame: there’s a vision of Doctor Who here that really, genuinely works.