Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor: The Beast Below

doctor who beast below steven moffat andrew gunn matt smith karen gillan starship uk omelas

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.

Related:

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

You can find more of my writing about Doctor Who here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this review – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor: The Eleventh Hour

doctor who eleventh hour review matt smith karen gillan apple lens flare adam smith steven moffat

To hell with the raggedy. Time to put on a show!

By all rights, this should not have worked.

Which is easy to forget! Over a decade on, The Eleventh Hour is one of five (or seven, if you like) debut episodes for a new Doctor, and – more importantly – one of three inaugural episodes marking the transition to a new creative team behind the scenes. Hindsight obscures, in this case, making The Eleventh Hour look like something resembling routine, just Doctor Who doing what Doctor Who always did. It almost is, but not exactly, and it certainly wasn’t in 2009, and not with a reinvention quite so stark as this. The most obvious antecedent, The Christmas Invasion, hardly compares at all – recasting Christopher Eccleston aside, there’s a real (deliberately and consciously created, but real) sense of consistency to that episode. Part of that is because The Christmas Invasion was ‘only’ replacing the co-lead, where The Eleventh Hour had to reintroduce the programme’s main character – you could make the case, actually, that The Eleventh Hour has more in common with Smith and Jones than with The Christmas Invasion, but even then the scale doesn’t quite compare.

What makes it more unusual is the fact that more-or-less the entire behind the scenes creative team has changed. Which, again, feels almost routine in 2021 – three years into the Chris Chibnall era, over five year since Steven Moffat announced his departure, and about nine years since people started demanding he leave – but, at the time, was huge. For the most part, that just doesn’t happen: if the three executive producers and the star are leaving the show, the expectation is not that the show carries on without them. Yes, Doctor Who had form for that with the classic series, but the new series existed in a different context – the 2005 revival was largely (if admittedly not entirely) driven by a desire to do Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who specifically, rather than an appetite for Doctor Who generally. The show was hugely popular, sure, but it had also seemed to reach a natural endpoint – it’s not a massive surprise that there were conversations at the BBC about just ending the show, or that there was an expectation it might’ve failed. It could’ve! If it’d been anything less than perfect, it would’ve been abandoned in droves.

You can feel the panic onscreen, sometimes: The Eleventh Hour is fraught in a way Doctor Who hasn’t been since Rose. Most of the time, though, you don’t notice it – because the episode more or less almost just about is, in fact, perfect.

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So, at a point when the need to impress people has never been greater, that’s exactly what The Eleventh Hour does. It’s a sixty-minute showcase, an exercise in swagger and panache, demonstrating not only the confidence to insist on your attention but also the skill to back it up too. (To pick two examples of several: Murray Gold offers some career-best compositions, and Adam Smith’s direction raises the bar visually for the entire series going forward.) You can see how that grows from Moffat’s comedy background, actually, with so much of the episode almost acting like a sleight of hand – writing one of his most difficult scripts, he’s fallen back on something he’s familiar with, writing The Eleventh Hour essentially as a farce about a man whose day keeps going wrong. It’s a huge part of how – and why – The Eleventh Hour works, with those huge strides it takes to reinvent the programme, all the different plates that are spinning throughout, grounded in something that Moffat can do in his sleep.

It gives the episode space to take more risks in turn. Again, there’s an undeniable panache: not in choosing to build the episode around Matt Smith (they were always going to have to; the approach taken by The Christmas Invasion or Deep Breath wasn’t available here, for obvious reasons) but in building the episode around the default assumption that everyone will like Matt Smith as the Doctor. Or, no, actually – that they’ll love Matt Smith as the Doctor. It all relies from his charms, from his quirks, from his skill as an actor, from his chemistry not only with Karen Gillan (more on whom in the coming weeks, but she’s brilliant), but also Caitlin Blackwood. (It’s easy to forget what a remarkable stroke of luck it was that Gillan not only had a cousin who was the right age for the part, but also one that could actually act, and act well. So much of this episode – and the next three years, really – is reliant on how good Caitlin Blackwood is as the young Amy, to the point that it’s difficult to imagine the Moffat era without her.)

And it works, of course, because he genuinely is that good. One of the more common criticisms Smith receives is that he plays the part too similarly to Tennant – which is a superficial read of them both, obviously. You can see Smith redefining the part as the episode goes along, building an entirely new take on the part by the time it finishes – there’s individual line reads Tennant might’ve done similarly, sure, but not many. One that stands out in particular is his reaction to Prisoner Zero’s taunts: you can imagine Tennant playing “no, she’s dreaming about me because she can hear me” much more defiantly, the big moment of triumph. Smith is quieter, faster, there’s a note of insecurity – he’s not dismissing the taunt, he’s denying it, and suddenly the character feels so much bigger on the inside.

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What’s really striking, though, is how much of the next seven years is already there on screen – not all of it, not yet fully formed, but the shape of it is there.

One of the key themes of the Moffat era is this idea that the Doctor isn’t a person, the Doctor is an idea, somewhere between a character to perform and an ideal to aspire to. You can pick up on it a lot during Capaldi’s tenure (particularly in, say, The Witch’s Familiar or Hell Bent, but most obviously in Extremis, which finally makes it explicit) but it’s right here too. The Eleventh Hour pares back the iconography of the Davies era – no sonic screwdriver, no TARDIS, Matt Smith spends most of the episode wearing a version of David Tennant’s costume – but that’s not just about reinventing the programme, it’s more than “this is recognisably the show you love, just not how you expect”. It’s about deconstructing the character to demonstrate how much of it is just posturing – that’s why the big hero moment, the confrontation with the Atraxi, the moment where the character finally becomes the Doctor, is explicitly about “putting on a show”.

And that’s all over the episode – look at Prisoner Zero, shapeshifter, inhabiting different roles; look at Jeff, on call to the experts, pretending to know what he’s talking about – but it’s most obvious with Amy. That as much as anything else is what makes her a Doctor Who companion: she’s solving problems in the same way he does, assuming a role, improvising. It fits nicely with the fairytale aspect, too – she’s still a child playing dress-up, in a roundabout sense, and so is the Doctor, his heroism the same kind of make believe. It’s deliberately framed in those terms – that idea of the Raggedy Doctor as her imaginary friend, someone she used to draw cartoons of, someone she made Rory dress up as and pretend to be – and based in those same questions of identity. Is she Amy, pretending to be a policewoman, or is she Amelia, the lonely child? There’s an implicit (if uncomfortable) equivalence drawn between her as a policewoman and his police box – so there’s traces of Amy-as-a-Doctor-figure, which is the same idea explored more deeply with Clara in Series 9, The Eleventh Hour again echoing the future of the Moffat era. At the same time, that lonely child is how Moffat wrote the Doctor in The Empty Child and The Girl in the Fireplace, calling back to the past. “Look in the mirror,” the Doctor texts. It’s not just a reminder of her uniform, it’s highlighting how similar they are to each other.

That’s The Eleventh Hour, then: the Moffat era, putting its best foot forward, and showing exactly where it’s going right from the first step. Anywhere in time and space, anything that ever happened or ever will. Where do you want to start? Well, right here – it’s hard to think of a better place to begin.

Related:

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

You can find more of my writing about Doctor Who here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this review – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?