The new season of Doctor Who sports new stars, a revamped time machine, and a whole new writing staff. But based on the first batch of episodes, it's still trying too hard to give us what we've come to expect.
Oh, and there will be spoilers for "The Beast Below," which just aired on BBC America, in this post. And very minor spoilers for the following two episodes, "Victory Of The Daleks" and "Time Of The Angels" as well.
So when Steven Moffat took over as showrunner and head writer of Doctor Who, he promised that we wouldn't see much difference between his episodes and those created by his predecessor, Russell T. Davies. And Moffat was right — at least so far, the Moffat era is feeling quite similar to the Davies era, except that there's a bit more focus on "timey wimey" shenanigans — like the fact that the Doctor meets his companion as a little girl, then again as an adult.
The season's second episode, "The Beast Below," seems like a perfect example of Moffat doing a cover version of Davies. It's very, very similar in many ways to Davies' story "The Long Game" from back in 2005, and has a very Davies-esque brand of political satire. (Timed, I guess, to coincide with the run-up to Britain's general election.)
In "The Long Game," the population of a future Earth are kept subjugated and confused, thanks to a futuristic satellite that feeds them propaganda masquerading as news — and it turns out that an alien monster lurking on the top floor is behind this attempt to weaken the human race. In "The Beast Below," the residents of a spacebound future Britain are kept in ignorance about the true nature of their spaceship — and the twist is, the alien monster lurking below decks is actually their victim.
After watching "The Beast Below" a couple of times, I can't escape the feeling that it's an inferior version of something Davies might do. The crux of the story is that the people of Starship Britain are regularly told the truth about their situation, after which they have a choice of two buttons: "Protest," which lodges their disapproval of the horrendous situation, or "Forget," which wipes their memory of the truth so they can go about their lives. It's a very Patrick McGoohan-esque satire on democracy, in which people are made complicit in the corruption of the system.
Russell T. Davies' tenure on Doctor Who included plenty of ill-formed ideas and weak writing, but pungent social satire was always one of his strong suits. (As long as he stayed away from fat people.) You get the feeling that if Davies had been writing "The Beast Below," it would have been much, much nastier. There would have been cannibalism, or people being turned into dessicated corpses, or extreme weirdness. One thing you could always count on RTD for was a gleeful twisting of the knife.
Instead, Moffat's reluctance to show any real nastiness on screen lets him down a bit here — the main antagonist in the story, the Smilers, are a bit useless. Their main method of attack is to frown at you. And if that doesn't work, they grimace a bit. Just like the previous episode, with the singularly unthreatening Prisoner Zero and the somewhat abstract danger from the Atraxi, Moffat doesn't seem to be able to muster much awfulness. You get all the campiness of a Davies story, with none of the gleeful slaughter. (The Chicago Tribune's estimable Maureen Ryan has a great summation of what's wrong with "The Eleventh Hour.")
"The Beast Below" leaves you feeling as though Moffat's not quite playing to his strengths here — he's convinced he can't do an entire season of stories like "The Empty Child," "Blink" or "Silence In The Library," so instead he's trying to do some lighter, Davies-style episodes.
The good news is, the season's third episode, Mark Gatiss' "Victory Of The Daleks," is at least a fun romp even if it doesn't make all that much sense. And Moffat's "The Time Of Angels," the first half of a two-parter, has everything that feels like it's missing from "The Eleventh Hour" and "The Beast Below." Not surprisingly, since it brings back both the Weeping Angels and the Doctor's maybe-wife River Song, it feels like a straight-up mashup of "Blink" and "Silence In The Library," borrowing freely from both.
Watch "The Beast Below" and "The Time Of Angels" back to back, and you'll see the difference between Moffat doing what he thinks is expected of him, and Moffat playing to his strengths.
There's plenty to love about "The Beast Below," though. Just like with "The Eleventh Hour," Matt Smith and Karen Gillan are marvelous, and there are plenty of fantastic moments that deepen their relationship. I really do love the idea that the Doctor won't interfere in the affairs of other cultures, unless there's a child crying. It's such a goofy distortion of the Prime Directive that you have to love it.
The Doctor is actually kind of a bastard to Amy in this episode. He tosses her in the deep end, telling her to follow the child whose thingy he stole, or else he'll send her straight home. His brash injunction, basically, to wander off and get herself into trouble, leads to her wandering into a forbidden area and being menaced by weird tentacle thingies. And then when she makes the wrong decision in the voting booth, he tears her in half for deciding that he shouldn't know the truth about what's going on here. He's pig-headed and unfair, and it's good that she finally calls him on it.
And yet, the Doctor also shows tremendous compassion in this episode — as we see in the beginning, when he can't resist a crying child, and then later when he is horrified by the plight of the Star Whale that the Space Brits are imprisoning and torturing.
The best bit in the episode, for my money, is where the Doctor decides to euthanize/lobotomize the poor Star Whale, to spare it any further torment. And then, he says, he'll have to find a new name, because he won't be the Doctor any more. As much as the Doctor sometimes holds others to too high a standard, he holds himself to an even higher one. And then at the very end, when Amy hugs the Doctor and says "Got you," it's absolutely brilliant.
Also, the humor is fantastic, and the Doctor's line "This won't be big on dignity," has become one of my favorite Doctor-isms.
Meanwhile, Amy's having second thoughts about her wedding, which is supposed to happen a thousand-plus years ago, tomorrow morning. It feels like, by traveling the universe with the Doctor, she's getting her last taste of freedom before settling down. But we're already seeing some lovely hints that it's not going to be quite that simple.
Like I said, the Doctor and Amy are both marvelously written and beautifully acted — just like in their first outing. It's only the rest of the story that's a bit uninspiring. Oh, and I sort of liked Sophie Okonedo as Liz Ten, the badass masked queen with the sharp-shooting pistols — she was fun as a one-off character.
The thing is, I don't think there would have been anything wrong with Moffat doing a whole season of more horror-oriented Doctor Who episodes along the lines of "Blink." The show's been pretty horror-oriented at various points in its past, and it has a reputation, especially in Britain, for being a scary show that you watch from behind the sofa. So it seems like a shame that Moffat appears to believe the show needs more lightweight outings to capture viewers.
Anyway, to sum up — "The Beast Below" struck me as another story with fantastic character development for the Eleventh Doctor and Amy, but ultimately a pretty forgettable story otherwise. The "Encounter At Farpoint" plot doesn't get much storytelling energy devoted to it, and instead the focus is on a silly "A vote for the Tories = self-mind-wiping" political satire. As long as we're seeing the Doctor's relationship with Amy develop, it's thrilling — but the rest of the time, it's curiously lifeless.
In "The Time Of Angels," meanwhile, Moffat is borrowing liberally from his own back catalog — but that seems to work for him a lot better than borrowing from Russell T. Davies'. (We'll do a more in-depth recap of "Angels" in a couple of weeks.)
But what did you think?