Review: Doctor Who, Series 5, Episode 2: The Beast Below (Beauty and the…Critique of Democracy!)

doctor who 5

(SPOILERS AHEAD)

“In bed above or deep asleep, while greater love lies further deep. This dream must end, this world must know. We all depend on the beast below.”

On the aftermath of one of the most unexpected and depressing election results in a generation, I thought I’d revisit a rather topical episode of ‘Doctor Who.’ ‘The Beast Below’ was the second episode in Series 5, helmed by new head writer Steven Moffat. The first episode, ‘The Eleventh Hour,’ had exceeded everybody’s expectations. With an election not too far away, ‘The Beast Below’ arrived as a scathing satire on the state of our democracy. And it’s as relevant now in 2015 as it was in 2010… 

The Doctor and newish companion Amy Pond land (in the far future) landed on a space cruiser that contained the inhabitants of Great Britain (well, apart from Scotland, they wanted to be on their own! My, what an uncanny prediction! With SNP controlling Scotland today, maybe the UK doesn’t have long left…). However, as always, something was amiss. There was a totalitarian society at work, shown by those creepy plastic faces and guys in monk-like robes. Everyone was being monitored. There was CCTV everywhere. It seemed to be a basic commentary on our present society in the UK. Big Brother Britain! And so on. There was something alien roaming about the ship, with less-awful CGI than before. In fact, it used the old Doctor Who techniques of covering up the flaws of effects: the creature was usually seen in shadows, behind bars, etc. It was a clever technique to cover up poor CGI.  And of course, it emphasised that there was something sinister lurking in the depths of the cruiser ‘Great Britain.’ A child cried, yet no adults took any notice.

It was an excellent set-up, where all the hints were laid out in less than fifteen minutes. Then the real satire set in, almost uncanny in its timing during the first ‘election week’ in 2010. Amy ended up in a voting booth. The computer identified her. After being told the truth about the cruiser, was given a choice of either ‘Protest’ or ‘Forget.’ A simple but effective satire, right on the money. In effect, that is the choice we will have at any General Election: either protest at the ruling party, or forget their past demeanours and let them continue. All the inhabitants of the ship voted every five years, and obviously they choose ‘forget.’ It’s the easiest and most sensible option given the reality in the depths of the cruiser. And Amy realised that the reality would present the Doctor with an impossible choice, thus recorded a message telling herself to get the Doctor out of the place. Of course, The Doctor walks in and presses ‘Protest.’ That is second nature to him.

Turn that frown upside down!
Turn that frown upside down!

“And once every five years, everyone chooses to forget what they’ve learned. Democracy in action”

The timing of this episode couldn’t have been a coincidence back in 2010. The effective commentary on British politics resonated with me at the time, and still does now. What do you do at an election, in essence? Do you forget the contemporary government’s failures, vote for them, and hope for the best? Or do you protest, and plunge yourself into the great unknown? Do you accept reality and attempt to change it, or forget reality? Can’t there be a third way? And in a deeper sense, we all forget by participating in the system, afraid of any real change. We just prefer a change of faces to a change of system. Rather than protest and find that elusive ‘Third Way’, we stroll to the polling booth in the knowledge that nothing essential will change no matter what box we tick. Democracy is ‘The Beast Below’, the engine of our society that we take for granted in a way that we almost forget about it. It’s there, and it’s only every five years that we remember about it. Then we elect to forget it exists for another five years. If you protest by not voting, you are politically exiled, unable to comment on politics due to your vote abstinence. You might as well be in the Tower of London. The Smilers controlled the cruiser. They changed their faces from smiles to a frown to a downright angry face. Were they meant to represent our MPs? They smile most of the time, but if they are involved in a controversy, their faces follow that pattern of change. They frown, trying to ignore their past deviances. Then they get angry and lash out at the truth. (it was a pattern very apparent in the expenses scandal, for example).

But back to the episode itself. It followed the narrative ark of past relationships with companions where there is a crisis between the two in the second episode of the series (Rose became terrified at the fact that she’d randomly got on a spaceship with an alien in ‘The End of the World’, and Donna was shocked at the Doctor’s actions in ‘The Fires of Pompey’). However, the Doctor had lost faith in his companion. She had pressed the ‘Forget’ button so that the Doctor wouldn’t find out about the reality of the ship. Thus, he wouldn’t be faced with the ‘Impossible Choice’ of killing the ‘star whale’ or the entire population of Starship UK. The Star Whale was the living engine of the ship, and the stark reality of the situation was that it was being tortured to push it forwards. And thus the supposed totalitarian society was one built to protect the consciences of the population, not a malign and evil society to control minds and repress the people. The society was totalitarian for a reason…When this was revealed, the Doctor ranted at Amy, saying that humans shouldn’t try to prevent him from knowing anything. Of course, he was angry with the ‘impossible choice itself, but also that a human being had believed that she knew better than the Doctor.

All in all, it continued the reinvigorated feel of Doctor Who after the torturous last episodes of Russell T. Davies’ reign. Maybe I ignored many of ‘The Beast Below’s’ flaws because of it’s critique of democracy. But several rewatches later, it still remains one of my favourite episodes of Doctor Who: Series 5 (in a series stacked with great episodes). I may even give it a watch tonight, on the day that the Tories began to rule the UK with a majority. It seems that people have forgotten about the past five years, and are willing to put their faith in the Tories for another five years. We may be left with no choice but to live in a space cruiser after the Tories have finished selling off Britain!

VERDICT: 8/10. A brilliant critique of democracy and and cracking story to boot. One of the best episode of Series 5. 

Leave your thoughts/comments below!

(Click here for my review of Series 5, Episode 1: The Eleventh Hour)

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