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The Last of Its Kind: Impossible Choices and the Beast Below on Doctor Who

"You took it upon yourself to save me from that. That was wrong. You don't ever decide what I need to know." - The Doctor

Despite his kindness and benevolence, The Doctor has always been a figure of immense pride that borders on hubris. As a 900-year-old Time Lord, he might risk life and limb to save Earth time and time again but it's his belief that he knows better than the planet's inhabitants, that he's better equipped to make the monumental decisions than the mere mortals whose continued existence is in his hands. The Doctor, to put it bluntly, has a bit of a God complex.

This week's episode of Doctor Who ("The Beast Below"), written by Steven Moffat and directed by Andrew Gunn, found the Doctor and Amy together on their first adventure in the TARDIS and encountering the numerous secrets of Starship UK, the future of Great Britain, now a fused-together spaceship looking for a new home among the stars.

As a first outing for the Doctor and his new companion, it was a fantastic installment that found the two at cross-purposes as they begin to learn how to work together and which tested their individual moral compasses, forcing each to make difficult decisions that would impact humanity in unforeseen ways.

Considering that this is only their second episode together (and ever), I thought that Matt Smith and Karen Gillan totally sold their burgeoning relationship, which isn't exactly as perfect as it might seem. The idyllic and gorgeously opening sequence in which Gillan's Amy drifts in deep space tethered by the Doctor to the TARDIS (which Steven Moffat revealed at the recent BAFTA/LA screening was actually a last-minute replacement for another sequence which didn't work) is vastly at odds with their heated exchange within Starship UK's Tower of London, a scene that reveals Amy's naivete about her traveling companion and the Doctor's belief that he knows better than the humans. ("You're only human," he tells Amy condescendingly.)

After all, the Doctor has been around for more than 900 years; he's seen things that most mere mortals could only dream of, so he has to know better than a girl from Ledworth who has been off-planet exactly once in her short life. After all, she voted to "forget" the awful truth of what was going on aboard Starship UK and sought to conceal the true nature of the secret conspiracy from the Doctor, believing it would be better if they left before he was faced with an impossible decision.

But no one makes decisions for the Doctor, as he savagely reminds her (and reminds her of her humanity). The Eleventh Doctor might be an incarnation that's fun and frothy but there's some real darkness and anger inside of him as well, the latter of which--along with his own innate pain--that leaps out of him in this exchange. Rather than simply take her abuse, Amy stands up to the Doctor, making another decision for him that is The Right Choice.

For the truth of Starship UK is that there is no engine aboard the ship, which is being piloted through deep space by an ancient creature known as a space whale (one of which was seen during Torchwood's second season). Every five years, the adults have the ability to learn the truth about the creature and may opt to "forget" or "protest." Most, of course, look to turn a blind eye, choosing to forget the truth about their existence. Those who don't become food for the imprisoned and tortured space whale, while those with limited use (particularly the children) are either conscripted into serving the conspirators--the winders and the smilers--or become yet another tasty meal.

The monarch, Liz Ten (the always sensational Sophie Okenedo), is also aware of something going on (her glass of water experiment is the same the Doctor uses) and she seeks to learn the truth as well but it's a path that puts her in the same place every ten years: back in the Tower of London, having gained the knowledge about what they are doing to that poor, lonely creature, and voting to forget rather than abdicate.

But this time there's a difference: Amy Pond is there by her side and, after getting one hell of a scolding from the Doctor, she opts to make the difficult choice of abdication rather than let the Doctor lobotomize the space whale. She sees a clear parallel between the space whale's plight and that of the Doctor: the last of their kind, lonely and in pain, each looking to help humanity rather than be doomed to an eternity of isolation.

She makes a harder choice than the Doctor is prepared to, placing the residents of Starship UK in danger on little more than a hunch, one formed by seeing the creature interact with Mandy and Timmy. It came to Earth because the children were crying and because it wanted to help, not because of a coincidence or a miracle. While the Doctor can't bring himself to kill the space whale, he wants to put it out of its misery, but Amy won't allow him to destroy something so ancient and beautiful, to take a path of destruction. She believes in the power of benevolence and she's right, ultimately. The space whale, no longer in pain, increases its speed.

Despite their brief time together, Amy has learned something from the Doctor: the ability to notice everything, to process the details and form a picture of what's actually going on outside of the shadows. While that applies to the space whale, it also relates to the Doctor and herself as well.

"You couldn't just stand there and watch children cry," Amy says, but it's not just the space whale she's referring to; it's the Doctor himself as well. He's a hero because it's in his nature to be too. He can't avoid the cry of a space whale or a human child. His identity is rooted in a need to heal, to help, to save. He is, after all, a Doctor.

The final scene aboard Starship UK repairs the damage done between the two in the Tower of London as Amy reveals why she wanted them to leave and why she's still running (albeit from her wedding, which she's continued to conceal from the Doctor): because she was scared, because she was not ready, and because she could. The tenderness of the embrace between the two, framed by the massive wall of glass overlooking the stars, places their interaction not just in terms of the fantastical and the extraordinary but also the very human and personal.

It's an episode that builds upon the strengths of the season opener to cement the relationship between the Doctor and Amy and between the characters and the audience as well. Smith and Gillan both prove more than capable of channeling the intensity and range of emotions necessary for Doctor Who, rendering it impossible to look away from them or fail to be moved by their new-formed partnership. While the season is only just getting underway, I've already fallen head over heels in love with them both.

What did you think of this week's episode? How did it compare to "The Eleventh Hour" for you? Are you loving Smith and Gillan as much as I am? Discuss.

Next week on Doctor Who ("Victory of the Daleks"), The Doctor and Amy meet Winston Churchill during a trip back to World War II, where they also encounter the Daleks.


Lisa said…
I'm with you! Love this new season and the new Doctor and Amy. (Doesn't mean I don't love the previous Doctor --so many people seem to be turning this into a popularity contest!)

So looking forward to the next episodes and trying to convince everyone I know to start watching the show! Thanks for a great synopsis and keep writing about the show!
Tempest said…
While I'm a fan of the actors and writers -- yes, Jace, I love Smith and Gillan as much as you--, I have to admit that I found this episode clunky at times. I love the interaction between the 11th doctor and Amy Pond. I loved many of the ideas --- I just feel that the execution was off in places. We were hit over the head with Amy's insight about the whale/the doctor at the end. (I think I actually said aloud, "Ok, we GET IT!") I loved Liz 10's "I'm the bloody queen, mate" but felt the "basically, I rule" was a bit much. Some of the elements seemed recycled. The mechanical men were straight out of "The Girl in the Fireplace." I wonder if Moffat is still finding his way with the series. Hopefully, these are just small kinks getting worked out. (Or, it may be that Moffat set the bar so high with his episdodes that we're expecting too much.) Don't get me wrong; I'm all in with the series, and there was still much that I loved about this episode and the direction the series seems to be going.
Ridolph said…

The new season does seem a little clunky so far, but I think that the new crew are growing on me. Not a perfect episode by any means, and frankly I'm very wary of Moffat's 'simplified' approach which seems to be bringing the show back to its 'childrens' program' roots. Still a fan though.

You will get the joke next week.
Anonymous said…
I like the actors - I think they're great together. I'm having a bit of a struggle with the writing - it's like Moffatt is trying to cram too much into an hour tv show, and relying on the same story telling tricks over and over. Again, I look forward to seeing another writer tackle this Doctor.
The CineManiac said…
I have a question. Doctor Who used to be 56ish min in the UK and had to be cut down to 43min to fit US commercial standards. The new series, with the exception of the first episode, seem to be 45ish min. Was this decision made in order to not have to cut anything out of the US broadcast?
Bella Spruce said…
I thought this episode was excellent - especially those tense moments between Amy and the Doctor. I think that Moffat may still be finding his footing but with these two in the lead roles I have confidence that it will all come together beautifully.
Shatner's Bassoon said…
@The CineMatic
The revamped version of Dr Who has always been shown in 45-minute slots on the BBC, over the past 4 series. You may be confused because the specials of last year were mostly hour slots, as well as the last episode of season 4, "Journey's End," and the first of season 5/1/31/fnarg (the current season)"The Eleventh Hour" being somewhere in the region of 65 minutes each.

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