“Very old, and very kind, and the very, very last. Sound a bit familiar?”
Ever since I saw the images of the creepy Smilers in the trailer on New Year’s Day, I’ve been expecting ‘The Beast Below’ to be a traditional Steven Moffat episode of Doctor Who, playing on the fears of our childhood and creating Saturday tea-time terror. But instead what we got was a dark fairytale of an episode that had at its heart the burgeoning relationship between a very old alien and a young human who never really grew up.
The Smilers are indeed exceptionally creepy, particularly for someone like me who hates clowns, but really they’re just window dressing in a story that focuses on humanity. Viewers of a certain age will have no doubt gotten a thrill from the presence of the Demon Headmaster himself, Terrence Hardiman, but for me, it was all about Sophie Okonedo as Liz Ten, the gun-toting, conspiracy-investigating Cockney descendent of our royal line. The splendid Okonedo lends the necessary emotional depth as “the heart of this nation”, while also clearly having a ball with lines such as “I’m the bloody Queen, mate. Basically…I rule”. It’s a marvellously barmy idea that some Doctor Who fans seem to have been unable to embrace, but that’s because Who fandom is never united on anything. Except Bernard Cribbins. We all love Bernard Cribbins.
To be honest, the plot was a bit confusing at times, but it did have a lovely dark fairytale quality, both visually and emotionally. As Amy wanders around in her dressing gown, it’s hard not to draw parallels between her and Wendy from Peter Pan. What the episode does most skilfully is continue to develop the relationship between the Doctor and Amy. With having a new companion as well as a new Doctor, there’s no really familiar element for the audience to identify with, so having Amy be familiar with this Doctor (after all, she’s been obsessed with him since she was seven) is a masterstroke. Karen Gillan is wonderful as Amy, playing both the feisty Scot and scared little girl elements of her personality beautifully, while her slight smugness at being the one to solve the problem is a nicely realistic touch.
It’s also good to see the Doctor’s difference from the humans around him being emphasised again (“Nobody human has anything to say to me today!”), while there’s an interesting variation on the idea that the Doctor needs a travelling companion. Here, it took someone else to identify the star whale with the Doctor and so see its real motives in a way that the Doctor never could. I really could write pages and pages on how unbelievably at ease Matt Smith is with the role already, but I’ll just point out that even with the luminous Karen Gillan on screen, my eyes are still drawn to Smith and his delightfully odd face.
I enjoyed the lead-in to next week’s ‘Victory of the Daleks’, an episode I’ve been looking forward to for ages. It’s the Daleks, but khaki green and making cups of tea for people. People including Winston Churchill. And, to top it all off, you know, Matt Smith’s face. What more could a girl ask for?