This is a strange episode to write about, mostly because it falls squarely in the middle of the quality spectrum, at least for me. This episode, like the one that follows it, serves a function–it lets us get to know the new Doctor and new companion in different ways. However, it’s pretty clearly the least among Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who stories. It doesn’t have the same glitter and glint to it. While the dialogue’s sharp as always, the story kind of meanders and makes only a little sense.
That doesn’t make me hate it, though, but neither does it make me absolutely love it. Nevertheless, this is not an episode I’ll always skip. There’s some good stuff here, mostly in the climax, but little things like the Star Wars references make it fun in rewatches. The cinematography is also top-notch, carrying over from The Eleventh Hour with long takes and beautiful compositions. Matt Smith continues to dazzle as the Eleventh Doctor, and Karen Gillan begins to show a bit more range outside of the feistiness we got in the premiere.
I really wish I had more to say about this episode, but I honestly can’t think of anything? It’s wholly unremarkable. It gets in, gets the job done, and quietly exits stage right. The comparisons between the Doctor and the star whale are a little on the nose, but it’s not like the show hasn’t done on the nose before.
Actually, I do have a little tiff with the fandom on this episode, in particular a scene near the beginning where Amy says, “One little girl crying. So?” It seems that a lot of people have interpreted this to mean that Amy doesn’t care about the girl crying and therefore doesn’t have a lot of empathy. Which is frankly incorrect. We see her getting a bit dewy-eyed at the very start, when she’s watching Mandy through the scanner. She even remarks that it’s kind of cold to just watch and not do anything. The line above is in reaction to the Doctor’s previous line that there is a police state on Starship UK. Amy doesn’t see how one little girl crying is evidence of a police state, and the Doctor goes on to explain it to her. Is this nitpicking a bit? Yes, frankly. Also frankly? I don’t care.
If anything, this episode is meant as a reassurance to the viewer. Everything about Doctor Who was new with Series 5–new showrunner, new Doctor, new companion, new look, new TARDIS, new EVERYTHING. The Beast Below reminds us that for all his wailing in The End of Time, the Doctor is still the Doctor. He eschews the “observe only, do not interfere” mandate of the Time Lords, he helps when he sees children crying, he tries above all to be kind. He’s the same man, through and through.
The episode also shines more of a light on Amy, who at the end of The Eleventh Hour was running away from her own wedding. We find out that she’s a little afraid of her impending marriage and what it might mean for her, as evidenced by her talk with Mandy and her interest in her marital status in the voting booth. She comes close to confessing what she’s done to the Doctor at the end, but gets distracted–whether inadvertently or on purpose, we might never know. But we are starting to see that under the layer of toughness and feistiness, Amy is scared of a lot of things. She said in The Eleventh Hour that she’d grown up, but it seems here that that’s actually what she’s afraid of.
As I said before, The Beast Below is an episode that gets the job done. It takes us by the hand and leads us slowly on, reassuring us that nothing has changed in the core of the show, it’s just the outside bits that are a little different. We begin to see into the heart of the companion, and find out the Doctor is nearly the same as always. It’s a gentle pat on the shoulder and a quiet voice in our ear: this is still Doctor Who.