I think you could describe this as the first Marmite episode of the season, because you’ll either like it or you won’t – as like Prisoner Zeroes hiding out for 12 years in Amy’s house, you’ll either suspend disbelief or not.
Thinking on it, “The Beast Below” feels a little like a campaign supplement for a roleplaying game. The story contains a lot of new concepts, like a solar battered Earth, refugee ships based on nations, a monarchy surviving into the 33rd century, and smaller things like the Smilers. The setting has a richness to it that could all too easily have been forgotten or left to one side, concentrating on a story that would have felt far flatter and less satisfying for the lack of it. Those playing Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space could take this place and use it for an extended adventure, exploring in greater detail things like the ‘government’ control of the population, and giving the Smilers proper room to breath as a threat.
I think I’m still a little confused by the biology of the space whale, because all those threatening bits ‘leaking’ upwards into the city seemed at odds with a ‘whale’-shaped beast. At least it made the creature more exciting than the ‘hunk of food’ whale that Torchwood uncovered in the episode Meat. I suspect the species have nothing in common, as the one here certainly appeared far, far bigger with, as I’ve said, a far more bizarre physiology.
Amy Pond proves she can outdo previous companions with her insight and curiosity. I suspect her very nature ties into whatever the arc of the season is, but in the meantime it makes for solid, entertaining episodes. She serves as the humanity the Doctor lacks, serving as a sort of healing salve to the damage he had suffered by the end of his last regeneration where we saw him increasingly aloof as the last of the Time Lords.
Yes, the Smiler concept got utterly wasted, but – as I’ve said – I can see the setting getting recycled for roleplaying campaigns. Perhaps the tone of police state didn’t get reinforced enough, despite the Doctor referring to it specifically as such. The Smiler presence worked like the ever present tele-images of Big Brother in 1984 or (for role-players) omnipresent monitors of The Computer in PARANOIA. Moffat pulled another ‘ordinary object as enemy’ with the Smilers, taking the innocent ‘Tell Your Future’ machines of the fairground and making them something all the more sinister. I can’t fault him for his ability to do that – and the BBC might want to consider setting side some cash for future court claims against them for psychological trauma suffered by children watching Who at the moment.
Overall, I can piece together much to appreciate about this episode – and, yes, I’m one of those people who can paper over the cracks and engage with a story that really taxes my suspension of disbelief. One thing that did bother me was the crack in the Universe, which felt awfully tacked on at the end. I want something more like Bad Wolf or The Observer from Fringe – an oddity that I need to spot somewhere in the bustle of the episode, rather than an all too obvious thing that just sits at the end of every episode…