Thursday, 15 April 2010

Dr Who: The Beast Below - TV Review

"I'm the bloody Queen, mate. Basically, I rule..."
Out into Space (and, indeed, Time) for the new Doctor and Amy in this atmospheric, quirky second story of the new era and here we can see the much-heralded new 'fairyale' ethos of the show under showrunner/writer Steven Moffat coming to the fore as well as, pleasingly, a continuation of some of then themes so well established since 2005 depicting the Doctor as a lonely, fractured man, the last of his own kind who can never really escape the consequences of his past, no matter how much his lvioely and energetic new appearance might suggest otherwise. The new series ties its mast even more closely to the recent series' banner to with any number of warm references to episodes not-so-long gone: a shop hoarding in the name of 'Magpie Electrical' (The Idiot's Lantern), the fiery Liz 10 remindind the Doctor of past encounters with British Royalty - "knighted and exiled in one day" (Tooth and Claw) and, subtlest of all, the Doctor's faraway reaction when Amy asks him if he's had any children - you just know he's thinking, for just a second, of Jenny (The Doctor's Daughter).

So to the meat of the episode and we find the Doctor and Amy, after a magical piece of floating-in-space horseplay, investigating Starship UK, a giant floating community hundreds of years in the future, a whole Nation fleeing from the ravages of solar flares devastating the Earth and looking for a new home out amongst the stars. But what can be powering the city? What's the terrifying secret down below? Liz 10 - what's she all about? Who are the sinister Smilers? All these questions - and more - are breathlessly answered in a story which encapsulates the shock of the new whilst simultaneously evoking memories of Doctors gone-by. The whole set-up, with humanity seeking its future in the stars, can't help but recall Tom Baker's classic second story 'The Ark In Space' and there are echoes of the Eccleston era's underrated 'The Long Game', with humanity's thoughts and ideas controlled by an outside force. Moffat again reaches for the box marked "things that scare kids" and, for the hell of it, brings out the Smilers,creepy swivel-headed creatures in fun-fair-like glass booths whose faces change expression depending on how compliant the person addressing them happens to be. The Smilers are an interesting visual concept but they don't really go anywhere and they don't add a lot to a rather random plot which throws in a handful of intriguing ideas but doesn't develop them as much as they deserve due to the constraints imposed upon them by a 45 minute episode running time. The story itself is actually rather powerful, touching upon a number of high profile contemporary concerns, not least of which being the examination of power and corruption and deceit and deception at the very core of the seat of power (and how well-timed was the scheduling of this episode in the same week as a General Election is called in the UK?). Here the British public - every five years - are told the unpalatable truth about their society and then given the option to either 'protest' (bringing about the downfall of the Government) or 'forget', maintaining the status quo. "Democracy in action!" as the Doctor declares. It's an amusing and quite a useful metaphor but Moffat's script doesn't seem confident enough to run with it because it has to tick all the usual Dr Who boxes, which tend to have to include various scary monsters and super creeps along with another Mofffat trademark - sharp, sassy dialogue which sizzles by so quickly you need to watch the episode two or three times to catch every nuance. The result is an episode that's a bit schizophrenic; it has certain points to make about a bland society turning a blind eye to terrible injustices (where, incidentally, it's the continual torture of the giant star whale upon whose back Starship UK is perched and...stay with me...which is carrying the ship across Space. Could happen...) as well as incidental points about the Monarchy and the education system , but they're a bit lost amidst all the slopping about amongst the whale's innards and big red herring about the Smilers who are pretty much incidental to the whole plot.

But 'The Beast Below' isn't a bad episode, it's just one which has too big an agenda. It also has to broaden the relationship between the Doctor and Amy. New boy Smith continues to impress, lively and energised, he fizzes across the screen, all waving fingers and gangly-legged, channeling Patrick Troughton by way of...ulp...Sylvester McCoy. He's superb here too where he expresses the Doctor's rage at injustice - "Nobody human speaks to me today!" - and his rather cold dismissal of Amy when she makes a decision for him and he mutters, under his breath, that when this is over she's going straight back home. It's as if he's lost confidence not only in Amy but in his ability to pick the right person to travel with him; he feels both betrayed and disappoinetd with himself. Karen Gillan's Amy has more to do here than she did in 'The Eleventh Hour'. In best Dr Who tradition she wanders off on her own and gets into trouble but the fact that she provides the resolution to the Doctor's terrible moral dilemma is a sharp volte face from the traditions of the rather more typical "What is it? Where are we? What's happening, Doctor?" girl some fans or critics may have been expecting after a run of strong-willed, powerful companion figures throughout the Russell T Davies era. Gillan has a strange leggy charm, her voice veering oddly from vaguely Scottish to distinctly Werst Country. But she and Smith have already established themselves as a daringly different TARDIS duo and it's clear after just two weeks that the show's in safe hands with these two front-of-camera.

Visually the show's as strong as ever even though it's difficult to truly convince the audience that we're on a spaceship housing the population of an entire country on just one busy 'street' set and a few sparse corridors and a dungeon and, despite some decent FX and physical effects, the spectre of the show's rumoured budget cuts hovers above the episode. Sophie Okenedo gets the guest star kudos this week as the cheeky Liz 10; she gets all the best lines too and she gets to indulge in a bit of slick gunplay.

'The Beast Below' is a sturdy, decent little episode but with such delights still ahead of us in the new series - Daleks, Weeping Angels en masse, Silurians, vampires, the Doctor playing football and the still under wraps big finale - it seems likely that it's an episode which will get lost in the rush and remembered fondly, if never passionately. But what a cliffhanger, with the Doctor receiving a telephone call (?) from Winston Churchill, and a mysterious familiar shadow on the wall on Winnie's war room. The Ironsides are coming!

Dr Who and the TV Ratings: Much excitement when the overnight ratings for the first episode, 'The Eleventh Hour', logged in at around 8 million. Much astonishment this week when the final BARB ratings, published on Monday, revealed that the final figure - including 'timeshift', ie viewers who recorded the show to be watched during the following seven days - was an astonishing 9.59 million! This is the highest figure for a series debut since 'Rose' back in 2005 and a more than encouraging start for the Smith/Moffat era. The HD audience for the simultaneous broadcast adds another 500,000 to the figure and early iplayer figures suggests another million views in the week after transmission as well as 600,000 for the BBC3 Sunday evening repreat. Hard to estimate the final figure for the first episode but it certainly seems as if 12 million 'unique' viewers were on board for the start of the new series. The sound you hear is the popping of champagne corks at BBC TV centre...

In other TV news... Very disappointed - if not horribly surprised - to read this week that the BBC have confirmed that they have decided not to commission to third series of the revived, reinvented Terry Nation post-plague drama 'Survivors'. The series really found its creative feet in its second run - episode four being one of the bleakest and most harrowing pieces of TV I've seen in years. But the cold truth is that the show's audience had tumbled from the first run in 2008. When the show started in November 2008 it kicked off with nearly 8 million viewers, settling to around 5.5 million as the run wore on. However, I'm of the view that the BBC themselves have been the architect of the show's misfortune. The important last episode of the first series was screened a couple of days before Christmas and managed to lose over a million of its regular audience. Series two debuted in January 2010 - over a year later, an age for a show which only had six episodes the first time around - to a decent audience of over 5 million. The BBC, in its wisdom, took the show off the following week - after one episode! - to screen a football match. Virtually the dictionary definition of pulling the rug out from under a TV show. As a result either the audience didn't realise the show was back the week after over just couldn't be bothered to follow a series which they might only have vaguely remembered from over a year ago. Witless BBC scheduling is a personal bugbear at the moment - probably for another blog entry - but the BBC really should be asking themselves a few questions about the way they place shows in inappopriate slots (see this years 'Ashes To Ashes', audiences 2 million down this year as, for some reason, it's been given a Friday night slot) because a lot of series aren't getting the audiences they deserve because not enough thought is being given to where they're placed in the schedule. Meanwhile, Adrian Hodges' plan for a five-year run of 'Survivors' lie in ruins and we're left with a series which could have done so much more if only it had the proper support of the people who commissioned it......Meanwhile over in America there's a new six-part zombie apocalypse mini series 'The Waking Dead' due to enter production shortly, with the intention that, if successful, it'll become a longer-running weekly series. Star casting has just been announced and in the lead role we have the UK's very own Andrew Lincoln. The affable star of 'This Life' (the seminal, defining 1990s contemporary drama),Channel 4's 'Teachers' and ITV's 'Afterlife' plays the leader of a group of survivors (sob) of a zombie apocalypse in the US. Little else is known about the project at the moment but Lincoln's a great actor, so this is a show which has got my attention from the off.

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