The Beast Below

TARDISFrom DWM #421. A tough piece to write, really, because although I’d quite enjoyed this story, I hadn’t felt especially moved by it. The tone was uncertain, and it never quite coalesced. My hesitancy probably explains why I opted for an ‘added value’ opener, here.

DWM #421“Hold tight!” warns the Doctor. “We’re bringing down the government!” Uh oh. History tells us this could mean trouble. Say: “Weeeee!

On Valentine’s Day, as we all know, Doctor Who netted itself some spectacularly unlikely press attention when Sylvester McCoy told the Sunday Times his 1988 adventure, The Happiness Patrol, had been intended as a covert attack on Margaret Thatcher. In the event, her government survived. But who’ll get out alive this time?

As DWM hits the newsstands we’re one week away from polling day in the 2010 United Kingdom General Election. And here we are considering a story in which the Doctor delivers another boot to the ballot box. This time, though, it’s a non-partisan pasting. Rather than sticking it to our current ruling party, he’s tackling voter apathy, uncovering a complicit conspiracy of cruelty on Starship UK. Here the voters, rather than rocking the boat, opt to… well, opt out. ‘Once every five years everyone chooses to forget what they’ve learned,’ says the Time Lord. ‘Democracy in action.’

It’s a lovely message, downbeat and ambiguous and delivered in an affecting story which (dare we say it?) could almost sensibly be considered a restaging of – yup! – The Happiness Patrol. Honest: The Doctor and his friend arrive on a human outpost policed by nasties with a painted on smile, and, in the course of an evening, expose the ugly truth at the colony’s core. Thankfully, though, unlike Terra Alpha’s dolly mixture décor, Starship UK is quite magnificent – a society retreating to a kind of pro forma Fifties brand of Britishness. It’s all very London Underground and BBCtv. Quite repressed. No wonder Surrey’s made it into space. 

Other Who tales are also alluded to. Fittingly, Mark Gatiss’ The Idiot’s Lantern (2006) – set during Liz Two’s coronation in 1953 – gets a visual name check, as Magpie Electricals endures into the 29th century. Steven Moffat’s touchstone DW story, The Ark in Space (1975), is referenced too, the Doctor describing the same solar flares that drove the humans onto Space Station Nerva and a journey into eternity. Eleventh Doctor tips his metaphorical hat at the Fourth. But, on just his second adventure and exploring a Bakelite world, is Matt Smith proving to be a kind of Baker-lite himself?

Forgive the pun. The answer, of course, is no. However Tom Baker’s a good Doctor to invoke here. Sure, Smith’s clasping hands and kindly explanations mirror Patrick Troughton, but here we see another facet to him – the sheer sporadic anger and alien-ness of his fourth persona revisited. “You don’t ever decide what I need to know!” he roars, turning on Amy suddenly. And then, horribly: “Nobody human has anything to say to me today!” It’s brilliant, and underscores the fact that although this Doctor remains kind and very old, we can never be sure quite what we’re going to get from him.

The story itself is a bit like that too. It begins as a child’s nightmare (with a cameo from Terrence Hardiman, the Demon Headmaster, to boot), before turning into a subtler, steam-powered satire – the ruling classes propped up by the bulk of the proletariat, who are in turn supported by the beast below. Within the set-up, Sophie Okenedo’s V For Vendetta-esque Liz Ten first appears to be a force for rebellion, but turns out to be the figurehead of authority (“I’m the blah-dy Queen, mate”). Everyone, from sovereign to state, is impotent, and stuck in a stasis of self-denial.

In a tale that begins with our hero cheekily restating his long-since trampled over mission statement – “I’ve never got involved in the affairs of peoples or planets” – it’s the Doctor and Amy who make a difference. “I voted for this. Why would I do that?” wonders Amy, facing up to the consequences of her (in)action, while studiously avoiding certain commitments back home (“I’m getting married. Funny how things slip your mind”).

The ending proves pure storybook (well, via a brush with Doctor-induced euthanasia): A star whale who couldn’t bear to watch children cry. It’s simplistic and beautiful, but you kind of have to believe in fairies to swallow it. But then, it’s so much nicer to live in a world where Tinker Bell survives.

Meanwhile, how about that star whale? It’s…

Hold on. Phone’s ringing. Hello? The Prime Minister? Oh hello, dear! What? Danger? May 6th?

TO BE CONTINUED…

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