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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later.Support Elizabeth on Patreon.

107 Comments

  1. Carey
    March 31, 2014 @ 1:30 am

    Oooh, I like this essay!

    One thing I would add is:

    "On the most basic level is the iconography of the UK. Attention has been taken with the details of the world. The television broadcasts are consciously designed to use the familiar iconography of BBC broadcasts, the schedule for mandatory voting is recognizable as that of parliamentary elections, and the story is on the whole careful to stress that this is the UK of the future. It would be difficult to scream “this is a political allegory” much louder.

    More than this, the iconography used is the mythic UK of the past. In particular, the "blitz spirit" of the 40's and the post war period of the 50's, both times "the common brit" mucked in and endured hardship for the common good. A time beloved the Daily Mail, and often used as a stick to beat the present with, and an ideal to aspire to. A time where it was "safe to walk the streets, and there were no teenagers to cause trouble (primarily because they were abroad on National Service.

    All of which is, of course, a fairy tale. It was a time rife with crime (any society that has rationing automatically develops a black market to cater for the needs of those willing to pay); a society hideously scarred by war; and both desperate to import a wave of immigrants to provide crucial services that the population didn't want to do (my wife's Grandmother came to these shores from Barbados to become a Nurse here) while simultaneously resenting their presence.

    As you say, The Beat Below"The Star Whale is not a metaphor for anything specific, but instead ends up embodying the existence of exploitation and depravity as a condition for “civilized society” in general." For while it uses the fairy tale iconography of the past it is firmly a criticism of the present. And being broadcast at the start of an election campaign is a political statement in itself (in this respect the jingoistic nature of Victory of the Daleks makes more sense: if Doctor Who were to be criticised by the likes of the Daily Mail then that story could be held up as a contrast. Of course, Victory was in it's own way subversive, but not nearly as much as the Beat Below).

    I think it a great story, and seriously underrated. Not least of which, by Moffat himself.

    I've been to a couple of interviews with him where, when asked by an audience member what he believes to be his best script (The Eleventh Hour, if anyone wants to know– and even there he counters it with not necessarily the best, but certainly the most successful in achieving what he wanted it to) he has said it easier to say what his worst script is, and then proceeds to name The Beast Below.

    From other interviews, he has stated how he believes this story and Victory of the Daleks (which were in the second recording block and, respectively, fourth and fifth stories to be made) lacked the energy that other stories had put in them, and constituted the production team "taking their eye off the ball." I do know there was a serious amount of reshoots on the episode by Davies/Gardner era veteran Euros Lyn.

    Finally, The Beast Beow is why I'm mystified when anyone says that the Moffat era has abandoned any sort of political debate. There's certainly an argument to be made that the politics of the Moffat era was more schizoid than the Davies era, but I believe this is at least in part down to Moffat not actively rewriting scripts, which allowed the voice of the original writer to show more (along with their possible politics). It's probably better to say that some of the critics simply don't like the way politics are discussed.

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  2. Aylwin
    March 31, 2014 @ 1:57 am

    I was always struck by the way that in internet discussion, the phrase "Moffat's politics" was treated as shorthand for his relationship to feminism and related topics. I found that understanding of what "politics" chiefly consisted of very weird, when for me what that phrase first called to mind was this episode.

    From my point of view, that seemed a telling reflection of the diversion of current liberal conversation, preoccupied with the collective identity of fractions of society to the detriment of the core questions of politics, which are not about social diversity, or even economics (the alternative focus most often espoused by critics of this tendency), but the regulation of violence. In twentieth-century Britain those fundamental matters could mostly be pushed to one side, since in theory, and to a large extent in practice in domestic affairs, a liberal-democratic consensus prevailed. With the Blair government that consensus was exploded, but the sharp shift into authoritarian patterns of thought and action has had minimal impact on the way decent liberal folk regard the society they live in, the questions they discuss or the priorities on which they base their political behaviour. Or for that matter the way they feel or talk about their historical myths.

    As Phil says, there are all sorts of different political constructions that can be placed on the image of the star whale, and on the picture of collective political denial and complicity built up earlier in the episode, an image with a much wider applicability than the specific instance of abuse which the plot requires to be revealed at the end as being at the bottom of it (a point which tends to get lost in efforts to pin down just what the rather fuzzily-developed and overloaded idea of the star whale is a metaphorical fit for). But somewhere near the front of the crowd has to be the practice which is explicitly cited: torture. The lawless security state originally let loose by the War on Terror is at the centre of the attack on people's preference for not knowing and not noticing so that they can get on with their lives without any fuss.

    To me, the evidence of this episode is that the general orientation of Moffat's politics is pretty sound, and that is not a comment of any kind on where he stands in relation to feminism.

    And no, I am not about to vote Labour again any time soon.

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  3. David Anderson
    March 31, 2014 @ 2:41 am

    One can see, objectively, that the Beast Below was Moffat's weakest script up to that date. The Smilers have no connection to anything else except to be fill the usual Doctor Who role of monster, which is problematic in a story that problematises monsters. But I loved it. In particular, this is the story that sold me on Amy.
    The companion role in modern Doctor Who has been set up to be the Doctor's conscience. The Doctor's role is to be clever and the companion's role is to put the brakes on. All the Davies-era companions have this dynamic, but the clearest case is Clara in a really similar situation at the end of Day of the Doctor. Clara asks the Doctor to find another way. This is a bit problematic, in that it ties into Victorian ideas of women as the angels in the house, the people who mitigate the amoral world of male economic ambition and military violence. Amy does not act as the Doctor's conscience here. Amy is morally compromised. Also, Amy doesn't immediately reject the Doctor's claim that they can't get involved. Instead, Amy acts as the second set of eyes; the person who sees the one clue that the Doctor can't see, namely the Doctor himself. Amy is therefore someone who understands both the Doctor's strengths and the Doctor's limitations. (As I would say do Ace, Leela (when written properly), Liz…)
    It helps that Gillan and Smith are great fun together. (This is I think the only story where they're primarily interacting with each other.)

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  4. Bennett
    March 31, 2014 @ 2:47 am

    Lovely essay. I'm relieved you found so many positive and interesting things to say about The Beast Below, as I was expecting this story to get a bit of a drubbing after it came in as a low 6 out of 10 in your recent "act of madness". But, as you often say, this is not a review blog.

    Though I personally love it, I can see why The Beast Below lacks the lustre of other Moffat stories. Because with this story we don't just find out what Moffat stories are like when written on a blank slate, but we also find out how Moffat stories work when delivered with poor direction (poor compared to the unusually high standard of modern Doctor Who, that is).

    In a sense, Moffat really struck lucky with directors to date – James Hawes, Euros Lyn, Hettie MacDonald and Adam Smith all deliver exquisite and inspired work. Whether that came from the material they were given, or from Davies nudging talented directors towards Moffat's daunting scripts, is up for debate. For me, Andrew Gunn is the first weak link in the chain. There's some good stuff here, but there's many scenes – like the one where the Doctor meets Liz Ten – that are flat, ugly and tonally off.

    But after listening to Russell T Davies talk about Keith Boak in Toby Hadoke's Who's Round, I think I might have to give Gunn the benefit of the doubt and put it down to the unforgiving demands of a "first series".

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  5. prandeamus
    March 31, 2014 @ 2:49 am

    A couple of thoughts on how the politics relates to today's world (obviously, not specifically intentional in the script)

    "… a government always derives its authority from a mythologized event…. "

    Something we would all do well to remember in terms of Crimea/Ukraine/Russia. No, I'm not trying to resolve the crisis on the blog, but I just want to say I read this and sighed at the truth of it.

    I speculate, on a lighter note, how Amy being a Scot matches with Starship UK being really Starship England. I can't be bothered to watch the thing again right now, but the counties were English ones, and someone remarks that the Scots went off on their own? Although I'm English and broadly speaking in favour of continued Scottish union with the UK, it does critique England's oft-remarked mistake of assuming it's the part of the UK that matters, because it's the biggest.

    Also, I want more Liz X. She bloody rules.

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  6. prandeamus
    March 31, 2014 @ 2:52 am

    I wonder if the problem is poor script editing rather than poor direction. So many details of the script didn't quite make sense to me at the time. I love Phil's reading, but it relies on an ability to look beyond some of the literal oddities and to look at the the counterpointing of the surrealism of the underlying metaphor, or whatever.

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  7. John
    March 31, 2014 @ 2:54 am

    It's a good story in a lot of ways, but at least some mention should probably be made of how the Smilers, and the cold open as a whole, don't make a lick of sense. Why are there smilers? Why do children get fed to the beast for being bad at school? Especially given that they know that the Beast doesn't eat children? It seems like a definite problem when a major element of your story is completely nonsencial.

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  8. Steven Clubb
    March 31, 2014 @ 2:54 am

    Moffat's politics often seem to be about cooperation and overcoming the past and building a better future.

    He just comes across as agnostic in the particulars. He's not angry at New Labour or Thatcher or any of the usual signs of political writing. He just seems to want people to keep looking for better solutiond.

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  9. Bennett
    March 31, 2014 @ 3:00 am

    One of the interviews where Moffat names The Beast Below as his least favourite is this one by Ed Stradling from early 2013. There's a lot of interesting stuff there for the curious – including how he handles script directions, his gratitude for script notes, and that The Wedding of River Song changed considerably during the shooting process.

    I had not heard about the Euros Lyn reshoots though. Chalk up another reason for why I wish Doctor Who still recorded commentaries for every episode (Curse that global financial crisis. We used to get two. Two!)

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  10. David Anderson
    March 31, 2014 @ 3:05 am

    Elaborating on the idea of a society founded on a mythology: have you come across the myth of redemptive violence? The idea is that it's a basic structure with roots in Greek and Mesopotamian culture that underlies a lot of Western ideology. The Mesopotamian myth is that the two primordial sea creatures, Apsu and Tiamat, give birth to the gods and then try to destroy them. destorySo that the gods are forced to retaliate destroying their parents and their monstrous children; which destruction legitimises the rule of the god who defends the other gods. The fundamental idea is that there exists a primordial chthonic violence that requires the answering violence of the gods to contain. Just as the violence of reason/cool passions is required to restrain the primordial animal passions; and the violence of the ruling classes is required to restrain the inherent violence of nasty, brutish, and short-lived humanity. The violence of the armed forces is required to restrain foreigners' and terrorists' inherent violence against us.
    The counterclaim is that this violence is merely an ideological projection. The chthonic sea creature is not violent. If the ruling classes abdicate or are made to abdicate their violence will turn out to be unnecessary.

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  11. John
    March 31, 2014 @ 3:14 am

    Curse the United Kingdom's refusal to accept the wisdom of John Maynard Keynes, it seems to me.

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  12. J Mairs
    March 31, 2014 @ 3:17 am

    What were Keynes' views on DVD commentaries? :\

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  13. What Happened To Robbie?
    March 31, 2014 @ 3:27 am

    Re-watched this recently and noticed an interesting line – when the Doctor talks of killing the Star Whale's higher brain functions he says "And then I find a new name, because I won't be the Doctor anymore."

    Seeing this after NotD & DotD is interesting as it suggests to me Moffat has had that idea seeded as early as his second episode as show runner and does plan things very intricately. Then again, I can't quite square that with Time of the Doctor which is where I finally just thought "he's making this up as he goes along."

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  14. J Mairs
    March 31, 2014 @ 3:29 am

    You mean the state should be open about the fact that the Thing They Don't Want to Acknowledge won't accept children – which will inevitably lead to people asking the obvious question of "why not?" – and be upfront about the fact they are forcing generations of children into slavery until… what? They reach the age the Star Whale will eat them?

    How does the Star Whale define a child? Does it have an arbitary cut off age which it uses to decide if it will or will not eat someone? One would assume that it would be the voting age, but how does it check?

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  15. David Anderson
    March 31, 2014 @ 3:39 am

    The story seems derived on Le Guin's The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas, which is in turn derived from Henry James, according to Le Guin, and not in any way from Dostoyevsky's Ivan Karamazov, certainly not. At least once in Omelas the narrator goes, I don't know how it works, let's suppose we can insert a sf-ional or psychological explanation here, it's a thought experiment. So that it's a story that comes out of an sf tradition that is explicitly not a world-building tradition.

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  16. John
    March 31, 2014 @ 3:40 am

    I mean, why are they sending children down there to begin with?

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  17. John
    March 31, 2014 @ 3:45 am

    The name thing seems more like a theme than it does like a continuity element. The fact that it turns up in "Beast Below" and then is a central element of "Name of the Doctor" and "Time of the Doctor" is like how Moffat explored the idea of the Doctor going back in time to change someone's life in "Continuity Errors" and then did the same thing at greater length in "A Christmas Carol." Or how Amy's character repeats at greater length themes Moffat already explored in "Girl in the Fireplace." Or how the clever predestination paradox in "Blink" prefigures more elaborate predestination paradoxes in Moffat's time running the show.

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  18. Unknown
    March 31, 2014 @ 3:55 am

    Long-time reader, first-time poster. I've been waiting to comment until I felt like I had something to say–and I don't think I really have anything to add now–but I just wanted to express my profound appreciation for this post. It really nails down exactly why TBB ranks so highly for me among Moffat-era episodes. Many thanks for putting it so clearly.

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  19. NBooth
    March 31, 2014 @ 4:00 am

    And I didn't mean to post that anonymously. My fault for not having a proper blogger i.d.

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  20. John
    March 31, 2014 @ 4:06 am

    Keynes knew, of course, that a recession was not the time to cut government spending, including, presumably, on DVD commentaries.

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  21. Seeing_I
    March 31, 2014 @ 4:32 am

    Yeah, this is the big problem with this script. I really appreciate Phil's reading of it, and I think he's spot-on in what the episode was going for, but it just doesn't work for me, for the reasons you describe. "Fairy tale" doesn't mean you can just put any old nonsensical thing on screen, like Smilers (with three faces – how?) and a bad grade disposal system that doesn't even work, etc.

    And I really disliked the mannered fakery of Liz X sitting amid her candles, posing in tableaux as if waiting for the camera to cut to her. Plus, her "I'm the bloody queen" palaver just fell flat for me.

    "David Whitaker focused through the anger of Robert Holmes, the sense of a fundamentally mad cosmos of Douglas Adams, and the cutting and immediate satire of Andrew Cartmel." YES PLEASE. This is what I want from contemporary Doctor Who. Unfortunately this script just didn't gel for me.

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  22. dirkmalcolm.com
    March 31, 2014 @ 4:42 am

    I always wonder why the punishment for being caught trespassing is to be granted a bonus vote in a general election.

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  23. jane
    March 31, 2014 @ 5:12 am

    Wow.

    Just… wow. I'm gonna have to read this post again. As above, so below, and as below, so above. I've been so focused on the below, I haven't been paying attention to the above.

    More to say about this in a bit.

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  24. Sean Case
    March 31, 2014 @ 6:07 am

    Queen or commoner, the penalty for seeking the truth is to learn the truth.

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  25. Jarl
    March 31, 2014 @ 6:34 am

    It's always fun to sit back and realize that, for the Doctor, it's been just a few hours since the Master, Rassilon, the Naismiths, and Wilf. I love when stories immediately abut one another, because looking at the timeline reveals how chaotic the Doctor's life must be.

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  26. Daru
    March 31, 2014 @ 6:48 am

    Yeah just wow. What an essay Phil.

    I have often felt sad that this story seems to have been overlooked and ignored. For me it always felt like searing commentary on the stories we choose to tell, those we believe and especially those we use silence to collude with. TBB felt like a powerful comment and at the time I was looking for more like this, but I will take heart at your suggestion to use it to act as a reminder of what lies 'below' the apparent 'above' of the rest of the Moffat era so far.

    Was the fact that the Scots took off on their own way some comment about what Moffat felt could/should/would happen if a referendum occurred? I am a Scot myself and in all honesty unsure about the coming vote.

    My favourite passage when you describe "storytelling as a moral duty and its absence as a moral obscenity" nails it for me with regards to the work I attempt to do in the world. Nice one.

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  27. Froborr
    March 31, 2014 @ 8:41 am

    Rory, on the other hand, very much falls into a role as the Doctor's (and at times Amy's) conscience.

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  28. Elizabeth Sandifer
    March 31, 2014 @ 8:53 am

    I am curious what people who think this episode has an excess of nonsensical bits think an episode of Doctor Who that lacks nonsensical bits and plot holes might be. I'm very much unconvinced this is any higher or lower than par for the course.

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  29. Flu-baby
    March 31, 2014 @ 9:53 am

    I wish the story I watched was the story you described in this post. I can't get past the pointlessness of the smilers, or the fact that you get a bad grade and you get fed to a whale, but not really, but kind of. But any mention of David Whitaker is appreciated so I might watch this again and be prepared to reconsider.

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  30. jonathan inge
    March 31, 2014 @ 10:02 am

    This comment has been removed by the author.

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  31. John
    March 31, 2014 @ 10:17 am

    Many Doctor Who stories have plot holes, although I can certainly think of ones that don't. In the new series, I can't think of any particular nonsensical bits or plot holes in any of Moffat's earlier stories (some issues arise with The Eleventh Hour, but only due to later continuity; I suppose the major contender would be "why do the clockwork robots think they need Madame de Pompadour's body parts?" but the fact that clockwork robots wouldn't think logically seems a lot more logical than that an entire society would continue to unsuccessfully attempt to feed children to a star whale for no reason).

    I don't even dislike "Beast Below." It's a very entertaining hour of television. But its plot holes seem glaring to me in a way that most other Who doesn't. I suppose "at what point do plot holes start to bother you?" is a personal question, but it's hard for me not to see that point as being reached rather before we get to the messier parts of "The Beast Below."

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  32. Jack Graham
    March 31, 2014 @ 10:25 am

    A simply phenomenal post.

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  33. Matthew Celestis
    March 31, 2014 @ 10:31 am

    Happiness Patrol has only a handful of plot holes and nothing obviously nonsensical.

    I can't think of much that is nonsensical in An Unearthly Child.

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  34. encyclops
    March 31, 2014 @ 10:33 am

    Yes, I don't read it as "I'm going to introduce John Hurt in a couple years so I'll just throw this hint in now" so much as "I'm interested in the idea that 'the Doctor' is a name he chooses and feels he must live up to and deserve." But you never know.

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  35. liminal fruitbat
    March 31, 2014 @ 10:45 am

    Children aren't fed to the Star Whale for bad grades. Children are fed to the Star Whale for disobeying the law about who gets the privilege of riding in the lift. It's not about academic failure, it's about a (bizarrely petty) instance of going above one's station.

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  36. liminal fruitbat
    March 31, 2014 @ 10:47 am

    Also I assumed that the children get processed into Winders, because they have to come from somewhere.

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  37. jonathan inge
    March 31, 2014 @ 10:53 am

    This comment has been removed by the author.

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  38. encyclops
    March 31, 2014 @ 10:54 am

    This is indeed terrific stuff. I love the parallels you draw with Cartmel and Adams (and "His Last Vow") in particular. For instance:

    What looks like exploring a world is in fact exploring a set of revelations and reversals that have been carefully sequenced.

    This strikes me as a decent description of "Ghost Light," at least as I initially experienced it. Maybe swap out "plot" for "world."

    I also loved your observation that this is the only Moffat script without any mandates placed on it.

    I was hoping you'd make me feel better about the implications of Amy's solution. I don't want to rehash the discussion from a few posts ago, but I'll confess that I still find it troubling, so let me try to understand where you're going with this. Initially you say:

    this evil is repeatedly and explicitly tied to the material conditions of the world in which the story is made. And redemption comes when Amy finds a better story to tell.

    and, later,

    How do you save the world from its own intrinsic evil? By being amazing, breaking the rules, and, when the narrative points to something awful, telling a different sort of story

    I think you were right the first time: the evil is material. This second time, it appears to be narrative. That seems to imply that we can make material social progress by "telling a different sort of story." If the Whale is a Whale, it is either benevolent or it isn't, and it isn't a story that saves it and Starship UK but a reasoned hypothesis. If the Whale is a symbol (and of course it's both), and "it's really benevolent" is just one possible story we tell to change our material conditions (and maybe not one that applies if the Whale is exploited labor, for example), then it makes more sense to me. I'm not entirely convinced that manipulating symbols is really the same as manipulating material reality (lots of wiggle room in that "in some sense"), but I think I see what you're driving at. Or at least I see a story I like in it. 🙂

    And as I also said in that discussion, I like this story, nonsense and all. I'd agree Moffat underrates it, or at least its potential.

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  39. Triturus
    March 31, 2014 @ 11:09 am

    That was a great essay. I've always liked The Beast Below (partly because this episode cemented my belief that Matt Smith was going to be a phenomenal Doctor), but I'm sure I will like it more next time I watch it because of the analysis presented here. Thank you.

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  40. jonathan inge
    March 31, 2014 @ 11:21 am

    This comment has been removed by the author.

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  41. Leslie Lozada
    March 31, 2014 @ 11:29 am

    On that topic, "The Eleventh Hour" could be taken to have a more literal meaning than a pun on Eleven.

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  42. David Ainsworth
    March 31, 2014 @ 11:56 am

    Now we're talking! Nthing the "great post" praise.

    I'm not in agreement about the "nobody guessed Space Whale" given that I pretty much guessed that from the title sequence. Too much Farscape, I suppose, but the episode title alone was enough to make me expect the ship was alive in some way or another. The specifics couldn't be guessed at, of course.

    If anything, the surprise involved suspecting Moffat might be going in a Jungian direction and the "Space Whale" hints were a huge fake-out. Which of course, they weren't and were simultaneously.

    And of course, the whole Doctor/Star Whale identification also allows this episode to be a critique of the function which Doctor Who, the show, could be put to as a tool of compliance instead of revolution. Could TV not lobotomize its audience so that, while exploited, they feel no pain?

    The fun part of how Moffat works is that he's comfortable with what one might call "the free play of signifiers" where the Doctor can both be identified with the Star Whale and be identified as something acting upon the Star Whale.

    Within the metatext, Amy herself comes to forget that the Doctor invited her to travel with him because SHE is one of those children, which among other things accounts both for her later attempt to seduce him and for his reaction to it. And the things and stories Amy chooses to forget or remember will matter considerably to the end of the season. As a metatextual comment, this episode just works better and better as the series proceeds.

    As for the children/Smilers elements that "don't make sense," they're coherent on the level of social commentary. The instruments of enforcement of state power and authority appear as smiling friends until one steps outside the bounds the state dictates, at which point they become monsters. The inexorable advance of the Smilers makes perfect sense in this context, as does Liz X's ability to ignore them (as a member of the class of privilege, she is "above" such enforcement mechanisms). And the nastiness of the spared children becoming the initiates into the hidden mystery of Starship UK, in effect perpetuating the status quo as a population both clued in and disenfranchised.

    The beast, after all, endures its torture out of compassion. That is what makes the moral cowardice of the society sustained through that torture so disagreeable. But the threat of changing the system, of unleashing the Beast Below, perpetuates something which nobody is presented of cheerfully approving.

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  43. Daru
    March 31, 2014 @ 12:05 pm

    "I am curious what people who think this episode has an excess of nonsensical bits think an episode of Doctor Who that lacks nonsensical bits and plot holes might be. I'm very much unconvinced this is any higher or lower than par for the course."

    In regards to this tale I feel that all of the elements that may be described as being plot holes, work perfectly in service to the symbolic alchemy of the story, and to the idea of the alchemy of story.

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  44. Ross
    March 31, 2014 @ 12:15 pm

    I kinda wonder if some of the inspiration for things like "And we occasionally feed children to the space whale for taking the elevator" is from Jubilee — there's the same sense of "Everyone in this world has a deeply repressed understanding that their world is fundamentally wrong and it's made them all kinda crazy"

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  45. jonathan inge
    March 31, 2014 @ 2:21 pm

    This comment has been removed by the author.

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  46. jane
    March 31, 2014 @ 2:57 pm

    It's notable, however, that this isn't exclusively Rory's role, and that he's even a foil at times.

    For example, he's chiding the Doctor about taking clothes after saving the world, but it's a faux moral outrage — he's upset that aliens are coming back, and that Amy's watching the Doctor undress. In Venice, Rory accused the Doctor of getting people into trouble out of a desire to impress, but Rory ends up being every bit as complicit as Amy. Rory doesn't say boo about the Doctor's tactics against the Silence, or with the taking of Demon's Run. In Mercy he reflects the Doctor's initial inclination to get rid of Jex, but this inclination is turned on its head.

    All of which is to say, Rory is compromised, and not so easily pigeonholed as anyone's conscience — quite often, he's acting out of his own selfish interests and insecurities.

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  47. nimonus
    March 31, 2014 @ 3:12 pm

    I eagerly await your more detailed response!

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  48. jane
    March 31, 2014 @ 3:22 pm

    @John:I suppose the major contender would be "why do the clockwork robots think they need Madame de Pompadour's body parts?" but the fact that clockwork robots wouldn't think logically seems a lot more logical than that an entire society would continue to unsuccessfully attempt to feed children to a star whale for no reason.

    While both of these are, on the face of it, absurd, they don't constitute "plot holes." A plot hole is a gap (or inconsistency) that keeps the story from functioning, either at the level of plot or character. As such, the premise, no matter how absurd, can never be a "plot hole."

    In the case of the Pompadour robots, we even get an "explanation" at the end — going after Reinette was a semantic mistake, since the robots couldn't really understand the concept of "identity" let alone "naming conventions." And though we're never really told why failing students are relegated to below, we do see the kids performing menial labor; I think it's safe to assume that the State isn't trying to "feed" the kids to the whale, so much as using an existing mechanism for transportation. In neither case is there a "hole" or an "inconsistency" from their initial premises.

    I suppose "at what point do plot holes start to bother you?" is a personal question, but it's hard for me not to see that point as being reached rather before we get to the messier parts of "The Beast Below.

    I think the real question here is, "At what point does absurdity start to bother you?" And given this is Doctor Who, which is inherently absurd, it rather begs the question of how one goes about watching the show (or engaging any story, for that matter) in the first place — really, what's the purpose? Is it just the thrill of being on a roller coaster? Or is that stories themselves give us insight into how we live our lives, and we might be able to do that better?

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  49. Galadriel
    March 31, 2014 @ 3:50 pm

    While I normally find political readings reductionistic, I actually think this adds depth to the Star Whale/Doctor analogy. If the beast is seen as the dark side of society, the necessary but horrifying elements that must be acknowledged, the Doctor is a "dark legend," the man who did what he had to do but wishes it to be forgotten (Day of the Doctor) .

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  50. encyclops
    March 31, 2014 @ 4:08 pm

    I think the real question here is, "At what point does absurdity start to bother you?"

    I don't think that's the real question. I don't think either of those things — the behavior of the clockwork robots and the "punishment" of the children — are absurd in context. Even if you do believe that Doctor Who is "inherently absurd," which I don't (perhaps it's just a matter of degree, but I'd reserve that description for, I dunno, Aqua Teen Hunger Force where disorienting non-sequitur is routine), all you're saying is that absurd things happen on an absurd show, which makes them locally reasonable. You yourself have just offered "explanations."

    I don't think these things are absurdities or "plot holes" — I think of them more as potholes. They're opportunities for confusion that distract you either while you're watching the show (interrupting the "roller coaster" engagement) or after you've finished and you're thinking over what it all means or inspires in you (interrupting the "insight into how we live our lives" engagement). Not all of these hiccups interfere with both levels of engagement (and it seems to me there are probably more), but many of them do. They don't prevent that engagement — you can work around them, and at both levels, if you really want to, you can view the whole thing as a torrent of either fun, exciting moments or symbols, and it doesn't really matter if it hangs together smoothly or stutters along the way with things that make you go "huh?" or "how does that fit together? did I miss something?" Once you've accepted those moments, you can either enjoy it despite or you can go back and think about it and maybe come up with your own explanation if necessary.

    But being able to accept them and work around doesn't mean they're not there and they don't matter. Even if you consider Doctor Who absurd, there's a level of craft involved that makes a difference. Story logic — or whatever you want to call it — is part of that. Symbolism, intentional or accidental, is part of that. All the technical and performative aspects of the show — the art direction, the acting, sound and lighting, etc., end up being part of that. I think the coherence of all of these things plays into your appreciation no matter "how one goes about watching the show."

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  51. storiteller
    March 31, 2014 @ 4:51 pm

    The other area that this episode touches in terms of mythology is the similarity to the creation myth of the world resting on the back of a turtle. I don't think the idea of the world being on the back of a marine animal is completely coincidental. In particular, both whales and turtles are thought of as ancient, wise, mysterious animals that dive to depths that humans can't imagine.

    As for Amy's role, I think it's telling that she's both culpable and the redeemer in the story. It tells the audience, "Yes, you are complicit in the exploitation associated with society. But you can tell a different story – we can all tell a different story together to make something better." She's the audience stand-in in the ethical sense, not the narrative sense.

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  52. jane
    March 31, 2014 @ 5:04 pm

    Okay. This is a bit rambly.

    So, the Whale represents M?TH, a "psychological" myth, which in this case is the "myth" underlying Starship UK. The political/material system for dealing with this myth is the "above" of the story, and the way Phil describes this process is absolutely brilliant. I'll get back to this in a bit.

    The "below" is the myth itself — and notice how, because everyone has chosen to "forget" that it's a myth that's no longer accessible to the conscious mind. This means that the myth can only reside in the subconscious. Indeed, look how Amy's crying even after she's pressed the Forget button. The emotions (which are generated in the subconscious) nonetheless persist. The beast "below" operates at the subconscious level. This is very much in line with the previous episode, where the Doctor has to help Amy find and "remember" the monster while she's unconscious.

    We've also got repetition in our basic symbolism. When Amy first leans of the Starship UK Myth, we get a closeup of her Eye, upon which scores of images flash; when she "remembers" it — that is, re-members it (rather than dis-members it) through flashes of other memories, it's likewise presented as images flashing across her eye; her eye is presented in extreme closeup several times.

    Then there's the room of Liz X — the glasses of water, but also a chandelier in front of a pair of mirrors. Again, water is a reflective surface, especially still water — like a pond. "There's an escaped fish" the Doctor says, another reference to fish, and since Amy's escaped from the timestream of her life, she's as much an escaped fish as anyone else, except, perhaps, the Star Whale itself. We also see now that the TARDIS roundels have mirrors in them, with X motifs holding them into place. The "buttons" for Forget, Protest, and Abdicate, they all share the basic motif of the Circle in the Square.

    The show is building its own body of mythic symbols. Now, consider that the Star Whale is also explicitly likened to the Doctor. The Doctor, of course, is also a Myth, a myth of the UK, and the Doctor comes from outer space. It's interesting, then, the information about Starship UK's "myth" is relayed through TV sets.

    So what the show of Doctor Who is trying to do is to show us a national mythology, and to keep it from laying low in the subconscious, where it's inaccessible to conscious awareness, let alone analysis. The journey of the Doctor and Amy to the Underworld of Starship UK, which is where the story must be resolved, is therefore the impetus for even "doing" modern myth-making in the first place — it's a way for us to find those places in the subconscious that would otherwise be inaccessible. Only by transforming the stories in our own heads (which can't be done by "willpower" alone) can we truly address our material social progress without getting tripped up by "bad programming."

    Alchemy is the art of manipulating those symbols at the subconscious level, which is, in turn, the secret to material social progress.

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  53. jonathan inge
    March 31, 2014 @ 5:05 pm

    This comment has been removed by the author.

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  54. encyclops
    March 31, 2014 @ 5:18 pm

    "Yes, you are complicit in the exploitation associated with society. But you can tell a different story – we can all tell a different story together to make something better."

    Forgive me if I'm being too pedantic here. But I want to unpack what this means.

    The kind of story we tell matters. What we mean by "story" matters. Right?

    When we say "we can tell a different story," I think — tell me if I'm wrong — we're talking about looking at circumstances in a different way that points to a different future than we might be headed for. We can, to bring it down to crude matter, tell a different story about how labor and capital can relate to one another (or whether "labor" and "capital" are even characters in a story we'd like to tell) and rewrite the future, because people behave in accord with this new story and not with the old one. We can tell a new story about how men and women can behave toward one another, or how families work. We can tell a new story about what we want to fund and what we don't, or how we can live better with our neighbors. Again, none of these stories matter — because there have been an awful lot of them — unless enough people take them to heart and live them out. The story doesn't make anything better all by itself. It draws a map, but just as with a real map, touching the destination with your finger on the map doesn't teleport you there. You still need the will and the means and the energy.

    And the story has to hang together. It has to, in some sense, be true. If Amy had intuited the wrong conclusion about the Star Whale, it would indeed have been curtains for Starship UK. Just because you tell the story that it's a good, kind creature that cares for children doesn't make it true. Maybe you're shooting the part of its brain that has the ability to fight back, and once you've stopped, it might see revenge in its sights and trample your children to get to you. Maybe it's old and kind and cares for children, but is willing to burn your entire world using an ancient weapon it has access to if its hand is forced…including the children. There are plenty of possible stories, any number of which could have been true. Amy was pretty lucky that she was in a story herself.

    A story is something you invent. Like any invention, it doesn't change the world by itself: it changes the world because enough people decide to use it, to act as though some crucial part of it were true.

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  55. jane
    March 31, 2014 @ 5:19 pm

    And some other observations…

    First, the color choices for Amy and her costuming. When we first met Amelia, she was dressed all in Red. Red sweater, red wellies, a nightie that's white and red, even a red apple, and of course red hair. After meeting the Doctor, however, the next new color she's put on is dark blue — that dark blue overcoat when she's the Girl Who Waited. When she's grown up, as Amy, she's dressed in Blue — police blue.

    Now we get Amy with her red hair all over the place, but with a white and blue nightie. Mandy, on the other hand, is dressed very much like Amelia, but just a bit older. Liz X also wears red, but it's not the bright red of an apple, it's darker, like wine, or blood; it's a more "mature" red.

    So both Mandy and Liz, I think, are meant to be reflections of Amy herself. On the one hand there's the childlike innocence, the naivete — the meanings of "Mandy" and "Amy" are almost identical: "beloved." Mandy is the child within. On the other hand, Liz represents the "adult", the one who is concerned not with the personal and intimate, but with politics, with governance; she's the bloody queen. There's even a bit of River Song in her, with the big hair and fast guns.

    In the Starship's Underworld, Amy is sitting with Mandy, and sees how the Beast interacts with her. This is what triggers her revelation, the understanding of the fairy tale. But she still has to act in the adult world — she takes Liz's hand and forcibly makes her press the Abdicate button.

    As below, so above.

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  56. encyclops
    March 31, 2014 @ 5:25 pm

    I like both eras. I'm not sure if you intend what you wrote here as a response to what I was saying, but while I find it interesting, I don't think we're talking about the same thing. That's fine, though.

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  57. storiteller
    March 31, 2014 @ 6:02 pm

    I certainly agree that story needs to be matched by action to create material social progress. And the story does need to be True – both historically true and true in that it rings honestly in people's lives. But story can motivate action in a way that little else can. In my time doing volunteer work for several different organizations, it's the stories that grab people and motivate them to actually get out and make changes.

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  58. Kit
    March 31, 2014 @ 6:46 pm

    It could be months, depending on how long he took on his farewell tour.

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  59. jane
    March 31, 2014 @ 7:08 pm

    @encyclops: I think of them more as potholes. They're opportunities for confusion that distract you either while you're watching the show (interrupting the "roller coaster" engagement) or after you've finished and you're thinking over what it all means or inspires in you (interrupting the "insight into how we live our lives" engagement).

    Potholes, speedbumps — with a good "suspension" you can glide right over them? A more sensitive vehicle, not so much.

    Anyways, I think that makes more sense, at least in terms of describing the coherence of a text. I think it's also a fairer critique, or at least a more accurate critique than the ubiquitous cries of "plot holes", which is a very specific sort of writing error that's actually quite rare in professional practice.

    But I'm not sure that the ability to "accept" such moments is all that different from "how we go about watching the show." It seems to me that such acceptance comes from a generosity of spirit, not so much to give the showrunner a pass, but a desire to engage with a text as opposed to "judging" a text.

    For example, my initial reaction to, say, "Love and Monsters" was not all that positive, not at all. But rather than latching onto a mindset of tearing it down (a rationalization for my emotions) I deliberately paid closer attention to what it was actually doing and why. I looked again (re-spect) and saw so much more of what was going on under the hood than I'd gleaned from the first pass. It's now one of my favorite episodes.

    This can go the other way, of course. My initial reaction to Victory of the Daleks was fairly positive; now I'm much more ambivalent about it, from both a political perspective and a technical one. Again, though, I had to engage with the text, observe it closely and get an idea of its own terms before I could really "see" what it was doing.

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  60. jane
    March 31, 2014 @ 7:10 pm

    Also, it seems Phil has taken on the Amy Pond role with his essay — he's gone to visit the Beast Below and comes up with a very different story to tell about it, one that has greater potential for progress than the (unexamined) story that had already started to take root in fandom.

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  61. encyclops
    March 31, 2014 @ 7:47 pm

    It seems to me that such acceptance comes from a generosity of spirit, not so much to give the showrunner a pass, but a desire to engage with a text as opposed to "judging" a text.

    Sure. There's definitely a difference between being waylaid by these problems because they're making it more difficult to engage, and deliberately seeking them out because you want to prove how clever and "critical" you are. And I'd agree that perseverance is important; if nothing else, you learn where the speed bumps are so you can slow down and not bounce so hard over them on subsequent viewings.

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  62. mengu
    April 1, 2014 @ 12:33 am

    If you get a bad grade you aren't allowed to ride the elevators; breaking that rule gets you sent below. The Smilers freak everyone out and warn people off forbidden behaviour without spelling out what is forbidden.

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  63. mengu
    April 1, 2014 @ 12:39 am

    He's says he's 906 in The End of Time and 907 in Flesh and Stone. Think about it…

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  64. John Binns
    April 1, 2014 @ 1:10 am

    Presumably this is after Scotland has voted for independence, so the UK is the United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. 😉

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  65. John Binns
    April 1, 2014 @ 1:22 am

    To strain the metaphor, perhaps there's a distinction between plot 'holes' and plot 'bumps': a plot hole is where something doesn't quite make sense, but could be made to contribute to the plot with a little work; a plot bump is something that sticks out as not contributing to the plot and would take a complete resurfacing to fix. It's a matter of perspective, but I'd say the problems we're discussing with The Beast Below are more like bumps than holes.

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  66. Carey
    April 1, 2014 @ 1:28 am

    One final thing to consider when watching The Beast Below is that this is the first "regular" episode of Doctor who broadcast in almost two years. The last regular episode was probably Midnight– since then we have had a succession of "special episodes," whether featuring the return of Rose Tyler (Turn Left); the return of everybody and an unexpected regeneration (The Stolen Earth/Journey's End) and then a succession of specials all building to an actual regeneration before the extra-length The Eleventh Hour. In many ways, within the narrative of the programme Doctor Who itself, The Beast Below is as an important story as The Eleventh Hour. The later had to introduce us to a new Doctor and programme style. The Beast Below had in many ways a harder job: to show the viewers what an "ordinary" Doctor Who story would be like under Moffat's tenure. And in many ways it is a template for stand alone episodes of the Smith era: character based but in a way that is different from Davies run, with much of the characterisation hinted at through metaphor instead of more conventional television means. Of course, there is an argument that Moffat didn't have faith in the audience to pick up upon the metaphor (hence the repetition of Amy's "Very old, and very kind and the very, very last, sound a bit familiar?"), nonetheless this is very much a template for future stories such as The Girl Who Waited.

    Moffat would take this technique to its limits in series 6, but more about that when we get there.

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  67. David Anderson
    April 1, 2014 @ 2:44 am

    A possible fan theory would be that, when the Doctor appears in the night at the end of Eleventh Hour saying that he's only been gone to the moon for five minutes, he is lying. He's been running round the universe for a year or so, has come across a couple more cracks, and has come back to pick up Amy because she has a link to them.

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  68. David Anderson
    April 1, 2014 @ 3:13 am

    As another bit of science that doesn't make sense, I don't believe a ship travelling through interstellar space would need engines running continuously anyway. However that would be nitpicking. The Doctor needs to notice that some important function of the Starship UK isn't being done in the way one would expect.
    I think the problem with the smilers isn't so much that they don't make sense within the world of the story, as that they don't really have a proper role in the rest of the plot. They provide a cold open, and they provide a couple of scares later on; but otherwise they're slightly irrelevant to the mystery of the space whale. They feel as if they're primarily there to look scary on that week's cover of Doctor Who Adventures.

    I suppose a plot hole is something where some event or action occurs with no adequate motivation. It's important because actions with no adequate motivation are out of character, which is problematic for most of the functions of characters in fiction; and events or world-elements with no adequate motivation deprive characters of a context in which they can have adequate reason to act, which is problematic ditto.

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  69. Lewis Christian
    April 1, 2014 @ 3:17 am

    Jeez, I love The Beast Below (even with all its faults) but that damn nursery rhyme… which Moff seems to think can become shorthand for "epic" or "cool".

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  70. Ross
    April 1, 2014 @ 3:18 am

    "Everyone knows" that if a space ship's engines aren't providing constant thrust, the ship can not maintain a constant speed, but quickly slows to an effective halt, possibly drifting slowly in a random direction dictated by the wind and currents of space. It's not a plot hole, just bad science.

    (I note that the ONE TIME in ALL OF STAR TREK that someone relies on inertia to keep a ship traveling in a straight line at a constant speed, the reason he does this is that he's been brainwashed)

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  71. David Anderson
    April 1, 2014 @ 3:18 am

    I'm inclined to admit that they just don't quite work, and that the script needed another pass by a really good script editor. I'm not sure there's any real point in trying to argue otherwise. It's one of my favourite new Who stories, but I'm happy to say that it's flawed and one has to make allowances on behalf of the really rather wonderful things in it.

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  72. Anton B
    April 1, 2014 @ 4:46 am

    Just some observations on what was another fantastic redemptive reading by Doctor Phil of a notoriously misunderstood episode.
    The Beast Below , with its metaphor heavy magic realism style of story-telling really was Moffat setting out his stall for the Matt Smith era.
    "Instead of being built as a world, Starship UK essentially exists as an interplay of several iconographies. On the most basic level is the iconography of the UK."
    Yes and particularly the imagery of London in the mid twentieth century. The era and setting of most of the classic series. The tube signs, the lifts (not elevators. Sorry US readers. This is Starship UK.) The school desks, the benches, the BBC style TV news, the tram wires connecting the high rise tower block 'counties', The smilers in thier booths like fairground arcade penny-in-the-slot machines . All filtered through a child's eyes. This iconography is so close to how I personally remember things looking and feeling in the London of my childhood that, watching it, I felt Moffat was speaking directly to me. But at the same time as looking back in a kind of nostalgia haze it also looks forward to a possible alternate future. One that might be imagined by the original young viewers of An Unearthly Child, The Rescue, Web of Fear, Ambassadors of Death, etc. This is how space travel looks filtered through Brit sci-fi, Dan Dare, Judge Dredd, and yes classic Doctor Who. This is the Doctor exploring his own iconography and genesis far more deeply than the clunky Freudian reading of 'The beast below'. This is the reason for the Amelia Pond/Wendy Darling in space cold open. This is where Amelia the Doctor's child friend must metamorphose into Amy the Doctor's companion by re-evaluating Neverland and her raggedy man dolls.
    Once again water plays an important metaphorical role. In The Eleventh Hour
    The Doctor entertainingly empties a glass of water to listen through the Time-cracked wall to the Atraxi, here he observes the lack of movement in a glass of water to detect the smooth running of Starship UK leading to the reveal of the star whale (a literal fish out of water) providing propulsion to the UK just as the Doctor (the perennial fish out of water) provides the propulsion to Amy's story. Liz X ( X = the answer but also signified the forbidden, the adult. In mid 20th century UK X was the designation for adult entertainment) sits surrounded by glasses of water.
    In a way this is Moffat' s version of Gridlock but the story from classic Who this most reminds me of, with its very British sci-fi wobbly science, it's wibbly political metaphor, its pedant baiting 'plot-holes', its magic realism/theatrical presentation is none other than The Web Planet.
    Oh and lastly for some reason I always imagine the Star Whale to have the face of Boe.

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  73. jane
    April 1, 2014 @ 4:49 am

    You have no idea whether Moffat thinks it's shorthand for "epic" or "cool" — this is your own projection, Lewis.

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  74. jane
    April 1, 2014 @ 5:09 am

    This is as good a place as any to talk about the Smilers.

    The Smilers are modeled on the Roman god Janus, who is "two-headed" — the back of his head also bears a face. This god is the god of beginnings and transition, of motion and passage, of change and time (one face sees the past, the other sees the future.) He presides over doorways and entrances, indeed all boundaries. He is therefore a god of thresholds; he is a threshold guardian.

    This is likewise the function of the Smilers and Winders. As long as the people aren't changing, as long as they stay away from the forbidden/sacred areas, they keep smiling. They're on the Vators because elevators are liminal spaces, they transport you between above and below.

    It should be obvious that they have thematic resonance to the Doctor, the episode, and the prevailing ethos of the era. First, the Doctor is also a threshold guardian, the threshold guardian of the TARDIS, and of course the Doctor is a Lord of Time, as is the god Janus. Second, this is Amy's first trip, a new beginning for her, a transition; the Smilers function as an invocation to Amy's personal journey.

    Finally, the two-faced nature of Janus/Smilers/Winders reflects the era's concern with the transcendence of duality, which is accomplished through the union and fusion of opposites. The purple cloaks of the Smilers, for example, are a fusion of Red and Blue, the primary colors of the show. The Winders are the alchemical twins of the Smilers — Smilers are entirely mechanical, while Winders are part human, partly alive. These monsters are mirrors of the show's alchemical theme: the unification of Above and Below, a story reflected in the poem that bookends the episode.

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  75. John
    April 1, 2014 @ 5:30 am

    Ah, just like how the one time in the classic series that anyone ever asks about the language thing, it's because Sarah Jane has been brainwashed.

    Anyway, you guys bring up a lot of good points as to my supposed "plot hole," and I'll withdraw the contention – there are plausible reasons to explain what they're doing, so it's just kind of an underexplained plot point, rather than an actual logical flaw.

    I do think that the whole cold open, suggesting a brutal dystopian system where children are murdered for minuscule offenses and there are terrifying robot monsters called "Smilers" that are involved in some way, is almost completely misleading as to what the actual story is about. As I said, it's a story I rather like, but I think a bit of editing on the script to explain more clearly what happens to the children who are sent "below" and how that fits into the overall system would have done a great deal to tighten the thing up.

    And I certainly think there are plenty of Doctor Who stories that are more tightly constructed and less puzzling in this respect. It's not so much that there's anything happening which is inexplicable; it's that there's a lot that's never explained (which is, of course, something Moffat often does, and which usually doesn't bother me), and that much of the stuff that isn't really explicitly explained also doesn't fit well with what we eventually come to learn is the real central story.

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  76. John
    April 1, 2014 @ 5:34 am

    The Doctor lies. When are we to understand that he first met Vastra, Jenny, and Strax?

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  77. Lewis Christian
    April 1, 2014 @ 5:55 am

    His reuse of rhyming definitely whiffs of trying to pull off 'epic' whilst in a fairytale sort of style to me.

    "Tick tock goes the clock til River kills the Doctor" pops up in Series 6 (even in episodes when there is no River Song arc going on, ie. Night Terrors). We have the poem at the end of The Beast Below which, sorry, smacks of desperation to me. Then we have the "good man goes to war" rhyme which River speaks over the battle of Demon's Run (as if to whack a label on this as "a massive, important battle" when, in reality, it's just a few characters we'd never even seen before running about). We then have a rhyme in The Name of the Doctor – a whole episode dedicated to the Doctor and his tomb and his secrets, quite epic in scale ("from Gallifrey to Trenzalore", and Clara popping in and out of his entire timestream/life) – which includes the Whisper Men rhyme (not sure this one works – again, it seems as though it's there to big up the baddies beyond 'gimmicky'). The only rhyme I like, and think works, is "the clock is striking twelve".

    Yes, that's all my own projection and feeling, but his reuse of rhymes certainly – whilst reminding us of the 'fairytale' approach – strikes me that he feels they are significant and grand, otherwise he wouldn't do them as much/in his major episodes as much as he has done.

    I'd love to know what others, including yourself, think of all the rhymes and the use of rhymes/poems in Moff's episodes/era 🙂 I'm definitely willing for my mind to be changed or challenged!

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  78. jane
    April 1, 2014 @ 7:19 am

    "I think a bit of editing on the script to explain more clearly what happens to the children who are sent "below" and how that fits into the overall system would have done a great deal to tighten the thing up."

    Why would we need anything more at the script level when this was already shown to us? We see Timmy, and some other kids, doing menial labor at the end, and we're told that the Beast doesn't eat the children. This is already tight! Your objections have already been addressed — we know what happens to the children and how they fit into the system.

    Not to say that the story couldn't use some finer world-building, but I think you've latched onto the wrong details.

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  79. jane
    April 1, 2014 @ 7:44 am

    We know the Doctor traveled about on his own between A Christmas Carol and Impossible Astronaut — I'd hazard that this is the period in which he met the Paternoster Gang.

    As to his quick trip to the moon at the end of Eleventh Hour, I'm inclined to think it's as the Doctor said — he's wearing the same clothes, and a little bit off balance when Amy questions him about it. Moreso, he's under the impression that very little time has elapsed, and seems genuinely surprised when Amy points out it's been two years. Couple with the fact that she's been "seared" onto his hearts, I think it's more emotionally coherent that he's come right back. And, since he's investigating this Crack, it seems the first place he'd go to find out about it is the first place he enountered it.

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  80. jane
    April 1, 2014 @ 8:25 am

    Again, Lewis, I think your analysis gets skewed by your belief that you can divine Moffat's emotions based on something as scant as a few lines of poetry, including a poem that he himself didn't write. This is different than inferring "intent" as the conclusion to a systematic reading.

    That said, let's talk about poetry, and its use in the Moffat era, or at least Eleven's era. I do think you're right that the kind of poems we get evoke a fairy-tale aesthetic, and that the rhyming schemes play a part in that. Remember, just about all poetry up to a hundred years ago rhymed, and the verse that didn't rhyme was largely translated from other languages. Free verse (poetry without rhyme or meter) is a modernistic invention and is now the standard of literary poetry.

    So the fact that we get rhyming poetry automatically evokes a bygone age, and in Beast Below the poem is first read by a child. This is definitely fairy-tale territory, or at least children's adventure territory. I'd hesitate to call this aesthetic "epic" or "cool", because the poems are children's poems, not grand on the scale of Blake or Homer, and certainly not in the vein of modern literary verse.

    We'd be hard-pressed to argue that the style sought for in this period isn't Fairy-Tale or Childrens' Adventure. There are more children in Eleven's run than anywhere else in the history of the show, and Series Five explicitly invokes "fairy tales" in the beginning, middle, and end of the season. The addition of children's rhymes isn't desperate, it's calculating.

    More interesting is that poetry in this era is used as a narrative device. In Beast Below Amy takes up the poem at the end: she's become a narrator, not just of her own story, but of the myth of the Whale itself, as specified in Phil's essay. The Demon's Run poem is narrated by River, in a story where she "fixes" her own fate by refusing to intervene until everything that happened, happens, and then she shows up for a moment of grace to ensure that what subsequently happens isn't rewritten either.

    Here, poetry is a way of exercising narrative control. Dorium invokes the Demons Run poem to control his encounter with Kovarian. The poetic Dolls in Night Terrors establish their hegemony in the Dollhouse. Kovarian quotes the same poem before she kidnaps the adult River; the poem is chanted by unnamed children as River is submerged in Lake Silencio and when she goes to prison — these are the moments when she's powerless (and it's only in these scenes where River is actually invoked by the TickTock poem.)

    There's more. The Whispermen poem that Clarence recites comes as he bargains for his freedom, using his valuable information to exercise power in a powerless situation. The Great Intelligence practically invokes Poe's "The Raven" with his Trenzalore poem — again, he's taken control of the narrative.

    The last poem, the short one read by Clara on the Doctor's deathbed, that one comes from a Christmas cracker. It's written by someone else, possibly a child ("Eric Ritchie, Jr.") and it's read as the Doctor is surrounded by children's drawings and toys. It's obviously a poem about the Doctor, but the Doctor doesn't get to read it; indeed, he claims not to understand it, and his power at this point is all but spent. No, it Clara who reads it, and it's Clara who turns the narrative at the end, through her prayer to Gallifrey.

    So the poetry in this era isn't just invoking an aesthetic — it's also informing us, in a systematic way, about the characters themselves and specifically the kind of power they have or fail to have in the stories in which the poems occur. In so doing, it also makes a statement that storytelling itself is a way of exercising power, which makes sense, because we are so beholden to narrative.

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  81. encyclops
    April 1, 2014 @ 9:53 am

    In Lewis's defense, I understand why he feels a certain way about the use of the rhymes. I won't pretend to know Moffat's motives and intents, but in addition to the uses you insightfully detail, I always got the sense that the poems were also typically intended to convey, to those of us who didn't look at them as closely, two things:

    1. A sense that the events they name are important and widely known enough to be encoded into rhyme. They have resonance throughout the universe, and even if the details are cryptic, the events are somehow known outside our circle of protagonists.

    2. An ominous mood. This both in the sense of foreshadowing, and in the sense of dread. Most if not all of the poems are either used to promote unease or to reply to earlier verses used in that way.

    I think you've justified their use on an intellectual level. In practice, they never fail to set my teeth on edge. It's not a device I find appealing, and it's another one of those speed bumps for me: it jars me out of the story and focuses my attention on the author instead. I suspect it's more or less the same for Lewis. I think it's fair to argue with the implication that the poetry is bad or lazy writing, but I hope I'm not going to have to argue that it's OK that the device is not to my personal taste.

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  82. brownstudy
    April 1, 2014 @ 9:58 am

    re "potholes" — One of my writing teachers referred to this as "falling out of the dream". The writer's job is to create this little bubble where the dream is shared.

    Example: It took me a few viewings of "Let's Kill Hitler" to notice that the Doctor and River have lots of uninterrupted time to banter after she's just shot up a dance hall in downtown Berlin and sent all the dancers scampering out in their skivvies. Why aren't there police or security forces banging down the doors? (Same with the Doctor's parley with PZ in "Eleventh Hour.") You could call that a refrigerator moment, I suppose. For me, though, I was in the dream and so dream-logic overruled realworld-logic.

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  83. David Anderson
    April 1, 2014 @ 11:32 am

    The problem with the children is I think that we start out wandering what happens to Timmy. Then the Doctor and Amy come across Mandy and start wandering why is Mandy crying (we know the answer) and what is wrong with the society as a whole. And then we slowly forget about Timmy in favour of asking what is the voting about, and finally when Timmy reappears it's a fairly perfunctory reveal given that by this time our mind is on other things. So that looking back the importance given to the question 'what happens to Timmy?' is far greater than the importance of the answer.

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  84. jonathan inge
    April 1, 2014 @ 11:43 am

    This comment has been removed by the author.

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  85. jane
    April 1, 2014 @ 11:47 am

    @encyclops:

    Interesting points. As to the second, I'd agree — but I'd also say that their function of setting a mood of dread is an aesthetic one that goes hand-in-hand with the "fairy tale," especially the "dark fairy tale." This is, in the end, a refinement of a previously established point.

    I'll be arguing against your first point, however. Yes, it's true for the Demon's Run poem, and the subsequent variations of "Tick Tock" after its initial use in Night Terrors (both in terms of spelling out River's story and how it's used by Emperor Churchill), but these, I think, are the only good cases to be made where the poetry was meant to be "epic".

    The Beast poem, for example, is given on Starship UK, by a girl on TV — it's a cultural artifact, a part of the setting, and there's no indication that it's universally known; think "Ring Around The Rosy" at the time of the Black Plague. The original Tick Tock poem was strictly a reflection of that particular episode's concerns, a reflection of a little boy's fear. There's no extradiegetic narrator here.

    Clarence's Whispermen poem seems particular to him, to his own supernatural encounter, and his own internal madness. The GI's "Trenzalore" poem is specifically directed to our protagonists; it's not universal, it's personal (and also, I think, mocking of the show's poetic conventions.) The poem Clara reads on Trenzalore is given with mundane attribution, as if it were written by someone from Christmas — this too is a local artifact, not an indication of some grand scope.

    In sum, it's not the poetry itself that signifies something epic, but how it's used. Dorium quoting Demons Run indicates there's a historicity to it; River's voiceover makes it even more epic — because it's voice-over, to an event she only knows about from others' stories. Churchill's quoting of Tick Tock, and the extradiegetic children chanting the "River" portions of same, function exactly the same way. Even if it wasn't poetry, but dry text, the effect would largely be the same vis-a-vis the sense these stories had a place in history.

    And this seems consciously deliberate, given the story itself — that the Doctor has gotten "too big" and that this is coming back to haunt him, not to mention the academic setting at the end of Closing Time, and River's profession of archeology, which would also include a healthy dose of history.

    Of course I can't argue as to one's personal response regarding the poetry. It sets your teeth on edge, whereas I merely shrug (I'm much more fond of literary free verse, as it happens, but I'm not anathema to mediocre rhyming poetry in the context of a dark fairy tale.) We can say the same things about the soundtrack, the score, or the acting, and they've certainly been said enough regarding the Classic series, which supposedly gets a pass for such speed bumps, given the generosity of spirit claimed by its fandom. (I doubt that claim, but I uphold its spirit.)

    So, yes, I can see where Lewis is coming from — but he's made some rather egregious mistakes: he's pushed his personal reaction as if it were a more arching critique; he's suggested some special insight into Moffat's emotional state; he's applied the characteristics of a couple specific instances of the show's usage of poetry to the whole body of work. That's what I object to, especially since I've seen other things he's written, which leads me to believe he could offer so much better.

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  86. jane
    April 1, 2014 @ 12:01 pm

    @jonathon: It is very easy to infer Moffat's authorial stamp. He is the showrunner. In interviews, he is very vocal about his take on the show (past and present). He appears as an authority in promotional/marketing material. And notably, The Powers That Be position Moffat to be the All-Knowing, All-Powerful Wizard of Doctor Who… he fervently advocates how the show is great and how he is a clever writer.

    This is true, and it's understandable, but it's still a critical mistake to assume anything about his interiority regarding any of the particulars of his work. What he says in interviews, well, that's fair game.

    Except that there's also the Death of the Author to consider. (Quit sniggering, you in the back row.) By focusing so much on the author, I think it happens far too often that critics ultimately fail to engage with the text itself, let alone closely examine it. Instead, so much critique is oriented towards the cult of the author, whether to praise him or to tear him down; the art itself becomes a means to an end, rather than the end itself.

    And sure, both he and the BBC are guilty of encouraging this mentality through their marketing, but we (who are already going to watch) really shouldn't take such advertising into account when critiquing the work, unless what we really want to do is critique the advertising and marketing itself. Which has its place, of course, but isn't exactly a substitute.

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  87. jane
    April 1, 2014 @ 12:05 pm

    "And then we slowly forget about Timmy in favour of asking what is the voting about…"

    Wait, there's a problem with the fact that we've forgotten something important, in a story that emphasizes how we're complicit in our own forgetfulness? Sorry, if anything, this makes the narrative choice of Timmy's cold open even better.

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  88. prandeamus
    April 1, 2014 @ 12:15 pm

    @David Anderson "As another bit of science that doesn't make sense, I don't believe a ship travelling through interstellar space would need engines running continuously anyway."

    Well, you would want the engines if you wanted to accelerate. There are plenty of trajectories which for which you accelerate until you are half way there, and decelerate for the other half. I know, I'm just being dull, but if you want a Sci-Fi reference you could always think of Tau Zero by Poul Anderson. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tau_Zero) which is also a story about a generation starship type thing.

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  89. prandeamus
    April 1, 2014 @ 12:56 pm

    My inner obsessive challenges Jane's assertion that non-rhyming poetry is a modern invention. Milton and Shakespeare are obvious counter-examples. Further back, Anglo-Saxon poetry used alliteration extensively. If you meant nursery rhymes as opposed to poetry in general the point stands much better. As a tangent, in many cases English has changed over the years, hence Doctor Foster steps in a puddle right up to his middle – once upon a time did he step in a piddle?

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  90. prandeamus
    April 1, 2014 @ 1:03 pm

    As a further tangent, if our host wants to hold another competition, why not set a challenge to write episode opener/closer poetry in the style of Moff for classic Who episodes?

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  91. jonathan inge
    April 1, 2014 @ 1:22 pm

    This comment has been removed by the author.

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  92. prandeamus
    April 1, 2014 @ 1:22 pm

    Who's afraid of Michael Grade?
    He wants to ditch the jester
    Who banged his head and in his stead
    Has turned into Sylvester

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  93. encyclops
    April 1, 2014 @ 1:45 pm

    jane, to be clear (which I wasn't), I wouldn't use "cool" or "epic" to describe the poetry or its effect (intended or not) either. I was proposing "ominous" instead. It's not so much at odds with any of your readings as it is a surface impression that they leave on any of us who don't delve deeper.

    I think "Ring Around the Rosy" is an apt example. Wikipedia suggests there's some debate about whether it dates back to the Plague (or even refers to it), but I always got the impression that we were meant to infer that the poetry was some precognitive or postfactual (it almost doesn't matter which in this series) rhyming, "coded" account of actual events. Of course, my impressions of what we were meant to infer don't prove anything, but I'm not really out to prove anything. You may entertain or discard my impressions as you wish. 🙂

    they've certainly been said enough regarding the Classic series, which supposedly gets a pass for such speed bumps, given the generosity of spirit claimed by its fandom

    Supposedly. In practice I find that it doesn't, not as much as you'd think. The difference is often that the speed bumps in the old series are regarded as the bald patches on a beloved teddy bear, and the speed bumps in the new series are regarded as plumbing leaks that will flood the basement. (How many metaphors am I up to? Three? Mix in a blender and enjoy over ice!) I think fans also think there's a plumber on call for the new series who will listen to their complaints, while all you can do with the teddy bear is just treat it gently from now on. There are still plenty of otherwise genial fans who will spit noisily when you mention "The Time Monster" or "Timelash," and some insane perfectionists who will bash "Kinda" for the snake or "Enlightenment" for Leee John. I think we probably have the same opinion of those people. 🙂

    That said, it might be my imagination, but you seem to be taking criticism of the Moffat era a lot more personally than you've taken criticism of most other eras in the past. I really don't remember you being so quick to reject readings other than your own, or to hold other people to the rather high standards for careful, close reading that you exemplify and have few peers at. I get that you and Philip like this era (and, to be clear, I generally do too), but I've already started censoring my comments because I don't particularly want to be told

    he's made some rather egregious mistakes

    for offering what was, I think, meant to be the start of a conversation and not the end of one. By all means please disagree. "I don't see it that way and here's why" is great. But, with respect, I don't think "you're wrong, and your reading is shallow, and you're capable of better, and here's why" is nearly as helpful, and I would hate to see that become the tone we use to argue here. More to the point I don't think it would affect the substance of what you're saying to leave it out entirely.

    Though I don't suspect anyone would complain if I kept my mouth shut a little more and maybe skipped the comments section altogether, so maybe it's not such a bad thing. 🙂

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  94. Triturus
    April 1, 2014 @ 1:49 pm

    Avoid the dread refinery
    Lest the marsh should take its toll
    For those tentacles so entwinery
    Take their dread power from Kroll

    The italics help to add portentousness, I reckon.

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  95. jane
    April 1, 2014 @ 1:52 pm

    "The loop relationship among Sender, Message, and Receiver has tightened. For better or worse, the Receiver (Audience) appears no longer interested in deciphering either the signs/signifiers of the Message (Text) or the intentions of the Sender (Author). The Receiver wants the Sender and the Message to reflect itself, its own signs/signifiers, and its own intentions."

    This is what happened to the others — and how lucky they were. It's all so clear now. I'm so happy. Praise him.

    I mean, it blinds you to the things that are important. I've seen it devour relationships and plans. It's meant to do that. Because for one person to have seen all that, to taste the glory and then go back, it will tear you apart.

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  96. jane
    April 1, 2014 @ 1:59 pm

    @encyclops: But, with respect, I don't think "you're wrong, and your reading is shallow, and you're capable of better, and here's why" is nearly as helpful, and I would hate to see that become the tone we use to argue here. More to the point I don't think it would affect the substance of what you're saying to leave it out entirely.

    I've made some egregious mistakes.

    I'm sorry, Lewis.

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  97. David Anderson
    April 1, 2014 @ 2:02 pm

    Without wanting to take any particular side:
    1) Pedantic: as prandeamus says the general rule (with exceptions) is that English language epic verse is blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter). At no point would Moffat's couplets have sounded epic. However, that doesn't mean that the intended effect isn't some kind of heightened significance.

    2) Just because we have no direct knowledge of Moffat's interiority doesn't mean we can't talk about the intent of the implied Moffat – the version of Stephen Moffat implied when we watch an episode. (There are several different implied Moffats – there's the one who writes the scripts with 'Stephen Moffat' credited; and then there's the all-powerful Stephen Moffat who intends every detail of script or direction, and every acting choice that we see on screen during his era. I rather think the first of those is the more critically useful entity to consider.)
    To argue as jane does that verse gives the speaker, whether River or Clarence, narrative control does indeed imply that the verse has some weight above and beyond normal dialogue, and that therefore the sections where verse is used are more weighty.

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  98. encyclops
    April 1, 2014 @ 3:14 pm

    Thanks, jane. I apologize to you if I'm holding you to a higher standard than others in this regard, and to Lewis if I've embarrassed him. 🙂

    Speaking of higher standards, and now speaking only for myself: I think I did, for a long time, tend to hold new Who to a higher standard in some respects than I did classic Who. I eventually realized I was doing it and tried to check that tendency. It comes from a few probably misguided assumptions:

    1. The new show is clearly a more sophisticated production on just about every level than the old show. Acting, direction, art direction, special effects, wardrobe, just about all of it reflects the advances in televisual storytelling since the 80s. This alone doesn't make it a "better show," but it does tend to set my expectations, perhaps only unconscious ones, that it will be.

    2. So far both of the showrunners have been massive, massive fans of the classic series, and have at least as much knowledge as most of us loudmouths do about where the classic series succeeded and where it's commonly thought to have stumbled. So, again probably unfairly, there's this expectation that they at least will not do any of the things fans find frustrating about the classic series, when they do. Often this expectation is exceeded. Occasionally — no shock at all — it's not.

    3. I know this isn't the case, but I catch myself imagining that the show is written the way an obsessive fan would write it: locked in a room, with no consideration at hand except what would make the very best Doctor Who story, and no outside obligations that intrude on contemplating not only the surface details but all of the deeper meanings of each episode. And of COURSE that's not the case. They have so many other things on their mind — production schedule, the careers and desires of the actors, casting snafus, budgetary constraints, probably everything script editors dealt with in the past and more, even before you get to the fact that they obviously have to please a whole bunch of Not-We in order to turn them into We — that it's a miracle if what comes out is even close to what they might have dreamt of as fans who have become writers.

    So, in short, I do think I personally (and probably not just me, but I won't assume) hold the new show to higher standards than the old show, and certainly higher standards than I should. Having been a fan since I was a kid, it's hard now to stop my inner 8-year-old bouncing around and thinking "they can do ANYTHING now! why can't it be 'City of Death' every week?!" But at least I know I'm doing that and can tell that kid to sit down and shut up. 🙂

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  99. Bennett
    April 1, 2014 @ 6:05 pm

    When are we to understand that he first met Vastra, Jenny, and Strax?

    I personally like to think that the Doctor met them in a previous incarnation (usually I go with Sylvester McCoy). I'm waiting to see if the Paternoster Gang return to meet the new Doctor – as their reactions to the regeneration would probably confirm or deny this.

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  100. Bat Masterson
    April 1, 2014 @ 6:43 pm

    Standing on the table and applauding.

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  101. heroesandrivals
    April 1, 2014 @ 7:02 pm

    The simplest would probably be imported low-wage labor, which is decried as exploitation, derided as citizens-without-rights but ultimately came of their own free will to do jobs the citizenry could not or would not. If this was America I'd say it was about illegal immigrant nannies.

    But yeah, it's a bit squishy in terms of what it means but it still managed to avoid being a Space Whale Aesop, bemusingly enough, because the episode is about the choice, not the whale itself. To an extent it's almost a backhanded criticism of the people who investigate and expose exploitative practices because once they find them… they're still powerless to stop them, so they're just stuck slinging misery and guilt around over a situation no one is able to change because it's an economic lobster-trap where the cost of voting to legislate your way out of it is too large to bear — and doing so would just make these crappy jobs disappear, leaving these people unemployed.
    Kinda like how Planet of the Ood simultaneously raises and dismisses the 'Friends of the Ood' organization as "photoactivists."

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  102. David Anderson
    April 2, 2014 @ 1:44 am

    jane – that would indeed be the case if Timmy were brought back with the same degree of prominence that he was introduced with. He isn't.

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  103. Lewis Christian
    April 2, 2014 @ 5:17 am

    I forgot about this comment thread, oops! Anyway, having skimmed the comments, I just want to say to jane, apologies are in no way necessary! I do totally understand the point you were making, and I did push my own thoughts out there, presenting them as "fact" in a sense, which I shouldn't have done. I sometimes just get too absorbed in things, ramble, and lose my focus or become too subjective. So apologies for that. Some great and interesting thoughts here though, so I'm still glad I commented on the poetry. 🙂

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  104. BerserkRL
    April 2, 2014 @ 8:53 am

    There needs to be a crossover story between Liz X and Frank Miller's Batman. "I'm the bloody Queen." "I'm the goddamned Batman."

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  105. BerserkRL
    April 2, 2014 @ 8:55 am

    Though the reference to the Doctor's name in "Girl in the Fireplace" seems to fit less well.

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  106. BerserkRL
    April 2, 2014 @ 9:12 am

    I have a special fondness for this episode because it was sort of the first episode of Nu Who I saw. (I say "sort of" because I caught most of "Love and Monsters" and immediately forgot it until I saw it again, being left only with a vague reluctance to watch Doctor Who in the future. But "The Beast Below" is the episode that got me watching the show.)

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  107. Matthew Blanchette
    April 9, 2014 @ 4:20 pm

    I've been convinced he's been making it up as he goes along ever since the Doctor in "Time of the Doctor" contradicted his own past assumption in "Let's Kill Hitler" that he was able to regenerate.

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