|In this scene, Clara is cleverly disguised as the BBC logo.|
It’s April 10th, 2010. Scouting for Girls are at number one with “This Ain’t a Love Song,” with Plan B, Delirious, Tinie Tempah, and Inna also charting, as well as most of the crowd from last week. Including Bieber, yes. In news, the miners in Shanxi were rescued, and the next day a cole mine in West Virginia explodes, killing twenty-five. Wikileaks releases the “Collateral Murder” video, showing the killing of civilians by the US military in Iraq, which was leaked to them by Chelsea Manning. Riots continue in Kyrgyzstan, and Gordon Brown asked permission to dissolve parliament, triggering the election that will, in a month’s time, remove him from power.
On television, meanwhile, the Moffat era carries on with its second story. A story seemingly destined to always seem a bit out of place, The Beast Below was not quite what anybody expected and, perhaps more to the point, is not quite like anything that has come since. The knowledge that the production got away from the new team and that this story was thus made under very trying circumstances makes it easy to write the strangeness off as an artifact of a production team that was still learning what they were doing, much as Aliens of London/World War Three is often read in part as the result of the Davies/Gardner team finding themselves overwhelmed by the scope of what they were doing.
This is, of course, complete tosh. What’s bizarre about The Beast Below is that it’s unlike almost everything else Moffat has ever written for Doctor Who. This is in many ways an artifact not of the production circumstances on Series Five, but of the production circumstances on Series Six and Seven. Because the split season structure of Series Six and Seven, everything Moffat wrote after Series Five was either a season opener, a season finale, or a standalone special. With Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone existing to further the ongoing River Song plot, The Beast Below is therefore the only Moffat-penned story from his era to largely serve as a blank slate that Moffat can do as he pleases with. This is markedly unlike the Davies era, where every season provided Davies at least one opportunity to do something unusual and more personal: The Long Game, Love and Monsters, Gridlock, and Midnight being the obvious examples. (And notably, all of those stories feel at least a little strange in their respective seasons, much as this one does.) But The Beast Below is really the only instance in the Moffat era where we just get to see what Moffat is inclined to write when left to his own devices. Indeed, it’s one of the only times at all – Moffat’s Davies-era scripts may not have been rewritten, but they were generally prepared to specific briefs. Here, for the first and last time, Moffat just gets to come up with an idea and write it.
In many ways, this makes it all the more surprising. The Beast Below bristles with anger in a way that nothing of Moffat’s really does until His Last Vow. In terms of tone and style, it feels not unlike The Long Game in that it seems to have waltzed straight out of the Cartmel era – to the point of having the Doctor accomplish what Cartmel famously tried to have him do: bringing down the government. Which is, in many ways, where the sense of surprise comes from. If you asked any Doctor Who fan at the start of 2010 what classic series story they thought Moffat’s second story would most resemble, it’s probably safe to say that nobody would have answered The Happiness Patrol. And yet here we are with The Beast Below: it’s spiky and political and engaged, and miles from the sex comedies and timey wimey puzzle boxes that Moffat is accused of “only ever writing.”
Actually, this last bit isn’t quite true. The Beast Below is absolutely a puzzle box, but it hides this underneath a structure that is on the surface a return to the long lost style of exploring a world and slowly unraveling its nature. This is, of course, merely a superficial return: Starship UK is not a particularly coherent world. It falters under even a moderate interrogation of its premises. What looks like exploring a world is in fact exploring a set of revelations and reversals that have been carefully sequenced. As with most of Moffat’s supposed mysteries there is no possible way to solve it in advance. The key revelation – that Starship UK is in fact sitting on the back of a Star Whale – is so out of left field as to be effectively unguessable.
This is normal for Moffat – the point of a mystery for him has always been to trace the consequences of each step of discovery. We’ve talked before about how Moffat is particularly good at writing exposition scenes, using the long sequences of unraveling plot points to set up consequences and reversals for his characters. In this case, the apparent puzzle – what’s going on with Starship UK and this weird monster living underneath it – is really just there to distract the audience from the real puzzle – why Starship UK is being flown by a Star Whale. The mystery exists, in other words, in order to set up the ending where the Doctor solves the mystery of Starship UK, and then Amy solves it a second time, getting it right where the Doctor had gotten it wrong. The world of Starship UK exists purely to set up this double reveal at the end.
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. 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.
But contrasting with this is the fairy tale aesthetic that the Moffat era has established. And, crucially, this is not just the obvious “Amy Pond has her Wendy Darling moment” aspects of it. No, the real fairy tale character here is Liz Ten, who is consciously introduced in an opulent shot that screams gothic romance, and who then goes and plays the standard sci-fi “leader of the resistance” role before finally being revealed as Queen Elizabeth X. In all of this, she is clearly set up to represent an idealized vision of Britain to contrast with the material ugliness of the political allegory. Pointedly and brilliantly, she’s a storybook queen who cuts against any attempt to read her as part of the existing social order due to the tremendous intelligence involved in making her black. By positioning her outside the realm of what it is possible to imagine the monarchy being within our lifetimes the story ties her not into the contemporary political system that the rest of The Beast Below is defined in terms of, but instead a part of an idealized fantasy of Britain.
This is not incidental. The entire interplay at the heart of The Beast Below is between the fairy tale and the material. In sequence, we are shown the failure of the material (including Amy’s morally incorrect vote to forget) and, subsequently, the failure of the fairy tale (in the form of both Liz Ten and the Doctor being unable to solve the underlying moral problem of Starship UK). The fact that Liz Ten initially appears to be part of the fairy tale realm embodied by the Doctor only to turn out to be just as culpable as anyone else for the exploitation of the Star Whale, if not moreso, is at the heart of the story’s point, which is in a large part that narrative alone is not sufficient to alleviate the fundamental corruption of society. Salvation does not lie in an uncomplicated return to the storybook.
But it is not sufficient to simply note the dynamic underlying Starship UK. Equally important is to understand the specific nature of how Starship UK is corrupted. It is significant that the root of this corruption is formed around the Star Whale, a concept that explicitly (through its tacit link to the Doctor as explained by Amy in the denouement) belongs to the fairy tale world. (And also, strangely, to Douglas Adams, both in its vague evocation of a classically upsetting scene in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the fact that the graphic of the Star Whale resembles the classic not-actually-computer-graphics used in the television series.) In other words, the social malaise at the heart of Starship UK is in practice a diseased relationship with the mythic underpinnings of the society. In practice this describes any society. Government is always based on a fundamentally mythic relationship. Whether it be the agreement of centuries-dead people upon the use of a particular document to structure a government or the authority of a family tree stretching back to a particular millennium-old conquest, a government always derives its authority from a mythologized event. So here we have a government that is literally built on the back of a myth.
Its problem, however, is that it misunderstands its own myth, cruelly exploiting it when in fact its myth is benevolent. But this failure is preserved by the quasi-democratic system of voting to forget the myth’s existence. This, within the context of The Beast Below, is the real horror of Starship UK. It is not merely the consensus to build a society upon exploitation and torture, but the decision to consciously turn a blind eye to it. Here it becomes on one level difficult to tie The Beast Below into any present day issue and on another easy to tie it to just about anything. 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. Whether one wants the Star Whale to be exploitative labor practices, foreign policy, the environment, the existence of state secrets, or anything else is ultimately immaterial. They all work, and they’re all intended. Whatever you consider “the beast below” society to be, the Star Whale is an adequate symbol for it not just in terms of its exploitative and immoral nature, but in terms of the fact that this exploitation is continually overlooked by people living in the society.
Because this is the other nasty truth of ideology (which is the fancy Marxist term for what we’ve been talking about here): it’s completely inescapable. No matter how much you decry abusive labor practices, imperialist foreign policy, or the destruction of the environment it is impossible to live in the so-called developed world without benefitting materially from these things. Any attempt to live your life without financially supporting people who do terrible things in your name is doomed. That’s what a broken civilization is and what it means: that everyone is guilty. Even the Doctor, who, upon learning about the exploitation, ultimately attempts the solution that is so often raised against the exploitative and abusive practices of those in power: a vague and half-hearted attempt to moderate their evil. There’s an anger and cynicism implicit in this that puts even Robert Holmes to shame. “I voted for this,” Amy chokes, but the point isn’t that she voted for the torture of the Star Whale, but rather that she voted for her own ignorance. (Contrast the Doctor’s instinctive choice, without even seeing the video – because of course he will always protest. Ignorance is not even seriously considered as an option.)
In other words, it is not actually the exploitation of the Star Whale that is the most horrifying part of Starship UK. Rather it is the institutionalized decision to remain oblivious to this fact. Throughout Starship UK the choice given to a citizen is straightforward: live in ignorance or die. For all that the government is structured on seemingly democratic principles of transparency, its central feature is that nobody save for an unelected few are allowed the choice to live with knowledge of what their society is like. It’s crucial to note the fundamentally coercive nature of the so-called democracy. It’s not even that protesting is in fact a death sentence – it’s the fact that the material reality of Starship UK is treated as an unknowable thing and an untellable story within it. The condition afflicting Starship UK is not the material exploitation of the Star Whale – it’s a narrative condition caused by an unspeakable signifier. In this regard the Star Whale transmutes from the salvation of Britain into the titular beast below – a necrotic Other defined by the fact that it cannot even be spoken of – that it necessarily exists outside of the language of the culture since memory of it – and remember the longstanding connection between memory and narrative within Doctor Who’s alchemy.
It is in this context that the episode’s final twist must be understood. Ultimately, Amy’s restoration of order to Starship UK stems from her ability to exist in two worlds at once. She acts both as a British subject and as the fairy tale character that the entire story has been carefully set up to push her towards in its secondary status as the classic “new companion’s first adventure away from home” story. The curiously long sequence in which she works it out, created by mixing bits of the episode out of sequence and, crucially, repetitively so as to establish thematic patterns in the world. Her deduction starts by noticing that the Star Whale likes children, then to the fact that the Doctor and the Star Whale are both the last of their kind, then to the Doctor’s refusal to countenance children crying, and then finally back to the fact of the Star Whale’s uncanny kindness towards children. Unlike the Doctor, who solves the mystery of “what do these various material clues signify,” Amy solves the mystery of “what is this story actually about,” recognizing the actual symbolism of the myth upon which Starship UK is constructed.
Let’s take a step back and look at all of this together. What we have is a story where the ugliness of humanity and the capacity of mythic storytelling are pitted against each other, and where the ugliness of humanity is initially allowed to win. One in which the worst thing in the world is the existence of things that cannot be spoken of – of willful ignorance as a defense mechanism against evil – and where 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.
In the course of this, we have a story that has evoked a greatest hits of past Doctor Who writers. It’s not just the Cartmel-era tone of the piece, nor the tacit invocation of Douglas Adams, nor Robert Holmes’s simmeringly incandescent fury at the state of the world. Underneath this story is an essential alchemy. “This dream must end, this world must know, we all depend on the beast below,” the story declares at the end. This paralleling of “above” and “below” is alchemical, as is the metafictional concern with the sorts of stories we tell. The presence of two classic Doctor Who themes – human exploitation of the unknown and the focus on exploring and learning the nature of new worlds – shows what writer is really invoked within The Beast Below: David Whitaker.
So Moffat gives us 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. On the one hand this is surprising simply because that combination of elements never again leaps to the forefront with quite this straightforward certainty. On the other, however, it is not surprising at all. We need only look at Moffat’s first contribution, a hymn to sexual liberation and social justice, to see that he was always capable of this, and indeed inclined to it. And the fact that this is the one pristine script of the Moffat era to date – the one time he’s gotten to just write something for the hell of it – speaks volumes. Indeed, for all that this seems like the outlier of the Moffat era, it is worth making it central and allowing it to serve as its own beast below, so to speak – as the myth upon which everything else is built. This is the place where Moffat picks up the legacy of Doctor Who and declares his own spin on it.
What, then, does Moffat add to this lineage? What does Moffat propose to bring to Doctor Who’s alchemy? A story about the relationship between people and their stories. One that proclaims that when faced with a diseased and rotting story the solution is to simply tell a new one – a better one. One that rejects silence, that treats storytelling as a moral duty and its absence as a moral obscenity. And perhaps most crucially, one that is about a symbolic ascension. Because in the end, the way in which Amy saves Britain’s soul is by finally becoming a creature of narrative and fairy tale, and by embracing that role. 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.
And so the moral heart of the Moffat era stands, for a moment, revealed – an understanding and principle we can take forward in reading everything else that he does. It is an observation that stems inexorably from the history of alchemy within the series and from the underlying imagery of this story. “As above, so below,” the injunction goes – a declaration that manipulating symbols and manipulating objects is, in some sense, the same thing. That a symbol and a thing are in some sense interchangeable. What is the moral heart of the Moffat era? It is simple.
The secret of material social progress is alchemy.