By C. Robert Dimitri | TV | April 27, 2010 |
By C. Robert Dimitri | TV | April 27, 2010 |
“I think a lot. It’s hard to keep track.”
We open in space, where a spaceship in the shape of a city skyline is adorned with the British flag. The names of English counties such as Surrey, Devon, and Kent are emblazoned on particular skyscrapers. Inside, a line of children waits to exit a classroom as they receive feedback on their performances from an unmoving robotic teacher in a booth (one of many later identified as “Smilers”) at the front of class. Mandy exchanges a worried look with Timmy, who is very reluctant to join the end of the line behind her. Mandy receives a “well done” from the automated voice, but Timmy is scolded with “bad boy” and given a zero, as the smiling two-sided head of the teacher swivels around to reveal a frowning face.
In the hall Mandy confirms Timmy’s grade and tells him that he will need to walk home, as he “knows what happens” to kids who receive a zero and attempt to ride the “vator.” She promises to wait for him, even though he must walk 20 decks. Timmy relents in the face of the foreboding black-cloaked human vator operator (these are the “Winders”), but he immediately boards the empty adjacent vator, in spite of the fact that another of the Smilers in the hall has swiveled its head to frown at him. He asks the automated operator, yet another Smiler, to take him to London, and a girl reciting a creepy nursery rhyme (ending in “expect no love from the beast below”) appears on the view screen in the vator. The swiveling head shifts to a frown, and the vator registers that Timmy is plummeting down to the bottom of the ship. Timmy futilely cries for help, and at the bottom the floor opens up below him to reveal a glowing red pit. As Timmy falls, the head swivels to reveal an angrier third face with red eyes and teeth bared in a grimace.
Meanwhile, Amy is hanging out the door of the TARDIS under the auspices of the extended air bubble and marveling at the beauty of space. The Doctor holds her by the foot as her hair tumbles weightless around her head, and then he pulls her back in. Below them is the “Starship UK” that we saw in the opening; the Doctor reveals that they are in the 29th century, and the inhabitants of Earth have temporarily left the planet to avoid dangerous solar flares. The Doctor gushes over the wonder of this exodus with a whole country “living and laughing” together as they search the stars for a new home. He stops to pull Amy back in, as she is dangling outside the TARDIS again.
Before they can visit Starship UK, the Doctor lets Amy’s know his time-travel rule: They are “observers only.” As the Doctor says, that’s “the one rule that he has always stuck to in all his travels.” He never becomes involved in the affairs of other people and planets.
OK, Doctor. I have many, many adventures to reference that would run contrary to this rule.
Amy compares them to a wildlife documentary and imagines it would be difficult to be detached and leave a “wounded little cub” to the elements. Her voice falls as she sees a crying Mandy on the TARDIS’s view screen, but she is surprised to see that the Doctor has already left the TARDIS and appears on the view screen next to Mandy to offer her solace. Mandy runs off, and the Doctor motions through the screen for Amy to join him.
As they walk along the streets of futuristic London, Amy reflects on the fact that she has been dead for hundreds of years to which the Doctor replies that she is a “cheery one.” Amy is then troubled by the fact that she is still wearing her nightgown. The Doctor quizzes Amy on what’s wrong with this picture. He makes the theoretical leap that they are in a sort of police state and that this society is on the brink of collapse, and then he grabs a glass of water from a dining couple and places it on the ground. “Sorry, checking all the water in this area. There’s an escaped fish,” he assures them before returning their glass to the table.
Following the Doctor and Amy is another of the Winders. He places a call to an older gentleman we’ll later learn is named Hawthorne to let him know that there has been a sighting. In turn, Hawthorne calls a woman with a flowing red cloak sitting on her floor with an array of glasses of water before her. “Did he do the thing?” she asks. “Apparently” is the reply. We never see her face, and she dons a mask before leaving.
The Doctor and Amy speculate over what is troubling Mandy. The Doctor’s expertise over why a child cries prompts Amy to ask if the Doctor is a parent. The Doctor lets the question pass without answer. The Doctor concludes that the lack of concern from the passing adults implies that the problem is something that is known and taken for granted, which is the very nature of a police state.
Mandy leaves as the Doctor and Amy talk about the situation. The Doctor assigns Amy to ask Mandy about the “smiling fellows in the booths” that line the street, as the Doctor had picked Mandy’s pocket earlier and knows her name and address. The booth blokes are “clean” — in contrast with the rest of this ad hoc spacecraft — and not approached by the citizenry as the Doctor says. Amy asks not only why she must do this task in this strange time and place but also why she must do it in her nightgown. The Doctor gives her a subtle ultimatum: Go talk to Mandy or go back to her home on Earth. “What will Amy choose?” the Doctor slyly asks. With a pout, she relents. Meanwhile, the Doctor tells her that he will be busy “staying out of trouble.”
As he leaves her, she asks, “So is that how it works, Doctor? You never interfere in the affairs of other people or planets, unless there are children crying?”
“Yes,” he answers.
Amy tracks down Mandy, who is well aware that Amy and the Doctor have been following her. They encounter an area in the road that is blocked and covered with a tarp with a padlock on it. Mandy warns Amy that they should stay away. As Amy picks the lock, she learns from Mandy that there was a separate ship for the Scottish and tells Mandy that she is “almost definitely” getting married “a long time ago tomorrow morning.” One of the Smilers is watching them from its booth and shifts from frown to grimace as Amy finishes picking the lock and enters the tented area. Inside there is a tentacle that is poking from a hole in the ground. It thrashes at Amy, and she retreats back outside. There several of the Winders await her and render her unconscious with a jet of gas shot from a ring.
The Doctor is in the engine room testing another glass of water when the masked woman in the red cloak asks him what he has discovered. The Doctor answers that the engine casing seems to be hollow and that the power couplings are not even connected. How is this ship traveling? She tells him that it’s a mystery and that he is her only hope to solve it. She also reveals that Amy is safe and gives him a tracking device to find her. As the masked woman leaves, the Doctor asks her identity and how he can find her. She tells him that she is “Liz 10” and that she will find him.
Amy wakes up in a chamber with one of the Smilers, and a computer identifies her as “Amelia Jessica Pond,” “1306 years old,” and of unknown marital status. A somber recording on the view screen lets her know that she is about to watch a presentation describing the nature of the ship. At the end she will be allowed to press a button to either “protest” or “forget.” If only one percent of the populace chooses to protest the manner in which the safety of the British people has been guaranteed, the program will be discontinued with consequences for all. A flurry of images bombards Amy, and in a shocked state she presses the forget button. She then sees a message from herself (recorded after she learned the truth but prior to forgetting) in which she pleads with her future self to get the Doctor off the ship so that he will not investigate further.
Nevertheless, the Doctor immediately arrives to investigate the apparatus and determines that the machine has erased Amy’s memory. Amy wonders why she would have chosen to forget, and Mandy tells them that everyone makes that choice. At age 16 when they become eligible to vote, the people are given the option to see the film and are again presented with the film every five years. Mandy asks why the Doctor does not know about this: “Are you Scottish too?” The Doctor replies, “I’m way worse than Scottish.”
This leads to Amy learning that the Doctor is not human despite his looks. (“I don’t look human; you look Time Lord.”) He lets her know that he’s the last of his kind but does not want to discuss that “bad day” further. He only says that this — bringing down the government — is what he does now, as he smacks the protest button. The door shuts, separating them from Mandy, the Smiler switches to a grimace, and the floor opens up sending the Doctor and Amy into a pit like the one that claimed Timmy earlier.
The Doctor and Amy find themselves in what seems to be a rubbish dump, but the Doctor concludes by the organic nature of the mess that they are now in the heart of the ship on a gigantic tongue. They see the giant teeth of the beast, and the Doctor activates the “eject button” by provoking the creature with his sonic screwdriver. They are vomited out the “hurl escape.” (I wasn’t quite sure about the logistics of this, but I went with it.)
In another chamber deep in the heart of the ship, the Doctor and Amy — now covered in sick (now that’s a British descriptor for you) — come upon two more of the Smilers that have another “forget” button available for them to push. The Doctor questions them about sending the protesters into the belly of the beast, and they shift from frown to grimace. The Doctor assures them that he won’t be forgetting, and the Smilers emerge from their booths and approach menacingly. Liz 10 appears at their backs, though, and shoots the Smilers down. She has been listening in via the tracking device that she gave the Doctor earlier and reveals that she never voted, as she is not technically a British subject. She recognizes the Doctor, though, as tales of him and his alien intelligence have been passed down through her family — not to mention his characteristic “hair of an idiot.” As they retreat from the repairing Smilers, she rattles off the Doctor’s history with the royal family, including a tsk-tsk “bad boy” in reference to his dalliance with the Virgin Queen. As she guns down a couple more Smilers, she reveals that she is Queen Elizabeth X. They encounter more tentacles emerging from below, and the Doctor recognizes that these are all connected to the same creature. The Queen is disgusted that someone is feeding her subjects to this thing. The Doctor tells Amy that they never should have come here, and she recalls the warning she had told herself in the recording.
Back in the Queen’s chamber, the queen tells the Doctor that she has been working undercover to solve this mystery for ten years since she assumed the throne at 40. Amy is surprised that this makes the very young-looking Queen 50 years old, and she says her body clock has been slowed for the sake of appearance. The Winders arrive in her chamber and request the Queen’s presence in the Tower. Their human faces swivel around to reveal grimacing Smilers. The Queen complies when the Smiler tells her that the highest authority (i.e., the Queen herself) has commanded it.
In the dungeon of the Tower of London, the Doctor, Amy, Mandy, and the Queen meet Hawthorne, the man who phoned her earlier to tell her about the Doctor. There are children at this level, and Hawthorne tells them that protesters and children of limited value are sent to the beast, but the beast spares the children. The Doctor and Amy are the first adults that the creature spared. The Doctor has the puzzle solved now, as we see the ship’s “engine,” which is the exposed pain-center of the creature’s brain, continually shocked to keep the ship moving. The Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver to reveal the creature’s cries of pain above normal human listening frequency.
The Queen demands to know who is at fault and to release the creature. The Doctor tells her that her perfectly sculpted mask is actually an antique that is hundreds of years old and that she has made the choice for the British people. Her body clock was slowed much more than she thought. As revealed in a recording of herself, she has been continually choosing to forget that they have been torturing the star whale — an ancient species that would seem to be the last of its kind — rather than abdicate her throne. The Earth was burning, and children were crying, so they trapped the star whale when it arrived and built their ship around it.
Amy asks why she would have voted for this cruel bargain, and the Doctor tells her that she did it to save him from the impossible choice of saving humanity or the alien. The Doctor tells her it was wrong to decide what he needs to know. Despite the fact that she does not remember making the decision, the Doctor tells her that he is taking her home. The Doctor becomes extremely angry and distraught over his options: let the whale continue in agony, kill the British citizenry, or render the whale brain-dead with an overdose of electricity but still capable of flying. “Nobody human has anything to say to me today!” he shouts in response to the Queen’s protest that there must be some other way.
As Amy watches one of the star whale’s tentacles caress rather than thrash at Mandy, she ponders all that has transpired and realizes that she can still save everyone including the star whale. She tells the Doctor to stop what he’s doing, takes the Queen’s hand in hers, and uses it to push the abdicate button at the Doctor’s protest. The ship temporarily suffers from turbulence and power outages but recovers. Hawthorne is surprised that the ship has increased speed, and Amy tells him that’s no surprise as they have stopped torturing the pilot. She explains that the star whale arrived to save them and that the trapping and torturing were never necessary.
“What if you were really old and really kind and alone…your whole race dead. No future. What couldn’t you do then? If you were that old and that kind and the very last of your kind, you couldn’t just stand there and watch children cry.”
Later Amy and the Doctor share a quiet moment looking out at the stars through Starship UK’s window. The Doctor is still incredulous that Amy took such a risk, but she tells him that she had seen the whale’s position as the last of its species before in him. They share a hug, thus cementing the Doctor-companion relationship.
As they board the TARDIS, she is on the verge of telling him of her imminent nuptials, but a phone ringing inside the police box sends them to the console. She picks up the phone, and Winston Churchill is on the line. The shadow of a Dalek is in the PM’s office. The final shot reveals the bellowing star whale underneath Starship UK, as Amy intones a much kinder rhyme about “the beast below.” Then — just as last week’s episode gave us in the end — we see another of the time-space cracks in the hull of the ship.
Overall, I enjoyed this episode. I did not think it was quite as good as the opener, but I found Amy’s solution to the problem and thus her rightful claim to a passenger spot in the TARDIS very satisfying. There are a few items that I thought deserved extra comment.
First, if Amy is 1300 years old as the computer indicated and they were indeed in the 29th century as the Doctor said, there was either a subtraction continuity error or Steven Moffat was up to something specific with this detail. If it’s the latter, I’m wondering if perhaps the Doctor has somehow found himself in an alternate universe altogether in which the human timeline is radically different.
Second, the Doctor’s sending a new companion off on a delegated potentially dangerous task alone and essentially blackmailing her into doing so struck me as a bit odd. Perhaps he was teasing her to some extent, but if not it would seem that Matt Smith’s Doctor might be a bit more reckless than his predecessors. I do welcome a little bit of deviation in the Doctor’s personality. I was reminded of Colin Baker’s Doctor letting Peri know that she would simply need to become accustomed to his new more prickly personality.
Third, I was not entirely clear on how the UK’s undesirable situation with the star whale would translate into a society in which children “of limited value” are thrown away. Discarding children seems just as morally questionable as the enslavement of the star whale. I was willing to forgive the plot point and perhaps this sort of slippery slope would be possible, but the creation of this entire police state owing to society’s one decision to enslave the star whale seemed like a logical stretch to me.
Finally, I just wanted to reflect on the creepiness of the Smilers. I have always thought it a cool phenomenon that a simple unmoving visage can invoke so much dread. Doctor Who with its limited effects budget has mined that nature of the gargoyle before to great success, and it is a good reminder that less sometimes can be more.
C. Robert Dimitri spent many of the prime Saturday nights of his youth staying home to watch syndicated episodes of Doctor Who on PBS, and his social skills might be beyond repair as a result. He’s not the most hardcore Whovian, but he’s a respectable representative. The first episode he remembers watching was Tom Baker’s “The Creature From The Pit.” At one point he obsessively watched all the Hartnell, Troughton, and Pertwee episodes that were available to him, and sometime around the age of 14 he dragged his mother to a Doctor Who convention. All he truly has ever wanted for Christmas is Perpugilliam Brown, but he would be almost as content with K-9.
In his youth, he once said that he would accept five years of paralysis if it meant saving the whales.