As the 11th Doctor’s time comes to a close, I’ve decided to briefly review my personal favorite episodes from Matt Smith’s era. And yes, I am very much aware about the controversy surrounding the numbering of the Doctor (is Matt Smith’s Doctor really still the 11th? Or is he the 12th? Or the 13th?). Recent Moffat interviews serve only to muddle and confuse the issue even more. As a result, for the sake of communication and simplicity, I shall refer to him as the Eleventh Doctor for the time being. I wholeheartedly agree with Neil Gaiman, who when asked about the numbering of the Doctors, responded, “If you mean, ‘Do we now all have to agree to renumber all the Doctors?’, I think the main purpose of numbering things is to communicate, and we all know who we mean when we say Doctors NIne, Ten or Eleven. If anyone corrects you and says ‘You mean TWELFTH!’ when you say ‘Matt Smith was the eleventh Doctor’ then that person is being irritatingly pedantic and should be pitied, in a nice way and with a gentle friendly, not-patronising sort of love, because they will have long hard lives ahead of them.”
11. The Beast Below
Who are you? And what would you choose?
Series five saw the introduction of a new Doctor, new sonic screw driver, new companion, new TARDIS and of course, a new head writer. What direction would Moffat take the series? What type of companion would Amy Pond be? And more pressingly, What type of Doctor would Matt Smith be? How would he be different from his predecessors? How would he be the same? Who is this Doctor?
The reason, “The Beast Below” is one of my favorite episodes of Matt’s Smith tenure, is that the episode not only addresses said questions, but turns them back on the viewer. In this story, a star whale is mercilessly tortured in order to enable Starship UK to continue flying. As Liz Ten explicates in a video meant to encourage her future counterpart to do what is best for the nation, there was no other choice:
“The creature you are looking at is called a Star Whale. Once, there were millions of them. They lived in the depths of space and, according to legend, guided the early space travellers through the asteroid belts. This one, as far as we are aware, is the last of its kind. And what we have done to it breaks my heart. The Earth was burning. Our sun had turned on us and every other nation had fled to the skies. Our children screamed as the skies grew hotter. And then it came, like a miracle. The last of the Star Whales. We trapped it, we built our ship around it, and we rode on its back to safety. If you wish our voyage to continue, then you must press the Forget button. Be again the heart of this nation, untainted. If not, press the other button. Your reign will end, the Star Whale will be released, and our ship will disintegrate. I hope I keep the strength to make the right decision.”
Every five years, each person over the age of 16 is informed about the Star Whale’s painful existence and they are then given a choice: forget or protest? Those who protest are fed to the whale and those who chose to forget have the last twenty minutes of their memory wiped and they are free go back to their normal lives. This episode encourages the viewer to ask, “What would I do? Would I chose to forget or would I protest?” Questions which also get to the heart of our identity, “who am I? When faced with injustice and oppression, how would I act? When informed about injustice what would I do? Would I protest against the unjust structures, or chose to forget and go on with my life, in a sort of self-imposed form of amnesia? What am I willing to risk to do what I think is the right thing? How far am I willing to go?”
The Doctor is faced with a difficult situation with options that all have horrible consequences. He elucidates: “Look, three options. One, I let the Star Whale continue in unendurable agony for hundreds more years. Two, I kill everyone on this ship. Three, I murder a beautiful, innocent creature as painlessly as I can. And then I find a new name, because I won’t be the Doctor anymore.”
Those are the Doctor’s only three options, or so he believes and he decides his best option is to render the star whale a vegetable-alive, but unable to feel the pain and suffering being inflicted on it. Those on board the ship continue to survive and the animal is not cognizant of the pain it is undergoing. Amy, however, understands that compassion is the core characteristic of the star whale (and by extension the core characteristic of the Doctor):
With the start of series five, anxious fans wanted to know, “who is this new Doctor? How is he the same from his predecessors?” In my opinion, this episode demonstrates that the answer lies in his compassion. Earlier in the episode he tells Amy, “Oh, Amy. We should never have come here.” Yet they came and when he found out the full nature of the situation, instead of leaving, instead of running away the Doctor stayed. He stayed even knowing that he would face an extremely difficult and unpleasant choice. A choice that reminds him of another horrible decision he had to make a long time ago: destroy his own people and end the Time War, or allow the war to continue to wage on and continue to wreak havoc and mass destruction?
And Amy saw right through the Doctor-a mysterious stranger who suddenly dropped into her life when she was a kid, disappeared, and then suddenly dropped back in years later. She saw who he was-even when he couldn’t. And she reminded him of who he was.
So viewer: What would you choose? Would you forget or would you protest? What daily choices do you make when confronted with systematic injustice? Do you ignore it? Do you forget about it? Or do you try to stand up and let your voices be heard? Who are you? Who do you want to become?