So, I think it's fair to say that no one counts any of the second episodes among their favourites (although I remember re-watching The End of The World (2005), the second Christopher Eccleston episode, over and over because it was such a beautifully constructed statement of intent for the new show). Second episodes are not the ones to showcase the big badguys and, compared to first episodes, no one really has that high an expectation. So, pressure's off.
We are re-introduced to our shiny-new characters in their shiny new TARDIS as The Doctor is proving to Amy that it really is a spaceship. She is out in space, flying, while he is fast hold of her ankle and ... looking up her nightdress. Hm. Okay.
Well, this shows that she is a spirited companion, as we have come to expect in these modern, enlightened times. Her idealised analysis of his behaviour as being that of a documentary film-maker who has to observe dispassionately without getting involved is very succinctly put, and shows why The Doctor has no right to feel superior to her ... because, just like her, he can't help but tamper.
Matt Smith does pathos well, particularly when he, like Eccleston before him, struggles with the notion of being the last of his kind (again). At least he succeeds in keeping this just the right side of maudlin. He also does zany quite well, flapping his arms around in a childish, ungainly way like Basil Fawlty (an analogy which is, no doubt, aided greatly by his ill-fitting tweed and that ridiculous dickie-bow). To be fair to him, he does petulant and troubled well too and gets the chance to try on all those guises in this episode. But I wish they'd stop giving him an acting work-out and settle on just one sort of Doctor for him to be, rather than an amalgam of all that came before.
Moffat has followed a couple of second episode traditions so, like Tooth and Claw (2006) and The Shakespeare Code (2007), this episode features the Queen of England and, like The End of The World it considers the diaspora of the human race. Where that story had echoes of Douglas Adams' The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, in that its location was an observation platform set up to watch the Earth consumed by The Sun, this tale looks at what happened to the humans who fled.
Tom Baker's second story The Ark in Space (1975) featured a not-dissimilar idea and there is a very noble tradition in science fiction of generation starships (even Pixar's Wall E had one). Here, the ship is Starship UK, a floating island of enclosed skyscrapers (as t'were) each named after a different county. Nice touch that, pity nothing is done with the idea.
The population is under the thumb of an all-seeing authority represented by automated Smilers, who sit there in booths, remind one of eerie, haunted ventriloquist dummies and ... don't do anything.
As with The Eleventh Hour's jellied eel bad-guy, everyone is scared witless of them, yet they don't actually do anything. They frown, they grimace and, when goaded, they stand up then ... fall over. Oooh, scary.
The pre-title sequence involving the isolation and punishment of a child is not explained. I get that people who protest get eaten. I get that the titular Beast Below doesn't eat children ... but why are under-performing children fed to it then?
Of course, there is a real child-centric feel to the new show (so far). RTD was determined to make it a family show, to not pander to children but rather to motivate them to aspire, to think, to work at understanding it. He brought prime-time adult television standards to his scripts and to the production as a whole. Sadly, I'm not seeing a lot of evidence of that retained here; instead, I'm seeing a children's show.
Having his protagonists slip and slide around in the whale's mouth was, I imagine, originally intended to have some mythical or fairy-tale overtone but, as presented, it is simply Star Wars' Garbage Compactor scene with added gunk. It is the sort of messy humour that patronising, non-aspirational children's TV is all-too replete with. That's two weeks on the trot, Steven. Enough now, please.
But, of course, I suppose the focus should be on children. After all, as is made clear by the end, The Doctor sees all humans as children. But then, in asserting his superiority ("You look Time Lord. We came first!") he simply comes across as childish and petulant. Later, when he feels that Amy has taken some power away from him he really throws his teddy out, bellowing like a spoiled brat "No human has anything to say to me today!" In fact, he loses his temper so much that he misses the all-important detail that'll save the day.
Thing is, all this "I'm mightier than thou" routine should have been kicked out of him ... The Tenth Doctor's arrogance burned him and that, in the show's continuity, happened only a few days before, yet The Eleventh Doctor seems to have forgotten all he recently learned about hubris. Well, memory loss has gone hand-in-hand with regeneration in the past, but not this conveniently.
So, however well performed it is by Smith, that just rings wrong for me. But, however much he hates it, I do like the way Amy thinks for herself, took his advice to see and understand the world around her and acts without consulting him - even after he did get all pissy at her.
What worked brilliantly was the character of Liz Ten: "I'm the bladdy Queen, mate!" Wonderful. The process that has kept her on the throne for so long, the Forget / Protest buttons is a lovely philosophical commentary on the General Election we are now immersed in ... even if the idea does bear a family resemblance to The Matrix's red and blue pills.
As with The Eleventh Hour, this script felt almost finished, but there were some continuity, motivation and narrative beats that needed more work. Moffat's fascination with bio-mechanics (seen in the gas-mask faces of The Empty Child - 2005 - as well as the clockwork robots and cannibalised crew of The Girl in the Fireplace - 2006) is here in the spaceship / alien hybrid and in the half human / half Smiler crew. But the culture of The Smilers and The Winders suggests at masses of fascinating back-story, but there is no time to fully develop or explain that. That's a problem. That suggests a script that still needed work.
One final (small) example. The realisation that "very old ... and the very last of its kind" things can be very kind is a lovely idea. But did we really need to have it explained to us three times? Once, of course, twice, fair enough ... but thrice? That, again, feels to me like a script that needed one final polish.
And (cue tenuous link here) while we're on the subject of polish ... The new TARDIS. Same as the old TARDIS. Not being a hardcore Whovian I didn't realise that the sudden appearance of the St. John's Ambulance logo on the shiny new door is a reboot to William Hartnell's TARDIS way back when.
So I did a (little) bit of research and I didn't realise there had been so many TARDISes over the years. Here is an exhaustively researched and well-written analysis of the evolution of the TARDIS. Enjoy.