I must admit that I was much more impressed with Doctor Who this past weekend than with the series premiere. "The Beast Below" addressed my main criticism
of Matt Smith's debut, namely, too much in the histrionics department. Here he is still incredibly passionate but less hyper. And very funny.
The Doctor and Amy land on Starship UK which looks like a conglomeration of skyscrapers and contains the population of England (not Scotland, though) who are fleeing Earth which is under assault by solar flares. In seeking to console a girl who is crying, our heroes discover that not all is as it seems on the interstellar nation of shopkeepers. For one thing, there is no vibration from an engine. So what is propelling the ark? The Doctor and Amy must go below decks to the Tower of London to find the answer.
This should sound somewhat familiar as The Doctor and Martha visited New New New New New New New New New New New New New New New New York in "Gridlock" and the answer to the conundrum in that story lay below the surface just as here. Without wanting to spoil the story, I'll say that the two stories have some similarities but are quite different. Writer Steven Moffat cleverly plays against our expectations in "The Beast Below" and does so very well.
This story was a hoot. Much of what was done physically in "The Eleventh Hour" is now done verbally. The Doctor spends less time running around, spitting food, and hitting his own forehead and more time off-handedly dropping quips like the one to Amy about how he never interferes in the affairs of the places he visits. He has seemingly gotten over any post-regeneration hiccups and can now concentrate on enjoying himself and getting Amy acclimated to her new role as companion. Mania has been replaced by an avuncular congeniality. Considering his age, there were times when Smith's Doctor showed signs of Jon Pertwee as the third incarnation of the character. Tellingly, he avoids answering her queries as to whether he is a father but The Doctor does explain that he is the last of his kind.
Amy showed a lot of promise in her first episode but it focused on The Doctor. "The Beast Below" showed her to be adventurous and intelligent. We see her picking a padlock to go poking around that tent where she shouldn't be and she also overrides The Doctor's plan of pseudo-euthanasia after having pieced together what she could of the puzzle and then taking a leap of faith. Plus, since she is Scottish, there's always room for jokes about the Scots such as the aforementioned one about them building their own ark to flee the Earth instead of joining the Brits.
Sophie Okonedo was great as the badass Queen Elizabeth X. (Above w/The Doctor.) She proves herself to be a real gunslinger in the face of two menacing Smilers and recounts some previous encounters with The Doctor had by past British monarchs such as Victoria in "Tooth and Claw".
In addition to the slimy Star Wars
-like garbage chute scene, I also appreciated the above "Smilers", which are surveillance devices that use clown-like faces to register official approval or opprobrium. They scared The Dulcinea and Miles pretty good. Plus I liked the vaguely Blade Runner
esque sets. They retrofitted the English city really well.
Lastly I'll mention that the crack motif continues here. Introduced in "The Eleventh Hour" with the crack in young Amy's bedroom wall and Prisoner Zero intoning "the Pandorica will open, silence will fall", we see a large crack in the Starship UK.
This series may have gotten off to a bit of a slow start but "The Beast Below" gets things moving once again. To top things off, it ends with an introduction to next week's installment which is to feature the Daleks.