So, here we go with the critical second episode for Matt Smith’s Doctor. The first episode, which I mentioned recently did a fine job of introducing the new Doctor, the new companion, the new sonic screwdriver, the refurbished TARDIS and indeed Mr Steven Moffat Sir’s new regime, but it’s the second episode which is really important: it’s the one where the new companion goes off in the TARDIS for the first time and gets dropped into a completely new environment and with a more than likely dangerous situation. How will she adjust? How will the regenerated Doctor behave? Will it, in short, work? Well, let’s see…
The episode opens promisingly enough with a vast spacecraft, labelled with a prominent Union Flag, and with very large towers with such large friendly labels as “Surrey”, suggesting a bit of inspiration from the old James Blish Cities in Flight books which I read so long ago that the details have evaporated from my brain. Inside this ship, we see a classroom, where there seems to be a rather sinister looking fairground tell-your-fortune machine in charge – one of those figures in a glass case with a horrible smiling face. A face which turns to a frown when it tells one kid he’s done badly. Things go even worse for the kid when the floor of a lift opens up beneath him revealing a sinister red glow from deep in the ship…
Now that’s a nice set up, which leads us to Amy, who’s apparently drifting in space, talking to herself about how her imaginary friend turned out to be real. We then see that the Doctor has hold of her ankle and she’s hanging out of the TARDIS door. As you do.
And so the TARDIS lands on what we soon learn is Starship UK – it seems that some time in the past, Earth was due to be fried by solar flares, and so the whole population left on huge ships to look for a new home.
The Doctor explains “the rules” to Amy. He never gets involved with other civilisations. Well, not unless he sees a crying child, which he does. He wonders why everyone is (a) ignoring a crying child and (b) scared of the creepy things in the booths, which seem to be all over the place. Sending Amy to talk to the young girl who was crying, he says he’s going to do what he always does:
Stay out of trouble… badly!
And then things begin to take a very dark turn. After being captured by the creepy guys in hoods who seem to be running security, Amy is shown a video which explains the truth about Starship UK. And she’s given a choice of buttons to press: “Protest” or “Forget”. If enough people press “Protest”, things will change, quite possibly badly. If she presses “Forget”, her memory of the truth will be wiped. Whatever it is must be bad, because she presses “Forget”. And then sees a message from herself suggesting that she needs to stop the Doctor from investigating what’s going on.
Meanwhile, the Doctor has met “Liz Ten”, a very sharp woman who knows who he is, and is as concerned as he is by the fact that even though the ship is moving, there is no vibration from the engines…
The Doctor catches up with Amy, and without seeing the video, presses the “Protest” button. Well, he would, wouldn’t he? This leads to the floor opening up and them dropping into something very nasty indeed…
And then things get really bad. Once he’s worked out what’s going on – that the ship has been built onto a huge living organism – a Star Whale, which is continually tortured to make it keep moving, that Liz Ten is the extremely long-lived Queen whose memory has been reset every time she too learns the truth, and that her choice is “Abdicate” or “Forget”, and abdication would mean the Whale would be released, leading to death for all on board the ship – he’s faced with one of those dreadful choices. And realises he has to do something dreadful. He has to destroy the Whale’s higher brain functions – in effect, to kill it – so that it no longer feels the pain being inflicted by the humans. And that makes him seriously angry.
But Amy has worked it out. Seeing the children who have fallen into the depths are actually unharmed, and seeing them playing with one of the whale’s tentacle thingies, she realises the truth. And forces Liz Ten to press the “Abdicate” button. The whale is released. And nothing happens. It carries on carrying the spacecraft. Not because it’s being forced to, but because it wants to.
It appeared in the sky over the UK, because “it couldn’t stand to see your children cry”. Amy recognised that it was, in a way, like the Doctor:
Very old, very kind, and the very last…
And so, the new companion proves herself to be very special on her first outing. Saving the Doctor from carrying out an act that would have utterly horrified him, and saving the people of Starship UK from either living with a horrible secret or having their memories wiped periodically. Nice.
Of course, this being Steven Moffat, that’s not all. The last we see of the starship reveals the Whale happily carrying it onwards, but also a sinister glowing crack, like the one we saw in Amy’s bedroom wall in the previous episode. Looks like the cracks in the universe are spreading.
But even that isn’t all! As the Doctor and Amy, who, by the way, in a delightfully Arthur Dentish way has spend the entire episode still dressed in her nightie and dressing gown, return to the TARDIS, the phone is ringing. Amy answers it.
It’s the Prime Minister.
The Doctor asks which Prime Minister
The British one
Again, the Doctor asks which one
Amy hands over the phone. It’s Winston Churchill. He’s got a bit of a problem. The Doctor agrees to come to his assistance.
Of course, we know what the problem is. It’s a Dalek-shaped problem, which should be fun.
This was an episode that squeezed a lot into its 45 minutes. And it was all good stuff – knobs all turned up to 11. Classic Doctor Who in the way a happy ending was pulled at the last minute from what was one of the darkest stories we’ve seen in a while.
Oh, and bonus cross-reference points for the “Magpie Electricals” shop and the 1950s TV sets, which was a nice nod towards The Idiot’s Lantern.
 I think I’ll have to keep calling him that for a while