This is evidently an attempt to express something about electoral democracy.
Every time we are exposed to some unpleasant and uncomfortable fact about our society or our world, or even to a suspicion of some such thing, we are presented with an implicit option to protest or forget. Beyond voting booths, we have a set of these buttons inside our heads. When you hear, for instance, that thousands of dirt poor South Africans were forcibly evicted from their shanty towns and moved to settlements of corrugated iron shacks to get them away from the new $450 million World Cup football stadium, you have the option to kick up a stink or to sigh, mumble some platitude like "tsch, how awful" and then put it out of your head so you can comfortably sit back and enjoy watching teams of overpaid jocks play amidst the McDonalds adverts.
By the way, don't think I'm being holier-than-thou. I'm just as guilty of this kind of thing as anybody. God knows how many times I've found myself scrunching up a Kit-Kat wrapper and only at that point remembering that Nestlé are evil. This is normal human frailty at work, the understandable instinct to flee from guilt, as 'The Beast Below' indicates by showing Amy's reflexive, horrified pressing of the 'Forget' button and her subsequent remorse.
So, we are clearly banked upon the sharp and shaley shores of satire.
'The Beast Below' presents a picture of Britain as an island in space, a star-traversing city (after James Blish's fascinating 'Okie' novels, collected as Cities in Flight), with tower blocks representing counties... ah, we're already in trouble. So, everyone from Essex lives in the same tower block? Rich and poor side by side? Maybe there are luxury apartments up at the top, opulent penthouses above floor after floor of pokey little prole cupboards... but we don't see anything like that, unless we count the private apartments of Liz 10, but she's a problematic figure anyway (which I'll get to). You might argue that, in a lifeboat, rich and poor would have to budge in together... but a look at the stats for Titanic survivors might be salutary at this point:
Number of 1st class passengers: 325. Of whom survived: 202.
Number of 2nd class passengers: 285. Of whom survived: 118.
Number of 3rd class (steerage) passengers: 706. Of whom survived: 178.
Much as I hate to give Ben Elton any credit, I tend to suspect that, if the world were threatened with imminent destruction, something along the lines of the scenario described in his novel Stark would be nearer to what happened than what we see in 'The Beast Below', i.e. the rich would set up their own escape into space and fuck the rest of us nobodies. Mind you, that would be very shortsighted of them, not simply as they'd be left with only each other to talk to (a grim fate, as Elton's novel implies) but also because they need us: they live off our labour. Their new world would be a world without a viable economy, incapable of progressing and supporting future generations. They would just have to live on the support systems and luxuries they'd provided for themselves, until those support systems ran down and the luxuries ran out. As soon as they needed anything fixed or produced, they'd need grease monkeys, all of whom they'd have left to die.
This is not the version of things that we see in 'The Beast Below'. Indeed, it seems essential (if Moffat is going to achieve what appears to be his goal, i.e. a political satire of Britain as a notional totality) that Starship UK should have taken everyone along. The enclosed social spaces that we see appear very communal, a bit like the deck of a cruise liner. Social normality seems exemplified by shopping and cafe society. We don't see any homeless people slumped in corners. Nobody is poor. Nobody appears to be producing anything. This is Britain as a matrix of complacent consumers. This is the social optimum that the space whale is tortured to preserve.
Now. In order for this to be a satire or a polemic or anything like that, the episode needs to be (so to speak) conscious of the fact that it has depicted Britain as a nostalgiac, consumerist blandnessdrome that only limps along because it is parasitic upon suffering.
Does it notice this? Really, does it?
Does it bollocks.
The retro production design amounts to nothing more than decoration; it connects to nothing in the story that might suggest an indictment of the reality of Britain's 'good old days'. The shopping is explicitly celebrated by the Doctor and, beyond suggesting that the pleasures of the mall might be an escape for us from our collective guilt, there is no critique of economic relationships. The visual quotes from the past suggest only a strained attempt to hammer home a kind of quintessential Britishness. The indoor high street is just there to represent the 'normality' beneath which there lurk dark secrets... when, in fact, the modern high street is a physical compendium of dark but open secrets about capitalism.
The episode fails to sort out exactly what kind of society Starship UK really is. There's a great ballyhoo made of the fact that it's a "police state"... and yet, it seems to be one on the basis of the consent of the voters (but we'll get back to that). Also, it isn't really clear why it needs to be a police state at all. Why do the Smilers and half-human-half-Smilers bother to send children to be slowly digested for minor offences? Particularly when they know full well that such naughty children will be rejected by the whale anyway. Why would it be necessary for the police to terrify the population into fearing to display curiosity about sobbing children? Why do the supposedly quelled and repressed populace look so entirely sanguine as they hang around in cafes?
The business with the buttons could have been used to express the way that electoral democracy limits our influence over the Powers That Be to a regular opportunity to push one of a few pre-set levers. Our choices are decided upon, circumscribed and laid out for us by others, by a state that - in practice - is largely impermeable to change stemming from ballot boxes. You may be able to change the governmental management team so that it passes back and forth between the wings of a political class, all of whom are more-or-less open about the fact that they represent Property. Meanwhile, you don't get to elect the police, the army, the diplomats, the civil service, the intelligence officers, the judges, the royalty, the lords... You get a say in one sphere, once every few years; the rest of the time, butt out. We all know the kind of contempt that the media reserve for ordinary people who try to influence their society outside the approved avenues of an occasional vote, support for a mainstream political party or charity. They get called pressure groups (as opposed to the more neutral term 'lobbyists', reserved for rich and powerful people when they try to influence politicians), eccentrics, extremists, zealots, conspiracy theorists, politically correct wackos, bleeding hearts, rent-a-mobs, tree huggers, feminazis, etc.
The nearest 'The Beast Below' comes to noticing the existence and efforts of dissidents and activists is in the person of Liz 10... and she's the fucking Queen. So, royalty has usurped the role of the dissident and the activist. Dissidence and activism has become the lone purview of courageous individuals. And Liz 10 is eventually shown to be implicated in the abuse of the space whale, further emphasizing the liberal "we're all to blame" bleat at the heart of the story's half-hearted anger.
The story takes for granted such ideological chimeras as the national community, with communal interests, communal guilts and a state that exists to protect these communalities. Everyone budges in together. The population is subdivided by county not class. Beyond the existence of a mockney Queen and a caste of monk/dummy guards, there is no class in evidence at all. Power seems to exist everywhere and nowhere. It is at once localised in the form of the Smilers and diffused throughout the entire population of voters. Even the Queen gets to forget and become a powerless citizen. In the end, the regrettable excesses of this willow-the-wisp power structure are depicted as misguided attempts to safeguard the common good, with all the people (via their contemptible moral cowardice) equally implicated. The police caste must shoulder the unpleasant but necessary tasks for the plebs so that they may go about their little lives untroubled by the dirty work that makes those lives possible. The most conscious, snide and cynical ruling class mouthpiece could hardly have expressed this bourgeois ideology better than Moffat, who appears to have done so entirely unconsciously.
The crux of the problem is back in the voting booths. The voter gets full disclosure. The state explains its crime to the voter.
Yeah. Right. Because the state is constantly confessing to us that we live in a society that is based on ruthless and cruel exploitation, asking us whether we consent and then abiding by our decision.
The way the episode presents the issue of the relationship of the citizenry to the crimes of the state (and/or the exploitative base of society, depending on how you read the metaphor) distorts the way it really works, in my opinion, to the point of blaming the populace and excusing the state.
I've made this criticism before and been upbraided for taking the episode too literally. Trouble is, it's the episode itself which is too literal.
The issue at stake is a contingent, complex one: i.e. how structures of power are able to secure widespread public consent - tacit or explicit - for brutal and/or undemocratic policies and actions, while also presenting themselves to that public as democratic, peaceful, diplomatic, communitarian, an 'honest broker', etc.
By representing what goes on as a literal choice made by a fully informed electorate, the story actively distorts the truth of society, which is subject to massive systems of state secrecy, ideological conditioning, doctrinal systems in the media, reproduction of ideology in schools, systemic buffers in the structure of 'democracy' to keep the electorate out of most zones of policy decision-making.
Representing the state in the story as labouring for the common good, and as abiding by the morally culpable decisions of the majority who make their decisions in full awareness of all the facts and ramifications, only adds huge insult to grievous injury.
The episode confusedly shows the state as tyrannical but also seeks to spuriously dissolve the divide between state and populace by showing the state as honestly seeking the best ends for the population, offering voters access to the darkest secrets, etc.
To put it in inflammatory language, the episode tries to implicate the ruled in the crimes of the rulers... which, in some ways, is valid... but not without enormous qualification and contextualisation, if any form of honesty is to be preserved. Yes, 'we' need to take responsibility for what 'our' state does... but the state as it exists (and as it is poorly reflected in 'Beast') is not, in my view, 'ours' in any meaningful sense. Moreover, it exists precisely to protect those it really does represent (the miniscule minority of those who own the vast majority of the wealth and property) from 'us'. It is this very elision of a whole range of antagonistic relationships within the spuriously inclusive 'us', 'we' and 'our' of 'Britain' that makes it impossible to take 'Beast' seriously as offering anything like an accurate appraisal of what's wrong with our society.
For all that, the story does place Britain as a parasitic growth upon pain and suffering. But in order for this to mean anything, we need to have some idea whose suffering is being lamented. For that, we need to know what the 'beast' of the title represents (remember that I'm not just imposing this necessity; the episode touts itself as a satire).
Alexander Hamilton (whose vision of America as a militarily-strong quasi-aristocracy run for the benefit of the propertied classes has turned out to be the operative one) once told Jefferson that 'the people' was "a great beast". Burke called them "the swinish multitude". Shakespeare's Coriolanus uses lots of animal epithets for the Roman plebs he holds in such contempt. Walter Lippman called the public "the bewildered herd". Animal metaphors for the common people have been very prevalent from reactionary and even liberal thinkers down the centuries. It's tempting to read the whale as representing 'the people'. But, in 'The Beast Below', the people (assuming we accept that classless category in the first place) are sitting at outdoor cafes and shopping happily, forgetting the tough choices they've had to make to preserve their way of life because they have a functionalist state that bravely shoulders the blame for them.
Could the whale be the conquered and colonised peoples whose suffering underwrites the profits of imperialism? If so, the text of the episode is being very coy about it.
I'm not sure that the whale represents anything. I think it just sits there, looking a lot like a symbol or a metaphor without actually managing to be one.
Moreover, if it does represent any particular set of victimised and oppressed people then it hardly does them any favours. The putative referents to which the whale refers would thus be represented as noble victims, upon whom rests the duty to save their oppressor via a superhuman excess of generosity towards them. And, when it comes down to it, there is no doubt, even in the mind of the Doctor, that the lives of the parasitic shoppers trump those of the tortured oppressed.
Mind you, I'd hate anybody to think I'm singling out this story as something unusual. Doctor Who, like most media culture in hierarchical societies, is inherently prone to reproducing the... well, what would be a good phrase... how about "the manufacture of consent"?
Who just has a better rep than most shows when it comes to bucking such tendencies.
At least, it used to.