This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.
9.4 Before The Flood
The pressure’s on once there’s been a terrific opening episode of a Doctor Who two-parter. I enjoyed last week’s base under siege first part, Under The Lake, enormously, and some – but not all – of the spooky tone of that comes across to parts of Before The Flood.
But also, writer Toby Whithouse isn’t content to just do more of the same. He’s got the space afforded to him to explore a Doctor Who story over the course of an hour and twenty minutes, and for this concluding part, that means he has time to split the Doctor and Clara up.
At first, to be fair, you might just be wondering what on earth is he up to? Last week ended with the Doctor seemingly turned into a ghost, floating towards the underwater base. This week, it opens with him having a chat about who wrote Beethoven’s work really, and encouraging us to Google ‘the bootstrap paradox’. To save you the trouble…
Beethoven is then woven into the explanation-heavy last few minutes, as the Doctor puzzles his way through how he sent the right message, and how he wrote all of Beethoven’s work. Or something like that. I think he did it with those sonic glasses, which are heading to a toy shop near you soon.
So then: The Doctor, inevitably, isn’t a ghost. Rather, as suspected, it’s a hologram, although we don’t find that out until later in the episode. Again, though, for the Doctor’s early musing in Before The Flood that it all means he’s going to die, nobody believes him. It’s written into Doctor Who lore now – not least because it’s a theme explored heavily in recent years – that the Doctor isn’t going to die. He can’t even regenerate without a press announcement months ahead anymore.
Remember The Stolen Earth, and the cliffhanger as David Tennant started to regenerate? If the show had carried through with that that time, then all bets would have been off. But modern television doesn’t allow you a genuinely surprise change of your leading character. Even before the internet, it was tricky. Now? If Doctor Who ever manages to regenerate the Doctor by surprise, and stick to it, I’d commit to another 3000 words on One Direction.
That said, I’ve no urge to see the show shed the excellent Peter Capaldi. We’re four episodes into his second series in the TARDIS, and it just feels like he utterly belongs there. His performance continues to mix grumpiness, friendliness, intelligence and a large dose of alien. Leading the detective work across this particular two parter, he’s been on excellent, excellent form. His exchange with his ghost self – “an honour!” is just lovely. And when he talked about “ripples on a pond”, were he and Toby Whithouse invoking Sylvester McCoy sat in a cafe, contemplating putting sugar in his tea?
Capaldi’s eyebrows, of course, remain erotic. I don’t think we’ve said that enough this series yet.
But back to the revelations. I think most of us had twigged too that the Doctor was going to be in the suspended animation chamber – by the time he hopped out, who else could it have been really? – which he sort of told himself to hop into to avoid The Fisher King being knocked out by a CG flood. With the rest of the ghosts in the Faraday Cage awaiting disposal by UNIT, things were tied up. There was even space for a little bit of a love story to play out. If you like that sort of thing.
“Finally! Someone worth talking to”
The explanations may have been bashed through a little, but there was still room for some off-piste moments on the road to getting them. Thus, Whithouse brought the Doctor and Clara together by phone, and the two pieced together the assorted clues. The Ghost Doctor is chanting a series of names silently, deciphered by lip reading.
That said, I enjoyed them apart. In days of old, a base-under-siege story would be your lot for multiple episodes. Here, Whithouse’s story goes outside. Thus, the Russian village in Scotland is a cold, intriguing setting. Granted, running down the corridors from a big shadowy beast is notably less tense then the ghost prowling the innards of the base last week.
Furthermore, whilst my ears pricked up at the mention of The Fisher King – heck, you can’t beat a good Terry Gilliam movie – the actual appearance of it was probably the weakest part of the entire story. Impressive mask, baggy trousers, but not really very arresting, really. Disappointing, even.
Before The Flood falls down a blockbuster movie hole to some extent here. The first two acts of the story are very strong, but there’s the implicit need to build up to a battle with a bigger creature, the one who has been pulling the strings. As a consequence, the story’s creepiest, more interesting foes were sidelined for much of the episode, in favour of another action figure in waiting wanting to take over everything.
“You’ll change history to save yourself, but not to save O’Donnell”
Those ghosts weren’t dispensed with entirely, thankfully, and director Daniel O’Hara still manages to raise the chill factor with their appearance. This time, Clara and the crew end up locked in the Faraday Cage, seemingly safe on the inside while the beasties prowl outside.
That said, naturally enough, the non-branded mobile phone is left on the outside, and that means Zaqi Ismail has to go and get it, because the message of the ghosts isn’t within him. Tension is duly mounted.
Furthermore, at one stage Whithouse goes a bit Back To The Future Part II on us here. The TARDIS and its cloister bell clanged last week, with the implication that the blue box itself was fearing what was happening. This week, an attempt to jump in the TARDIS and routinely save Clara was foiled (although we had at least three instances of “back to the TARDIS” uttered in the episode). The bell clanged, and instead, we all find ourselves half an hour before where we were before. Not much time for a “great Scott”, however, as it built up to a chat with The Fisher King. And we’ve already covered him.
In the midst of all of this, there were a familiar few exchanges where Clara got to understand humans better than the Doctor again. Plus another natter about whether travelling with the Doctor had changed Clara. If that’s building towards her departure, it was doing it very lightly.
Still, there were other running threads to keep an eye on? Is there a reason The Fisher King tells the Doctor that he is “one man, lost in time?”.
And perhaps most interestingly, who or what is the “Minister Of War”, of whom the Doctor has no knowledge at the start of the episode. “Never mind… I expect I’ll find out soon enough”, the Doctor says. It can’t be the War Doctor, because Twelve knows about him. So who is it? Does The Fisher King fit in there somewhere, because he knows all about the Time Lords, and the fact that they are the galaxy’s most war-like race?
Are we finally, finally, going back to the rediscovered Gallifrey, I wonder? Might the Confession Dial – that didn’t reappear in this two-parter – hold a fob-watch style key to that?
Before The Flood I found patchier than last week’s, but I’m not grumbling about the strength of the two parter entire. I’ve loved lots of movies that have better first and second acts than finales, and that’s very much the case for me again here. I do still strongly feel that the move towards two parters has been beneficial to Doctor Who series 9 thus far as well…
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