Doctor Who: Season 9, Episode 4 – Before the Flood

“This isn’t about saving me, I’m a dead man walking. I’m changing history to save Clara.”

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It’s still a pretty good hit rate for this two-parter oriented season of Doctor Who. After a (very well done) slice of ultra-traditional Who last week, this week’s conclusion was very much riddled with what we are now bound to call “timey-wimeyness”. The fact that the ep opened with the Doctor giving a reasonably clear explanation of the bootstrap paradox set the tone for Toby Whithouse’s script from the very outset; last week was “trad-Who”, this week was “Nu-Who”.

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Mind you, it’s not as if the classic show didn’t occasionally venture into having a story set in two time periods. 1965’s The Ark had the interesting premise of setting the second half 700 years after the first, and showing the unfortunate consequences of the heroes’ previous visit; while 1983’s Mawdryn Undead dotted about between 1977 and 1983 (inadvertently causing the UNIT dating controversy).

That said, neither of those stories had events in one timeline altering events in the other. In keeping with Steven Moffat’s general style of exploring the possibilities of time travel, Before the Flood is the first episode I can think of where the second half of a story is set before the first, with the potential for the past influencing the future. For me, that’s sailing perilously close to the idea that the Doctor can undo any misfortune by changing the past so it never happens – something which is usually handwaved away with some mention of “the Blinovitch Limitation Effect” or “fixed points in time”).

I think Whithouse managed to stay just the right side of that line here, though his use of the bootstrap paradox raises yet again the vexed question of why, in multi-Doctor stories like Day of the Doctor, the older Doctor can’t simply resolve the situation by calling on memories from his former self. Children in Need special Time Crash has exactly that happen, though its canonicity is uncertain at best. Day of the Doctor does include a vague explanation about memories being affected by changing time streams, but surely that would invalidate the Doctor’s solution here?

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Your acceptance (or not) of that as a resolution probably depends on how much you like this phase of the show’s reliance on time paradoxes as solutions. Because it’s fair to say that, time paradoxes aside, this was another enjoyable episode, even if it was perhaps a less satisfactory conclusion than we got in the previous two-parter. The deserted village that served as an MoD training facility was a suitably eerie setting, though there was no indication as to whether it was specially constructed or commandeered from an original population like the village of Imber in Wiltshire. Either way, a deserted town always has a spooky quality, enhanced here by those Cold War-era bits of Russian décor littered about the place.

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Adding to the character roster from last week, Prentis the Tivolian was both effective comic relief and a necessary explanation of that first ghost already present when the Drum crew brought the ship aboard. That said, I wasn’t surprised that he cropped up in his pre-ghost state. You don’t cast a well-known actor like Paul Kaye (even if he was virtually unrecognisable under the makeup) then give him no lines.

Taking the place of the ghosts as main threat this week was mysterious alien the Fisher King, about whom I was rather more ambivalent. The design was effectively spooky, the creature’s height intimidating and its skull-like visage custom-designed to scare the kiddies. Getting King of Villain Voices Peter Serafinowicz to speak the creature’s lines was also guaranteed to disturb, probably more so than the much-publicised fact of Slipknot’s Corey Taylor providing the creature’s roar.

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Ultimately though, I didn’t find it as scary as the ghosts themselves, who were very much sidelined in this part. What with the generic motivation to invade Earth, along with no clear explanation as to why it would want to do that beyond the fact that aliens in Doctor Who generally do, the Fisher King felt like a somewhat generic one-off baddie in the style the show has established since 2005 (see also the Gelth, the Wire, the Sycorax, and many, many more). And I was left scratching my head as to why he was named after the keeper of the Holy Grail in Arthurian legend.

Speaking of the ghosts, there was a surprising lack of explanations forthcoming to the remaining mysteries about them. Yes, the script established that they were electromagnetically generated, explaining (albeit by technobabble) why they couldn’t appear in the base’s Day Mode. That also (possibly) explains why they could only touch objects made of metal.

But why were they eyeless? And were they actually just projections, or (as the Doctor kept referring to them) genuinely the deceased ‘souls’ of their victims? If that last is truly the case, it sets up some disturbing implications about the show’s view of a potential afterlife, questions which were artfully avoided in last year’s Dark Water/Death in Heaven.

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We did at least get a reasonable explanation about the Doctor’s ‘ghost’, that it was actually a hologram generated by the ‘sonic sunglasses’. That’s all right dramatically, I guess, since we established last week that he could do this with his hologram of Clara. Still, I remain unconvinced that it’s a good idea to simply exchange the Get Out of Jail Free card of the sonic screwdriver for a different device with similarly undefined but all-encompassing plot-solving abilities.

And it was the Doctor’s ‘ghost’ that was the source of the bootstrap paradox – as he pointed out to Clara, “when did I have that idea?” Mind you, I was surprised that no one mentioned the fact that his list of names had one very obvious omission – Tim Lunn, the only one who hadn’t seen the ‘earworm’ words in the ship. I’d thought that was a glaring clue!

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I realise all this sounds like I’m being rather hard on the ep, or that I didn’t enjoy it. In point of fact I did, and there was enough good stuff in Toby Whithouse’s script to compensate for its perceived shortcomings. Yes, the ‘science’ was shaky at best (for some detailed nitpicks see Millennium Elephant’s review of last week’s ep). But unlike the similarly ropey science in the execrable Kill the Moon, this script had enough else going for it to compensate (for me, anyway).

Convoluted though it was, it was an effective narrative which provided a (mostly) satisfactory resolution to last week, both in terms of plot and character. As ever in a Whithouse script, it was the latter that satisfied most. I found the characters last week to be well-drawn with admirable script economy, helped by some good performances. Those characters continued to develop this week, with the gradual unspoken reveal of Bennett’s feelings for O’Donnell, skilfully conveyed without ever being spelled out with a subtle performance from Arsher Ali.

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Lunn at least got a happy ending, Bennett’s tragedy causing him to reveal his own feelings for Cass. It was nicely played by Sophie Stone and Zaqi Ismail, if a little rom-com in style; nonetheless, I did wonder whether it would be considered ‘unprofessional’ for a sign language interpreter to fall in love with his client!

Unlike last week’s earnest chat between the Doctor and Clara, there was little or no exploration of their characters this week, so no apparent foreshadowing (that I could see) of her impending departure. It may, however, be significant that UNIT (and the Doctor, as their Scientific Advisor) are common knowledge by 2119, enough for fangirl O’Donnell to recite a litany of their exploits – with much significance given to the previously unheard-of ‘Minister of War’. Could this be someone we’re about to meet, of just an off the cuff ‘Terrible Zodin’ type reference?

It may have been a less successful concluding episode than The Witch’s Familiar, but Before the Flood didn’t disappoint anywhere near as much as several episodes from last year. It was still an effectively spooky story, with real tension, character drama and a resolution that (mostly) made sense. It had some fine set pieces, especially the sequence where Cass, walking down the corridor, couldn’t hear Moran’s ghost dragging an axe behind her – until she could.

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Capaldi once again seemed far more at ease as the Doctor than he did last year; I’m liking his recently-acquired fondness for the electric guitar, presumably a reference to the actor’s own punk past. He seems to be developing a persona of an aging rocker, which I’m absolutely fine with. Oh, and did anyone else notice the clockwork squirrel referred to last week, on top of the amp from Magpie Electrics? And can we please keep the electric guitar version of the theme?

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Thus far, this year’s series has had a much better hit rate than last year – after all, last year’s first four eps included Into the Dalek (which I disliked but many people didn’t) and Robot of Sherwood (which I liked but many people didn’t). This year, I think most reviewers and fans have been pretty impressed with every episode so far; and if this appears to be the weakest, that’s no particular cause for shame in this company.

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