After a stellar episode last week, the two part story, penned by Toby Whithouse, came to its conclusion on Saturday, in Before The Flood. So, did it manage to live up to expectations?
The story opens with The Doctor breaking the fourth wall, and talking directly to the audience, to explain the Bootstrap Paradox, which posits that should someone travel back in time to alter a past event, thus bringing a change in future events, their future self would then be living in an altered or "new" present. Therefore, the "old" present could not have existed. This is the Bootstrap Paradox. Of course, if you want a better explanation, you can Google it!
This isn't the first time the Doctor has broken the fourth wall. First seen, at least by those fortunate enough to have been alive in 1965, Hartnell used the technique in “The Feast of Steven”, to wish viewers a Happy Christmas, and in the 1978 story 'Invasion of Time', the Fourth Doctor famously proclaimed "even the sonic screwdriver won't get me out of this". I cannot comment on its use by Hartnell (even I’m too young for that!), however it worked well with Tom Baker. Unfortunately, in 'Before the Flood', it seems oddly disjointed and out of place. I prefer to think that the Doctor was addressing O'Donnell and Bennett, who had boarded the Tardis at the end of 'Under the Lake', or perhaps even 'Clara', as the chronology is never made explicitly clear.
In the previous episode, it was mentioned that the Doctor had dismantled his radio in order to build a clockwork squirrel (and why wouldn't you!) and during the Doctor’s soliloquy, the squirrel can be seen sitting next to his guitar amp, which references the name of the electrical store, Magpie Electricals, from The Idiot's Lantern.
The Tardis materialises in 1980, at the height of the Cold War. The village, modelled to appear as a Russian military base feels faintly reminiscent of the setting of the Seventh Doctor story, “The Curse of Fenric”.
Encountering the Tivolian, Albus Prentis, The Doctor surmises that the ship is, in fact a hearse, and Prentis, the undertaker. Aside from a little comic relief, which unfortunately feels rather forced, Prentis adds little to the proceedings.
The concept of the Fisher King, however, works well, and is, to the best of my knowledge, the first time one villain has been portrayed by no less than three actors at the same time, with Neil Fingleton providing the physical attributes, while Peter Serafinowicz voices the alien, accompanied by dulcet roar of Slipknot’s Corey Taylor, which as a Who and metal fan (hey, the clue is my name!) was a huge delight!
Unfortunately, however, very little is explained of his origins, nor how he knows of the Time Lords, and he is woefully underused. I found it interesting that he referred to Time Lords as “curators”, perhaps as a subtle nod to the appearance of Tom Baker, in ‘Day of the Doctor’
As a side note, The Fisher King is named a mythical being from Arthurian legends; a figure of supernatural power and an emblem of the life force. Similar to the Bible’s ‘fisher of men’ the alien creature uses its power to draw in “disciples” with the coded message on the wall of the ship, which rewires the synapses of those who read it. Curiously, whilst bearing little resemblance to his namesake, he does bear a striking resemblance to the monster featured in the mural.
O’Donnell is built up to be a sufficiently likeable character, so her death is a particularly poignant moment, and the anger felt by Bennett at the Doctor’s apparent willingness to allow it is palpable. Echoes of ‘Father’s Day’ are present as the Doctor warns Bennett that he cannot alter time to save her.
Security Protocol 712 first appeared in Blink where a hologram of the Tenth Doctor speaks to Sally Sparrow and Larry Nightingale after they enter the Tardis, and it makes an appearance here, as the Tardis returns Bennett to The Drum. Why The Doctor doesn't travel by Tardis is never fully explained, neither is an explanation provided for the Tardis' inability to translate the writing on the wall of the capsule.
There are elements of the story which feel decidedly recycled, and perhaps the most significant of these is when the Doctor makes his entrance from the stasis chamber, borrowing heavily from “The Pandorica Opens”. Similarly, the time travel element of the story has been used before, in both the aforementioned 'Blink' and again, in 'Time Heist'; arguably, to better effect and with more fleshed out explanations.
“May the remorse be with you” – Cheeky Star Wars reference?
Ultimately, 'Before the Flood' isn't a bad episode, but the convoluted explanations, rushed ending and misuse of the alien characters means it falls short of the stand set by its predecessor. There is much to like in the episode. Most of the nods to previous episodes are subtle enough to be pleasing without appearing overtly self-referential, the Fisher King looks and sounds absolutely magnificent, and again, Capaldi is absolutely mesmerising as the Doctor, often detached, calculating and manipulative, most notably in his handling of the imminent demise of O’Donnell, who he appears to use to test his theory. Clara echoes this, although less well, and seems quite callous in her regard for the lives of others.
The strongest aspect of the story, however, lies within the supporting cast. Morven Christie is immensely likeable as O’Donnell, whilst Cass (Sophie Stone) is commanding and believable in every scene. The bittersweet moment in which Lunn professes his love for Cass works well, and one cannot help but feel sorrow for Bennett, and for the loss of O’Donnell.
The use of the “sonic sunglasses” (which coincidentally seem to fit neatly into the Base’s control panel) are something of a “deus ex machina”, but one which doesn't grate too much, despite the rather silly idea that they can project holograms through deadlock seals, and connect to the base's wifi. Similarly, the fact the hologram is able to interact with physical objects, by opening the door to Faraday Cage is baffling. Im all honesty, the sooner someone steps on the bloody things, the better!
Whilst ‘Before the Flood’ fails to live up to the exceptionally strong ‘Under the Lake’, it is, nonetheless a strong, competent story, one which I feel requires more than one viewing to fully appreciate. Many of the subtleties make much more sense upon repeated viewing, and the complexity is lessened when viewed forearmed with the logic behind the ontological paradox the denouement of story relies upon.
This review wouldn't be complete with mentioning the theme tune.. After an oddly misplaced guitar lick of Beethoven's Fifth, the theme is overlaid with a rock style guitar piece, played by Capaldi, and it sounds fantastic. It brings a depth to the otherwise insipid music which has been one of the weaker points of the Twelfth Doctor's tenure. It's a pity it is a "one off" as it compliments the tone of Capaldi's Doctor perfectly.
Scoring the episode is tricky. Upon first viewing, my inclination was to give it a reasonable 6.5/10. A repeated viewing, however, pushes this to a solid 7.5, as the complexities and nuances become clearer. Despite failing to match the strength of 'Under the Lake', it is still, arguably stronger than Doctor Who has been for some considerable time, and season nine is shaping up very nicely. Long may it continue!