Doctor Who S09E04 “Before The Flood” review
Airing in the UK on BBC One, Saturdays
Writer: Toby Whithouse
Director: Daniel O’Hara
Essential Plot Points:
- The Doctor, O’Donnell and Bennet travel to an abandoned army training base in 1980, built to look a Russian village at the height of the Cold War.
- They find the spaceship which is, in fact, a hearse, carrying the body of a deposed conqueror called the Fisher King to his burial.
- But the Fisher King isn’t actually dead, and he sets about his task of creating transmitters from people he kills; he plans to sleep in a cryogenic chamber while the “ghosts” carry on killing until there are enough undead transmitters to call an armada to Earth.
- Inspired by the “ghost” Doctor in the future – which reveals that Clare will be killed next if he doesn’t do something – the Doctor defeats the Fisher King by blowing up he dam, then climbing into the cryogenic chamber, knowing it will be discovered in 150 years time.
- He also creates the very same holographic “ghost” Doctor which inspired him to do all this.
- But as the Doctor points out to Clara, if the “ghost” Doctor itself gave him the idea to create the “ghost” Doctor, where did the idea originate from in the first place?
Flood warning: following a severe breach in the fourth wall viewers must be prepared for a deluge of timey-wimey paradoxes.
“Before The Flood” is far from the first time Doctor Who has created a “bootstraps paradox” (or a closed loop, as its also known); “The Pandorica Opens” and “The Big Bang” happily skipped through a minefield of the blimmin’ things, hoping nobody noticed. That’s usually the case with closed loops because sci-fi snobs tend to frown on them like they’re a heinous crime against the genre. Accepted wisdom seems to be: if you want to use them, don’t draw attention to them. It’s a philosophy that’s served the Terminator franchise quite happily for decades.
But, hey, playing the rules is dull. And you can always trust new Who episode to rattle SF purists’ cages. So with one of the cheekiest, but most amusing, teaser sequences ever the Doctor gives the audience a primer in Elementary Bootstraps Theory, then straps on his trust guitar for a “bring it on” riff on Beethoven’s Fifth. Should a drama like Doctor Who go quite so meta? It’s risky. It’s similar to the opening of “Listen” but that was more like the viewer overhearing an internal monologue. This is far more on-the-nose. The sight of the Doctor staring right at you through the camera – addressing you directly – is, admittedly, a little off-putting at first (and not just because of the eyebrows) and the scene is bound to have it objectors. On the other hand Capaldi pulls off the monologue with a Tom Baker-esque panache and conviction that totally wins you over, and it immediately gives the episode a quirky, original quality the previous one was seriously lacking. It’s a bold experiment, but it works.
Plus, is adds an edge to the rest of the episode, as you try to work out how the paradox is going to manifest itself. It becomes – on a metalevel – a puzzle for the audience; not a whodunnit? so much as a how-will-who-do-it?
Which is a bonus, as it adds an extra layer of frisson to an episode which, without it, would be fairly pedestrian. Like last week, it’s a decent enough slice of action adventure with some effective moments, good one-liners and decent ideas but there’s also an awful lot of flabby plotting. On the underwater base there’s little more for the characters to do than wander around corridors trying to avoid ghosts while in the past the Doctor seems to say, “Back to the TARDIS!” at the end of every scene. There’s a lot of exposition, some of it good, some of it mere technobabble.
The biggest disappointment is the Fisher King. Not visually, though. He looks magnificent and sounds even better. But what does he actually do? He stomps and rants and leaves his brain on the slab with his bandages. Okay, he kills O’Donnell and Prentis but even that’s off screen. We’re not given a reason to fear him; we’re just expected to fear him because he’s big, noisy and models his jaw on a Predator. His invasion plan seems bizarrely obtuse as well. And why was he pretending to be dead? It feels like a whole chunk of the script was junked at some point. Admittedly you don’t always need to know all “whys?” – Doctor Who often lets you fill in gaps yourself – but we know so little about the Fisher King just a few “whys” would have gone a long way.
Thankfully Capaldi is on fine form, giving a performance that papers over many cracks (“Don’t kiss me… morning breath!”). Once again Sophie Stone (Cass) provides a gutsy performance; she even pulls off the cheesy moment when Lunn translates that he loves her (it’s quite sweet, actually). The creepy corridor scenes benefit from more close-ups than last week. And parallel climactic action, flitting back and forth between the underwater base and the Doctor’s face-off with the Fisher King, is pulse-poundingly good. Some fantastic effects when the dam blows help too.
Then the Doctor signs off with another wink to camera a crash of chords. At which point you have to wonder, “Has he been toying with us?” Surely Time Lords – being, like… Time Lords, you know? – must have spent some considerable time studying the bootstraps paradox. The Doctor probably knows exactly where concepts created in a closed loop come from: Steven Moffat’s head.
- The “bootstrap paradox” provides an interesting framing device for the episode and is amusingly explained.
- The teaser is cheeky, but a lot of fun.
- The rocked-up theme tune is brilliant.
- The Fisher King looks and sounds great… (but there’s a big “but” in the Bad section below).
- O’Donnell’s reaction to travelling in the TARDIS is really sweet.
- There are some very tense and creepy corridor scenes (they’re all so much more effective than similar moments in last week’s episode, which is odd when you think that it’s the same director and all the corridor scenes were presumably shot in a big block, out of order).
- The special FX for the dam being blown up are truly spectacular.
- The little scene in which Clara curses herself for trying to get Cass’s attention by hissing her name is a fun character beat.
- “Have you two met me?”
- “This regeneration, it’s a bit of a clerical error anyway.”
- The Fisher King doesn’t really do anything except stomp and roar. We don’t even see him kill O’Donnell. And he’s a bit thick, leaving explosives laying around.
- And how come he wasn’t dead? Presumably he was playing possum but some kind of explanation would have been appreciated.
- The eventual explanation for why the ghost only came out at night is, disappointingly, nothing more than senseless technobabble.
- Paul Kaye is another guest star in this two-parter who feels woefully underused.
- What’s with the comedy music before Prentis’s death? He’s just discovered a body has gone missing; it’s not exactly an Are You Being Served? moment.
And The Random:
- Did you spot the Star Wars gag on Prentis’s business card? “May the remorse be with you.”
- The Doctor’s amp, according to the label on it, comes from Magpie Electronics (“The Idiot’s Lantern”, 2006).
- The term “bootstraps paradox” originates from a brilliant Robert Heinlein short story about time travel called, “By His Bootstraps” (1941). Google it.
- O’Donnell is like a less geeky Osgood: she mentions three of the Doctor’s former companions (“I somehow doubt that Rose or Martha or Amy lost their breakfast on their first trip”) then makes reference to Harold Saxon (the Master’s alter ego as the UK Prime Minister in series three, 2007) and “the moon exploding and the big bat coming out…” (“Kill The Moon”, 2014). She also mentions a “Minister for War” which, since everything else she mentions is Doctor-centric and the Doctor doesn’t appear to know who she means, must be somebody he will meet in his future.
- The eleventh Doctor, thanks to his 900 years defence of Trenzalore, presumably remains the longest time the Doctor has spent in one incarnation, but the twelfth Doctor is catching up fast; he spends 150 years in a cryogenic chamber here.