Doctor Who Review: Before the Flood

doctor who before the flood review toby whithouse daniel o hara morven christie peter capaldi jenna coleman sophie stone

We all have to face death some day, be it ours or someone else’s.

So, this is a little bit late, for which I apologise. It’s all those irritating real world commitments, getting in the way of things, as ever.

Now, Before the Flood. I was not so keen on last week’s Under the Lake, which I basically considered to be a fairly run of the mill base under siege style story, with very little else going on. There just wasn’t much that I was impressed by, sadly. Very little stood out – it was diverting enough, but there didn’t feel like there was much substance to it.

And, when the episode began, I actually quite enjoyed it. It seemed to me that Before the Flood was really improving upon its predecessor, picking up on its mistakes, and filling in the gaps that had been left. The opening with Peter Capaldi talking to the audience was really entertaining, and it was a nice break in terms of the conventional openings, where we might run around a little and then get a jump scare, or find a dead body, before the titles begin.

doctor who before the flood review peter capaldi twelfth doctor beethoven's fifth fourth wall break toby whithouse

And, you know, this episode had a lot of the same strengths as the previous episode, I’ve got to make that clear. The direction was really strong (something that stood out to me was the zoom in on the Doctor, Bennett and O’Donnell as they first heard the roar of the Fisher King), and the set design remained impressive.

There were still some tense moments and shocks throughout, and that can be difficult to create, so the episode does well there. The Doctor’s ghost had a few good moments, and Lunn’s journey to get the phone was quite tense in places too.

The Fisher King had a really great, imposing design too. Peter Serafinowicz (Darth Maul!) did a great voice, and Corey Taylor (the Slipknot fellow!) had a pretty impressive scream. So, you know, it came together to create a fairly impressive monster, with a lot of potential. (Squandered potential, in the end, given that the monster didn’t really do anything, but it gets some points for looking cool.)

Clara also had some interesting stuff to do this week – which is one of the few areas where Before the Flood did improve upon Under the Lake. Jenna Coleman is a brilliant actress, and I am again inclined to suggest that Clara might be the best companion of the new series. Ordering the Doctor to “die with whoever comes next” was a really well done scene, and everyone involved deserves plaudits for that.

doctor who before the flood review toby whithouse morven christie o donnell beckett fridging peter capaldi twelfth doctor daniel o hara

But, again, as with last week, where it fell down was on the writing.

Fact is, the episode is predicated upon an entirely nonsensical premise. The whole morality of whether or not you should change time is a completely fictional morality – the rules are hazily defined, the context changes regularly, and the outcome is different with every passing episode. Doctor Who does this all the time; sometimes it’s alright to change time, and sometimes it’s not. They have no hard and fast rules, because different writers want to do different things, so they can’t have any semblance of consistency.

But that makes it very difficult to take these episodes seriously. At the very least, it makes them difficult to write and get right – it takes a very deft and subtle approach to the dilemma to make it work. Something like Father’s Day does a fairly good job of it, actually. The Fires of Pompeii does too, actually.

Before the Flood does not. Now, it’s in a harder position anyway, that’s true, because it’s come after years of timey-wimey stories where the get out clause is to change time, but maintain the appearance of the timeline prior to the change – that having been the entire resolution to The Wedding of River Song, and arguably of The Day of the Doctor too.

In this instance, though, Before the Flood totally shoots itself in the foot. Because it opens by explaining how you can seemingly change time, but let history carry on “with hardly a feather ruffled”, as it were – and even then goes on to do this! The Doctor, of course, survives by maintaining the appearance of the original timeline. That’s why we have a holographic ghost of the Doctor, rather than his actual ghost.

Yet at the very same time, Toby Whithouse has expected us to take seriously the idea that the Doctor will die (we know he won’t, okay? We know) and we are supposed to accept that blatant, cheap, awful fridging of O’Donnell. It’s ridiculous.

If the Doctor can save himself, why can’t he save O’Donnell? That nonsense about seeing dead people? That wasn’t an ethical dilemma, it was an aesthetic dilemma. And yet the backbone of the episode was centred around this. An entirely hollow and empty piece of “drama”.

At this point, I’m inclined to suggest that we need to put a ban on all time travel stories, because they clearly do not work anymore. They need a rest, until someone has a new idea. Because here, there was not a new idea. It was just… nothing. There wasn’t enough there.

So, sure, very strong direction, good acting – and admittedly some good writing in places – but it’s all let down by the fact that, at its core, the episode was just sort of empty. 6/10

Related:

Doctor Who series 9 reviews

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Doctor Who Review: Under the Lake

doctor who review under the lake toby whithouse daniel o hara peter capaldi jenna coleman clara oswald twelfth doctor

They walk through walls, they only come out at night, and they’re see-through. They’re ghosts!

Reaction has been quite positive to this one, hasn’t it? People really seem to have enjoyed it.

I, however, was not so enamoured by it. Certainly, the episode did a lot of things right, but it felt a little sub-par to me, in comparison to previous weeks, and in comparison to the previous variations upon this theme that we’ve seen in the past – the base under siege is a staple of Doctor Who, and it didn’t feel like there was much else on offer here.

But! We will start with the positives, because like I said, there was a lot to enjoy here, and it would be remiss of me not to give the episode due credit for it’s many noticeable strengths.

First off is, obviously, the cast. A lot has been said on the topic of the casting, but it’s worth stating again: It’s brilliant that the characters were so diverse. Representation is important, and Doctor Who did really well on it this week. A particular stand out was Sophie Stone, who played Cass – the deaf woman in charge of the base. Personally speaking, I think her best scene was when she stood up to the Doctor (”you can do the whole ‘cabin in the woods’ thing if you want”…) with regards to evacuating the base; you can see a lot going on with her body language, in the way she gets very forceful and aggressive, to convey her point. It works quite well, I think, and it’s worth noting that this a scene that would typically go to a male commander of the base; the fact that if was given by a woman, in sign language, is a great forward step.

Next up would be the direction. It’s a very stylish looking episode; the base looks great, and it’s shot extremely well. The entire episode is very atmospheric, and can be quite tense at times; it’s heightened by Murray Gold’s score, who again did a very good job here.

But…

doctor who review under the lake cass sophie stone lunn interpreter sign language deaf character toby whithouse daniel o hara representation

Well, that’s it?

I mean, there really is very little about this episode that can be commented on, because it’s really just half a story. I’d actually assumed that this week we would have seen a full story, and then next week coincidentally ended up seeing the episode before hand – a two parter in the same way The Ark works as two connected stories, or The Long Game and Bad Wolf. Two separate stories, in essence, linked by shared consequences and a shared setting.

But that’s not the case, because in actual fact, we have another episode which acts simply as set up for the next part. At least with The Magician’s Apprentice there was a fair amount of spectacle to act as, essentially, a diverting sleight of hand, to distract from the fact that there’s nothing really happening – here there’s nothing, really. I am now starting to question the wisdom of a series full of two parters, given the difficult with first parts that seems to be beginning to arise.

A few moments ago, I was talking about the characters, and how it was great that they were so diverse… but that’s all that can really be said about them, to be honest. One would have hoped that the extra run time would be used to flesh out the characters, develop them more, and so on and so forth – but that’s not the case. They’re essentially short hand; we even have the stock greedy corporate character, an entirely one dimensional insert, who even has a freudian slip between “valuable” and “powerful”.

You get interesting moments because the clichés are subverted (rather than an angry male commander shouting, it’s an angry female commander signing) and the actors all bring moments of charm in their own way (O’Donnell punching Bennett on the arm, for example) but that’s about it. All of the guest cast are served poorly by the writing.

doctor who review under the lake jenna coleman clara oswald yellow green daniel o hara series 9

Same goes for Clara, actually, and to a lesser extent the Doctor. I wasn’t so impressed by the handling of their scene in the TARDIS, wherein Clara’s character arc was signposted in the most blatant way possible. There was a lack of subtlety to that throughout, actually; Clara’s excitement at the abandoned base felt far too on the nose, and the high five bit was a little tasteless. It’s hard to articulate what I mean here; essentially, I’d expected the basic character arc to be written far more deftly. Implicit details rather than explicit ones, and any confrontations over the issue should really have been saved until we’ve actually seen the issue built to over a few weeks.

And… well, that’s all I have to say, actually, because there’s really not a lot to say. This is just half a story. It’s an introduction of the premise, before they change the premise, because they want each half of the story to feel unique.

I mean, I’m certainly looking forward to next week, because I did enjoy this episode, and it’s set up some interesting concepts, but there’s not a huge amount that you can talk about within this episode.

Under the Lake is a pleasantly diverting way to spend 45 minutes, but I get the distinct impression that it’s not actually going to be a really compelling story until you get to include part two, Before the Flood.

For now, then, I’ll give it 7/10 – it’s the weakest of the series so far, but by no means a weak episode.

Related:

Doctor Who series 9 reviews

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