TV Let’s look into the future. At a certain point what looks like a generally positive review is going to take a turn for the worse. I’m telling you now because it’s important that you should be prepared for it even though the very reason for this change in tone and how it will appear isn’t unlike its emergence in the episode. It’s a shame and I wish it wasn’t going to happen and because that’s the case I’m also giving you enough time to calculate what it might be. I appreciate that you’ll now spend the next few paragraphs wondering what I’m on about, unless you’ve already guessed because you’re thinking the same thing, in which case no matter how much you might want to change this future you can’t. The opinion has already happened. Roll credits.
In most and nearly every respect, Before the Flood is a fabulous episode which almost carries on the high quality of the first half. As is now becoming standard with the Moffat, a second half does not necessarily mean more of the same, as a base-under-siege tale gives way to Doctor Who’s more recent genre, the paradox or Moffat loop. In a brave move, writer Toby Whithouse recalls Listen and actually has the Doctor explain to us the concept of the Bootstrap paradox for a change, though not to the extent that we don’t have to google it. When you actually do google it now, the first result is the wikipedia entry about causal loops and the second is a handy not to mention entertaining primer on the topic opportunistically posted by the Radio Times website just as the teaser ended.
Older fans will notice that the example the Doctor gives about Beethoven has actually happened on various occasions in the spin-off media but with a different genius, William Shakespeare, who literally dropped out of history in the second Eighth Doctor audio and whose legacy was saved in a similar way to how the Twelfth Doctor describes in Nev Fountain’s fifth Doctor piece, The Kingmaker. The TARDIS Databank informs me that the Doctor actually met Beethoven himself on several occasions, witnessing his birth, receiving an organ lesson and returning him from some intergalactic party in this online prose story. When we’re doing celebrity historicals again, it’d be nice to have someone musical appear.
The notion of the Doctor addressing his audience is beginning to feel perfectly natural. Back in The Feast of Season and The Face of Evil it was a bit of a punchline, but between Attack of the Graske, the aforementioned Listen and the various recordings made for exhibition tours, he’s almost become the Time Lord equivalent of Francis Urquhart (or Frank Underwood for readers in the US) and I’d certainly welcome an episode were he actually does this all the way through offering an insight into how his brain works and intellectual strategies. Not that it will ever happen because a Doctor who intimately goes around explaining himself all the time rather works against the contents of the words in the actual title of the series.
There’s so much to talk about in the teaser it threatens to overshadow the rest of the episode (can we keep the guitar version of the theme now please?) and given the late hour due to continuing insistence on broadcasting this ostensibly family show so it finishes after the watershed, let’s press on. Apart from to notice that this continues to be a series which feels more confident about itself that it can drop this sort of thing into an episode which isn’t otherwise trying to be an event as such, is simply a next instalment. The extent to which we should acknowledge Moffat or Whithouse for this idea will presumably be revealed in ensuing interviews and Pixley archives, but nonetheless, yes, the show’s had a dose of vallium and is doing veeerrry well.
To an extent, what both of these episodes end up being is a slight merging of ideas from a couple of previous scripts. The notion of a giant mythic beast taking the souls of others, including an S&M favouring Tivilion, so that they become amplifiers for a message is not unlike Whithouse's own The God Complex and we now find it fused with the paradoxical merging of two time periods from Tom McRae's The Girl Who Waited albeit with a handier, though less visually interesting than a spy glass communication tool of an iProduct. Remember back in World War Three when Mickey taking a photo of a Slitheen and sending it to the Doctor seemed like the height of technology? Now here’s the Doctor and Clara communicating via Facetime across time zones.
There’s also a heavy dose of Father’s Day in here too, of course, though ironically, O’Donnell, the one person who might have noticed, the Whovian of the group, is killed off before she can realise why she’s getting a romantic close-up. Or after. Or … anyway her verbal equivalent of the pin-board in The Black Archive is interesting for its omission of Donna and for the mention of a Minister of War, oh and that the Doctor’s reaction on hearing that name (“I expect I’ll find out soon enough.”) seems to be a reference to this piece of fan fiction in which he meets Kim Possible. O’Donnell is added to the list of potential companions about whom we ache when they expire (mostly because Morvern Christie is so damn good).
Before the Flood trundles onwards from there hitting all the right notes in correct order building on its mysteries and playing to the strengths of this sort of story in which a large percentage of tension is as much about how things happen and why though we’re not quite sure how much the Doctor knows. Even as Bennett berates him over O’Donnell’s body, the Doctor’s poker face gives few answers other than to confirm his fear that he knew this woman would be next having communicated the names back to himself. If for much of the time the key influence on this incarnation is the Fourth Doctor, here he’s offering us full on Seventh but it’s in a calculated way. A choice.
What’s perhaps surprising to me about that is how accepting I am of it. The notion that he might have chosen to let O’Donnell die in order to test a theory with his primary motive being to save Clara isn’t that unlike his deplorable attitude in Mummy on the Orient Express. But the episode’s central thesis is that some elements of history cannot be changed, which suggests that his sober reaction is actually an understanding that his test and her death are part of series of events and his realisation of that is what leads him towards his decisions at the end of the episode. When he says that this regeneration is a bit of a “clerical error” as well as arithmetically could it also be him acknowledging that there’s something else wrong?
If only I’d been able to make these sorts of rationalisations last year. But the Doctor of season eight was a much more ambiguous figure, whereas that ambiguity has largely been evened out, especially in terms of Clara who he seems to genuinely care for again and not just in terms of duty in a way which didn’t seem to really exist last year, when it wasn’t ever clear why they travelled together. Now they give each other a sense of purpose and they both understand that as evidence on numerous occasions in this episode. The depth of characterisation within the writing helps, especially when she berates him about his “survivor guilt” which is the just the sort of thing only someone who knows you profoundly can say when you need it.
All of which pop psychology ignores just how scary the episode is in places. The scene, which is sure to be thought of in the future as Doctor Who at its most scary, in which Moran’s ghost menaces Cass, recalls J-horror films about sensory deprivation. The cross cutting between the scrape of the axe and Cass’s audio world are masterfully directed as is the twist in which she turns her debility into an ability and saves herself. I can only echo my comments from last week with additional applause for the sections that will only be eligible to people who sign giving those of us who’re unable an incentive to learn and for introducing us to a character who can only really be represented on television and presenting her on television.
But then, after all that, despite this having a fantastic script, beautiful direction filled with classic dutch angles from Daniel O’Hara and atmospheric visuals, notably the moment when the Doctor enters the crypt of the church and into a strip of blue light intersecting the centre of the screen indicating immediately his height within the space, at almost exactly half an hour in that the episode almost falls apart. Such things happen in Doctor Who and there’s not a lot as a viewer that you can do about it other than try and look beyond it especially since you know there’s at least another fifteen minutes to go and the episode up until that point has been pretty well put together. If it has a diagnosis, it’s Androzani syndrome. Welcome to the future.
In the days leading up to the episode there’s been much hype in relation to The Fisher King. How Corey Taylor of popular beat combo Slipknot would be providing his roar and the delicious notion of having this mythic figure appear in Doctor Who with all of the connected resonances, not least in relation to the Doctor himself, a man who has the properties of the Holy Grail running through his veins. As the episode progresses we hear the figures gut wrenching tones as provided by Peter Serafinowicz in full on Darth Maul mode, finally receiving a Who credit having managed to swerve from Big Finish and a couple of years on from his Dalek relaxation tape. What kind of beast could possibly resonate that sound?
Then he lumbers in looking like a piece of Spinal Tap set dressing and almost derails the episode. Not quite at first. Unlike the Myrka, he isn’t revealed in bright light and so at least impresses us with his scale and I like to imagine whenever this happens that Mat Irvine sits at home on his couch nodding approvingly as he laments again what might have been. But slowly as this object bares down on Capaldi its clear that something gone terribly wrong with the thing and there’s a reason why he’s mostly being presented in silhouette. The voice doesn’t match the visuals and what we have is admittedly a beautifully designed piece of sculpture without any expressive ability whatsoever beyond its sheer scale.
Serafinowicz’s performance continues to impress and yet what we’re looking at doesn’t match at all and undermines everything. Obviously across the show’s history, there’s been a lot of voice work that has managed to broaden the value of under-performing visuals. Sutekh’s costume is menacing to a degree with its black sheen and red trimmings but would be nothing without Gabriel Woolf who was so good he was hired again to do much the same in The Satan Pit. The Daleks. The Cybermen. Well, yes, ok, this has happened a lot and hasn’t always been successful, though I do have a soft spot for the Garm, especially his smile at the end of Terminus achieved by tipping his mask upwards slightly towards the camera.
But the problem with The Fisher King is that while Serafinowicz is speaking the only place his voice could be coming from is those silly pincers on the front and they're simply moving backwards and forwards and not matching his speech patterns at all in a way not seen since The Web Planet. As the Doctor’s plan comes into effect no matter how much the editors apply the Kuleshov effect in an attempt to suggest some kind of performance is coming from that boney face, and Murray’s music thunders dramatically in the background, the costume is simply too large for wearer Neil Fingleton do much physically to express the monster’s reaction and we’re left to try and imaginatively fill in the blanks with not a lot to go on.
Reading all of this back, the comparison with the Myrka is unbelievably harsh. This alien war lord is an extraordinary creation from a design point of view and it’s to the show’s credit that it isn’t just another piece of CGI (with the added question about whether what seems like the show’s current budget would have stretched to that). You can absolutely see the image that was attempted to be captured here and it isn’t quite enough to ruin the episode completely. The aforementioned scenes of Cass in peril occur just after he’s introduced and it's to the episode's credit that my chortling at seeing this monstrosity quickly gave way to silent dread. Yet there he is and he will be as we rewatch this story for its other virtues, just like Androzani.
Let’s deal quickly with the other couple of niggles. Firstly, the climax. Anyone else hope or assume, the Doctor would use his foreknowledge to re-enter the time stream and somehow also save the people who became ghosts? I’m not sure how, and narratively speaking it doesn’t really make sense, but the slightly smug recall of the bootstrap paradox in this closing scene only moments after Clara asks where those ghosts would end up and their ultimate fate leaves a discordant note. In some previous episodes, Hide, The Forest of the Dead and Evolution of the Daleks, what in one moment seems hopeless is suddenly turned around due to the Doctor’s will that everybody lives and that’s what I expected here. No.
Then there’s the box and the fact that last week I managed to predict that it would indeed be the Doctor lying in it, being half right about the origins of the ghost. I was a bit disappointed to be honest, especially as this isn’t the first time we’ve seen this trick used in the franchise, now and then by Captain Jack on screen, the Pandorica of course, and by the Eighth Doctor in Martin Day’s novel The Sleep of Reason (with the notion of all of these time/space incidents existing on Earth at the same time sealed in various boxes). The whole thing’s entirely logical within the context of the story but I was still underwhelmed when he burst forth in that kind of “Aha, so I was right all along …” kind of way. I like surprises.
All of which is to generally and genuinely amplify some minor niggles. This is still a superior Doctor Who story with beautiful performances, clever writing and direction and the three of us still watching live should be well satisfied that this is the state in which our favourite show’s in at the moment. According to the BBC website, next week’s episode has a co-writing credit, Moffat and Jamie Mathieson which indicates something’s afoot presumably something surround Maisie Williams’s character. Again we ask. Who is she? Who is she? Yes, she's probably just some in story figure who we’ll see again later in the series for some reason. But wouldn’t it be fun if it does turn out to be someone else? I say again, I like surprises.