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Doctor Who: Before the Flood (Review)

“Prentis! He’s alive.”

“No, he’s just not dead yet.”

– Bennett and the Doctor understand how this whole base under siege thing works

There is an argument to be made that Before the Flood is just too damn clever for its own good.

Under the Lake was a very conventional and familiar “base under siege” story, the kind of tense confined thriller that Doctor Who did so well. However, Before the Flood does more than simply extend that premise by another forty-five minutes. Instead, it gets decidedly playful. This is a nice twist on the structure of the season, a season built around multiple interlocking two-part episodes. Taking advantage of the break between Under the Lake and Before the Flood, writer Toby Whithouse shifts the episode’s genre along with its setting.

A Fisher (King) in the face of reality itself...

A Fisher (King) in the face of reality itself…

The teaser sets the tone, with the Doctor addressing the audience directly. In fact, one suspects that google searches on the phrase “bootstrap paradox” jumped dramatically at around 8:27pm BST, 10th October 2015. Although the episode’s closing sequence suggests that the Doctor might plausibly be addressing Clara, the framing makes it quite clear that he is talking through the television to the viewers at home. As if to emphasise this little detail, the Doctor’s wailing electric guitar plays into the opening credits; in case the show needed to be more self-aware.

However, Before the Flood is never entirely sure how much of this self-awareness is genuine cleverness and just how much of it is necessary structuring.

Flood of ideas...

Flood of ideas…

Many of the twists in Before the Flood are quite clever. The idea that the figure in the stasis chamber for all of Under the Lake was actually the Doctor rather than the Fisher King is a clever bit of set-up and pay-off that demonstrates the appeal of a time-travel television series. It is a very nicely structured revelation, one that takes advantage of the show’s format. The idea that the Doctor doesn’t break history so much as play with expectations of it is quite cheeky in its own way, essentially undermining the entire premise of the “base under siege” story as a whole.

Of course, there are a number of obvious issues with this – points at which the resounding cleverness of the set-up brush against more generic storytelling concerns. Most obviously, the revelations in Before the Flood retroactively render Under the Lake completely meaningless in a narrative sense. In a way, this is part of the problem with Doctor Who two-parters in general, where it seems like the first part is simply stalling before it hits the cliffhanger that sets the actual premise of the story. This two-parter cleverly substitutes in a solid “base under siege” for that stalling.

A hearse outside...

A hearse outside…

The other problem is a frequent problem on Doctor Who, tying into the show’s time-travel storytelling. The events of Before the Flood retroactively suggest that the Doctor simply stands by and allows the majority of the staff on the base to die in order to satisfy history. This is an issue against which Doctor Who has frequently brushed, particularly in the context of “fixed moments in time” which Russell T. Davies largely developed to solve the whole “why doesn’t the Doctor stop the Holocaust?” dilemma.

“Fixed moments in time” are a transparent narrative gimmick. They amount to the script declaring “because the writer says so.” They are arbitrary, existing to generate emotional angst and leverage. The Fires of Pompeii and The Waters of Mars are very satisfying stories from an emotional perspective, but the barriers they place in front of the Doctor exist for no other reason than because the script decided that they should. It is no surprise that the Moffat era has largely avoided them, addressing “the Hitler problem” directly in Let’s Kill Hitler. Sort of.

It's bigger on the inside!

It’s bigger on the inside!

When the Moffat era has relied on concepts akin to “fixed moments”, it tends to adopt a more postmodern approach. The Angels Take Manhattan suggested that a “fixed moment” is not fixed by any external power; it becomes fixed the moment that it is written down, or that the Doctor (or another character) becomes aware of it. There are certainly elements of this in Before the Flood, which is a script that is largely fascinated with idea propagation and transference.

Whatever clever internal logic this might serve, it does effectively mean that the Doctor allows a significant portion of the cast to die simply so that he can spring a clever twist ending on them. It seems surprising that characters like Bennett and Cass refuse to the call the Doctor out on this. If he had popped out of the pod a few days earlier, he could have stopped the tragic death of Moran – and, thus, most of the cast. However, Before the Flood seems a little too preoccupied with its own cleverness to meditate on this.

Making a splash...

Making a splash…

The Fisher King accuses the Doctor of being “willing to die rather than change a word of the future.” It is an accusation that sticks throughout the episode, despite the Doctor’s manipulations and contortions. Perhaps the Doctor’s insistence that “even a ghastly future is better than no future at all” is intended as a rebuttal, suggesting that the paradoxes that such interference might create would negate any good that he might do. Nevertheless, it does feel like the twist ignores its own dramatic consequences.

Toby Whithouse continues his celebration of the show’s history. The episode feels like a conscious homage to The Curse of Fenric, perhaps one of the best stories in the show’s history. The importance of water (“we will drain the oceans,” the Fisher King taunts) as well as the emphasis on Cold War Britain all suggest that other story of ancient awakening evil. (Although here the British plot to invade Russia rather than vice versa. And it’s set during the actual Cold War, rather than the lead-up to it.) The allusions to Arthurian legend (“the Fisher King”) harks back to the McCoy era as a whole.

Drumming up excitement...

Drumming up excitement…

However, there are plenty of other examples of self-conscious continuity at work in Before the Flood, as one might imagine given that this is the tenth anniversary of the revival. Prentis is identified as Tivolian, a member of the cowardly species that Whithouse himself introduced in The God Complex. The sequence of Bennett considering changing history while watching a scene from earlier in the same episode recalls Father’s Day, although this time the Doctor is quick enough to prevent matters from getting too far out of hand.

As with The Magician’s Apprentice, there is a suggestion of weaponised continuity. The Doctor finds himself placed in a trap formed by events that have already happened. When he travels back in time with Bennett and O’Donnell, O’Donnell contextualises their arrival by reference to the internal history of Doctor Who with nods toward Harold Saxon and a reference to “the Ministry of War.” In The Magician’s Apprentice, it seemed like continuity could become a burden to the show, something hemming it in. Before the Flood suggests something similar.

Ringing true...

Ringing true…

In The Magician’s Apprentice, Davros’ memory of past events and his ability to play back clips from classic episodes was initially presented as dangerous to the Doctor; it was suggested that this knowledge afforded Davros power over the Doctor. Ultimately, The Witch’s Familiar rejected this assessment; the Doctor was not (and never would be) trapped by such machinations. In Under the Lake and Before the Flood, the characters are trapped by knowledge. Reading the engravings in the ship dooms the base crew; knowing the future hems in the Doctor.

The Fisher King counts on the Doctor’s unwillingness to bend the laws of time, his reluctance to ignore what has already happened. Doctor Who is over fifty years old at this point. That is a lot of continuity to potentially bind the Doctor, ensnaring him as easily as Colony Sarff did in The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar. Once again, those impulses are tied to death and destruction, as if Doctor Who is contemplating whether there might come a point when the series collapses under its own weight.

Glass act...

Glass act…

In the end, Before the Flood doesn’t seem too bothered. After all, even within the confines of so much continuity, clever ideas can find their way into what appears to be a closed loop. “Who really composed Beethoven’s fifth?” the Doctor asks rhetorically, alluding to the bootstrap paradox. At the same time, he seems to reference the idea that even a story with seemingly water-tight continuity can still provide its own mysteries and surprises to those willing to look for them.

Whithouse builds upon the clever postmodern aspects of Under the Lake, the idea of an infectious idea that enters a person’s head. The ghosts are “infected” by the words scrawled hastily on the walls of the hearse. Those ghosts then go forth to make more ghosts, become propagating and spreading. “My ghosts make more ghosts,” the Fisher King muses, as if contemplating the way that ideas can spawn from other ideas. It is, perhaps, a defense of the sort sprawling and dense continuity of Doctor Who. Ideas spawn more ideas. A generic base under siege can lead to this.

Caged...

Caged…

Of course, the theme of self-perpetuating ideas also plays out in the character dynamics. The Doctor prompts himself to action by including Clara’s name at a very particular point in the list of victims; Bennett seems to get over the obvious implication that the Doctor doesn’t care about anybody else rather quickly. More than that, Before the Flood hits on the idea that was suggested during the eighth season that Clara is gently and gradually transforming into her own version of the Doctor.

When the ghosts confiscate the phone, Clara insists that Lunn has to retrieve it; it is a decision that puts Lunn at great risk. The episode even implies that Clara’s motivations are more concerned with her own priorities than the welfare of the group, “I need,” she begins, catching herself, “… we need to be able to contact the Doctor.” When Cass correctly points out how callous Clara has become, she wonders if the Doctor taught his companion that emotional detachment. “He taught me to do what has to be done,” Clara responds.

“You are one ugly…”

It feels like a continuation of Clara’s arc in eighth season episodes like Kill the Moon or Mummy on the Orient Express, when the show suggested that Clara might be fashioning herself into a Doctor-like figure; this culminated in a nice gag during the opening credits of Death in Heaven, where the show cleverly replaced Peter Capaldi’s eyebrows with those of Jenna-Louise Coleman. It is interesting to wonder where the production team might be taking this arc, given Coleman’s much publicised departure.

Before the Flood also plays up Clara’s sense of entitlement. Clara insists that the Doctor cannot leave her to die, never mind the crew of the base. When she send Lunn out to retrieve the phone, she uses the first person singular rather than the plural. There is a sense that Clara is not entirely connected to the world around her; that she does not perceive the rest of the cast as “real” in the way that she and the Doctor are real. It seems like Clara has come a long way since her observations about how everybody is a ghost to the Doctor in Hide.

It's good to be the (Fisher) King...

It’s good to be the (Fisher) King…

(In fact, Whithouse’s script consciously harks back to Clara’s astute observations about the Doctor’s relationship to those human beings with whom he interacts. When Bennett and the Doctor are thrown back in time within the narrative, Bennett insists that Prentis is still alive; the Doctor corrects him by pointing out that Prentis is simply not dead yet. The Doctor must feel that way about so many of the people he encounters on his journey, it is just literalised in this particular case.)

It seems like the ninth season might be harking back to the relationship between the Tenth Doctor and Rose during the second season, with a companion who has grown so attached to life inside the TARDIS that she has become detached from the “real” world. Jenna-Louise Coleman does a much better job of playing entitled and detached than Billie Piper did; Coleman’s performance suggests a complete lack of self-awareness on the part of Clara, playing down the giddiness that made Rose’s entitlement seem so suffocatingly noxious.

Ghosts of Doctor's future...

Ghosts of Doctor’s future…

Of course, there is something a little awkward about all this. When the Doctor tries to console Clara over the phone, he tells her, “We all have to face death at some point – ours or someone else’s.” It seems like something that the Doctor shouldn’t need to say after the death of Danny Pink. In fact, it seems strange that Danny is never explicitly mentioned in the conversation. It seems like the Doctor and Clara are talking about death is if it is something that neither of them has confronted at this point in time.

The production design on the Fisher King is particularly impressive, consciously evoking the design of the iconic Predator alien – right down to the creature’s mouth. Looking decidedly inhuman, the Fisher King is an impressive and ominous antagonist. The production design of the creature, coupled with Daniel O’Hara’s direction and the use of Peter Serafinowicz’s deep voice adds a layer of menace to what could easily be just another generic despotic alien. While the Fisher King is hardly the most iconic of Doctor Who villains, he is an impressive practical effect.

"He is awake..."

“He is awake…”

There is a lot of clever and interesting stuff in Before the Flood, even if that cleverness brushes over some of the more organic and human beats of the story in question. It is a very clever twist on the premise set up in Under the Lake, but perhaps too sharp a turn in its own right.

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8 Responses

  1. “It is interesting to wonder where the production team might be taking this arc, given Coleman’s much publicised departure.”

    I suppose she’ll be elevated to godhood.

    That’s not me being glib; Nu Who seems to suggest that people are fundamentally changed by traveling in the TARDIS. “End of the World” briefly touched on it with the universal translator, and Rose, Martha, and Donna were all hinted toward becoming ‘doctors’.

    This is not to say the classic companions didn’t grow or change. But they became ‘great’ only a small scale. In Nu Who — and Sherlock, if we’re being fair — the Doctor and his companions angst over being untouchable and brilliant, but nothing comes it, and by the next regeneration they’re playing the same old song. (What is this, mutual masturbation?)

    That said, I wonder if there’s anything more to be said about the companion (and viewer) as God. I fear this meta-commentary has already been mined for all it’s worth. (A common refrain since Moffat took over). It’s not even unique to Nu Who anymore; recently I played MGSV and the ending, which I won’t spoil, tried to justify the untouchable nature of its hero by suggesting the player has become a superhero in their own right — through osmosis alone. Bioshock Infinite tried something like this, as well. I guess it’s the zeitgeist.

    • Greatness by association.

      I kinda wonder where that’s coming from. I suspect it’ll become clearer in hindsight. One of the luxuries of doing these things retrospectively.

      • Well, at the end of the day, this is a patriarchal show (sorry to go SJW on this excellent blog) with an established lead who can never die and knows everything. It’s kind of similar to theose old Highlander TV shows, and their struggles with giving the sidekicks equal time. At the end of the day, this is the Doctor’s show. He’s the smartest, he’s the longest-lived, he’s the focal point of continuity and fanservice. Any greatness which rubs off on his companions is incidental. (Tom Baker was well aware of this!) Sort of like the Time Lords themselves. The companion’s face may change, but the role itself doesn’t.

        So, to give the companions equal weight, they must become gods.

        I think Moffat tried to avoid this; he tried out a greener Doctor, and even rebooted him a few times (not that it stuck).

      • Never apologise for going SJW!

        (Which always struck me as an odd insult, as sarcastic as it might be.)

  2. Oh, and I would be remiss if I didn’t point out something else. A big reason why Clara was hailed as a great character, a breath of fresh air, was that she started from a position of power over the Doctor. Clara was the one thing in the universe he couldn’t define. Later, it turned out she was intervention into his life like a cosmic guardian angel. I was fine with that.

    Then Capaldi came on board. Moffat was still keyed into Clara’s wifey-y sense of authority over the doctor. (Sort of a River Song Redux.)

    Now she’s just a particularly mouthy companion, like Billie and Karen at their worst. Not sure what that’s about.

    • I thought most people really hated “The Impossible Girl” arc? I mean, I am not its biggest fan, but I appreciate what it tried to do. Even if it seemed a little mean-spirited in its execution. “Ha! This character we told was a mystery is not a mystery! Stop thinking of people as objects, even though we’ve been very consciously trying to get you to think of her as an object!”

      Personally, I much prefer Capaldi/Coleman as a due. I think the Rose-style entitlement is there, but I don’t think Moffat loves Clara the way that Davies loved Rose. In The Writers’ Tale, Davies talks about how he wanted to “spoil” Rose, which explains the end to Journey’s End. Not that I think Clara will have a truly depressing ending, but I don’t think she’ll be as spoiled. (Personally, I wouldn’t rule out a reunion with Danny Pink, albeit in a bittersweet manner. Maybe she “ghosts” to the Nethersphere or some suitably technobabblish explanation for the two of them being reunited in death.)

      • “I thought most people really hated “The Impossible Girl” arc?”

        Really? I’m starting to think the US and UK are waay out of synch. 🙂

        Clara is a meme, not a character. This worked well from a marketing standpoint. A little too well. It churns my stomach to think Clara will be installed on the pantheon next to Leeta and Sarah Jane, but there you go. It’s Moff’s world, we’re just living in it.

      • Is Leeta that well-loved? I’d put her in the lower tier of Baker companions, unless we’re counting Adric. That said I don’t think any companion will displace Sarah Jane. (Or, more controversially, Rose.)

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