11 October 2015

Doctor Who: Before the Flood

There’s an argument – probably raging, as we speak, on one of the forums – that time travel has become an over-used plot device in modern Doctor Who. Outraged fans will point to the fact that the TARDIS was barely used as anything but a means of transport in the classic series, whereas nowadays it’s all too often the means to solve the plot.

Up front, I have some sympathy with the argument: if the Doctor can just go back and rewrite history, or worse still, rewrite people to make them his puppets, the show instantly loses a big chunk of drama and instead becomes an exercise in joining the dots. Hence my reservations about ‘going back’ at the end of Under the Lake.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the way Before the Flood directly addresses those reservations – and the audience. Starting off with a brief, Listen-style lesson on the bootstrap paradox (with a grin-inducingly audacious guitar riff into the opening titles), this episode becomes less about how the Doctor saves the survivors of the underwater base, and more about the morality of tinkering with time.

It threatens to be at its least effective when it’s confronting the Doctor, yet again, with his inevitable death. Having seen him wriggle out of it at Lake Silencio and again on Trenzalore, my eyes did start to glaze over. But again, Whithouse was ahead of me: it’s merely a prompt for the Doctor to become genuinely outraged at the Fisher King for bending the rules not of time, but of life, and for robbing his victims of their deaths.

Ultimately, the episode resolves into a quietly furious excoriation of going back to ‘cut tragedy off at the root’, because to do so robs life of meaning. In Before the Flood the dead characters stay dead, and this gives the episode its most emotional beat: ‘There is no point wasting time because things happen and then it's too late.’ Sometimes Doctor Who has forgotten this truth, and become glib about death. Before the Flood is a necessary correction.

It’s also an episode that plays resolutely fair with the audience. Aside from highlighting the bootstrap paradox at the start – and holding its hands up to the same at the end, everything else was set up in Under the Lake, from the idea of the TARDIS hologram projection facility, to the Doctor escaping in the suspended animation cabinet, to the missing power cell that blew up the dam. The Doctor doesn’t even need to rewrite time to win, he just needs to convince the monster that he might.

Understandably, given last week’s cliffhanger, this is Capaldi’s episode, and it’s my favourite of his performances to date: that slight awkwardness of movement and around people, and a strange, spiky run that’s as distinctive as Pertwee’s arms-in-tight dash. This regeneration might be a clerical error, but it’s one that’s working in our favour. Against this, the Doctor’s dedication to Clara is again shown to be not entirely healthy, with Bennett calling him out on caring more about her life than O'Donnell’s, and the Doctor admitting that Clara’s name was the prompt for him to act against the Fisher King. What this devotion might mean in the future – like the dark hint about the ‘Minister of War’ – remains an intriguing mystery.

Not so mysterious is the Fisher King itself. It is a charmingly trad Doctor Who monster, by which I mean it’s most effective when glimpsed in the ruins of the Soviet ghost town, or lurking in shadows and close ups than when shuffling, in long shot, across the grass. Also, I guiltily admit to not really noticing the Slipknot ‘roar of the Fisher King’. But since the episode isn’t about the monster, that doesn’t really matter. The really scary thing about those scenes in 1980 is the sense of looming threat, which is doubly reinforced by the dam towering over the village, and the iconography of Cold War Armageddon. Daniel O’Hara’s choice of an icy, washed-out palette is a good one: these scenes are really chilly, and neatly counterpoint the sickly green corpse light of the underwater base.

Together, Under the Lake and Before the Flood comprise my favourite Capaldi story to date. It pulls on some of the style of classic base under siege stories, while drawing on and explicitly critiquing some of the modern show’s clichés. Dramatically satisfying and clever, it’s ideal Doctor Who.

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