Last week’s episode of Doctor Who, “Under the Lake,” ended with the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) separated, as the Doctor traveled back in time to 1980 to track down the original events which would eventually lead to Clara being trapped in a 22nd-century underwater base under attack by strange, ghostly manifestations of its dead crew—plus a ghost of the Doctor himself. “Before the Flood” has a particularly quirky opening, with writer Toby Whithouse dispensing with the usual pre-titles teaser—apart from the standard “Previously on…” montage—in favor of having the Doctor address the audience directly about a hypothetical “bootstrap paradox” involving Ludwig van Beethoven. This fourth-wall-breaking monologue prepares us for the episode to come, but it feels a little unnecessary after a decade of Steven Moffat stories (pre-eminently, 2007’s “Blink”) have made time-travel shenanigans almost too familiar to Doctor Who viewers. It does, however, successfully provide an excuse for the Doctor to take up his electric guitar again, leading into a rock-based adaptation of the theme music which works at least as well as the regular version.
The episode is cleverly plotted, providing unexpected but satisfying explanations for all of the questions set up last week. The cause of the spectral manifestations turns out to be a creature called the Fisher King being transported on the spaceship that was brought aboard the base, which has the ability to create symbols that force those who see them to continue existing after death as ghostly beacons, broadcasting its message. The first of the ghosts, the mole-faced alien Prentis (Paul Kaye), was actually the pilot of the ship, and the Fisher King’s first victim. The flooding of the valley resulted from the Doctor’s successful attempt at defeating the Fisher King. The occupant of the sealed capsule retrieved from the spaceship is revealed to be the Doctor, riding out the flood and journeying back to 2119 in suspended animation. Finally, the Doctor’s “ghost” was actually a hologram generated by the Doctor himself (as we were shown he could do last week—the writer playing fair with the audience) and programmed with the actions and phrases described to him by Clara: the very bootstrap paradox he was talking about in the opening.
Despite the name, this “Fisher King” has nothing to do with Arthurian legend. It’s purely a monster: an imposing, brutish creature, towering over the Doctor and lumbering around on massive hooves like the Teller from last year’s “Time Heist.” It takes a crude pleasure in confronting the Doctor with his apparently unavoidable death, but he stands up to it with a stirring speech and tricks it with a pleasingly simple lie which leaves it exposed to the flood when his previously planted explosive destroys the dam. The production design for both the village and the underwater base provides a convincing and expansive canvas for the story, and the dam burst itself is a very impressive effect.
Alongside the smart plotting, Whithouse provides plenty of excellent character-based scenes for both the regulars and the base crew. Functioning as substitute companions for the Doctor in 1980 are O’Donnell (Morven Christie) and Bennett (Arsher Ali). O’Donnell’s obvious delight at traveling back in time with the Doctor makes it all the more painful when she’s killed (like another of the Doctor’s in-universe fans, Osgood, in “Death in Heaven”). Unfortunately, this is one of the few clumsy sequences in the script; the characters, being chased by the Fisher King, suddenly split up for no good reason, leaving O’Donnell to get picked off by the monster like a victim in a slasher film.
Back on the base, Clara clashes with Cass (Sophie Stone) when she works out that Cass’s interpreter, Lunn (Zaqi Ismail), will not be targeted by the ghosts because he never saw the alien symbols in the spaceship. Clara’s willingness to send Lunn out from their safe hiding place leads Cass to bitterly wonder whether it was traveling with the Doctor that made her so comfortable with the idea of risking others’ lives. As with the previous episode, Stone and director Daniel O’Hara’s expressive close-ups combine to make Cass a compelling character. Her deafness is still significant, in that her lip-reading ability is once again used to gain information from the Doctor’s “ghost,” and she has the most intense sequence of the episode, when one of the ghosts comes up behind her dragging a large ax. The scene effectively cuts to and from her point of view, with the sound dropping away to show that she can’t hear the weapon scraping along the floor—until she kneels down to feel the vibrations. In the end, however, her relationships with Clara and Lunn are more important. After some prompting from Bennett, she and Lunn admit their feelings for each other, in a sweet ending.
As usual, Coleman is convincing at showing Clara still raw after Danny’s death at the end of last season, with her sudden angry reaction to the Doctor’s calm acceptance of the idea that his death is now part of the chain of events, and unavoidable (“Die with whoever comes after me, you do not leave me!”). Her protest that “You owe me, you’ve made yourself essential to me…and you can’t do that and then die, it’s not fair” may be illogical, but feels very true to the character, even as it continues the idea developed last season that her experiences have changed her in ways not always good or desirable. At the end, after the Doctor’s “ghost” is revealed to be just a trick, she’s all smiles again, but it’s an ominous note for the future.
Next Week: Some very strange Vikings, and a guest appearance by Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones, in “The Girl Who Died.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation: Another case of the Doctor having to fight to the death against a creature solely motivated by survival is in the wonderfully claustrophobic 1977 story “Horror of Fang Rock,” starring Tom Baker and Louise Jameson.
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