Thursday, 15 October 2015

Before the Flood written by Toby Whithouse and directed by Daniel O'Hara

This story in a nutshell: The first time I cannot decide on a rating...

Indefinable: 'That's the thing about knowing you are going to die. You've got nothing to lose...' The Doctor looks haunted at the mention of the Minister of War as though he had some hand in his machinations. A story for a rainy day perhaps. The whole 'the Doctor has to die' aspect might have some weight to it if we hadn't dealt with it in The End of Time, series six, The Name of the Doctor...frankly if there was a portent that said the Doctor has to live it would be more of a novelty. He considers this regeneration a bit of clerical error anyway. The Doctor ghost is absolutely terrifying in certain shots, it's how you can look straight down his eye sockets into the black emptiness inside. 'I'll come back for you, I swear...' the Doctor promises Clara which is a huge step up from last season where he walked out of adventures when the shit hit the fan and left her to her fate. Is it true that the Doctor would let the 'little people' on the hit list die and not get involved but step into action when it is his companions turn to meet the Reaper? That's a bold accusation and I think there is some weight to it.

Impossible Girl: Clara made me sit up and pay attention at one point in this episode and she hasn't done that since Dark Water. It does feel to me as if her story was tied in series eight and that ultimately Last Christmas might have been the best jumping off point for her. When Clara gets sick of the Doctor's blasé attitude to his death and calls him on it, demanding that he doesn't just accept the inevitable and leave her stranded. There was a little arrogance in that mix and plenty of anger, I'd love to see more of that. After this moment she slips comfortably back into the bland companion role which is a shame because I would have loved to have seen another confrontation in the TARDIS between the two of them like the fireworks at the climax of Kill the Moon. Remember that whole 'the TARDIS doesn't like Clara' thread that was dropped last year? There's an intriguing moment when the Doctor states that he is going to save Clara and nobody is going to stop him and almost as if she is responding to his desire the TARDIS cloister bell tolls and he is prevented from leaving by the Ship. She is at least smart enough to figure out why certain people aren't being pursued by the ghosts and is willing to send them out so they can communicate with the Doctor, even if she might be wrong and they could wind up dead. Does travelling with the Doctor change you? She thinks she has been taught to do what has to be done. Does that mean it makes you less humane?

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Except now you're going to do something about it. Because now it's getting closer to you.'
'Even a ghastly future is better than no future at all.'

The Good:
* A rock version of the current theme revs my engine much more than the usual version. Can't we keep it?
* My favourite aspect of Before the Flood is the location that Whithouse chooses for the past sequences, an unwelcoming slice of Stalin's Russia mocked up in a Scottish town. We've never seen a place quite like it in the show before and it comes replete with facades of a high street, shadowy warehouses for the Doctor to confront the monster of the piece, a damn to topple and a great frothy torrent to burst forth and O'Hara directs these sequences precisely and the texturing of the film is grainy and colourless, making it as inhospitable as it an possibly be. That's three episodes in a row now where I have been thrilled by the settings. I hope the season can keep this up. As soon as you see the Dam you know precisely where this story is going to end up.
* Sneaking in a curse in sign. Genius.
* Amongst all the waffle there are some gloriously scary moments. The practically edible Lunn being surrounded by ghosts and trying to keep his nerve made me shudder and Cass being pursued by a ghost scraping an axe along the floor and not being able to hear it must rank as one of the most suspenseful moments in the revived series of Doctor Who. Capaldi's ghosts remains a nightmarish creation.
* The most predictable moment of all time comes when the Doctor emerges from the cryo-pod but that doesn't stop it being a triumphant moment all the same.
* We're in a period of television now where special effects truly live up to their name and the set piece of the Dam wall cracking and the frothing torrent of water consuming the area and giving the Fisher King a good reason to sweat is spectacular. I never thought Doctor Who would command visuals like this and I'm really pleased that it does.
* I said out loud that I was hoping that Cass would smack Lunn around the face when he professed his undying love to her...but the hopeless romantic in me caved when they ended up lip locking. Even if I was a little jealous of Cass.

The Bad:

* People are talking about the Doctor breaking the fourth wall as if it has never been done before, like this is some kind of revolutionary concept that Toby Whithouse has invented to irritate them during the pre-credits sequence of Before the Flood (it's so clever clever smug I detect the hand of Steven Moffat in there somewhere). I don't object to a character taking a hammer to the TV screen and smashing through into the audiences personal space, it's a staple of shows I think are constructed out of sheer genius like Community (when it is at it's best) and Spaced. What bugged me was how it sits so uncomfortably between the end of the last episode and the beginning of this one. It disrupts the flow of the two parter by it's anomalous nature and whilst it does tenuously link in with the story that plays out, I wouldn't be at all surprised if people tuned in after Under the Lake and wondered if they had missed a week somehow. Or expected a drama about the fate of Beethoven. Or something. Capaldi plays it well and I got chills when he looked directly at me but the scene as a whole is as jarring and out of place as the last time the Doctor picked up an electric guitar. Plus do we really need a bootstrap paradox explained in such minute detail, don't we trust the audience these days to work out the intricacies of a plot?
* Prentis is a comedy character played so broadly after all the portents of doom and spectres of deaths that the sudden injection of comedy wrenches for a few minutes. He's pretty annoying too, so I was rather happy when he bought the farm. The Tivoli are something of a one joke wonder, that worked in The God Complex because David Walliams was so good at bringing out those cowardly qualities but the joke feels a little stretched here.
* The Fisher King isn't dead. Why is he in a hearse? The creature is impressive in close up but looks decidedly cumbersome and wobblesome in long shot. The director tries his damndest to make this hulking great creature the stuff of nightmares but once it is on the move in daylight he can't hide its deficiencies. He reminded me a little of the Dragon from Dragonfire. And what do we find out about the Fisher King beyond the fact that he is an invading, uncaring sonofabitch? In sharp contrast to Davros, who was treated to some substantial characterisation in the opening two part story, this villain is of substandard stock. He's a badass, that's about it.
* O'Donnell's death was touching in it's after-effects on Cass but the scene itself felt underplayed. Like two actors that have done this sort of thing too many times. And the Doctor stands behind with his hands clasped together as though he is amused by the whole thing. It's a very strange scene that should have been devastating. Plus wouldn't O'Donnell's ghost have always been there...if it happened in the past? It wouldn't just turn up at that part of the narrative where she dies in the past? Oh my God I've gone boss eyed with paradoxes.
* As much as I liked the setting as it was presented, I was a little underwhelmed by the method of how the Dan collapsed and the consequences of that. This could have been the opportunity for a huge personal drama for the Doctor, to have to flood an entire town in order to stop the Fisher King. A Pompeii style weight on his back. Capaldi would have gone to town with the agonising consequences. The fact that it was just an explosive and the only person that was wiped out was the monster of the week made me feel a little short-changed in the drama department. It was all too easy. Everyone got off lightly, except the Fisher King. I know that this episode has to tie up with the previous episode and leave the setting exactly how the Doctor found it when he landed in Under the Lake but would it really have been so hard to mention causalities when the Dam burst to make the cost of it more personal?
* A hologram? Simon and I both screamed 'oh fuck off!' at the TV at the same time. I desperately didn't want the ghost Doctor to be a cheat and that is exactly what it turned out to be. It guts the end of the previous episodes, which featured one of the strongest cliff-hangers in years and it means the nuts and bolts of this episode were set up entirely by the Doctor gutting this episode of much of it's drama. I'm reminded of the seventh Doctor, setting up his own adventures and everything just playing out on cue. When it is over you realise that none of it was improvised, it was all strategised. The smart element is supposedly the paradox itself, when did the Doctor choose to help himself out by sending the hologram in?
* The ghosts were electromagnetic pulses? Huh? UNIT will sweep in and take them away and eventually they will fade away anyway? Hmm...

Result: Too much blabber, not enough bollocks. A portent of the Doctor's death that leads to a discussion of him accepting the inevitable...haven't we been here before? Wouldn't it have been more dramatic to have made Clara the ghost given this episode was released around the time of the news that Jenna Coleman is leaving the show? I can sit and watch Peter Capaldi agonise over the fate of the Doctor until I petrify but if it turns out that the Doctor was the architect of this personal quandary in the first place it leaves the emotional core of the episode hollow. The sin that this episode commits is that it becomes more about the mechanics of the plot than the emotions of the characters within it. That means the plot has to be intricate and smart, not over explanatory, swindling and centred around a concept that cannot deliver a satisfactory conclusion. The bootstrap paradox by it's very nature leaves us questioning when the solution of this plot was set in motion. Aside from one death that is mildly affecting, everybody walks away from this episode unscathed and the plot ties itself up a little too tidily. My main reaction was after all the budding potential of Under the Lake was 'is that it?' And that's a shame because there are plenty of peripheral elements that do work within Before the Flood. The guest cast acquit themselves beautifully (although they are given less time to impress this week), the faux-Russian setting is original and visually stunning, the impact of the destruction of the Dam can be felt through the screen it is delivered with such drama and Capaldi once again proves that he has the nuts to be the finest Doctor since the show returned. And the ghosts continue to be a gloriously frightening prospect, even if their presence is never adequately explained. But it's all for nought if the they are hung on a narrative that sags and boughs and refuses to hold those elements aloft. This could have been a rule breaker but instead it refuses to take any real risks. Like the Davros two parter, this could easily be a gripping one hour show and with some tinkering with the latter half be a much more mesmerizing experience. Don't get me wrong, I'd rather have this story told with too much time rather than too little but the length is still not quite right. As a whole, it's okay but I was expecting a lot more. As an individual episode, Before the Flood scores points for atmosphere and individual moments but concludes this story in a limp fashion: I honestly cannot choose between 5/10 or 6/10 so you can make up your mind for me...


Anonymous said...

I'm not convinced that having most of this series consist of 2 parters is for the best. Some how I doubt the upcoming viking one is going to change my stance on this.

Ed Azad said...

I find it interesting. If you run the gamut of Who reviews

- Joe thinks Whithouse should be showrunner

- Darren Mooney likes him, but it more moderate on the topic

- Phil Sandifer thinks he's everything wrong with televsion, and perhaps, the human race

Martin Hudecek said...

A good solid review as always. It took two viewings for me to completely get the episode, but now this two parter will be rewatched as least as much as the season opener.

David Pirtle said...

I thought this was a great two-parter. Not as strong as the last one, obviously, but I enjoyed it a lot. I don't disagree that it's more about the plot than the characters, but I really liked the plot. I am a sucker for a causal loop. When it comes to bootstrap paradoxes, the answer to the question of when the solution was set in motion is either 'always' or 'the Big Bang.'