Doctor Who: Season 9, Episode 4 - "Before the Flood"

Craig Owen Jones

The second half of this two-parter is an object lesson in how to make good drama.

Doctor Who

Airtime: Saturdays, 8.25pm
Cast: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman
Subtitle: Season 9, Episode 4 - "Before the Flood"
Network: BBC
Air date: 2015-10-10

It always feels a bit strange when a character in a drama series addresses the camera directly, but in "Before The Flood", it felt not merely strange, but hokey. As the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) waffled on about paradoxes, I imagined a large neon sign on his forehead bearing the inscription, “OK, people -- this episode is going to be about paradoxes.”

Well, fine. After all, a mere seven days ago we were left with the gruesome spectacle of a dead Doctor, come back from the grave to haunt Clara and company. If the only way out of that particular cliffhanger is the old wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey routine, that’s OK, provided it’s done right. The bootstrap paradox, beloved of the late Douglas Adams, a bevy of Star Trek writers, and trendy poststructuralists the world over -- scriptors are so in this season -- is on nodding terms with the audience, having been employed by Steven Moffat and Russell T. Davies on half a dozen occasions in the last 10 years. “Before the Flood”, however, offers a particularly ingenious instance of this chicken-and-egg scenario.

There were a few missteps along the way. In this episode, we get to see the Doctor riffing on his guitar again, which is fine, but his new-fangled 'sonic sunglasses' also make an appearance, which isn’t. As a one-off joke, the glasses were funny, but if they are now going to become A Thing (presumably so mums and dads the world over can buy their nippers yet another piece of merchandise at Christmas), where does one draw the line? Will there be sonic lipsticks, sonic hatpins, sonic codpieces? Actually -- preposterously -- we’ve seen two of those already. (Try and guess which ones.) Perhaps Clara (Jenna Coleman) can get a sonic board duster and wipe away whatever lowest-common-denominator tripe the Coal Hill School has told her to teach this term in order to get the 13-year-olds through their Key Stage Threes. The problem’s deeper than that, though -- in a show full of lovable but daft ideas, sonic sunglasses are just daft, and on the Doctor’s face, especially so. It’s as though Missy (Michelle Gomez) decided to do a Carrie Bradshaw one day and rustle up a couple of sonic Manolo Blahniks.

There are other issues with "Before the Flood". The touching ending, in which interpreter Lunn (Zaqi Ismail) signs to Cass (Sophie Stone) that he loves her at the behest of Bennett (Arsher Ali), regretful of his own failure to declare his love for a dead crew member, would have been even more affecting if Lunn’s unrequited love had been set up properly; as it is, it comes as a somewhat jolting surprise. The object of Bennett’s desire, O’Donnell (Morven Christie), separates from the Doctor and Bennett during a chase sequence for the usual no-good-reason solely in order to get killed. The episode drags inexplicably around halfway through, sequences of Clara and Cass wandering more or less aimlessly through the base serving only to detract from the Doctor’s confrontation with one of the scariest-looking monsters Doctor Who has seen in a long time: the Fisher King.

To dwell on these minor failures, however, would be churlish in the extreme when this episode gets so much right. The setting -- the Scottish valley seen in last week’s episode "Under The Lake", only this time as it was in 1980, as a Cold War military base full of Soviet-style buildings designed to help train soldiers – is shot from narrow angles (doubtless to avoid revealing how small the set is), but the Russian propaganda posters and Cyrillic railway station signs are nicely realized and the tight shots add to the sense of menace. The dummies reading copies of Pravda are suitably creepy, putting one in mind of the radiation dummies Indy (Harrison Ford) encounters at the nuclear test site in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). This is, quite literally, an uncanny valley.

The acting, too, is quite superb. One obvious advantage of shooting a series composed entirely of two-part serials is that the guest stars, faced with double the usual time allotted for filming, have the opportunity to get loose and secure in each other’s company. From Christie’s touching death scene to Stone’s brooding anger at what she sees as Clara’s callousness, from Paul Kaye’s preternaturally obsequious performance as Prentis to Ismail’s convincingly courageous confrontation of the ghosts as Lunn, the cast don’t put a foot wrong.

"Under the Lake" is an object lesson in how to make good drama. It eschews bells and whistles in favour of tight plotting, believable dialogue, and good storytelling. It doesn’t demand repeated viewing in order to comprehend what’s going on, but invites it so as to appreciate the rich texture of the narrative. Continuity is referenced without burdening the average viewer. Perhaps most importantly, we are left wanting more.


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