This is a spoiler-free review. Already seen it? Read on at the end for spoilers.
Before The Flood has a cold open sequence that is utterly unique in the history of Doctor Who. Never, in 52 years of adventures on and off television, has the Doctor basically spoiled the ending right at the beginning of the episode.
In the fourth week of what has so far been an exceptional second season for Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, we have finally hit a point where it seems as if they’re doing things that no one could get away with if any other actor were in the role. William Hartnell and Tom Baker have dabbled in breaching the fourth wall in the past, but Capaldi gets a full-on monologue about the bootstrap paradox (“Google it.”) before rocking out to his own blooming theme tune.
Miraculously, this scene doesn’t immediately let all of the air out of the oppressive atmosphere that built up to last week’s cliffhanger. However, after the stripped-back chills of last week’s Under The Lake, writer Toby Whithouse’s second episode has a severe case of the timey-wimeys that nearly derails the whole thing at several junctures.
At the outset, the Doctor has taken Vector Petroleum employees O’Donnell and Bennett back in time to 1980, before Caithness was flooded, to find out who or what is deliberately killing people off and turning them into electromagnetic ghosts. Meanwhile, back in the 22nd century, Clara, Cass and Lunn are running around the Drum trying to evade said ghosts, which now includes a spectral version of the Doctor. Having taken a foreboding glimpse at the grim future he just left behind, the Doctor must confront the creature at the source of the message and save the world at any cost.
Some complained that last week’s episode contained classic Doctor Who staples that made it feel a little old hat, but that is felt much more keenly this week, specifically with tropes of Steven Moffat’s era. There’s a paradox, a bit of nifty rewriting of history and, for the umpty-squillionth time, a definite, final, “we mean it this time but not really” death on the horizon for the Doctor.
That’s not to say that Whithouse doesn’t continue to bring his own style and panache to mix things up, as the bold opening gambit clearly attests. But while Before the Flood is never less than solid, neither does it build upon anything like the previous 45 minutes of the story had suggested. As a direct result of previous, similar episodes – not to mention the opening salvo – a Who-literate viewer will have noticed and assembled all of the clues we got last week about how this wraps up, which spikes the tension to some degree.
On the positive side, the guest cast continues to be marvellous. With a vacancy about to open up in the TARDIS, Morven Christie gives a terrific companion audition as Doctor fangirl O’Donnell, while Arsher Ali gets much more to chew on as Bennett. Back in the Drum, Sophie Stone and Zaqi Ismail continue to be a marvellous double act, acting almost as companions to Jenna Coleman’s savvy and capable Clara.
In terms of the action, the stacking of the two settings is very effective and managed by director Daniel O’Hara in a way that we’ve seldom seen in Who before. There’s a bit of Back To The Future Part II to go around, but if we were to compare it to time travel movies, there are points where the simultaneous action in two time periods measures up to last year’s X-Men: Days Of Future Past, or the third act of Inception.
But amongst a slew of standout performances, it’s a group effort when the fearsome villain of the piece is finally revealed, combining Neil Fingleton’s physical stature, Peter Serafinowicz’s dulcet tones and Slipknot frontman Corey Taylor’s scream-y assist. Capaldi also chips in with his abject horror when the Doctor comes face to face with it. The cumulative effect is jaw-dropping at first sight and he’s one of the most effective new monsters the series has seen in the last few years.
Alas, we don’t get much of it. As in Episode 2 of this season, The Witch’s Familiar, Before the Flood hinges on a confrontation between the Doctor and this villain, but it doesn’t stand up to his great debate with Davros and you may feel we didn’t get much mileage out of a great villain by the time the story is done and dusted. (Paul Kaye’s Tivolian undertaker also falls by the wayside after little more than an extended cameo on the way to the unusually harried final explanation.)
The downside of 45-minute stories is that certain adventures could stand to have been fleshed out to mitigate their rushed conclusion. Before The Flood presents an altogether more worrying problem: the story feels like it could have been done in 45 minutes, except for a few timey-wimey frills. Under The Lake was exceptionally creepy, but Before The Lake has precious little else to offer, especially next to some worthy one-parters of the last few years.
It has all of the audacity of a Part 2 in the vein of The Witch’s Familiar, on top of a stunning guest cast, a great monster and some marvellous direction by O’Hara, but it lacks something in terms of pacing and execution. After last week’s underwater escapades, the story struggles to shake off its sea legs on the dry and oft-charted territory it covers here, all the way up to the somewhat parched and exposition-heavy finale.
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Additional notes (contains spoilers)
– Don’t get us wrong: that opening gambit is a brilliant idea and Capaldi pulls it off as only he can. But putting it at the beginning of Part 2 of a story feels misjudged. BBC One aired the first two-parter of the series as a Sunday afternoon omnibus and if they were to do the same for Under The Lake/Before The Flood, this is a weird speed-bump in the story. Plus, the Beethoven stuff made us miss the “celebrity historicals” – we haven’t really had one since The Day Of The Doctor.
– Amongst a string of callbacks to Last Of The Time Lords, Kill The Moon and former companions, O’Donnell throws in a nod to a Minister of War as something that happened between the two time periods in this story. We’ll probably find out what that is before the end of Season 9, but between this and the first story’s Confession Dial, the arc seems to be going on very subtly this year.
– The Fisher King is a character who protects the Holy Grail in Arthurian legend, but the character’s mythology had no ties to that. All the same, what a tremendous monster he was, so brilliantly brought to life by the efforts of the production team and lent huge gravitas by Serafinowicz’s vocals. It’s a shame he was introduced and then drowned so quickly.
– On the other hand, if you hadn’t already guessed that the Doctor was in the suspended animation casket, you should have at least figured out it wasn’t the Fisher King from the continuous cuts between his 10-foot-tall self and the comparatively small box in the Drum.
– The Arcateenians are mentioned by Prentis as the race who liberated Tivoli from the Fisher King, but they don’t appear. It’s a shame, because if they had, they’d have been the first alien race to appear in Doctor Who, Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures. As it stands, the Whoniverse full house continues to elude even the most storied monsters in the Doctor’s rogues gallery.
– Finally, here’s who we’d like to see come back from this episode as a full-time companion, in ascending order of preference: Bennett; O’Donnell (yes, even though she died); and most of all, Cass and Lunn. Because it’s about damn time we had a sassy, sort of Daredevil-esque deaf companion and her besotted interpreter in the TARDIS.
Photo: Simon Ridgway / BBC