‘Under The Lake’ was a great little slice of old-school Doctor Who. It created a claustrophobic atmosphere that was imbued with implicit terror. It followed a simple plot, for the most part, and stayed away from the complications that undermined the first two episodes of Series 9. The biggest problem with it was the overstuffed cast; however, for ‘Before The Flood,’ the cast had thinned out due to being killed. Unfortunately, ‘Before The Flood’ could not keep up with the quality of its predecessor. For the most part, it was an engaging story that unravelled the mystery presented in ‘Under The Lake.’ But the tonal shift, along with a pre-credit teaser that broke the fourth wall, dissipated the terror that ‘Under The Lake’ expertly cultivated. It felt like a different story at times!
The cliff-hanger of ‘Under The Lake’ isn’t even addressed by the pre-credits teaser. Instead, we get The Doctor breaking the fourth wall, asking us to Google the term ‘bootstrap paradox.’ I don’t have the ability to pause Live TV, and between tweeting and writing notes down about the show, I couldn’t Google the term, either. I didn’t have to, of course. We have met the paradox so often in Doctor Who that it doesn’t need explaining. It’s one of Moffat’s favourite plots devices (‘Blink’, “you named your daughter after your daughter,” ‘The Big Bang,’ etc). The Doctor explains that he went back in time to meet Beethoven. However, he couldn’t find Beethoven anywhere. So, he writes Beethoven’s music instead. The question is: who wrote the music? Beethoven, or The Doctor? He’s created a causal loop. Of course, it is important for the conclusion of the episode. I usually love fourth-wall breaking, but this immediately took me out of the story, rather than brought me into it. It was a jarring start to the story just wasn’t necessary. And The Doctor playing Beethoven’s Fifth on a guitar? Please, no more guitar-playing Doctor!
“I have to die”
The fact that, once again, we are presented with the possibility of The Doctor’s death, didn’t help events either. Of course, the main character has to be put in danger several times in the course of a TV series. But we saw The Doctor’s ghost! In ‘The Magician’s Apprentice,’ The Doctor gave Missy his will for fear of dying. The entirety of Series 6 was devoted to The Doctor’s (fake) death. We know there is some explanation for The Doctor’s ghost that doesn’t involve his death, just like we knew The Doctor didn’t really die in ‘The Impossible Astronaut.’ So why present it to us? For the sake of a cliff-hanger? What happened to a muted cliff-hanger? One that kept us intrigued, without being over the top and involving death? (I will say that The Doctor’s ghost provided one of the episode’s best moments as The Doctor talked to his ghost. “I’m a great admirer!” The Doctor smiled, being happy to talk to someone with his level of intelligence.)
The change of setting from underwater base to Russian village in Scotland (military base to prepare for the Cold War turning hot) also jarred. There was nothing wrong with the set itself; it was an impressive, cold village with an air of mystery to it. However, the daylight stalled any potential for the set to be as haunting as the underwater base. Of course, The Doctor was in the village, and Clara was in the underwater base, but the constant cutting between the two sets left no room for terror. Imagine if The Doctor and co were running away from The Fisher King in darkness? Inevitably, the revelation of The Fisher King was something of a let-down. It looked like homage to old-school Doctor Who foes, in a bad way! His vagina-like lower face was also laughable. The Fisher King’s motivations were almost as disappointing as his appearance. He was less threatening and terrifying than the ghosts doing his bidding.
“You can’t cheat time”
In spite of all my above criticisms, I did enjoy ‘Before The Flood.’ Like I mentioned, the set of the fake Russian village looked great. In a different story, perhaps, it could have been used much more effectively. The ‘ghosts,’ although relegated to the sidelines in favour of The Fisher King, were still a clear and present threat. The scene where Cass was being hunted by the ghost of Moran brought much-needed tension and terror to the story (the Daredevil-inspired ‘deaf vision’ was also a nice touch). However, the ambience was disrupted by the flitting between said scene and the confrontation between The Fisher King and The Doctor. The latter scene involved another great exchange of dialogue, with The Fisher King calling the Timelords a “warring race.” “You’re willing to die rather than change the future,” it mocked. As two scenes uninterrupted, they would have been the peak of the episode. As they were, with constant cutting between the two scenes, they were good, but not great.
Capaldi was great, as ever, especially when he talked to “himself.” There was also a greater focus on Cass, which benefited the episode no end. It’s refreshing to see a deaf person holding a key role in a TV show! Clara’s own story was not superfluous, either. We’ve explored the detriments of being The Doctor’s companion before, but here they seemed especially important. How has it changed Clara? How has it changed The Doctor? There were subtle and unsubtle hints about the answers to these questions. She’s been the longest-serving companion in Nu-Who. All that time must have taken a huge toll and her. And we see that here. During her phone conversation with The Doctor when he says he has to die, she pleads “you do not leave me…if you love me, you’ll come back.” We’ve seen similar situations before, but I don’t recall them having as big an impact as this particular one.
‘Before The Flood’ was a flawed conclusion to a great first part. There was as much to like about it as there was to dislike about it. Tonal changes that ran throughout the episode, a laughable reveal of a villain, and too much timey-wimey talk clogged up the duration. It lost the simplicity of its predecessor within the pre-credits teaser scene, with fourth wall breaking talk of the bootstrap paradox. Why explain it when the story revolves around it? We aren’t stupid! We don’t need a name for things to understand them! However, in between everything, there were still things to like. The conversation between The Doctor and The Fisher King, Cass’s ‘deaf vision’ and her being chased by ghost Moran, and the setting of the fake Russian village. It’s just a shame they didn’t simply continue the terror and claustrophobic atmosphere of ‘Under The Lake’!
VERDICT: 6/10. A very uneven conclusion to ‘Under The Lake.’ An over-complicated, timey-wimey plot that almost forgot to continue the terror of its predecessor. But, amongst it all, a certain quality shined through.
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(Click here for my review of Doctor Who, Series 9, Episode 3: Under The Lake)