Click here to read my review of “Under the Lake”, the first part of this two-part story.
In my review of “The Witch's Familiar”, I commented on how the conclusion of a two-episode story can sometimes exceed and outdo the first, and other times, let you down by not living up to the promise of the first. In the case of “The Witch's Familiar”, it considerably improved on its opening episode. It took the over-ambitious, meandering nature of “The Magician's Apprentice” and gave it focus. Unfortunately, “Before the Flood” is an example of the other kind of concluding episode. It's just not as good as its opening episode. It has a somewhat disappointing villain, fewer great character moments, and a couple of scenes that annoy rather than entertain—one of which is the pre-titles sequence, and that just creates a bad vibe right from the start.
Now, I should make it clear that “Before the Flood” isn't a bad episode. It's actually pretty good. It resolves the storyline in a tight, well-executed manner, the performances from the guest cast continue to be excellent, and while there may be fewer great character moments, there still are some wonderful ones. But despite all the good, it doesn't reach the heights of “Under the Lake” and that's just a little bit disappointing.
Before the Flood” opens with one of the most unusual sequences in all of Doctor Who. The Doctor begins explaining the Bootstrap Paradox. Now, the Doctor explaining something is not at all unusual. He does that all the time. The oddity here is the question of who he's talking to. At first, it might seem that he's talking to O'Donnell and Bennett, considering he took off in the TARDIS with them at the end of “Under the Lake”. Yet we never see either O'Donnell or Bennett in this scene, and the Doctor's constant direct looks into the camera make it clear he's not talking to them as the camera angles change frequently—more quickly than either O'Donnell or Bennett could possibly move. As the episode goes on, it will also become clear that the Doctor wouldn't have any reason to explain the Bootstrap Paradox yet as the nature of this story's time paradox has not become clear yet.
Perhaps this scene is meant to take place later, much like the cliffhanger of “The Magician's Apprentice” doesn't actually occur until the very end of “The Witch's Familiar”. In this case, perhaps he's talking to Clara at the end of the episode. But if that were the case, there would still be the same movement impossibilities as with O'Donnell and Bennett.
No, the Doctor is talking to the audience in one of the most fourth-wall-breaking moments in Doctor Who history (telling viewers to “Google it,” is perhaps what makes this most apparent). And I have to say, I really, really don't like it. I don't think Doctor Who should be breaking the fourth wall so blatantly. One can rationalise it, I suppose, as the Doctor talking to himself, which is something he does, but this just has too many looks directly into the camera to ignore. It is true that Tom Baker sometimes spoke directly to the camera (“Not even the sonic screwdriver can open this lock”), but those were brief moments, few and far between. They are much easier to rationalise as the Doctor talking to himself. Admittedly, this moment is not as bad as William Hartnell wishing the viewers at home a happy Christmas (yes, that really happened in an actual televised episode), but it's getting close. Throw in the implication that the Doctor is actually playing the theme music when the titles start and it goes too far for my tastes. (It really is Peter Capaldi playing the guitar, though.)
But it's more than just the fourth-wall breaking that bothers me about this scene. It's that this scene essentially gives away the ending of the story in a big exposition dump. To be fair, a causal loop was the most likely ending for this story and one that I was fully expecting, but it's still annoying to have that explicitly revealed before the episode even properly starts—especially given that the Doctor explains it again at the end to Clara, and much more succinctly. It's like writer Toby Whithouse just didn't think the audience would understand without having it explained twice. That's either a huge condemnation of his own script or a huge condemnation of the average intelligence of the viewers. Neither option is particularly appealing.
The thing is, the Bootstrap Paradox has been used in Doctor Who before—quite frequently in recent years as it seems to be one of Steven Moffat's favourite timey wimey devices—and it's never been necessary to explain it before. More than that, apart from this fourth-wall-breaking scene, the paradox is actually handled better and is much more intelligible in this episode than in most other circumstances in which it's appeared in Doctor Who, making the scene even more pointless.
Perhaps I'm making too big a deal about this one scene, but as a pre-titles sequence, it sets the tone for the episode to come. If the opening scene is annoying, then it's hard to overcome that feeling for the remainder of the episode. (Situations like this are one reason why I always watch an episode at least twice before reviewing it, regardless of my initial opinion. I want to be as fair as possible to the remainder of the episode.) In this case, the opening scene annoyed me quite a bit on initial viewing.
That said, I love that we catch a glimpse of the clockwork squirrel mentioned in “Under the Lake”! It's sitting on the guitar amplifier, which also has the Magpie logo on it. Magpie is the company in the David Tennant story, “The Idiot's Lantern”, and its logo has been seen on other electronic equipment in various Doctor Who episodes since. Some nice little Easter eggs there.
Once the episode itself starts, things definitely do improve. One thing I really like about the episode is that it does something very few Doctor Who stories have ever done: have the Doctor go back in time to find out how things all started in the first place. The only other story I can think of off the top of my head that does anything similar is “City of Death” with Tom Baker. Even in recent years, with Moffat's love of time paradoxes, this particular paradox hasn't seen much use. It's nice to see a bit of a mix-up of the usual formula, particularly with a base-under-siege storyline.
The change of location and time period allow for a few nice character moments, and while there aren't as many good character moments as in “Under the Lake”, there are a few that particularly shine. O'Donnell's joy at the TARDIS being bigger on the inside is one, and Bennett's confrontation with the Doctor after her death is another. His anger at the Doctor is very believable. This is a cold incarnation of the Doctor and he pretty much did allow O'Donnell to die after only making a very token attempt to save her life by telling her to stay in the TARDIS (something he clearly knew almost certainly wouldn't work). The scene gives a great insight to Bennett's intelligence and his feelings for O'Donnell, but also a chilling insight into the Doctor.
O'Donnell's death itself, however, is strangely unconvincing. Part of the problem is the complete lack of any apparent injury. Now, given its target audience, Doctor Who can't show gore, but there are other ways to make a person look injured and on the verge of death, but here nothing seems to have been done other than to have actor Morven Christie lie on the ground with her legs crossed at a slightly odd angle, say a few words, and pretend to die. Despite a great performance in the rest of the story, Christie just doesn't convince in this scene, making it seem completely out of place in a story otherwise filled with great performances.
Unfortunately, a lot of what happens in the 1980 setting seems somewhat glossed over. I almost wish the Doctor had come back to this time earlier in “Under the Lake” so that there would be more time to develop the new characters introduced (or, even better, get rid of the pre-titles scene to give a couple extra minutes to the characters and story). Prentice is a fun character for the brief period he's on screen before he dies, but he's alive too briefly to get any chance to know and understand him beyond the basic archetype designed for his species.
And then there's the Fisher King. The episode does a good job developing a sense of dread about him while he remains in the shadows, but rather undermines it once he emerges. While the costume design is intimidating, his actions are decidedly unintimidating—primarily because he really doesn't do much. He talks to the Doctor, makes a couple of threats, and does little else. He doesn't seem particularly powerful, relying on a gun to kill his victims (of which there are only two), and when he moves, he does so at more of a shuffle, so isn't very quick. Despite engineering his devious ghost-creation plan, he doesn't seem particularly intelligent as he falls incredibly easily for the Doctor's trick. It's hard to believe he could successfully conquer a planet—though I suppose Tivoli isn't a hard place to conquer. Overall, the Fisher King just seems underwhelming.
Back in the future, we get some continued examples of Clara becoming more Doctor-like. Her willingness to send Lunn into danger points particularly towards this. She is correct and he is pretty much their only hope since the ghosts can't harm him. Nevertheless, she proceeds in a rather heartless, Doctor-like manner. This leads to some wonderful moments with Cass who takes her to task.
Clara's selfishness also gets showcased in this episode with her anger at the Doctor for not being willing to change history simply for her sake. Of course, this may also be a bit of her manipulating the Doctor since the Doctor really will risk everything for her sake. O'Donnell dying doesn't bother him, but the possibility that Clara might die means everything. This does make for an interesting change in the usual Doctor-companion dynamic. We've learnt many times that the Doctor needs someone with him to keep him from going too far. But with Clara, things are starting to go the other way. Clara is doing less of keeping the Doctor under control than he is of making her more out of control. This could have very interesting consequences and I really hope the remainder of the series develops this to a satisfying conclusion. Clara's been somewhat underused this series, and this could be what's needed to give her a good character arc.
I am disappointed in the love pairings at the end of the episode, particularly Lunn and Cass. O'Donnell and Bennett make sense as both episodes have hints and nudges in that direction. Cass and Lunn, on the other hand, clearly have affection for each other, but throughout the entire rest of the story, it has come across as a strong friendship. Both actors have great chemistry together in this regard, but I see nothing in their performances to suggest the hiding of secret crushes. In fact, they come across as very open and honest with one another. The tacking on of a love relationship seems to be there for no other reason than the typical movie/television refusal to accept that a straight man and a straight woman can ever be just friends. At least one must be in love with the other. It would have been nice to see that trope dismissed for these two characters, but alas, even the Doctor's relationships with his companions these days almost always end up having some sort of sexual/romantic tension to them. Indeed, I worry that the two pairings in this story are meant to mirror unspoken feelings between the Doctor and Clara with O'Donnell's death meant to demonstrate what happens when you don't voice your feelings and the Cass-Lunn relationship meant to show how you just need to speak up. I hope I'm wrong there.
A few final thoughts:
Why is O'Donnell's ghost not there from the very beginning like Prentice's ghost is since she died in the past? Even the Doctor comments that since her ghost wasn't there, he wondered if there might be a way to save her. It could have made for an even spookier first episode if a ghost of O'Donnell were there alongside living O'Donnell.
Who is the Minister of War? Is this a hint of something yet to come, or just a throwaway line like the Terrible Zodin?
How does the hologram Doctor manipulate the base's controls? Is this some sort of “solid” hologram like in Red Dwarf or Star Trek's holodecks?
Couldn't the Fisher King have simply used more conventional means to summon an armada instead of the rather complicated plot he came up with? Did the space hearse not have communications equipment of any kind?
Overall, I want to reiterate that I think “Before the Flood” is a good episode, even though I've been quite critical of several aspects of it. There are a lot of good things about it and it's an episode I'll be happy to watch again and again sometime down the line. It's simply a bit disappointing because “Under the Lake” is even better. Together though, both episodes make for some very compelling and dramatic television.