Writer: Toby Whithouse.
Director: Daniel O’Hara.
Main Cast: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Sophie Stone, Zaqi Ismail, Morven Christie, Arsher Ali.
Hello, Whovians! We’re back again after last week’s episode ‘Under the Lake’, and what a time to pick up on! Ghosts and ghouls are lurking about, there’s a base under siege, and last week’s cliffhanger revealed to us that nobody is safe from this threat, not even the Doctor! Can he avert his own grim future before it comes to pass? Read on to find out! This is ‘Before the Flood’!
POSSIBLE MILD SPOILERS AHEAD!
The episode opens with, and I don’t say this lightly, possibly the most interesting pre-credit sequence to any episode of Doctor Who yet. Those who remember last year’s ‘Listen’ (which was, funnily enough, also the fourth episode of its series) will instantly feel a certain familiarity at the basest level, but the specifics of the situation are drastically different. The Doctor speaks directly to the viewer in an extended monologue (with all of Peter Capaldi‘s intense charisma, it’s quite an experience!) regarding the nature of an ontological paradox; a situation that is no stranger to Doctor Who by any means. He does this by way of a long, rambling anecdote wherein a hypothetical time traveller goes to meet Beethoven, only to find that the famed composer in fact never existed. Shocked, the time traveller publishes Beethoven’s music in his stead, utilising their knowledge of him to do so. Where then, proposes the Doctor, did the music come from? Beethoven inspires time traveller, time traveller creates Beethoven. “Who composed Beethoven’s Fifth?” the Doctor asks…
It’s honestly one of the most entertaining and bizarre openings to any episode of Doctor Who, and it sets the scene nicely. Writer Toby Whithouse left himself quite a lot of questions and mysteries to resolve with the first part of this story last week, and he does so flawlessly! The use of a paradox-heavy episode always runs the risk of getting tangled up in itself, something which ‘Before the Flood’ almost gleefully embodies. Incorporating the nature of the episode’s problems into the narrative itself makes it something of a commentary on those very issues in the first place, which is thoroughly engaging (and just a tiny bit hilarious)! It’s an extremely heavy episode when it comes to time travel which is to be expected given that it takes place in two separate periods simultaneously, though keeping events confined to a solitary location makes things straightforward enough.
While the first part of the story moved along at quite a relaxed pace, content to slowly bring its mysteries to the fore, this second part moves along at a much more hectic speed as the action of the story really kicks off. The horror aspects are still in play, that said, and there are a great many moments that will have watchers on the edge of their seat; even a genuinely well-executed sudden shock or two. It’s a very atmospheric episode like its predecessor, and uses slowly building tension very well. Separating the cast into two groups was a nice idea too, particularly as the Doctor’s actions in the past begin to affect Clara in the future. In that classic tense mystery style, the plot throws plenty of hooks for the viewer to grab onto and start guessing what’ll happen next, which is usually my favourite part of any story in the genre and I think the same goes for most of the audience!
A noted aspect of this episode, I feel, is the cinematography and use of deft camera work to really inject some fresh tension or intrigue into its scenes. ‘Before the Flood’ is a visual treat in many ways; one can easily see the production crew experimenting with new ways of delivering their story and it works wonders. The opening monologue with the Doctor addressing the audience and the reveal of the episode’s villain, who is kept in shadows in that classic ‘less is more’ manner that heightens the unease of the scene, are two of the highlights. My favourite scene, visually speaking, comes in the form of a video call between the Doctor and Clara (with the Doctor in the TARDIS and Clara still in the undersea base), where their respective screens are utilised almost as secondary cameras. It’s rare I speak during an episode of Doctor Who for fear of missing anything, but that scene had me repeatedly uttering variations on “oh, that’s brilliant!” throughout.
As ever, we’ll move onto the cast next and we’ll open with the TARDIS Team per the norm! Peter Capaldi is naturally on top form, as the Doctor spends most of an episode entirely separated from his companion and accompanied by others. Capaldi often plays his Doctor as highly analytical, noticing or thinking about things that the remainder of the cast typically haven’t even begun to consider yet, and that shines through in this episode. Stuck in a paradox (and a very unenviable one at that), the Doctor is attempting to figure out an escape above all else, and one gets the impression that the various villains of the story are barely even registering on his radar in the grand scheme of things. Capaldi‘s fourth wall-breaking opening sequence, in particular, is a real standout performance of his; the viewer almost gets a tiny impression of what it would be like to travel with him for an instant (if only, eh?)
Jenna Coleman takes the spotlight for about half of this episode, giving Clara more to do in one story than she’s had to do for the entire series thus far. Separated from the Doctor, we can really start to see the impact that recent events have had on her. The still-fresh loss of Danny Pink and everything that’s happened to her in particular have made her reckless and much more headstrong. She’s out of her depth but refuses to admit that, and, much like last episode, she’s called out on her behaviour. The message doesn’t stick of course, but it’s certainly interesting to see where this will go. It never pays to get careless aboard the TARDIS!
Our highly-endearing guest cast are still prominent throughout, though this episode is rather more focused around the Doctor. Sophie Stone as base commander Cass continues to be the strongest character of the bunch. Her care for her friends sees her casually wandering out into the midst of her ghost-infested facility, heedless of the numerous terrifying spectres that want her dead. Cass takes a very strong dislike to Clara in this story due to Clara’s seeming callousness towards her crew, and puts up with none of her nonsense. There’s one particularly tense scene, utilising Cass’s deafness in a very neat manner in the way it’s shot. It’s probably the most edge-of-the-seat moment in the story. Still present with her is her interpreter Lunn (played by Zaqi Ismail), who plays a more important role in this story due to a quirk of coincidence from the last episode that leaves him in a unique position to help with events. The chemistry between Cass and Lunn is wonderful without drawing attention to it; there’s a real bond there and it’s plain as day. I’m a big fan of Lunn’s character – he reacts very realistically to the situation at hand and has a very distinct arc.
Meanwhile, along with the Doctor we have Morven Christie as Alice O’Donnell, my personal favourite of the bunch and a very entertaining character (along with a little bit of audience surrogacy due to her being a fan of the Doctor). In fact, if I have one grievance with the episode it’s the manner in which her character is dealt with (that said it does make narrative sense, I fully acknowledge it’s a personal bias). Arsher Ali as Mason Bennett has a good deal more to do in this episode, undergoing quite a series of unfortunate events indeed. There is a rather nice scene in which he challenges the Doctor’s ideals quite effectively, which is always enjoyable to watch.
As for the villain of the piece besides the ghosts, the so-called Fisher King, I won’t say much to preserve the surprise. Suffice it to say, he’s an incredibly intimidating presence on-screen, realised through good old practical effects rather than CGI, and the short time he has on-screen is milked for all the intensity it’s worth. Incidentally, it seems the Fisher King is going for an award as far as actors are concerned, as he’s played by no less than three people (Neil Fingleton physically, voiced by Peter Serafinowicz, and roars provided by Corey Taylor of Slipknot fame).
All in all, I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if ‘Before the Flood’ became the common favourite of the Twelfth Doctor’s episodes thus far. It just feels so tremendously Doctor Who in every way, with a good scary villain, a clever time-travel element, and a ton of great character moments for all involved. It’s an intelligent episode and thoroughly well-written, and there are plenty of moments that just seem so unique and never seen before. Series 9 continues to bat higher and higher.
A wonderful story
Do join us next week, where we’ll find Vikings, alien mercenaries, and Maisie Williams (oh my!) in ‘The Girl Who Died’…