Well! Nice work, Mr. Whithouse, Mr. O’Hara and Mr. Moffat! Doctor Who is four for four so far this season.
It does look like we are in a season of two-parters, and whether it’s this change-up of format, or the writers getting used to Capaldi in the roll, I think the quality of this season has taken a step up — and I was mostly satisfied with much of season eight already.
Toby Whithouse’s Under the Lake/Before the Flood is an inventive story that takes the traditional base under siege trope of Doctor Who and adds some much needed spice. I’ve commented before that I’ve been pleased that Steven Moffat has brought in more time travel in a show that’s ostensibly about time travel but has never really given thought through the consequences of it. Whithouse takes this further, giving us a nice little puzzle box that I don’t think the series has really tried — or, at least, not tried recently.
And the maturation of the Doctor and Clara’s relationship and the movement away from the sarcasm and insensitivity of the previous system continues and is welcome. Just because the Doctor is an alien doesn’t mean that he has to be inhuman. They’ve struck the right balance at last, and I hope this trend continues. We also see a wonderfully diverse cast taking on an intelligent script full of good character moments, and strong direction by Daniel O’Hara that produces some genuine scares.
It’s not perfect, but it’s excellent, and a story I’d be happy to watch more than once.
That’s the spoiler-free review. For my spoilery thoughts, please proceed past the line below…
Clara’s caught the adventure bug again and rather than go home after Skaro, accompanies the Doctor on a trip to 2119. They land in an underwater base in a flooded ex-town in Scotland somewhere. The base is crewed by a resource extraction company headed by head corporate idiot Pritchard, and by the far more intelligent (and hearing impaired) woman named Cass. Clara and the Doctor find the crew menaced by ghosts of former crew members, and an alien the Doctor identifies as a Tivoli (the masochistic surrender-mongers first seen in Toby Whithouse’s God Complex).
Ghosts don’t exist, the Doctor says. These are just unexplained manifestations that can walk through walls, interact with the real world at random, and only come out at night. Okay maybe they are ghosts, but there’s probably a scientific explanation for them, and it likely has to do with the mysterious spaceship the crew has managed to unearth.
To paraphrase Cordelia Chase, “Guys? You’ve got to keep your mysterious spaceships Earthed!”
But the spaceship truly is mysterious. There’s mostly room for just a casket. Parts are missing. Most importantly, there’s writing on the wall that the Doctor’s TARDIS can’t translate. And here we have one of the most subtle but effective effects shots that I’ve seen in the series: these strange symbols are gouged into the white walls of the ship’s cargo hold, but they glow in their reflection in each character’s eye as they look at them. A wonderful touch by director Daniel O’Hara, and the earliest indication that the writing is doing something to the people who look at it. Another clue is that the ghosts don’t try to harm the Doctor and Clara until after they look at the strange writing.
The first part of this two parter is primarily set-up, introducing us to the characters, explaining the danger, and having a few thrills at everyone’s expense. At first, it plays like a typical base-under-siege story, which Doctor Who is renown for, and although it has wonderful one-liners, and an intelligently scripted cast of characters with depth, not much makes it stand out against previous base-under-siege stories like The Robots of Death or The Moonbase, until the Doctor decides that he’s only seeing part of the story here.
Why did the spaceship crash? Why are parts missing? Why does the Doctor think that the suspended animation canister doesn’t house the actual pilot of the ship? It clearly relates to the events that caused the flooded-out town to be flooded to begin with and, despite the paradox risk that his idea presents, the Doctor decides that, to solve the mystery, he has to take his TARDIS back in time to the moment the spaceship arrived. And here’s where things get special, because as soon as the Doctor flies away in his TARDIS (after some action scenes to explain how Clara and a portion of the crew get separated), a new ghost turns up: that of the Doctor himself. Oops.
It’s the first moments of Before the Flood that elevates the second part above the first, when the Doctor addresses the camera and explains the Bootstrap Paradox (Really, Google it) before taking up an electric guitar and playing the Doctor Who theme through the credits (yes, that actually is Capaldi doing it). The setting before the flood is suitably creepy, as the Doctor and his interim companions Bennett and O’Donnell arrive in Scotland in 1980 at the flooded out town which turns out to be a testing site for anti-Soviet NATO war games and conveniently deserted.
And indeed, the Doctor gets the answers he’s looking for, although he quickly finds himself slipping into a quagmire of potential temporal paradoxes once he learns (upon calling the future) that he’s now a ghost, and more people are about to die. Of course, the Doctor isn’t one to let the potential destruction of the time-space continuum stand in his way, and when he discovers the reason behind the spaceship’s arrival and the threat the ghosts truly represents, he pulls together something clever to save the day.
In this respect, it’s pretty standard stuff, but writer Toby Whithouse (who has a decent, if not perfect, record of writing for Doctor Who) ties things up with aplomb, and again makes us care for the characters with nice backstory touches and good arcs that are satisfyingly resolved. O’Donnell in particular delights with her connections with UNIT and her knowledge of the Doctor’s personal history on Earth, but especially with her utter delight in travelling on board the TARDIS. It’s a shame that she ends up being killed, but I’m grateful that Whithouse didn’t come up with a convenient way to un-kill the ghosts. That gives Before the Flood a decent bittersweet edge that is all the more satisfying than a consequence-free happy ending.
Again, it’s not perfect. O’Donnell comes into her own so suddenly in Before the Flood that it’s hard to recall who she was in Under the Lake. And, really, do people still think it’s a good idea to split up in a base under siege? Twice? C’mon! Though I confess I did love Clara’s sudden realization of the fruitlessness of shouting for Cass once they’re separated. I also love how Cass gets herself out of her scrape, although the scene, while nicely tense, is ultimately pointless in the narrative.
And why was the soon-to-be-flooded town so conveniently abandoned? It’s not because the town was planned to be flooded. You would have thought that if UNIT was on the ball in 1980, they’d be coming in guns blazing as soon as they sensed the spaceship landing. Fortunately, that oversight is only really discovered after the show is over and we’ve had the chance to think.
Overall, I’m enjoying this season more than I’m enjoying the season previous, and I’m a little hard-pressed as to why. This time last year, we were up to Listen, which I still count as among Steven Moffat’s best work. We’d had Deep Breath, which I’d happily watch all over again, and the strong Into the Dalek and the perfectly serviceable Robot of Sherwood. Is my perception of the early eighth season tempered by my distaste of the Clara/Doctor relationship crash in last year’s Kill the Moon and Mummy on the Orient Express?
Perhaps. That seems to be the thing that’s fixed here. Clara and the Doctor are now far more in tune with each other. There’s none of the romantic mooning that we saw in season seven, or the needless antagonism of season eight. They’re partners, now. Maybe not equal partners, but each knows where they stand with the other and, more importantly, they’re fundamentally okay with that. And that makes me okay with it.
So, next week, we have robots and vikings, and a guest appearance by a Game of Thrones star that a lot of people are anticipating. Given the titles (The Girl Who Died and The Woman Who Lived), it seems the two-parter will be centred around her. Count me interested. I like the new format, and I like how the series is developing so far. For me, it’s a good time to be a Doctor Who fan.