Sunday, 11 October 2015

Review: Before the Flood

This review contains spoilers for the episode.

Often, Doctor Who uses two-part stories almost as if they were a springboard, bouncing off in a new direction halfway through. Think back to Dark Water and Death in Heaven, the two-part finale to last year’s series. The transition from one episode to the next brought with it a significant change in tone and pace – it was the same story and yet it was something very different. That more or less sums up Before the Flood, the latest episode of the 2015 series and the second part of a story which began a week earlier in Under the Lake. Whereas the first episode was a claustrophobic tale of an underwater base under siege from – seemingly – the walking dead, this week saw a trip in the TARDIS to a rather different setting. Oh – except it’s actually the same place and the whole “ghosts” thing hasn’t happened yet. Time travel, it’s complicated.

But before all that, in a pre-titles scene which is striking to say the least, the Doctor doesn’t break the fourth wall so much as shatter it into a thousand pieces, apparently talking directly to the viewer as he muses over the bootstrap paradox – if a time-traveller went back in time and provided Beethoven with the sheet music to his most famous works, who actually wrote the music in the first place? Paradoxes have been a key ingredient of many a Who script, not least in Steven Moffat’s time as showrunner, but it’s rather refreshing to see this particular concept addressed in such an on-the-nose fashion, giving it some impetus rather than treating it almost as if it were part of the wallpaper. The Doctor’s guitar is back too, and after proving so divisive among fans in the wake of the series opener, this scene probably won’t turn out all that differently. In fact, the pre-titles sequence as a whole is very much like a healthy dollop of Marmite. There probably won’t be a great deal of middle ground here – people are going to love it or hate it. (And in case you missed it, go back and take a look at the manufacturer of the amp…)

Before picking up the story from the end of the previous episode, Before the Flood has one more trick up its sleeve.  In an unusual move which is virtually unheard of for Doctor Who, the opening theme music is given an electric guitar makeover to tie in with the opening scene. An arrangement of the theme which is overtly intended as a one-off is rare enough in itself (the only precedent I can think of is the credits of the fiftieth anniversary special The Day of the Doctor), but to tie it in so closely with the narrative must be uncharted territory for the TV show. And do you know what? It actually works. It may only have been intended as a bit of fun, a joke even, but this rendition of the music has a sense of oomph – a kick to it – which is absent from the usual arrangement. With some tweaking, I honestly wouldn’t complain if it was brought back full-time.

From here onwards the story picks up exactly where it left off last week – but considering that it left off with the Doctor, O’Donnell (Morven Christie) and Bennett (Arsher Ali) taking a trip back in time in the TARDIS, that doesn’t necessarily mean very much! This is why the connection between the two parts of the story is so fascinating; Before the Flood very much inhabits the same world as Under the Lake, and yet it often feels like it exists outside of it. The Doctor has journeyed back to a time (1980, to be precise) before the army base flooded, in an effort to find some answers to the horrors unfolding in 2119. Despite the broader setting, one quality in particular from the first episode remains: this is still very much a character-driven piece. It doesn’t take long for the story to remind us all too vividly of our own mortality, as O’Donnell meets her death at the hands of the Fisher King (more on that in a moment). This sets up a fascinating and surprisingly dark scene in which Bennett gives the Doctor a few home truths. The Doctor is prepared to attempt to save Clara, but it appears he won’t do the same for anyone else. This brilliantly-played scene highlights the flaws of our hero, but sometimes we need moments like this to remind us that whatever he may look like on the outside, the Doctor is quite literally inhuman. Later, the episode goes a step further. The Doctor’s attempt to leave the village fails, as the TARDIS shunts itself further back in time by thirty minutes, locking the Doctor within his own timestream – and so our final glimpse of the “real” O’Donnell is a tragic shot of her standing on the doorstep of her own demise. Thus far in Peter Capaldi’s tenure as the Doctor, we have seen stories which often haven’t been afraid to slow things down a bit, with longer and more thoughtful scenes. We can expect this to be emphasised this year due to the two-part format employed by a majority of the stories, and that is evidenced here. With longer for the audience to become emotionally invested in the characters, scenes like this hit home that much harder.

But the standout scene of the episode has to be the incredibly tense sequence of Cass (a deaf character played superbly by Sophie Stone) being stalked along a corridor by the axe-wielding ghost of Moran (Colin McFarlane). Directorially, this scene does a superb job of conveying the world through Cass’ ears, building up to an inspired conclusion. Indeed, the story must be lauded for its inclusion of a deaf character in such a strong role, actively serving the narrative.

Praise must also go to the cinematography and grading, which is simply gorgeous. The desolate army base may not be the most visually appealing place in the universe, but it is given a sense of stark immediacy by how cold it looks. It feels as though you could almost reach out and touch it. Something which may have looked relatively simple on paper is made surprisingly evocative upon reaching the screen, and another nice touch is that the colour tones of the video grading are consistent with those of the base in 2119 – for all the apparent differences, there is an almost subliminal sense of continuity as we jump from one time to another. After all, it’s really the same place.

In this episode we finally meet the real villain of the piece, the Fisher King (its costume inhabited by Neil Fingleton, complete with the enthralling voice of Peter Serafinowicz and roars provided by Slipknot vocalist Corey Taylor). One of the greatest strengths of the episode is the gradual build-up to the full reveal of this nightmarish creature. To begin with, the Fisher King is kept well and truly out of view, nothing more than a shadow. But over time and as more scenes elapse, we start to see more until – eventually – the monster steps out of the shadows and into clear view. It’s a perfectly executed reveal, and it works not because of the moment itself but because of the scenes leading up to it. This is proper, quintessential Doctor Who. As it turns out, the Fisher King is a very effective product of design and costuming, and it looks like a significant amount of work went into realising it. The costume only falls down slightly during the scenes set outside in broad daylight. Fundamentally the alien still looks fantastic, but when it’s stomping up to the spaceship the top section of its head wobbles rather noticeably. Additionally, one can’t help but feel that the Fisher King is ultimately underused. It is dispensed with a little too easily – and why exactly does it just walk away from the Doctor rather than killing him, when the Time Lord claims to have thwarted the Fisher King’s plan?

With so many unanswered questions raised by the first part of the story, Before the Flood had its work cut out. But thankfully, the episode doesn’t neglect to fill in all the blanks. It has to be said, though, that after such an elegant aura of mystery in Under the Lake, some of the resolutions to the various dangling plot threads here feel slightly cold and dry. It just about works, but it isn’t always as satisfying as it might have been. Perhaps the ghostly themes of the story could never have gelled perfectly with the rational parameters of the Doctor Who universe. It was always obvious that they couldn’t really have been ghosts – there had to be something else going on – but on maiden viewing there is the sense that something evaporates to some extent once the real answer emerges. Sometimes the question can’t help but be more captivating than the answer.

But overall, Before the Flood is a very enjoyable 45 minutes of television. Admittedly, the first episode of the story, while having some very clear strong points, wasn’t entirely my cup of tea – the claustrophobic “base under siege” style of storytelling isn’t always my sort of thing. But I had the sense from the trailer that this week’s episode might prove to be more down my street and happily, I was right. Heading outdoors prior to the base flooding really helped as a hook into the story as a whole, and this retroactively lifted the first episode in my estimation too. The provocative pre-titles scene will almost certainly prove controversial, but I can only speak for myself and I enjoyed it immensely. In an episode which was carried so heavily by its characters, it’s gratifying that the performances of the cast are all top-notch. So far, two stories and four episodes into this series, there is no clear story arc at play – there have certainly been hints dropped which no doubt will become important, but for now it’s enjoyable to see a run of stories which consists simply of the Doctor and Clara in the TARDIS having adventures. But as we know, that’s not going to last too much longer…

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