‘Before the Flood’, written by Toby Whithouse, finds the action taking place in two different time zones. In 2119 Clara is with the few remaining survivors, outnumbered by the ghosts (including the Doctors). In the hanger the suspension chamber is about to open. Meanwhile in 1980 the Doctor encounters the true villain behind the events, the Fisher King. Can he stop him even if it means violating the laws of time?
This is an extremely fast paced story that uses time travel in a interesting and well-executed way. Revolving around ghosts, morality and an alien undertaker this is a plot about the will to survive. This two part story set a high standard for the rest of the series.
Spoilers From Here On In!
Now that both parts of this story have aired the viewer now has a better chance of judging the plot as a whole. The cliff hanger from last week sets the tone. It presents an unavoidable fact, that the Doctor must die. The TARDIS can take him back in time but he can’t change things, not even the order in which victims die.
This taps into one of the more horrible ideas about time travel. Foreknowledge can be a curse. While being able to go anywhere and anywhen it robs you of freewill. Things become predestined to happen. In some cases time travel actually seems to make things happen.
The episode opens with the Doctor apparently breaking the 4th wall by talking directly to the viewer (although this later turns out to be the Time Lord talking to Clara). He explains the concept of the bootstrap paradox, in this case finding out that Beethoven didn’t exist so the time traveller who has come to see him has to become him. This presents the problem of where did the music come from if he wrote it only because he heard it in his past.
These paradoxes are common within time travel fiction. The Doctor’s example is very similar to ‘Behold the Man’ by Michael Moorcock where a time traveller visits Jesus Christ only to have to become him. ‘Terminator’ has Kyle Reese sent back in time by John Connor only for Kyle to impregnate John’s mother, creating the very person who will send him back in time.
Doctor Who has also dealt with predestination, such as the information revealed in the Melody Malone book in ‘Angels Take Manhattan’, the dvd easter eggs in ‘Blink’ and the Doctor’s knowledge of how to save the TARDIS in ‘Time Crash’. The Doctor Who book ‘Happy Endings’ even has the very scenario the Doctor described, with a song writer copying the lyrics of his own albums from the future and pondering where the words actually come from in this closed loop.
While some might dislike this form of exposition (particularly as it gives away the conclusion of the story) it is a neat way to get those not versed in time travel up to speed. It also leads into a nice rocking version of the opening titles.
Transitioning to the 1980s, where the village is mocked up to lock like a Russia for military training purposes, is a great idea. It really opens up the story, the outside setting a breath of fresh air compared to the claustrophobic setting of the underwater base. Director Daniel O’Hara’s use of long shots makes the most in this change of setting.
It is here that O’Donnell, Bennet and the Doctor encounter the alien undertaker Prentis, before his demise. Paul Kaye gets a lot more to do here, putting a great performance in even under the layers of makeup and prosthetics. It is from him that we learn his ship is actually a hearse, transporting the supposedly dead body of his worlds previous oppressor, the Fisher King.
Realising that the simple Tivolian doesn’t have the technology to create the ghosts the time travellers return to the TARDIS and communicate with Clara. This nicely mashes the two time zones together as the Doctor is able to converse with his own ghosts (little surprise he is a big fan of himself). Doctor Who is one of the few shows where this bizarre situation could happen.
This is where the predestination comes into the foreground. The Doctor knows he’ll die, knows the order in which the others will also die and even knows that he’ll rip his jacket before his demise. From this point forward everything creeps towards the inevitable.
Returning to the town the time travellers find Prentis has been slain and the cryptic runes are now present in the hearse. The Fisher King however is nowhere to be found. Their attempts to get back to the TARDIS is extremely scary, as they are attempting to outrun their own fate.
Continuing the comparisons with ‘The God Complex’ the Fisher King is a lumbering monster heralded by his own brutish roars. The demise of O’Donnell, who’s enthusiasm for the Doctor marked as a potential companion, is particularly heartbreaking. The list had cursed her and no amount of hiding amongst the mannequin inhabited scenes of domestication would save her.
Bennet’s quiet anger at the Doctor is well played following her death scene. While the Doctor tried to get her to stay in the TARDIS because he secretly knew she’d die he didn’t try very hard. The only time that he does seem to pull out the stops is when his or his companions lives are at stake. Everyone else is expendable.
This is a good examination of the Doctor through the eyes of an outsider. It is hard to disagree with Bennet’s assessment, although by the end of the story he has found some peace with what happened.
Attempting to avert any further deaths the Doctor and Bennet attempt to return to the base, only to find themselves 30 minutes in their past. Bennet is forced to see O’Donnell alive again, with the Doctor having to prevent him from saving her. Cleverly the disturbance they cause is noticeable earlier in the episode when they initially meet Prentis.
Having ripped his jacket, taking him one more step towards his death, the Doctor confronts the Fisher King head on. The hulking design of the Fisher King is well done. Vaguely aquatic and menacing this coupled with some good voice work from Peter Serafinowicz.
The Fisher King knows a lot about Time Lords and gives the impression of being a formidable foe. It is therefore a shame that he isn’t in much of this two part story. The Doctor soon despatches him by using a power cell from the spaceship to blow the dam, flooding the area. Safe in the TARDIS Bennet is returned to the underwater base in the future.
Back on the base the survivors have been avoiding the ghosts freed by the Doctor’s spectre while the suspension chamber counts down to opening up. As the only one not to see the runes (and therefore not a candidate to be turned into a transmitter) Lunn attempts to retrieve Clara’s phone, their lifeline to the Doctor.
Cass makes the comparison between the Doctor and Clara, highlighting that the school teacher finds it very easy to get people to risk their lives for her. Going after Cass she is stalked by Moran’s axe wielding ghost. This scene heightens the drama by showing her deaf perspective. Only when she touches the floor does she pick up the vibrations of the axe dragging on the ground, giving her a chance to escape.
When the chamber opens it is revealed that it is the Doctor inside (and always has been). His ghosts is nothing more than a more sophisticated hologram that they used last episode, programmed with simple AI and linked with the bases wifi via the Sonic Glasses.
The remaining ghosts are lured into the faraday cage (where UNIT will dispose of them in space) and Bennet urges Lunn to confess his love for Cass while he still has the chance. It ties up the loose ends without taking away from the loss of those who died.
As they depart in the TARDIS the Doctor brings the discussion full circle, pointing out that much of what he did was based on information he himself provided via the time loop. While Clara is perplexed about how to answer the question of where the information originally came from the Doctor just shrugs. This is, after all, just one of the things with time travel.
‘Before the Flood’ isn’t without its problems. In addition to the minimal screen presence of the Fisher King his plan is difficult to follow. After faking his death he plans to create the ghosts to transmit his co-ordinates, waiting in suspended animation until his armada arrives and he can enslave the world.
The problem is that the co-ordinates are ‘the dark, the sword, the forsaken, the temple.’ Last episode the Doctor deciphered these words with the dark representing space and the sword referring to orion’s sword (with Earth at its tip.) The problem comes in the last two sections, with the forsaken referring to the town and the temple the church.
The Doctor only works this out because they happen to be near an abandoned town. Aliens coming to Earth aren’t necessarily going to make that connection as there must be plenty of abandoned places that also have a church. Providing exact co-ordinates might have been more helpful.
There is also the issue of how the ghosts would act as transmitters. Prentis and O’Donnell apparently haunted the lake from 1980 to 2119 without their message being received by others. The fact they remained there and later needed a submarine to take them to the surface indicates they are confined to the local area.
The Doctor believed that the ghosts wanted to reach the surface to turn others into ghosts to help transmit the message but their victims could only be those who had seen the runes in the ship. This would have limited, if not outright eliminated, the number of useful candidates.
How would the Fisher King’s people even receive the message? There is no indication that the ghosts are broadcasting their message. The best he could hope for is planet full of ghosts silently mouthing the vague directions. It was shown that the ghosts could operate electronic equipment so maybe they just needed to reach a broadcast tower but this is never discussed in the episode. Surely he would have been better served just stealing the hearse spaceship and joining up with armada rather than waiting for hundreds of years for them to find him.
There is also the question of why the Doctor’s hologram let the ghosts out of the faraday cage. This might have been in order to give him the impetus to return to the base to save her but the list of victims surely would have been enough. All he did was put those on the base in danger only to once again lure the ghosts back into the faraday cage.
It is also never explained why the Fisher King is called that. It appears to be a reference to Arthurian legend, a injured ruler who guards a holy grail, but there is very little similarity to the villain here. Presumably the TARDIS is translating his name but why choose that? Still, it did serve to remind me of ‘Battlefield’, another Doctor Who story involving a lake and events put in motion by the Doctor’s future self.
Luckily these problems pale in comparison to the acting talent in the story. Everyone puts in a good performance. For the episodes to work we have to care for the characters so it hurts when they are killed. They are fleshed out just enough that we know who everyone is and I wouldn’t mind seeing more of them in the future.
The only exception is Clara, although through no fault of Jenna Coleman. Her bravado and emotional manipulation is still present. Thankfully she is called on it by Cass, just as the Doctor’s callous attitude to the fate of others is brought up by Bennett. Clara still hasn’t learned her lesson from ‘Dark Water/Death In Heaven’, insisting that the Doctor break the laws of space and time for her benefit.
Overall ‘Under The Lake/Before the Flood’ is a well crafted two parter that shows why that formula worked so well for the classic series. It gives us longer to understand the characters and for the mystery to develop. Hopefully the number of two part episodes this series demonstrate that the show runners have realised this as well.