“Before the Flood” is the fourth episode of season nine. “Listen” was the fourth episode of season eight. Both episodes begin with the Doctor breaking the fourth wall. Coincidence? Such a gimmick shouldn’t work once, let alone twice, and yet here I found myself jumping around in my chair, punching the air with even more enthusiasm than last year. Much of it had to do with the return of the electric guitar and Beethoven’s Fifth. It was the sort of moment that as a fan you swear you’ve dreamed about at some point. Oh yes, can we please keep that version of the opening theme!?
Beyond the obvious flash, the sequence does something even more on-point, which is loosely outline how the episode is about to play out — perhaps an even more inspired flourish than a Ludwig Van–grinding Capaldi. Because going back in time and finding that you’re influencing events you’re already aware of in the future is such a time-travel staple, that by choreographing it ahead of time, instead of moaning about it when it happens (which we all might well have done), we’re braced and expecting it. The episode knows we might balk at the sci-fi trope, so it tells us it’s around the corner, so we can concentrate on all the great character work the episode has to offer. Some might call foul; I call self-aware, and at this point in the show’s history, there’s nothing at all wrong with providing some context well ahead of time. It made me love this episode all the more.
I was pretty dismissive of last week’s Scooby shenanigans, and “Before the Flood” puts me in an awkward position, because without the set-up of “Under the Lake,” this installment would have been so much less. The supporting guest cast was rich here, which would’ve been tougher to achieve in 45 minutes. The internet went bonkers for Sophie Stone’s Cass throughout the week, and rightfully so given the strength of this hearing-impaired character (hopefully somebody somewhere sat Marlee Matlin down and said “This you have got to see!”). But this week we dove deeper into Lunn (Zaqi Ismail), O’Donnell (Morven Christie), and Bennett (Arsher Ali) as well. It turns out there was some seriously unrequited love going on among these four folks.
While “Flood” delivers an effusively romantic ending for Cass and Lunn, things are not so sweet for the other potential couple, as O’Donnell’s death precludes any relationship with Bennett from developing. Or perhaps it was Bennett’s cowardice that kept it from ever going there. He, sadly, can never know. The death of O’Donnell hits him hard, and it’s entirely possible that without that loss, Cass and Lunn would never have opened up to one another. People often take potshots at Doctor Who by calling into question the need for its “soap opera” elements. This must be the sort of material they’re referring to, yet I simply cannot fathom the show not surprising us in these little ways at this point. Moments such as this are what keep the chaotic darkness of the series grounded in a hopeful reality that we should all be able to understand.
Indeed, if I was guilty of anything in last week’s recap, it was selling Toby Whithouse short. He’s made a career out of building intimate character stories within fantastic situations. In the same way that Being Human wasn’t really about being a vampire, or a werewolf, or a ghost, this story is less about time travel, spirits, and the hulking alien Fisher King than it is about disconnects (in literal, metaphorical, and emotional variations) among pairs of people — the Doctor and Clara included — and the pairs making their ways back to one another against extraordinary circumstances, or in the case of Bennett and O’Donnell, tragically failing to do so.
That said, the supernatural/alien elements of the tale settled in nicely here, as there was far less running, and more stalking and/or confrontation. I was even willing to buy into the ghost angle at this point, especially after the Doctor accuses the villain of bending “the rules of life and death.” Particularly strong was the lumbering ghost of Moran, dragging an axe down a corridor behind the deaf Cass. The Fisher King himself was a solid, formidable creation, brought to life by numerous artists, including Peter Serafinowicz (among his many credits are the guttural intonations of Darth Maul), Slipknot’s Corey Taylor, who was responsible for the creature’s roars, and Neil Fingleton, who is, according to Wiki, “among the tallest 25 men in the world”! On the topic of Serafinowicz, can we please see him in an onscreen Who role someday? (Same goes for previous Who voice-over talents Ian McKellen, Michael Sheen, and Brian Cox.)
As a recapper, sometimes you simply get it wrong. Since there wasn’t a massive outcry in the comments section, presumably others felt underwhelmed by last week as well. Hopefully you were jazzed about the second half, too, and perhaps it also made you reconsider your feelings about part one. To be fair, we’ve all been weaned on a steady diet of Steven Moffat–penned two-parters in recent years. Moffat does two-parters a little differently than most writers. While the parts are connected via plot and characters, his halves tend to work with different themes and ideas, so that they’re each their own distinct thing. Whithouse here penned a far more traditional 90 minutes, two parts that need one another to showcase the bigger picture. “Under the Lake” and “Before the Flood” combined is precisely the sort of 90-minute tale fans are always clamoring for. Between Moffat’s science-fiction double-feature opener, and this character-driven spooktacular from Whithouse, season nine is already in tremendous shape.
Odds and ends
- Ace bits: “This regeneration — it’s a bit of a clerical error, anyway”; Paul Kaye’s undertaker Prentis was a hoot — Whithouse introduced the Tivolians in season six’s “The God Complex”; “Don’t kiss me! Morning breath”; the Doctor and Clara were finally, as a duo, back where they need to be.
- Naff bits: Would the Doctor’s hologram really be able to access the Drum’s computers?; symbolism be damned, it was tough to swallow the name of the alien being the same as one of Earth’s classic legends; bafflingly, the Doctor at first thinks Prentis is behind it all.
- In “Under the Lake,” O’Donnell had some curious dialogue which hinted that she was aware of the Doctor. She was also embarrassingly pleased when he praised her skills. Here it’s revealed she knows enough about him to possibly qualify as a biographer, with knowledge of Rose, Martha, and Amy that she gained from a background in military intelligence. She also references Harold Saxon, the coda of “Kill the Moon,” and someone called the Minister of War. Amusingly, she holds her squee over the dimensionally transcendental TARDIS until the Doctor’s well out of earshot.
- The first instance of Doctor Who breaking the fourth wall was all the way back in the 1965 William Hartnell episode “The Feast of Steven,” where the Doctor turned to the camera and wished the audience a happy Christmas.
- Check out this 26-minute interview with Capaldi for the Ora TV series Larry King Now! Larry freaking King! Watch him interrupt an utterly brilliant actor! Marvel at his feigned interest in some things Who! See him fail to recognize Capaldi’s Scottishness! They don’t make ‘em like King anymore. I’m poking some fun, of course. It’s actually a great interview covering a range of topics, including politics, the BBC, Peter’s first kiss, and Maisie Williams.
- Speaking of vids, fellow Clara devotees, the BBC made this one just for you.
- Lastly, a few of you may know that I’m not a New Yorker, but reside in San Antonio, Texas. Our extraordinary local fan club, Doctor Who Fans Unite, is participating in a walk on November 14 to raise awareness for epilepsy. This is a deeply personal issue for me, as my stepson was diagnosed with epilepsy three years ago at the age of 19, and a horrific period followed as he struggled to get it under control. Further, it became apparent how in-the-dark society really is about epilepsy (and until it happened to us, I was equally clueless). It’s not an affliction people have much interest in or sympathy for, and yet epilepsy or some type of seizure disorder affects nearly 5.1 million adults and children in the United States. If by some chance you’re in South Texas, please join us for the walk. If you can donate even a tiny amount to the cause, wonderful; it will go to the Epilepsy Foundation Central & South Texas. If you can’t, thank you for helping me make the tiniest bit of difference by reading this far.