Doctor Who broke the fourth dimension 52 years ago and it’s incredible it’s taken that time to extensively break the fourth wall too. While last year’s ‘Listen’ likewise flirted with the idea of The Doctor speaking to the audience (he was more speaking to himself, really), ‘Before the Flood’ was an innovative joy in this respects.
The single-sequence, speculative musings of the twelfth Doctor are a conversation with the audience. The line about Google was particularly impish (I imagine ‘boot strap paradox’ peaked as a search item like never before). Moments of meta awareness by referencing ‘Doctor who?’ or those absurd Doctor costumes with question marks on them from yesteryear was probably as close as we’ve ever come to anything like this before. It was all brilliantly rounded off with the rocktastic opening credits which spiced up the turgid, squealing sound of the Capaldi-era (hopefully they’ll keep the electric guitar).
Last week I made the case that Toby Whithouse is the natural successor to Stephen Moffat and that his work in this two-parter is a long CV. While much of this second episode dabbles in meritocracy, both parts have been energised by realism and brutally, coupled with the narrative originality just described, that hasn’t been seen in a while.
The Fisher King genuinely looks like he’s about the leave Capaldi with gaping wounds and the dilapidated faux-Russian town was a perfect backdrop for the story. Indeed, there was something very reminiscent of the First Doctor story ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’ when they were sneaking around rubble and ruin and hiding from a menacing enemy.
This week Capaldi’s Doctor is yet again dressed like he’s out on the piss. Compared to his immaculate presentation last season, his sartorial choice this year is curious, but Whithouse provides a good explanation: when musing on his death, the Doctor casually says that ‘this regeneration is a bit of a clerical error anyway.’ Never mind the opening sequence, this is the best aside to the audience in the whole episode. This Doctor doesn’t think he should be; he’s genuinely surprised to be alive and is wandering the universe with a shrug of the shoulders.
The mistake the show made last year was they went down the ‘am I a good man?’ route and should have done the ‘do I exist, do I have a right to exist, am I a proper Doctor, not many Timelords live this long’ line of questioning. It’s touched on here, Twelve is lackadaisical and cavalier not because he’s bad but because he doesn’t know what to do. He just wanders about. It will be interesting to see if this theme is revisited when Jenna Coleman leaves.
Of the episode itself, it is clever in a way that split time-travel episodes normally are (think Blink), but it never reaches the scare factor nuance of last week’s groundwork. It feels more like a rushed epilogue than an episode in itself, and the ending was clichéd. As soon as the Doctor went to the past it was obvious he was going to escape by the alien’s cryro-pod. The about to die-fixed point in time saga has been done to death before, and the set-up felt like a copycat of ‘The Impossible Astronaut’ premise. The hologram reveal for Capaldi’s ghost was ripped from the finale of season 6 when the Eleventh Doctor used a robot duplicate to cheat the inevitability of his demise.
We didn’t get as much of our alien guests as you might have expected this week. For such a menacing ghost, Prentis, played by Paul Kaye, was lackluster and only served as a passing nod to the Tivoli who first debuted in Whithouse’s 2011 ‘The God Complex’. The Fisher King was scary, but needed more screen time (I’m happy to bet we’ve not seen the last of him). If there’s a downside the monster looked more rubbery than normal for an alien on Doctor Who (a reminder that ideas and execution sometimes don’t go hand in hand on the show). That said, how often do you get a monster voiced by Darth Maul (Peter Serafinowicz) and Slipknot (Corey Taylor)?
There’s a recurrent Gallifrey theme throughout this season and it shows no sign of ending. The Fisher King’s background and his knowledge of the Timelords must surely be more than a nod, and certainly O’Donnell’s reference to the ‘Minister of War’ and Harold Saxon (The Master) heralds the hope that we see this develop into an epic showdown with the Doctor’s own warlike people (saved, but still millitarised and probably pissed with him). You get the impression the reference to Rose, Martha and Amy was a poor attempt hide this hint in amongst casual Doctor Who references.
All in all, this was a solid outing, if one that sits in thematic imbalance with the horror tones of last week. Whithouse will hopefully return as soon as possible to continue showcasing his potential and certainly there is great hope that when he reaches it, the results will be spectacular.