Friday, 9 October 2015

Before The Flood – Tony’s Spoiler-Free Review

 

The start of Before The Flood, episode 2 of Toby Whithouse’s Series 9 ghost story, is a radical change of pace. We know there are two people in the Tardis with him – the gung-ho Doctor fan, O’Donnell, who’s basically a much cooler Osgood, and Bennett, the crew member who perhaps made the least impact on us in episode 1. But the pre-credit sequence plays out very much like that of Listen, like the Doctor directly addressing us, almost breaking the fourth wall. It’s pretty cool, and will send Whovians scurrying to Google a particular kind of temporal paradox, and leads into an innovation that oh please, all the gods and demons of TV, should really stay in place going forward. It’s not going to – that much is evident by the end of this episode - but there’s something unique about the first five minutes of this episode that feels so right that I for one went back and played it three times before I even got beyond the credits.

Once you get beyond them, the tone takes a turn for the remarkable, not to say the timey-wimey – if Under The Lake had the oppressive, clammy breathlessness of a base under siege story, the Doctor, O’Donnell and Bennet having escaped the base lets breaths of fresh air into proceedings, which Whithouse strives to take away again by having their own situation develop into something complex and nasty, with hints of the grimness of Father’s Day, and the Tardis teaching the Doctor a lesson good and proper. In The Rings of Akhaten, the Eleventh Doctor added to his usual creed the idea that ‘We don’t just walk away’ and here, when the Doctor seems desperate enough to do just that, the Tardis forces him to be the kind of man he wants to be.

Desperate?

If you were a dead man walking with a time machine, what would you do? Run away? Save your best friend from the fate you accept for yourself?

Exactly.

The thing about Toby Whithouse’s writing is that while he sets up plenty of questions, you can be confident he will answer them all – except those that are set up specifically as curiosity-hooks to drag you forward into the series. And in this second part, that’s exactly what we get – answers to all the nagging questions from Under The Lake, along with a new villain who’s both formidable to look at, has the kind of dark brown eloquence in its voice you’d expect when you hire Peter Serafinowicz (already, among so much else, the voice of Darth Maul), but also, this being a Whithouse story, a line in argument that can stand up to the Doctor’s moral position. The Big Bad here essentially hears the Doctor out, and says ‘Yeah? You and whose army, old man.’ There’s talk of an armada, and as is often the case with Whithouse villains, any fan brain worth its lumpy greyness will go into overdrive thinking about them – as we did with the Krillitanes, who were given an intriguing backstory, as we did with the Saturnynes and their doomed planet, and as we did with the Minotaur, the cousin of the Nimon, the villain here pulls the essential trick of great Doctor Who monsters, making us want to know more and see more and find worlds where other stories could play out with them in. 

Meanwhile, trapped in The Drum, there’s a little bit of Clara Doctoring, as Sophie Stone’s Cass becomes Clara’a companion in some wandering off and running about, giving a moment of levity even in the tension as Clara gets a taste of her own medicine.

The solution to the story, when it comes, is a relatively simple bit of Tom Bakerish business – another iteration of the vibe from Under The Lake: Classic Who with a New Who feel. And some of the theories floating around the internet will inevitably be proven right – some things you think are happening are actually happening.

Where Under The Lake built pressure and tension till it became something akin to The Poseidon Adventure, and only a pop back in time would stand as a solution to it all, Before The Flood unravels the strands of the tension, then pulls them both tight, allowing us to still worry about the people trapped in The Drum, while also developing the story of the escapees into something complex and dangerous. And where Steven Moffat is the renowned king of the Diminishing Impact of Character Death, bringing people back to life time and time again, Whithouse never really sullies the memories of his characters that way – in School Reunion, in Vampires of Venice, especially in The God Complex and now here, if you’re actually, really dead, you stay dead, meaning there’s a heavyweight impact to his storytelling, and that the danger of death is something to be genuinely feared in a Whithouse script.

Before The Lake answers all but two vital questions. The first refers to a spoilerific line of dialogue, which practically screams at some degree of future story or story arc. The second concerns the reason Who-fans will be running to Google on Saturday night, and the impact of the question ‘Who composed Beethoven’s Fifth?’ That has a surprising amount to do with the solution of this episode’s issues, but it leaves a note of questioning darkness hanging in the air at the end of the episode. If not Beethoven, then who?

The search for a series arc starts now.

 
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