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Monday, 6 June 2016

Doctor Who 9-04: Before the Flood

Episode:818|Serial:255|Writer:Toby Whithouse|Air Date:10-Oct-2015

This week on Sci-Fi Adventures I'm watching the second half of the second story of Peter Capaldi's second year as the 12th Doctor, finishing what was started with Under the Lake.

The last episode introduced a lot of weirdness and any explanations given for it were fairly terrible, so I'm hoping this one's going to reveal what's really going on in a satisfying and intelligent way. Because I like to set myself up for disappointment.

As usual there will be SPOILERS for everything that comes before and nothing that comes after. Relative to the episodes I mean, not the timeline. Basically I might spoil something that happened in a David Tennant episode but nothing about The Girl Who Died onwards.



Previously on Doctor Who:

The Doctor and Clara found themselves on a mining base under a lake in Scotland, where the surviving staff have been threatened by ghosts ever since they found a mysterious spaceship in the flooded town nearby. By ripping off Alien 3 they managed to get the ghosts locked away in a Faraday cage and discovered that they're silently chanting a phrase to lead aliens to the sealed hibernation pod pictured above. But all the ghostly hijinks caused a computer error which flooded the base, leaving Clara trapped with half the crew and the Doctor trapped with his TARDIS.

So the Doctor decided to go back in time Before the Flood to find out how the spaceship got there, which may have been a bad move as Clara discovers his ghost hanging around outside the window.

The episode begins with a tour of Peter Capaldi’s TARDIS set as he tells a story of a time traveller who once went to visit his idol Ludwig Von Beethoven. Only when he got to Vienna he learned that the composer wasn’t there, in fact he’d never been born. So the time traveller, being a fan, published the works of Beethoven himself from his own collection and created him.

He explains that this is called the bootstrap paradox and says we can Google it. You know, I think he’s actually talking to us here, breaking the fourth wall. Which is ironic as the control room doesn't even have a fourth wall, it's a circle. Plus it's annoying and he should stop it.

It's downright weird that a 50 year old time travel show has chosen this moment to educate viewers about causal loops. Especially seeing as current producer Steven Moffat throws one into every second episode he writes, Blink being perhaps the most famous of them. Even Christopher Eccleston's season 1 had a pretty obvious one, with the words "Bad Wolf" coming from nowhere.

Uh... why does he have a guitar in his hands? Oh damn, he’s actually playing along with the title music!

Yep, that definitely sounds like someone playing chords over the top of the Doctor Who theme. Here, have a YouTube link so you can listen for yourself.

They should've put the effort in and done a full metal cover, with Beethoven-style orchestral backing. And then used that for the rest of Capaldi's run.

Anyway the actual story part of the episode begins in Soviet Scotland, where the Doctor was heading at the end of the last episode. Actually this is just one of those fake Cold War towns that's dressed up to look like an enemy country for the purposes of training. Which is good because it means there's no civilians around to worry about.

The Doctor has taken Bennett and O'Donnell to regular normal Scotland, 139 years in their past (and 36 years in ours) to investigate the area around their underwater mining base before that area becomes underwater. O'Donnell points out that this is pre-Harold Saxon (series 3 continuity drop), pre-Kill the Moon (shitty continuity drop) and pre-Minister of War. That last one's as new to the Doctor as it is to me, so that may well be the first mention of series 9's big bad.

They soon find the alien ship that caused all their problems in the first place, with suspended animation pod present, power cells intact and nothing etched into the wall. Plus there's a giant dead alien wrapped up in the back.

Its human-sized alien pilot on the other hand is still very much alive at this point and is eager to hand each of them his grubby looking card.

Little Star Wars joke for you at the bottom there. Wait, so the reason he's dressed like a human undertaker is because... he's an alien undertaker? What?

It turns out that the ship is basically a space hearse, carrying the body of the warlord who oppressed his world for 10 years: the Fisher King. The alien funeral director is very fond of being oppressed though and even has a selection of items in his ship in case the Doctor wants to oppress him. Uh, okay then...

The Doctor’s more interested getting his hands on the tool he uses to enslave people’s souls and transform them into ghostly transmitters, so he can take the batteries out of it, but Prentis explains he has nothing like that. Well duh, he was the first of the enslaved ghosts!

“Back to the TARDIS” says the Doctor.

Meanwhile, in the future, Clara, Cass and Lunn are still stuck inside the underwater base being menaced by ghosts. Well just the one ghost right now, the others are still locked inside a Faraday cage, but this ghost is the Doctor and that’s a bad sign.

Right now though he’s just hanging around outside the window in the water, silently mouthing words.

Cass is deaf, but she’s able to read the Ghost Doctor’s lips and tell that he’s saying something different from the other ghosts. “Moran, Pritchard, Prentis, O’Donnell, Clara, Doctor, Bennett, Cass.”
Seeing as Moran was the first person who died and Pritchard was the second, that’s a very bad sign. Good news for Lunn though!

Though Prentis is the alien undertaker and he was long dead when they got here, so I’m not sure what’s going on with that order. Maybe it's from ghost Doctor's relative timeline... though in that case how can Clara die first when she's in the future? Is it the episode's relative timeline?

The Doctor picks that moment to phone up from the past and gets the bad news from Clara. He can’t change history to save himself though as the consequences to time could be disastrous. But Clara’s already changed time to save him over a dozen times in at least three separate episodes so she doesn’t much care about his rules. She loves her life of running around and having sci-fi adventures and she can’t do that if she’s stuck in an underwater base and he’s a ghost slave.

It’s funny, as he even refers to his current regeneration as being a "clerical error" during the conversation so he acknowledges that time has been changed to save him.

Over at the space hearse, Prentis is still screwing around without any apparent goal in mind, when he notices that his corpse has gone for a walk and it has left a message for him etched into the side of the ship!

Also it kills him.

Back in the future, the ghost problem has suddenly gotten a lot worse, as Ghost Doctor just walked inside from the ocean and unlocked the Faraday cage, letting the other ghosts out! He’s also changed his silent message to “The chamber will open tonight,” probably referring to the sealed suspended animation pod they recovered.

Still, they work out that if the ghosts are out of the cage, then they can go hide in it themselves. Though the phone has to stay outside or else the signal would be cut off. But... it's a time phone connected to an antenna currently sitting in a time before the Faraday cage was built, so how can it be cut off? Anyway they leave it outside the door so they can keep an eye on it and wait for the Doctor's call.

Over in the past, the Doctor and the others decide to go outside to do something clever, but discover Prentis’s dead body and run back to the TARDIS instead.

O’Donnell decides it’d be a good idea to split up though and ends up getting blasted to death by the actually not dead Fisher King. That really sucks, I liked O'Donnell! Bennett's a little pissed off by this as well, seeing as he secretly loved her, and he accuses the Doctor of letting her die to test a theory. She was next in the list of names you see and this seems to indicate that the list really is the order they'll die in.

The Doctor had told her to stay in the TARDIS though, and he sensibly points out that they didn't see her ghost haunting the underwater base. But right on cue she appears in the future to steal Clara’s phone from where she left it outside the Faraday cage. I guess this explains how the ghosts were able to hack the computers and flood the base last episode while they were trapped: ghost O'Donnell was secretly outside the whole time giving them support. Weirdly though we've got two dead people here and still no ghosts in the past. It's giving me hope there's a good explanation coming for what's causing them.

Anyway, the Doctor decides to go back to the TARDIS! He’s going to change history and cheat death by travelling to the future and saving Clara and the others instead of dying here.

The TARDIS doesn’t play along though, putting the Doctor right back where he started, at the same time where he started. Though they have moved a few dozen meters and half an hour backwards. So now there’s two of him here and he can’t interact with his other self or save Prentis or O’Donnell. Funny how he was all gung-ho about changing history a second ago and now he’s determined not to.

The Doctor eventually has to wrestle Bennett to the ground to stop him from meddling with history, tearing his clothes in the process. So now he's got the same tear in his jacket that Ghost Doctor has had from the start. Everything’s playing out exactly as it did.

So now the Doctor has no choice, he has to face the Fisher King alone, and Bennett has to go back… to the TARDIS! But first he has to wait for him to chase them and kill O’Donnell I guess, can't interrupt that.

In the future, Clara decides to send Lunn out to get the phone back, as the ghosts only kill people who’ve seen the writing etched into the ship and he hasn't. At least that's what she hopes.

It’s getting pretty crowded in the hallways these days, but the ghosts leave Lunn alone and he’s soon able to find Clara’s phone in the mess hall.

Then they lock him in there! They may be shambling spectres but they’re not dumb.

Clara and Cass bravely go out to help him, but are almost immediately separated to add some tension. Clara’s got no interest in wandering through the dark base alone and can’t help quietly calling out for Cass, but soon catches on that she’s whispering to a deaf woman and shuts up.

I really like these circular corridors by the way. They’re not the most detailed sci-fi hallways but they ain’t bad for something built for a single two-parter and they look great in the moody lighting.

Cass is actually doing okay on her own, as by touching the floor she can see things with Daredevil vision and dodge incoming axe attacks! I'm not sure what I feel about this to be honest, but it doesn't seem like the best way they could've handle it.

She finds Clara and then Lunn, and together they make a run for the safety of the Faraday cage, once again proving that ghosts are rubbish.

139 or so years earlier, the Doctor locates the space hearse's sleeping pod in the same church that Bennett will one day has already found it in, and discovers this week’s nemesis hanging around in the shadows. So we finally get a proper look at the Fisher King.

He’s quite a tall bloke this one and has a genuine Peter Serafinowicz voice, making him a cousin to Darth Maul. But he’s a bit more talkative than the Sith Lord, explaining that when his ghost transmitters summon his armada to this world to wake him up from the sleeping pod he’ll drain the oceans and put the humans in chains.

I admit I'm not all that familiar with the mythological Fisher King, but if there's a connection between this bastard of an alien and the wounded king who guards the Holy Grail I'm not seeing it.

The Fisher King isn't the most attractive of warlords, but he is entirely practical, and that's a rarity in visual effects these days. The 8 foot tall eponymous antagonist in Avengers: Age of Ultron was performed by the considerably shorter James Spader in a motion capture suit, with the other actors in the scene trying very hard to keep their focus on the lights on top of the rod strapped to his back. For this they just hired the tallest man in England and stuck an animatronic Predator skull mask on him.

The Doctor’s in a bit of a situation here as he can’t stop the Fisher King in the past or else the ripple effect will screw up the future. Once he’s experienced the effects of something he can’t go back and change their cause… except in for all those episodes where he did. There’s a good reason why characters are always shouting out the rules of time travel in episodes like this, and that’s because the rules change depending on the writer’s mood and the audience needs to know how time works this week.

But then our hero reveals that he already changed that shit before he walked in the room, by erasing the message in the space hearse! Can’t make things any worse than oceans being drained and humanity in chains after all. So the Fisher King goes stomping back outside to re-etch the message, leaving the Doctor alive because… I have no idea. Maybe he just wants someone to talk to.

You know, now he’s outside in the daylight I think I understand now why people had assumed this guy was dead. It's not a good idea to show monster costumes in bright light as they're scarier when you can't see the zipper, but I think this suit actually holds up pretty well to proper scrutiny.

But it turns out that the Doctor lied! The message is still there, but a power cell has been removed from the shuttle. You know, it occurs to me that maybe using the shuttle’s transmitter to signal his armada might have been more efficient than using ghosts, seeing as it takes over a hundred years just to make five of them and even they haven’t managed to summon anything yet. Or he could just fly off in the spaceship and chat with his armada in person, seeing as there’s nothing actually wrong with the vessel. Well except for the missing power cell. Speaking of that…

…it just exploded at the base of the dam to shatter it and flood the whole valley.

The Doctor doesn’t generally like to use weapons or kill people, but every now and again you just have to drop a lake on someone.

The water effects are fantastic for a TV budget, the effect of the Fisher King getting hit and washed away maybe not so much. Though I've never seen an alien getting killed by a tidal wave before so what do I know?

The survivors on the base never made it back to the Faraday cage and have ended up trapped inside the hangar bay with the sleeping chamber, when the thing starts to open. I was going to make a snarky comment about the deaf character reacting to the sound, but I checked again and she only turns after she sees Clara turn.

But if the Fisher King isn’t inside the locked sleeping chamber, then who…

Oh, it’s the Doctor. Well I guess it wasn't likely to be the 8' tall warlord was it?

Turns out that he’s been in a box under a lake in Scotland since the 80s, which doesn’t quite beat Amy Pond’s 1894 years in the Pandorica, but isn’t bad. His TARDIS has automatically rematerialized here as well, to save Bennett from having to travel 140 years the slow way.

But the day isn’t saved just yet, as the ghosts are still roaming the base! Why are they roaming the base? Because the Ghost Doctor went and let them all out.

And now the Ghost Doctor is putting them all back in again, mimicking the Fisher King’s call and screaming with the voice of Corey Taylor from Slipknot to bring them inside the Faraday cage. He was never a ghost you see, he was a hologram created by the Doctor, like holoClara in part 1. His sonic glasses connected to base’s Wi-Fi to generate the hologram as soon as the sleeping chamber was brought on board.

So he cleverly created a hologram programmed to let the ghosts out and then had it put them back again, scaring the crap out of Clara, Cass and Lunn for the hell of it. To be fair he had to recreate all the events he heard about on the phone to keep the timeline intact, and this time they've got Ghost O'Donnell locked away as well. Sonic sunglasses save the day once again!

He reprograms everyone's brains with his glasses to wipe out the memory of the text and along with it the Fisher King’s synaptic alterations, and explains that the ghosts only came out at night because they’re electromagnetic projections that are “out of phase with the base’s day mode”. Well… okay then. But projected by what?

No seriously, earlier he was asking Prentis how he was generating the ghosts and that's just been dropped.

Bennett is still depressed about O’Donnell’s death and asks Lunn to translate a message for Cass, basically making him admit that he’s in love with her and always has been, and she grabs and kisses him. Aww. It's nice to see someone survive one of these stories and get a happy ending.

Anyway, UNIT's going to destroy Prentis's shuttle and tow the Faraday cage into space away from the Earth's magnetic field where the ghosts will dissipate, so that's all fixed now.

Back on the TARDIS, the Doctor finally gets around to tying this to the story about Beethoven in the teaser, saying that he only knew what to program into the hologram because he heard it from the hologram, so that information basically came from nowhere. Bootstrap paradox!

Yeah sorry, I'm still not feeling a sense of wonder about this very familiar concept, which I guess is a problem the Doctor has with everything. Maybe it would've played better if he was explaining this to a fresh new companion instead of Clara... and us viewers. He really needs to stop metaphorically winking at the damn camera at least, it's obnoxious.


CONCLUSION

They should've called this episode Back to the TARDIS, because the Doctor keeps saying it. It's an episode about running back and forth from the blue box and only when his temporary companions are dead or safely locked inside is he able to save the day off screen.

I can't say the Doctor's plan didn't bring all the puzzle pieces together in satisfying way though, as he came up with a cunning solution that cleverly fit the consequences he'd already experienced. But a lot of those puzzle pieces were really really dumb. I mean damn, this ghost transmitter bullshit is probably the most nonsensical mess of absolute gibberish I've seen on television since Legends of Tomorrow.

The Fisher King's plan involves scratching four symbols on a wall that will rewire the synapses of anyone who looks at them, so that when they die they become electromagnetic projections brainwashed into broadcasting a sequence of four English words at faster than light speeds into deep space to lead his armada to his sleeping chamber located next to the WORKING SPACESHIP. Oh, plus the symbols will also program the ghosts to recognise and obey his call when they hear it. There's no clever technology needed for any of this, just four symbols etched into a wall. This is even worse than magic forest fairies and the moon dragon from the last series (which actually gets referenced in this episode.)

I'm more disappointed than bothered though really, as my emotional investment in Doctor Who was severed in series 8. If you turn your brain off and follow the characters instead of the plot there's a lot to appreciate in this episode, as it's a well produced, well acted piece of television.

Plus the first two parter of the season (Magician's Apprentice/Witch's Familiar) was a terrible jumping on point due to its heavy continuity, but this one's practically tailor made for new viewers. In fact it probably works better if you've got no familiarity with the series due to its reuse of several themes like the base under siege, the Doctor using people to test a theory, the Doctor being about to die for real this time, time travellers not being allowed to change history to save people, the predestination paradox etc. You could almost build it out of pieces of other episodes like The Impossible Planet and The Pandorica Opens two-parters.

Damn I'm being negative again. Uh... the creepy deserted mock-Russian town made a nice change from the claustrophobic mining base, even if the 'deserted' part was the only bit that mattered in the end. Atmosphere is one thing this episode nails from start to finish, and it's not bad looking either. The Impossible Planet may tell a superior story, but this is far more cinematic. I'm kind of hoping it's the Kill the Moon of series 9 though, and there's an upswing in quality coming up. Or at least sense.


Doctor Who will return with The Girl Who Died. But the next thing I'll be writing about on Sci-Fi Adventures is... Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan!

Comments are welcome, so share your thoughts with the box below.

2 comments:

  1. Albar Prentis...
    A. Prentis...
    Apprentice?

    Well, it's been a while since I saw the episode, but if I remember correctly that space mortician sidn't exactly seem professional, so it would be kinda suiting him.

    Alongside with "Richard Pritchard" in the last episode, seems like someone in the prop department had a little fun with the names there.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wow, it didn't even occur to me that the Doctor gets handed comedy business cards in both episodes. But the undertaker says his name in dialogue so I'm blaming the scriptwriter for it.

      Delete