Last week’s story opener was superb – one of the finest episodes of Doctor Who and a masterclass in pacing, character and tensions. The cliff-hanger was beautifully played and left viewers on the edge of their seat. Under the Lake’s conclusion, Before the Flood leaves writer Toby Whithouse, director Daniel O’Hara and the cast a lot to live up to. Let’s see if they manage it.
On a remote army outpost, a fearsome alien warlord called the Fisher King sets in motion a twisted plan to ensure his own survival. The ripples will be felt around the universe. Is this chain of events inevitable? And can the Doctor do the unthinkable?
After a practically perfect Cliff-hanger that could be resolved neatly towards the end of a conclusion that is set up as a prequel – in chronological terms – how can all tension be removed from said cliff-hanger? Simple: Include a fourth-wall breaking opening segment with the Doctor spouting about a seemingly unrelated issue to describe the paradox around which the episode will be based.
There is much about this conclusion that left me a little cold, but I think that part of this is the memory of the preceding part. The opener was genuinely a classic episode which set the “prequel” element to this week’s story up perfectly. The Doctor has headed to the past … and seems to have died. This episode should have been filled with a sense of foreboding as our Time Lord pieced together the happenings in the flooded village and encountered the Fisher King. Unfortunately, the manner in which the episode opened instantly took me out of the story. This is a disappointment.
Once I was out of the zone, as it were, I found it much more difficult to get back into that same feeling that followed me from Under the Lake. Other than the opening segment – and indeed it’s irritatingly fourth-wall breaking counterpart at the end of the story. Having The Doctor acknowledge that he’s actually created a paradox to the audience explicitly by having him explain a similar conundrum to camera at the start of the episode and then re-iterate the story to camera at the end really managed to break my immersion in the world of Doctor Who. Perhaps even more so than some of the overly fairy-tale stories from the preceding series.
The episode’s (and indeed the whole story’s) antagonist was revealed and was a suitably terrifying creature. A brilliant piece of design that really managed to evoke “alien being” while still being a biped. Peter Serafinowicz provides a sinister voice to the being that lends to an air of menace. An air re-inforced by the King’s instantly eliminating those that cross its path … Prentis (the alien undertaker) and O’Donnell don’t stand a chance in their off-screen encounters. Yet on encountering the Doctor, the King spends the time to have a dialogue. It then allows him to return to the TARDIS and put the final touches of his own plan in motion.
These issues aside, the episode itself is not bad. Whithouse continues to expand upon his supporting cast in a satisfying manner. There’s a great moment when the Time Lord’s apparent selfishness is pointed out to him by Bennett following the death of his friend, but this is almost instantly brushed over and by the end there’s something off-kilter about the way in which the character has chosen to accept the Doctor and his actions.
Clara once again shines as she figures out why Lunn was spared last week and asks him to head into danger. Again, this ruthlessness (as viewed by others) is called out by Cass, who maintains a more wary stance regarding these interlopers and their disregard for the lives of those under her command.
I think what’s most galling is that the resolution to the story was excellently conceived and delivered. Elements that remained a mystery from last week’s episode were given resolution: the second power-cell, the contents of the stasis pod, the Doctor’s ghost… Scenes in the base remained tense, although I expected more of a “Clara-light” episode as we followed the Doctor’s investigation but the direction and acting kept these scenes as some of the most watchable components of the week.
It’s a shame that so much else this week felt like filler. The scenes in the past (up until the encounters with the Fisher King) were somewhat uneventful and this is a crying shame as these should have been the focus of the adventure. It’s perhaps here that the weakness of the two-part story (which I think is superior to the single-part story format) can become apparent. If not enough story is left for the second part, then scenes must appear that don’t further the plot or character dynamics any.
Overall, I thought this was a somewhat disappointing episode. Though as I mentioned, most of this is because of it being a conclusion to such a great one. Fourth wall breaking and unnecessary exposition and scenes that seemed purely filler couldn’t be saved by some otherwise superb writing, direction, design and acting. A shame.
Rating: 3 /5