The Good: Decent performances, A few moments of character
The Bad: Protagonists are idiots, Plot makes no sense . . . but tries to disguise it.
The Basics: "Before The Flood" asks an important question about predestination paradoxes and hopes that will be enough to confuse viewers into not seeing the obvious problems with the episode.
In virtually all mediums, sequels have a difficult time living up to the promise of the first part. Every now and then, it happens where a sequel is better than the first part and the pressure on the current season of Doctor Who is that the episodes were created as pairs (the episodes are six two-parters as opposed to twelve distinct adventures). With "Before The Flood" there was a distinct advantage in the sequel episode: the first part was just terrible. Almost entirely devoid of character, "Under The Lake" (reviewed here!) was plot-heavy with a surprisingly mundane plot and the feel of being a mystery where there's no chance that the audience can reason it out themselves. "Before The Flood" is not plagued by the generation of the macguffins and it does what it can with the pieces left in play. It does that and it actually makes a passing attempt to develop the primary characters (which is more than can be said for the first part!).
It is impossible to discuss "Before The Flood" without referencing where "Under The Lake" ended. While "Before The Flood" is not at all an incredible episode, it manages to do a few things better than its predecessor episode. Unfortunately, the set-up for the episode is confirmed late in the episode as Clara declares herself an idiot. "Under The Lake" was a ghost story and it concluded with The Doctor and Clara getting separated. The Doctor went back in time to discover how the ghosts were first created by going back to the town in Scotland that was submerged sometime afterward. When he goes back, all of a sudden, Clara sees a ghost of The Doctor and she freaks out. It is at this point that the attentive viewers are separated from those who are just watching because the burden instantly placed on "Before The Flood" is to answer the question "where is the TARDIS?" If The Doctor went back in time and was killed to become a ghost, the TARDIS would have been left there, in the submerged town and found by the military team that found the space ship. It doesn't occur to Clara to look for the TARDIS or even suggest that The Doctor cannot actually be dead because the TARDIS wasn't found. As well, the question to ask would have been: if The Doctor had died in the past, why didn't his ghost appear with the ghost of the alien, Prentis, at the very beginning of "Under The Lake?"
The answer, of course, is that The Doctor is not truly dead, not in any state of permanent death . . . which anyone with a brain would have figured out pretty much the instant that the ghost appeared (when the Doctor dies, it's not going to be a comparatively minor creature that takes him out in a random episode). "Before The Flood" makes a passing attempt at justifying itself by establishing itself as a predestination paradox. The most popularly recognized predestination paradox is The Terminator (reviewed here!), where Kyle Reese is sent back in time by John Connor, where Reese then conceives Connor. If time is viewed in a linear fashion, on Track 1 there would be John Connor who sends Kyle Reese back in time and when Reese conceives Connor, it becomes a tangent universe such that in Track 2, John Connor is genetically different from the John Connor in Track 1 (i.e. in Track 1 John Connor was conceived by Sarah Connor and ? and his DNA was then different from in Track 2 where John Connor is genetically Sarah Connor + Kyle Reese). "Before The Flood" tries desperately to be a predestination paradox, even explicitly referencing The Bootstrap Paradox, but all it actually does is activate its own Macguffins and make no real sense.
After introducing the Bootstring Paradox, The Doctor, O'Donnell, and Bennett arrive in Scotland in 1980. They find themselves on an abandoned military base used to Cold War infiltration of the Soviet Union. Right away, they find the space ship and they meet the pilot of the ship, Prentis. Prentis is essentially an alien coroner who is transporting the body of The Fisher King, an alien he has brought to Earth to bury. Leaving Prentis, the trio goes back to the TARDIS where they contact Clara. Clara informs them of The Doctor's ghost's appearance and their realization that the ghost Doctor is listing the names of the people who were at the military base in the future. When Prentis turns up killed by the very much alive Fisher King and O'Donnell is killed shortly thereafter, Bennett realizes that The Doctor's ghost is listing the order in which they will all die.
Desperate to save themselves and The Doctor, Clara, Cass and Lunn flee to the Farraday Cage until Clara realizes that Lunn is not a target for the ghosts because he never saw the writing in the space ship. When the ghost of O'Donnell takes away Clara's phone, Clara convinces Lunn to go out and get it. Soon, everyone is running for their lives and The Doctor is inspired to actually confront The Fisher King.
"Before The Flood" is well-performed, but its creepy factor is not intensely delivered in such a way where it is possible to overlook how idiotic the characters are being. Clara gets a great moment of character where she implores The Doctor to come back for her because he owes her, which plays off the idea that since the death of Danny Pink, she has been avoiding her feelings and properly mourning. But then, she leaves the Farraday Cage with Cass, who is deaf, and it takes moments before she realizes that calling after her when they get separated is idiotic.
But, then there's the macguffin and the big character moment for The Doctor which is created, but not acknowledged within the episode. "Under The Lake" had a sealed suspended animation chamber that could not be opened - it was deadlocked sealed, which even The Doctor's sonic cannot break - and it was blandly assumed that it housed the occupant of the shuttle who was waiting to be rescued, using the glyphs in the shuttle. "Before The Flood" opens the suspended animation chamber and it is utterly unsurprising who was inside. In fact, "Before The Flood" might owe its best moments to Clara actually being inspired or wounded because The Doctor is surprisingly idiotic in the episode as well. In "Under The Lake," The Doctor assumes that the glyphs in the shuttle were written by the occupant of the suspended animation chamber; he arrived back in time before the glyphs were written in the shuttle and when the suspended animation chamber was empty. Basic common sense and detective methodology should have led The Doctor to inspect the corpse, instead of simply trusting Prentis when he said that the Fisher King was dead. This becomes an unforgivable lapse when Prentis explicitly tells The Doctor that the ship and the glyph/ghost technology is beyond his people. Before contacting Clara, making sure The Fisher King is actually dead seems like a pretty obvious, basic course of action.
While writer Toby Whithouse might be desperate to write off details in "Before The Flood" as functions of the Bootstrap Paradox, he's just a crummy storyteller. Bennett believes that the ghost Doctor is telling everyone the order in which people are turned into ghosts . . . but it's not. Prentis is the third name, but the first ghost . . . by any standard. Similarly, if O'Donnell was killed in the past and became a ghost there, she should have been a ghost on the base from the very beginning. It makes no sense whatsoever that there would be a Prentis ghost tormenting the base in "Under The Lake" without an O'Donnell ghost . . . or that the O'Donnell ghost wouldn't have appeared on the base the moment the TARDIS went into the past.
The Fisher King is a pretty lame villain and it is tough to discuss the end of the episode without spoiling it. The climax of the episode is a big character moment for The Doctor that does by without any real reflection. In prior episodes of Doctor Who, it is treated as a huge moment when The Doctor considers killing. For example, when given the chance to kill Harold Saxon (both times) the David Tennant incarnation of The Doctor refuses and finds something else to shoot. The climax of "Before The Flood" has to deal with who is in the suspended animation capsule (no surprise) and actually submerge the military facility (also not a surprise). Creating the flood is a powerful moment for The Doctor and one that severely weakens the Fisher King. The Fisher King is, like three steps from the space ship and that offers him a chance of survival at the very least. And the flood is a pretty bold assumption on The Doctor's part (nothing within the episode even implied that the Fisher King was unable to swim).
Toby Whithouse and director Daniel O'Hara hope viewers will not notice the climactic ridiculousness of the conceits used in "Before The Flood." Fortunately, most of those conceits are not initiated within the episode (merely executed here) and the performers make a good show of the execution. Jenna Coleman is good as Clara, even as her character is poorly-presented. Peter Capaldi gets some fun lines and delivers them wonderfully in "Before The Flood" and for the brief time Morven Christie is on as O'Donnell, she steals the show with her charm.
Ultimately, "Before The Flood" finishes the arc and leaves The Doctor in extremely tenuous moral territory for what comes next.
For other second parts that are superior to their set-up episode, please check out my reviews of:
"The Doctor Dances" - Doctor Who
"Graduation Day, Part 2" - Buffy The Vampire Slayer
"The Search, Part 2" - Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Doctor Who - The Complete Ninth Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the sophomore season of Peter Capaldi as The Doctor here!
For more television reviews, please check out my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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