The thing about two-parters is you have a choice with them. You can make them two halves of one long mood piece, or you can make them entirely separate, varying the tone from episode to episode.
With the first two-parter of Series 9, there was some sense that they’d gone with the first option – a coherence, rather than a contrast, though Missy’s skippetty-do-dah, we’re off to kill the Daleks moment threatened the prevailing darkness in the pre-credits sequence of The Witch’s Familiar.
Here there’s a sense in the pre-credits that we’re in a completely different story – with Clara and the gang still trapped on The Drum, do we begin with a focus on the idea of the ghosts and what’s causing them? No – we have the Doctor, in the Tardis, talking it seems directly to us the audience (there being no interaction from either of the two people travelling with him, and the Doctor looking straight down the lens of the camera helps enforce this idea). And what’s he talking about? Nothing that seems particularly relevant at that point – the Bootstrap paradox and who really composed Beethoven’s Fifth. It’s a weird way to open Before The Flood, though just personally, I’m loving this new Keith Richards Doctor, and I’d die a happy Whovian if the Production Team replaced the current iteration of the theme tune with this more gutsy, thrashy version. Please, please, please?
After the credits, the disconnect with the urgency of events at The Drum continues – the grey grimness of Scotland in 1980, in a faux-Soviet village is very different from the dank, enclosed environment where Clara and the others could still be dying. O’Donnell, frankly, is great – she’s a more level-headed Doctorian (Shurrup, they can’t be Whovians, they know him as the Doctor – in his universe, we’d all be Doctorians!) than Osgood and her slightly needy cosplay, and we begin to plan our Twitter campaign for O’Donnell to be the next companion, especially when, once the Doctor steps away, she does the jumping up and down thing, squealing ‘It’s bigger on the inside!’ to Bennett. Level-headed, adorable and with an occasional penchant for dangling colleagues out of windows – Sarah-Jane, Peri and Leela all in one! ‘Dear Mr Moffat, please make O’Donnell the next-’
Oh, she’s dead. Well, bang goes that idea then. Back to Nut-C, the Clockwork Squirrel it is. And one thing we know from experience – in a Toby Whithouse script, there is no convenient, ‘too cool to die’ coming back from the dead. You die in a Whithouse script, you stay dead.
Unless you’re the Fisher King, obviously – big body, was on the slab. Not there any more. Anyone else get the feeling this is Doctor Who Does The Scream Movies? Pleasingly of course, the first person to die when the Fisher King stops being dead is Prentis the Tivolian. They’re a nice conceit, the Tivolians, almost the polar opposite of the Sontarans, but frankly, they’re annoying on screen, a fact acknowledged by Prentis himself before he dies – as a species, they drive invaders and conquerors round the twist.
Oh, and of course, we clock the reference to the Minister of War. We’ve seen Harold Saxon, we’ve seen the Moon exploding, we’ve seen no Minister of War. Possible future Big Bad? Also, possible future Big Bad with a direct connection to the Doctor?
Maybe this is reading in, but there’s also the tense phone call to Clara, which is just as well, because events on The Drum seem to have gone from scary, ghost-chasing thrills to sitting about and moping. People are saying that the theme of this series so far is the Doctor dying, but has anyone else noticed what’s really going on? The Doctor knows there are rules, but in both the Davros epic and here, he’s encouraged to go back in time and change the past, to change the future. In this case, it’s Clara who tells him to break the rules, to do whatever is necessary to come back to her, because she’s not ready for him to die. What, we wonder, might the consequences of his rule-breaking eventually be? We’ve seen the Time Lord Victorious before, and that didn’t work out too well for those around him – Adelaide Brooke felt compelled to stop him, even at the cost of her own life. There’s a sense that this rock and roll Doctor is more willing to push the rules with which he keeps burdening himself. What might he do if the burden gets too much, we wonder? It’s a question that’s almost put in this episode, when the Fisher King pushes the Doctor to the course of action he takes. ‘Maybe it means the universe is ruled by cats in the future or something,’ the Doctor quips about the consequences of his actions here.
Maybe. Maybe it means something much, much worse.
Also, when Bennett takes the Doctor to task after O’Donnell is killed, there’s another telling exchange. ‘This isn’t about me, I’m a dead man walking,’ the Doctor says. ‘I’m changing history to save Clara.’
Breaking the rules, to save Clara. If you were as old as the Doctor is, as lonely as this Doctor is, and if you’d lost as much as the Doctor had, what would you not do to save your best friend in the world? Would you break the rules? Would you change the universe? Is this (and the subsequent trapping of the Doctor in his own timestream) the first or second step towards a Time Lord not Victorious but Terrifying? *Cough, cough, Valeyard, cough.*
The rest of the episode pretty much rattles by – thanks mostly to the Fisher King, a creation combining bulk and fantastically disturbing physical appearance (is it just me or is there something…how to say this delicately…Vervoidy about the Fisher King’s pulsing facial flesh?) with a gloriously rich voice (thank you Peter ‘Darth Maul’ Serafinowicz), and, thanks to Whithouse’s scriptwriting chops, a vivid line in accusation that makes him more than just a big stompy monster going around killing people. Also, he’s given enough backstory that we wonder about future stories running into more of his kind, whatever his kind is. The actual solution to the Fisher King threat though feels a little slight, reminding us of many a Tom Baker story – swapped explosives in the pocket of the Graff Vynda Ka, missing power cells that blow up the dam and flood the village, tomayto, tomahto. The point is probably that the Doctor actually doesn’t change history, but instead becomes the actor that sets history as we know it in motion.
The run-around action on The Drum kicks off again, and never really stops until the casket opens and – surprise? – the Doctor emerges. Cass and Lunn declare their love and everyone alive is happy. Well, everyone except Bennett.
Only at the end does the pre-credit sequence make sense. The Doctor programmed his ghost-hologram based on what he’d seen. He ‘became Beethoven.’ So where did the idea come from? There’s something sinister about the idea on which we began and on which we end Before The Flood, especially given that our Doctor was so desperate to follow the line of ‘what he does’ that he ‘doesn’t see anyone here who’s going to stop him’ as he prepares to alter history and take the consequences - until the Tardis takes him down a peg or two. What, we wonder, is our Doctor becoming? Who, if not Beethoven, wrote Beethoven’s Fifth? Who, if not the Doctor, saved everyone’s lives on The Drum? History continues with barely a feather out of place, he says, but maybe the universe will be run by cats. Or maybe something far darker will happen.
As a two-part story, Under The Lake/Before The Flood is an example of that individual episode-tone method of storytelling, with the tension and questions piled up to bursting point in Under The Lake, and Before The Flood feeling lighter in atmosphere simply by virtue of having some external scenes and relieving the claustrophobic vibe. In terms of existential angst and the future of the Twelfth Doctor though, Before The Flood has plenty of gravitas to make us ponder and frown our week away before Fun With Vikings (or The Girl Who Died) next week.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk