• 16th October 2015 • Review by Jonathan Capps •
In modern Doctor Who, two parters come in many shapes and sizes; but broadly speaking, since the days of Russell T Davies, there are two main approaches to the problem of having to split an story over two episodes. You could spend part one setting up, leave it on a pretty standard ‘monster advancing’ cliffhanger, and then immediately resolve it at the start of part two and carry on as you were. But as RTD’s run went on, a second method developed, with each half of a story starting to be given more of its own identity. The most extreme example was the ‘One Year Later’ setting of “Last of the Time Lords”, which arguably went too far the other way from the often-uninspiring former type of structure, ultimately feeling too removed from the excellent scene setting of “The Sound of Drums”.
Before Series 9 started, two-parters really didn’t feel like a problem the modern incarnation of the show had ever truly solved. The number of them dropped off to a resounding zero in the deeply problematic Series 7, but perhaps the connection between the million ‘… of the Doctor’ episodes showed that the show didn’t necessarily have to go completely in the direction of purely self contained stories. I didn’t expect, however, that Series 9 would embrace the format so completely; and despite the many excellent things about “Magician”/”Witch”, it’s taken Whithouse’s “Under the Lake” and “Before the Flood” to give me an indication that Moffat and company are close to taking full advantage of the format, with each part serving the story but also striking out on their own paths.
The cold opening with the Doctor monologuing about the bootstrap paradox immediately kicks things off on a high. Quite apart from the fact I’d happily spend the rest of my life watching nothing other than Peter Capaldi talking to camera about literally anything, it was pleasing to have The Doctor teach the audience something directly. His tone is a delightful “shut up and listen because this will be important later”, he’s fully engaging the audience (which seems like part of the plan to make him more likable this year) and it hints more than a little that shit’s about to get timey wimey.
Before the episode even properly gets moving it’s already built on the first part’s cliffhanger to set up anticipation for what’s to come (especially if you factor in the fact that we immediately a GIANT DAM in the background of the pre-flood town) which is important because, let’s face it, the Doctor’s ghost does not a good cliffhanger make. He’s going to be absolutely fine so no, please, don’t give Clara a pointless emotional conversation with the Doctor about him dying, oh… too late. At best, I was curious how his ghost would be explained and worked into the conclusion; but no one who’s seen more than one series of Doctor Who is going to get misty eyed about the prospect of the Doctor or Clara dying, and more often than not that sort of jeopardy is very weakly resolved.
I’ve mentioned the town and its giant Sword of DAMocles hanging over it, but it’s worth mentioning how effective it is as a setting, especially when contrasted with the flooded present day (even if that portion of the story has long since worn out the effectiveness of the first episode’s base under siege tension), and the detail of making it a fake Soviet town for military training is a nice economical touch that makes a collection of unremarkable buildings suddenly quite interesting.
I think from early indications it’s going to be the relationship between the Doctor and Clara that I’m going to struggle with the most this series. The stuff about her becoming too much like the Doctor is such a well worn path at this point and unfortunately, nothing along those lines is going to fully rescue a character from the fact that it’s been too thinly drawn for too long. The Doctor allowing O’Donnell to venture into danger when he suspected she might die is one thing, but everything that happens in the present is just a collection of events designed to shuffle people around a bit so they can all be in the same place at the end. Clara should be more than just a character whose biggest character moments in the episode are the ones that draw direct parallels with the Doctor.
Back in Stirlinggrad now, and the weird S&M alien has also been killed by the Fisher King, and the Doctor and Bennett try to nope right out of there and back to the present day, but the TARDIS is being stubborn and dumps them where and when they originally arrived. The Doctor hand wrings a little about not trying to save dead people (despite that being what he was originally trying to do, and in many episodes previously) and finally we have the scene where the Doctor and the baddie do a big dialogue until the Fisher King huffs off back to his coffin where no one will bother him.
It’s a shame, really, that we don’t see more of the Fisher King. His motives aren’t particularly interesting, but the design is striking and while the execution of putting a poor bastard in that suit didn’t exactly yield convincing results, it was an impressive amount of effort for a creature that spends only a handful of seconds actually on-screen, and there’s no doubt it casts an impressive silhouette.
As it happens, the conversation between the Fisher King and the Doctor pulls the episode up from a bit of a lull, especially as it serves to give a pretty clear indication that the Doctor knows full well what he has to do as he’s proceeding to piss around with the villain and audience at the same time. The conclusion itself is definitely satisfying, in a way that an episode that threatens to bake your noodle with paradoxes but actually ends up being quite clean cut only can be. The real meat of this episode is the inner workings of the Doctor solving a problem he’s already solved and so it’s perhaps unsurprising that the whole OMG THE DOCTOR’S DEAD cliffhanger from last week is waved away by those damn glasses.
It’s always pleasing to see an episode centre so heavily around the mechanics of time travel and tie them so closely to the resolution. It may be an obvious get of jail free card, but Whithouse’s tactic of hanging a lampshade on his bootstrap paradox (that sentence brought to you courtesy of the TV Tropes thesaurus) does underline how the time travel elements were used smartly, and helps lift the whole story into something unique and interesting within the pantheon of Doctor Who‘s bases under siege.