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Doctor Who XXXV/9.4: Before the Flood

October 11th, 2015 (12:42 am)

Before and during this episode I wondered whether this story could be regarded as Toby Whithouse's audition piece for showrunner. It's not necessarily representative of what Whithouse's series would look like; the series couldn't (and can't) sustain this grim, fatalistic tone for ever. It does offer a critique, if not a break, from Moffat's timeywimeyism; where previous 'paradoxes' have been unpickable and open to interpretation as stories about evidence, this isn't - the 'first cause' beginning the cycle isn't clear. The episode is presented as the illustration to the parable of the Bootstrap Paradox as illustrated by the guitar-playing Doctor; but if Beethoven was ever there in the first place - and the Doctor says he's met him - who (unintentionally) erased him? There's an underlying message perhaps about the Doctor's clumsiness; as the Fisher King says, he is 'lost in time' and not as powerful as he might think; but as the Doctor replies, even a ghastly future (but what has he got against cats?) is better than no future at all.

I was also led towards the 'audition piece' idea by the presence of two temporary companions, Bennett and O'Donnell, aboard the TARDIS. O'Donnell offered a potential alternative take on the fan-as-character, hinting at a more structured and detached knowledge of the Doctor's adventures than Osgood; rather than being a comedic performance O'Donnell seems more naturalistic, a managed professional person with suppressed childlike buoyancy to help build a bridge to the audience. It's difficult to tell whether this is just decisions made relating to performance and O'Donnell ends up quickly suffering a similar fate to Osgood. I wasn't sure why the appearance of the ghosts was tied to the Doctor's timeline; shouldn't O'Donnell always have been present among the ghosts, or present as soon as she left 2119 in the TARDIS? Bennett inherited the role of critic which Clara, too much the Doctor's prize pupil, no longer has. Like him, I'm not sure that O'Donnell's death was necessary.

The episode went over familiar ground to genre fans too. This is the first episode of the new series which I've watched in fannish company, and beforehand it was pointed out to me that the Doctor had to be in the sarcophagus, which he was. A similar method of 'travel', without the benefit of suspended animation, was taken by Captain Jack Harkness in Torchwood's Exit Wounds. I'd forgotten until reminded by comments on Facebook of Tim Powers's work; the avatars and life-extending trickery of The Anubis Gates, and the Fisher King of his Las Vegas mythology where a dam is a stage and a symbol.

Another point which wasn't mine but which is worth mentioning is that the music cues depended on 'the Twelfth Doctor's theme' like no other this season. It's certainly appropriate for an episode which was more Doctor-centred than usual, but is there more to it? Still, Clara's development was addressed and she was shown to be forced by circumstances to reflect on her time with the Doctor; angry with him for seemingly losing himself to her, but later counselling Bennett for his loss, drawing on her experience with Danny, who was left unmentioned, more than with the Doctor.

I found this episode clever and well-written but underwhelming. There's a brutality to the methods of the Doctor and Clara now which isn't hidden by the joie de vivre of the Tennant and Smith Doctors. Rose Tyler thought that the Doctor showed her a better life; Clara, that he showed her to do what was necessary. I'm not certain that the programme really knows how to use all the elements it deploys right now. Sometimes one misses the wit and pace of Doctor Who when it was the cornerstone of BBC One's Saturday nights in spring. Still, next week, despite its visual callback to The Pirate Planet's Captain, promises more energy, Vikings enjoying being Vikings and Maisie Williams giving a much-heralded performance.

Oh, my place on a certain rota is coming up... See you next week from Another Place.

Also published at https://theeventlibrary.wordpress.com/2015/10/11/doctor-who-xxxv9-4-before-the-flood/

Also posted at http://sir-guinglain.dreamwidth.org/2015/10/11/doctor-who-xxxv94-before-the-flood.html.

Comments

Posted by: nineveh_uk (nineveh_uk)
Posted at: October 11th, 2015 08:13 am (UTC)
Harriet

After enjoying the first part of the pair, I was pretty underwhelmed by last night's conclusion. Possibly this is because I was under the weather myself, but it just seemed convoluted without really being interesting.

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: October 11th, 2015 10:32 am (UTC)
Leekley

I don't think anyone actually erased Beethoven; it was just an example. It might be more relevant to ask who the Doctor is talking to - Clara or the audience? It harks back to Tom Baker breaking the fourth wall, and even the sonic screwdriver won't get him out of this one. Personally, I don't have much of a problem with the Doctor breaking the fourth wall occasionally, if it works, but some fans see it as Wrong.

I am getting a bit tired of pseudo-fans in the programme, although this one seemed to be there largely to drop a hint for later ("The Minister of War").

I didn't find this underwhelming at all, although I did wonder about the Soviet iconography and the name of the Fisher King. Both seemed to be empty symbols in search of meanings, or perhaps the meanings were too subtle for me to see. (And how many churches were there in the USSR anyway?) Overall, though, I thought this continued the upward trend of this season over last season, and these four episodes have been one of the strongest starts to any new Who season. If this was an audition piece, I think I'd give him the job, The Vampires of Venice notwithstanding.