Sunday, 11 October 2015

Review - 'Doctor Who', S09E04 - 'Before The Flood'





After the pretty spectacular cliff-hanger that Doctor Who managed to pull off at the end of the previous episode, it would probably be fair to say that my hopes for this episode were fairly high. We had the Doctor and Clara separated, with the Doctor heading back into the past to uncover the source of the current danger and Clara still trapped in the underwater facility. And, we had the clear indication that the Doctor's mission may not be entirely successful as, in the present, a new ghost joins the ranks of those already hunting those left behind - the Doctor, himself.

Rather than jump straight back into the action, though, Before The Flood makes the strange decision of including an opening sequence in which the Doctor addresses the camera directly. It is a sequence whose sole purpose seems to be to explain one of the many fascinating quirks of time travel - in this case, the 'bootstrap paradox'. Who is the Doctor actually speaking to in this scene? Well, it's possible that the camera simply represents the point of view of another character (one of the two who travelled with him when the group was separated during the last episode, perhaps) - though, the truth is we never actually find out.

The main issue I have with this opening sequence, apart from the strangeness of having the Doctor essentially breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly, is the way in which it basically spoils much of what happens during the rest of the episode. The Doctor's explanation of the 'bootstrap paradox' (basically, a time traveller sends a note to his younger self because, when he was younger, he received a note from his future self - but, who first wrote the note?) is entertaining enough on its own, sure - but, when you consider that the resolution of the episode is also a variation of that same paradox, it becomes a fairly blatant case of 'hand holding'. It's like the writers felt the need to make absolutely certain that the audience understood what was happening. That's fair enough, to an extent - after all, the 'bootstrap paradox' definitely counts as one of the trickier time travel concepts, and Doctor Who is still a family show intended for a general audience. But, personally, I think I would have preferred a less overt way of giving that information to the audience. There's no way of knowing, yet, whether this is just a one-off sequence or whether having the Doctor address the camera like that is going to be a recurring gimmick for this season - though, honestly, I think I'd prefer the former.

At any rate, as the episode openings, we have a group who has been separated. The Doctor, along with crew-members O'Donnell and Bennett, have travelled far into the past - finding themselves 1980, in a time before the valley was flooded and when the strange ship that is the source of all of their troubles has only just landed. There, they learn that the small space-craft is actually something like a hearse, intended to transport the body of a dead ruler from a distant planet. Of course, the alien creature doesn't seem all too willing to stay dead, and soon the Doctor and his temporary companions find themselves under attack. Meanwhile, back in the 'resent' if the mid-22nd century, Clara and her own companions are left struggling to understand the sudden appearance of a 'ghost' Doctor, and what that might mean for their chances of survival.

Fortunately, though, the TARDIS makes communication possible even for people in entirely different time periods, so the Doctor and Clara are still able to work together as they try to survive. Unfortunately, though, the Doctor's presence as a 'ghost' in Clara's time seems to suggest that his death is a fixed point in time - and, changing established future events is one of few rules that the Doctor is reluctant to even attempt to break.

The creature behind it all, an alien conqueror that calls itself the Fisher King, is definitely one of the more impressive new creations to feature on Doctor Who in recent years - it is a genuinely imposing creature and it would definitely be a shame if this was the last we ever saw of either it, or the rest of its kind. That being said, though, there is an unsatisfying lack of information about the creature, or what its long-term plan may actually be. We aren't, for example, given any clear information regarding exactly how a presumably dead creature (who, we are told, was transported to Earth, in the first place, to be buried) could suddenly spring back to life. It's something that we are, apparently, just supposed to accept - and, that's something that Doctor Who asks of its audience a little too often.

At the same time, though, the idea that these 'ghosts' (who, of course, aren't really ghosts - though, that was never actually in question) are really a part of an elaborate signal sent out to call the rest of the Fisher King's species to Earth is a fascinating one. It is definitely a clever way to put a 'science fiction' twist on a conventional ghost story, while also significantly raising the stakes by introducing the threat of a potential alien invasion. It also helped to balance out the fact that the 'ghosts', themselves, were never a terribly effective or intimidating foe - honestly, the only moment of actual tension they provided was when one of them was sneaking up behind a deaf woman. And, that was only because she was deaf and, therefore, unable to hear the painfully obvious sound of it approaching her. And, of course, she managed to escape, anyway.

Before The Flood is an interesting episode, in a variety of ways. Stories that must directly tackle the strange complexities of time travel have also been especially fascinating to me, so I definitely enjoyed the use of the 'bootstrap paradox' here (even if I found the explanation offered during the opening sequence to be unnecessarily heavy-handed). That being said, though, this was also another episode which resolved things in a way that was, perhaps, a bit too convenient - and, most frustratingly, there isn't even an attempt at an explanation, beyond acknowledging the strangeness of the 'bootstrap paradox'. It just felt as though, in the end, this episode wasn't intended as an interesting exploration of this strange time travel paradox - but, rather, that this paradox was intended to give the writers an easy way out. And, that bothered me a little.

More interesting (at least in terms potential themes to be explored throughout the rest of the season) is the fact that this is is also an episode in which both the Doctor and Clara are each called out for their occasionally callous behaviour, and their willingness to place other people in danger. Clearly, the effect that Clara's time travelling with the Doctor has had on her, and whether his influence has been entirely positive, is going to be the primary character-arc for Clara's final season on Doctor Who - and, while I have often struggled with Clara, and the various ways that she has been characterised, in her time on the show, I am still interested in seeing how this might play out.

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