Before the Flood

Story No. 279 The Fischer King
Production Code Series 9, episode 4
Dates October 10, 2015

With Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman
Written by Toby Whithouse Directed by Daniel O'Hara
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin.

Synopsis: The Doctor travels back to discover the origins of the flood - and the ghosts.


"You do not die with me!" by Donna Bratley 30/4/19

I'll admit, finding the Doctor addressing me directly from the TARDIS wasn't what I was expecting for an introduction. It's just as well, because if I'd known in advance, I'd have decided to hate it on principle.

That would have been foolish. It's a fantastic left-field start: "Google it" and the deliciously dry reflection on Beethoven ("loved an arm wrestle") are delightful, and when we cut into the temporary, harder-edged version of the theme, I'm utterly sold; it suits this Doctor so much better. It's the greatest TV theme ever, but the standard version for the twelfth incarnation does feel slightly anaemic

Once the titles are out of the way, we're back to business with the leads separated, each with a pair of newly acquired companions. The Doctor's are the more engaging, despite Sophie Stone's commanding Cass being left at base. Bennett and O'Donnell immediately prove their mettle aboard the Tivolian hearse (and there's a species I'd be happy never to see again), while Paul Kaye's Prentis is, as immediately pointed out, an idiot - one whose obsequiousness is made all the creepier by some not-so-subtle innuendo. Possibly the only character ever improved by a sudden demise, I much prefer him as an empty-eyed ghost.

The greatest benefit of the two-part format is the leeway it allows to guest players, and both Morven Christie (before O'Donnell's predictable but affecting death) and Arsher Ali make the most of it. Bennett - the terrified Shaggy of the Doctor's Scooby-Doo gang - develops some backbone with a mystery to solve and shows an unexpectedly intimidating streak when he fathoms out the meaning of the ghost Doctor's little list.

O'Donnell's decision to separate herself from the others is hardly logical - what's the old joke about military intelligence? - but it allows a stomach-sinking image as the metaphorical shadow of death passes over her. At least, unlike the other victims of the Fisher King, she has time for a sweet farewell to the devastated Bennett. He's slow in recognising the list's meaning. I wasn't, and therein lies Before the Flood's main weakness. None of its mysteries are actually very mysterious.

The moment Cass reveals the Doctor's ghost isn't repeating the co-ordinates, both O'Donnell's fate and the trickery behind the Doctor's "death" becomes obvious. As for the stasis chamber, immediately the Doctor announced he was going back to the spaceship's point of arrival, it was clear who was going to pop out of that. The whole episode is beautifully staged, marvellously witty and has the occasional genuine scare, but the Doctor basically runs around solving a puzzle that much of his audience will have cracked inside the first ten minutes.

I was a touch slow on the fate of the missing power cell - that was nicely done - and Moran's slow pursuit of Cass was the aforementioned major successful scare. Cutting between the metallic drag of the axe and the silence of Cass's world works incredibly well to ramp up the anxiety levels, and I don't find it at all implausible that she might sense a presence at her back just in time.

Have you ever had the feeling there are eyes burning into the back of your neck? I have (turned out to be an old school friend who wasn't sure whether she recognised me rather than an axe-wielding EM transmitter/ghost; same difference). Seeing Lunn being crowded by a gaggle of curious ghosts is decidedly unsettling too, however confident Clara might be of his survival.

Miss Oswald shows off every side of herself in 45 minutes. She might be remorselessly practical and fiercely brave, but she's also (in her own words) an idiot - not keeping her eye on Cass in the corridors is a basic error - and an emotionally fragile one at that. Just as on Skaro - and after Danny's death - her default plan for getting her own way with the Doctor isn't reasoned argument but flat-out blackmail, using his unstinting, contrastingly selfless devotion as a weapon against his longstanding commitment to maintain the laws of Time. It's unattractive, but it's in character for a scrabbling control freak.

The woman who tried to juggle two lives has thrown herself headlong into the Doctor's now. Danny doesn't need to be mentioned - his ghost is far more real than the Fisher King's facsimiles - and her dependence on the Doctor is dangerously unhealthy. He knows it: the contrast between her emotional display and his quiet desperation is stark and (of course) perfectly played on both sides. It's uncomfortable, and it proves how far from "fine" Clara really is. Far more than her Doctor-like demonstrations of quick-thinking, brutal pragmatism, it's the first clear warning of her inevitable fate.

Hers is an egotistical, pitilessly effective tactic that hits the Doctor right where it hurts, although whether he needs her bullying I rather doubt. His best friend needs saving. That's motivation enough to risk a few ripples; and, as he tells the Fisher King, perhaps a ghastly future really is better than no future at all.

The villain of the week is magnificently imposing creation, severely under-used (to the detriment of the whole story) and far too gullible for credibility. I'd like to see a full-scale invasion of the Fisher Kings someday, because those desiccated giants deserve a fuller treatment than this.

I might have anticipated his emergence from the stasis chamber but still, the Doctor certainly knows how to make an entrance. Once the dam has been cartoonishly blown and gang are reunited, Whithouse ties his plot strands together with a bow on top; allows Clara to share her experience in support of a bereft Bennett; and the Doctor to finish showing off his brilliant he's been. If I'm still not clear when he actually had those ideas - who cares? I've been richly entertained.

There are too many weaknesses for Before the Flood to be great, and as a follow-up to the superb Under the Lake it's a disappointment. Still, with winning performances, bright script and terrific atmosphere, it's well worth watching.