As always, be warned:
‘Before the Flood’ is a delightfully creepy episode. Like the prior episodes this season, it kept us on the edge of our chairs. However, unlike those other episodes, it also hit a couple of storytelling snags.
Side characters in Doctor Who are frequently wonderful, and these are no exception. Cass is if anything even more fabulous in this episode, with her skills developed as a deaf person coming to the fore. But the love stories among these characters felt contrived. It’s as if the writers feel that deep brotherly love and commitment among shipmates is not enough to heighten the interpersonal tension, and that only romantic love, especially unrequited or unspoken, can do that. I did enjoy the moment where Bennett told Lunn to declare his love and that he wish someone had advised him to do so. But I found it implausible that both male-female pairs should have the same experience, and I didn’t see Cass’ love for Lunn as romantic. I think I’d have appreciated it more if it wasn’t. Not everything in the world has to be about romance, after all.
Or maybe that’s just me.
The monster too was something of a weakness in this episode. While its introduction – the shifting and then empty shroud – was creepy in a good way, the rest felt rushed and formulaic. I never got why it was called the Fisher King – I’m not much of an Arthurian, so I had to look it up, and I don’t see the parallel. I wasn’t compelled by its motivation. The scene of running through the fake buildings to hide seemed like it was there just so we could have a running-through-corridors scene; I think a chase or stalking scene could have been done better. As monsters go, this wasn’t a particularly interesting one.
The fake people hanging around were pretty creepy though.
I’m also not a huge fan of circular plotting. Moffat used the device most notably in ‘Time Crash’ and the ‘Space/Time’ pair, more for comic effect than actual storytelling value. Here the “bootstrap paradox” carries most of the plot – but I don’t think it works any better. Watching the episode I thought Whithouse was commenting on the ridiculousness of the device, but looking back it looks more like he was reaffirming its value.
On the other hand, the story made use of the time loaf theory – in which everything has already happened – which is my personal favorite, and I appreciated it.
The big item of course is O’Donnell’s death. The character’s fangirl outbursts endeared her to me greatly, so of course I was quite saddened to lose her. (I knew Bennett’s feels, as it were.) My second reaction – as a reader of feminist media criticism – was that she’d been needlessly fridged to serve Bennett’s man-pain. (Google those if you need them.) However, she is the only woman killed in the episode, and Bennett’s grief is required for the unspoken-love theme of the episode. Bennett is much more plausible in this role than O’Donnell would have been; joining UNIT in spite of his admitted cowardice presumably just to be near her, while she seems fearless enough to speak any feelings she might have – assuming she took the time to notice she had them. Ultimately, I appreciate the choice Whithouse made with these characters, even if I don’t entirely like it. 😥
Finally, I was left a bit baffled by the Doctor and Clara’s non-reaction to the death. Though this Doctor has shown himself to be callous, in the past he has at least acknowledged other characters’ pain (‘Into the Dalek’). And Clara seems uncharacteristically unaffected. In spite of her new careless nature, I would have expected at least a moment of sadness for O’Donnell. I did appreciate her words to Bennett but I felt that she would plausibly show at least a little feeling herself before shutting down. I know she’s on her way to becoming even more Doctor-like, but I don’t think this was sufficiently addressed in the episode.
All this for an episode I really liked very, very much. The Doctor’s breaking of the fourth wall was captivating, his guitar-playing a delight. (Particularly when it merged into the title music.) The story and the characters are all great; just maybe not as great as they could have been. I guess that’s what happens when a season starts so strong.
I look forward to Maisie Williams and ‘The Girl who Died.’