Reviews: Doctor Who – Series 9 Episode 4 – Before The Flood

Chris Jordan continues reviewing Doctor Who Series 9 with the excellent Before the Flood.

"Go to Innsmouth, they said. Great seafood, they said."
Last weekend’s Under the Lake was a perfect episode of Doctor Who; a truly compelling tale backed by a wonderfully strong cast of guest characters. That episode’s story now continues in Before the Flood – and writer Toby Whithouse not only maintains the previous installment’s level of excellence, but also takes the story in an equally compelling new direction. Calling this a two-parter doesn’t quite do it justice: while the two episodes are indeed halves of the same story, each one uses that story to explore a different facet of Doctor Who’s sci-fi storytelling possibilities. Before the Flood is not just more of the same (although given how great Under the Lake was, that would have been perfectly alright), but a smart and high-concept take on a time-travel story, using the continuing arc of the two-chapter tale as a springboard.

For a show that is ostensibly all about time travel, it is actually a bit rare for Doctor Who to really delve deep into philosophical, ethical, and logistical questions of how travelling in time really works, and what the consequences can be if someone messes something up. Usually this show is all about the adventure, and the laws of time are handled as fast and loose as necessary to fit the plot. Even earlier this season we saw The Doctor introduce guitar solos to the middle-ages just for fun, with no thought of consequences from either himself or screenwriter Steven Moffat. What a wonderful treat it is, then, that Before the Flood is principally concerned with delving deep into the concept of time travel, both in its narrative possibilities and its philosophy.  Since Under the Lake was essentially a sci-fi ghost story, this sequel looks at the concept of ghosts from a fascinating new angle: a question of what ghosts mean in relation to causality and truths of history. This is a perfect illustration of what Doctor Who can do with a good two-parter, and why it should include longer stories more often: rather than just giving us a bigger story spread out over two episodes, Whithouse has used that time to develop a richness of ideas. There’s still some good action too, but this is principally Doctor Who as intellectual sci-fi, and it’s fantastic.

"I don't need to hear Murray Gold's dramatic music
to know that blue light means something creepy."
This seems to be the sort of tale in which Peter Capaldi is most at home: one in which his sharp wit and intense personality take center stage, rather than the sorts of action heroics that the younger Matt Smith excelled at. Jenna Coleman also delivers one of her best performances yet, as Clara too gets to use her skills as an intellectual hero rather than an action hero. Once again, the other great performance in this two-parter comes from Sophie Stone as deaf scientist Cass, who speaks volumes with no spoken dialogue. She shows that a deaf character can still be a resourceful badass and a strong dramatic lead, and powerfully disproves stereotypes about disability. I would love it if she became a permanent part of the TARDIS crew rather than just a guest-star.

With its excellent balance of a great story and even greater ideas, Toby Whithouse has undoubtedly set the standard for the very best of series 9, and possibly Peter Capaldi’s era in general. I dare say that Under the Lake/Before the Flood makes me hope that Whithouse will be the next Doctor Who showrunner after the uneven Steven Moffat steps down. If the rest of series 9 follows in this two-parter’s footsteps, it could be one of new Doctor Who’s best years, and would make 12 and Clara one of its strongest TARDIS teams. How likely is this? Only time will tell, but I’m optimistic.


- Christopher S. Jordan