Previously on Doctor Who, ‘Under the Lake, Part 1’
Kicking off the close of this fantastic underwater adventure, the Doctor breaks the Fourth Wall with a lesson on the Bootstrap Paradox (or causal loop). Let’s say a time traveler goes back in time to meet Beethoven and he’s not there, so the time traveler becomes Beethoven. In that case, which came first? While you’re pondering that, he strikes up the Fifth Symphony on his electrical guitar and segues into the theme music. And yes, that was actually Peter Capaldi turning the theme up to 12. Raddest Doctor to date? Trick question: They’re all the Doctor.
Fangirl O’Donnell temporarily plays it cool over their trip to 1980, given her encyclopedic Doctor knowledge that surpasses even his own (Minister of War?) then privately squeals to Bennett about the TARDIS. The military base proves to be a Scottish version of Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull with a Soviet village mockup and the ship has only just landed, revealing the Tivolian, a funeral director with a penchant for BDSM enslavement, and its purpose, an Arcateenian hearse for the last Fisher King. This is no elementary school field trip—we last saw Arcateenians in “Greeks Bearing Gifts” of Torchwood, underlining the adult bent of this season. The Tivolian Prentis is played by Paul Kaye, or Thoros of Myr for the Game of Thrones fans.
While the Doctor ghost haunts the cafeteria, Lunn kind-heartedly attempts to console Clara as she might. In this moment, it becomes clear that her thematic desperation for adventure is a balm for her mourning over Danny, pushing further and further into the future and away from her heartache, something she can’t possibly sustain forever. With perfect timing, the Doctor phones from the past and takes his future death in stride, but Clara tearfully demands he figure this out.
“Die with whomever comes after me! You do not leave me. …And anyway, you owe me. You’ve made yourself essential to me, you’ve given me something else to be… If you love me, in any way, you’ll come back.”
He bows over the TARDIS controls for a good minute. Pauses here to write copious fanfiction. I especially enjoyed how Cass wraps her arms around both Clara and Lunn to herd them out of the cafeteria and the exaggerated camera angle on the TARDIS highlighting the Doctor’s renewed determination to set things right.
Unsurprisingly, the Fisher King isn’t dead at all, awakening and beginning the cycle with the Tivolian’s death. Cass determines the Doctor ghost is reciting a list of their names: “Moran, Pritchard, Prentis, O’Donnell, Clara, Doctor, Bennett, Cass…” It moves inside, opening the Faraday Cage and releasing the other ghosts. When the Alive Doctor phone conferences his ghost, it triggers a new message: “The chamber will open tonight.” With additional knowledge that his ghostly coat shoulder is torn, Alive Doctor sends Cass, Lunn, and Clara back to the Faraday Cage with instructions to leave the phone outside the door, intensely swearing to come back for her, and then suspiciously tries to talk O’Donnell into staying in the TARDIS to monitor calls. Mhm, bye, O’Donnell.
In the basement of the church, the Fisher King roars, panic splitting O’Donnell from Bennett and the Doctor for the obvious reason of O’Donnell dying. Finding her a victim of the Fisher King, Bennett sadly but sweetly fusses at her for not listening, then accuses Attack Eyebrows of testing a theory—the names are a death order list—and of only being willing to change history to save himself. Not quite, but he would to save Clara.
“This isn’t about saving me. I’m a dead man walking. I’m changing history to save Clara.”
One of those crucial quotes that sums up their entire relationship. The Doctor tries to go back to the future (haha!) but the TARDIS’ Cloister Bell says No Siree and penalizes him an additional 30 minutes, forcing he and Bennett to watch themselves and the still-alive O’Donnell re-arrive from afar. Seeing her is too much for Bennett, and the Doctor tears his coat tackling him before he can cause a paradox.
After O’Donnell’s ghost steals the phone, Clara realizes Lunn isn’t etching-programmed, so he can run about unmolested. Cass practically goes apoplectic with signs, demanding through Lunn:
“She said to ask you whether traveling with the Doctor changed you, or were you always happy to put other people’s lives at risk?”
She throws in a good paragraph’s worth of emphatic insults Lunn declines to translate, but he heads out regardless.
The Doctor of course demands an audience with the Fisher King, who’s dying to know how his plan turned out in the future, revealing his intent to draw a terraforming armada to earth and wake him once more. However, when the chamber activates in the future, there’s a distinct impression that it isn’t going that way.
Lunn successfully passes through the conferring ghosts after they creepily sniff him like hungry grizzly bears and retrieves the phone, but is locked in the café. Clara recognizes the Beast Mode face on Cass when they realize Lunn isn’t returning, so she insists on going out with her. But they, too, get separated, and as the sound neatly switches from the silence of her breath to scraping metal, Cass walks unaware of the commander dragging an axe behind her. With the alarm bell of her name on the list ringing in our brains, Cass dips slowly down to the floor and palms it, sensing the fuzz of vibration that forms a Daredevil-style picture of the axe, and with perfect horror, she rises and escapes at exactly the right moment, grabbing Clara and rescuing Lunn.
The Fisher King monologues his plans to “drain the oceans and put the humans in chains.” He back the earth’s protector against the chamber, lecturing him for being a slave to time, but the Doctor says he’s no better than the Tivolians, surviving at the cost of souls. Why not interrupt time, other than the Ripple Effect? “Maybe it will be ruled by cats or something!” The Doctor decides he’s about had enough of this overgrown Bottle Opener.
In all honesty, it is quite an impressive new monster, and I wouldn’t mind seeing this species again. Trivia-wise, the Fisher King is played in three parts: the man underneath is Neil Fingleton, Britain’s tallest man at over 7’7; his speaking voice is vocalized by Peter Serafinowicz, probably most familiar to this crowd as Garthan Saal in Guardians of the Galaxy for his comment, “I can’t believe I’m taking orders from a hamster;” and the scream is courtesy of Slipknot’s Corey Taylor. The legend of the Fisher King is an ancient Celtic one in which the king is last in a long line of Holy Grail protectors. Due to a groin injury, he is unable to propagate his line and the entire land suffers from related supernatural devastation. Again, an adult theme that in this case outlines the being’s role of going on a quest to destroy the earth and make it palatable for the propagation of his people.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”#4A7097″ class=”” size=””]“This regeneration has been a bit of a clerical error anyway.” – The Doctor[/pullquote]
Back to the story. The Doctor bluffs that he’s erased the etchings and ruined his plans, sending the Fisher King lumbering back to the ship to check. Of course he didn’t, but he did use the missing power cell to blow the dam, flood the base, and save the earth. TARDIS protocol 712 sends Bennett to the future (Factoid alert!), where the suspended animation chamber opens to reveal the Doctor. Hooray! He stabs the sonic sunglasses into the controls, using the recorded Fisher King roar to send the ghosts into the Faraday Cage where the Doctor’s ghost flickers out, a hologram. Determining the ghosts to be electromagnetic projections (explaining their ability to use metal), the Doctor surmises UNIT will heft the cage out into space where the projections will fade.
A nice ending for everyone… except O’Donnell, and by extension Bennett, who stares morosely after her ghost. While the Doctor flounders to comprehend his question about where to go with his life next, Clara recognizes the look of lost opportunity and love, so acutely reminded of it earlier, and encourages him to live as O’Donnell would have wanted. It’s too late for them, so he asks Lunn to translate something to Cass as a favor: that Lunn is in love with her and always has been. To seize the day, as it were. Lunn reluctantly does and tries to stay chill—it’s only a translation!—but Cass grabs him for a kiss. I may or may not have clapped. Allegedly.
Back in the TARDIS, the Doctor explains that his ghostly messages were to himself, using Clara’s name to spur himself into action and reverse engineer what may have originally happened. But It’s impossible to know which point he enacted his plan, raising some darker questions about his culpability in O’Donnell’s death. In fact, it’s impossible to know if this always happened, or if he rewrote events entirely. Remembering the moment he learned of his ghost, even as he’s openly bouncing between disappointment and fatalism, the wheels are turning—all the crucial details he learns serve as a backbone for him to recreate this moment in his own image, not the Fisher King’s.
Throughout the episode, the moody filtering and camera angles work with the expanded set and expensive monster to make this a serious, unflinching exploration of theme, keeping any potential cheesiness at bay, although perhaps not quite as dark as it might have been if, say, Tennant’s 10 were here. This is, after all, only episode 4 of 13. Even O’Donnell’s fangirl squealing moment is balanced by the revelation that she was previously in military intelligence, adding a sober weight to her character and a sense of duty, rather than irony, to her death.
Overall ‘Before the Flood’ is a successful episode alone and paired with ‘Under the Lake’ with only a few weak points, as it perhaps could have used a bit more menace from the Fisher King since we were never in any doubt that the Doctor would defeat him handily. Easily one of the better Capaldi episodes, it highlights what the Twelfth Doctor considers fun—blowing your mind with timey wimey technicalities—and underlines his dark streak, which is admittedly my favorite part of the Doctors. Not one of the other actors/characters wilted next to him, and I enjoyed the clever geekfest that was this ensemble cast as they proved time and again that they were only perhaps a step or two behind him.
Next week, Maisie Williams guest stars in another two-part series, ‘The Girl Who Die’” and ‘The Woman Who Lived,’ starting with a Viking village besought by gods gone wrong.
The Tivolian business card: “May the remorse be with you.”
Tivolian world motto: “If you occupied us, you’d be home by now.”
O’Donnell about Bennett’s time travel sickness: “One small step for man, one giant BLEARRGH.”
The Doctor: “This regeneration has been a bit of a clerical error anyway.”
Doctor Who S9E4
Excellent use of causal loop logic. Strong casting all around. Alien didn’t seem particularly threatening, but great effects, costuming, and setting. Serious, unforced dialogue with only minor hammy moments.
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