Before the Flood – Doctor Who Review

Series 9 Episode 4

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This week’s Doctor Who review takes us to Before the Flood. This episode introduces us to the towering Fisher King (Peter Serafinowicz), more ghosts, and the age-old Bootstrap Paradox. But does last week’s set up pay off?

Before PosterToby Whithouse hasn’t done a two-parter before so I was eager to see how he would round off what was a very promising start with last week’s episode. The opening was a strange display reminiscent of last year’s Listen with the Doctor giving a monologue to the camera. He presents the Bootstrap Paradox – if someone goes back in time to meet Beethoven, taking with them all their music manuscripts, only to find he doesn’t exist and so they publish the manuscripts themselves and become Beethoven, then who wrote the music in the first place?

This time loop paradox is nothing new in Doctor Who, but I did enjoy how it was treated as a serious and mind-bending exercise rather than waved away with a jolly ‘wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey’. It invites the audience to grapple with the mystery and think about it, instead of a ‘just accept it, weird stuff happens’. Still, I felt as if the opening monologue could have been dealt with in dialogue with another character instead; as it stands, it feels a little too thrown in our faces. Not a big complaint, but I’m supposed to be a critic here, give me a break!

Then we get a punk’ed up version of the theme music. It reminded me a lot of the theme from 1980-85 by Peter Howell. I wish they’d keep if for the rest of the series.

The Doctor has taken Mason Bennett and Alice O’Donnell back into the past in the TARDIS to find out just what caused all those ghosts from last week. Bennett and O’Donnell get some nice fleshing out as characters, although I was disappointed that O’Donnell didn’t get more as she is all too quickly axed off so that Bennett can have some angst. He directs his anger mostly at the Doctor and his tendency to sacrifice others for the sake of defeating the threat. This is a theme that has permeated the last to series so I won’t dwell on it too much here, but it’s nice to see that the Twelfth Doctor is becoming less and less proud of making these ‘tough calls’.

We also see one of the ghosts before they were a ghost. Prentis, a Tivolian, was the undertaker in charge of taking the fabled Fisher King to be buried. There is a very interesting parallel drawn between the Tivolian’s constant state of being conquered and the Fisher King’s constant conquests. Both are desperate, terrifying methods of survival. I had not been expecting this comparison and found it to be one of the most interesting subjects raised in the episode and really wanted it to be expanded on and explored more.

Fisher KingThe Fisher King, large, powerful, foreboding, and cruel wants people to know he will go to any lengths to survive. And yet the Tivolians have survived and continue to survive beyond many of the empires and powers that conquer them. Their method of constant surrender has kept them alive, kept them in existence where other, more violent races have been obliterated. As the Eleventh Doctor pointed out back in The God Complex, it is an aggressive form of cowardice, to survive by outliving their conquerors. Meanwhile, emperors and would-be gods like the Fisher King have too much pride, perhaps, and a desire to control the world, not just survive it.

The Fisher King’s plan is a little odd if you break it down. He turns people into transmitters that will broadcast his location to his people so that they will bring an armada to rescue them. Exactly how he does this is left very much unclear and I was simply wondering why a simple radio of some sort wouldn’t suffice? Perhaps this is just how his species communicates, but it would have been nice to have had some indication of that.

On the subject of the Fisher King it was interesting to see what might have been an attempt at putting a source on a legend. In the Mabinogion (the book of Welsh and Celtic mythologies and folk tales) a character resembling the Fisher King of Arthurian romances has a cauldron that can resurrect the dead but those who are revived cannot speak, much like the ghosts raised by this Fishy King.

The Fisher King in BBC Merlin
The Fisher King in BBC Merlin

The Fisher King of legend is often a story of prolonging life in spite of great injury, of having something to create immortality – a cauldron or, later, the Holy Grail. Though if the BBC’s Merlin series had had this particular get-up for their Fisher King it might have been a very different show.

Peter Serafinowicz gives a great voice to this creature and I hear that musician Cory Taylor provided the Nazgul-like screech. I’m sure if BBC Worldwide get around to it, we’ll have plenty of screaming toys to look forward to at Christmas.

The focus of the episode was a little divided, ultimately, and I would have liked a little more depth for the other crew members, especially Cass. Pairing them all up romantically felt a little haphazard and not very convincing and I hope this is not a sign of things to come from Whithouse. Some have speculated that this was an ‘audition piece’ for him as show runner. I would very much like to see what he would do with more time and series-long character arcs and given his work on Being Human I can see it going quite well if he does take over.

The solution and resolution work fairly well and there are no particularly big surprises, but in an episode that I feel was giving us a little more atmosphere than usual I was willing to let that slide.

Next week, the Viking’s attack with Maisie Williams at the forefront!