Friday, 16 October 2015


If you're going to make a series of two-part Doctor Who stories for the iplayer generation, this is how to do it.

Mediaeval imagery, the Cold War and time travel.
Where else on TV could you see this?  (
Image copyright: BBC)

One friend turned off angrily after the opening titles, incensed about the electric guitar mixed into the theme music. Another, 54, reckoned he should have watched it with a 9 year-old so they could explain it to him. We’ll come back to this.


‘Under the Lake’/‘Before the Flood’ rewards repeated viewings, like reading a good novel does, when you can unpick the subtleties at your leisure. There’s an incredible amount of detail packed into the story, performances and imagery.

Two notable instances of the latter: the Fisher King’s co-ordinates are shown in close-up on various characters’ eyes. Not only is this showing what’s actually happening – the alien warlord’s signal being seared into a person’s life-force – but many cultures see the eyes as the windows of the soul. This makes the Fisher King’s plan neatly metaphorical, as the gaping eye sockets in the ghosts suggest that the alien has stolen their souls. Follow that line of reasoning, and you understand why the Fisher King looks like a mediaeval demon.

The Russian training ground neatly establishes the past is 1980 without the need for a lot of expensive crowd scenes, as well as delivering some remarkably surreal imagery, such as a mole-faced, top-hatted undertaker fussing around a spacecraft against a background of Soviet propaganda posters. The chilly Cold War setting also allows for the inclusion of unusually large Russian dolls, their model-inside-a-model construction neatly reflecting what’s going on in the time paradox at the heart of the story. In fact, as they fit the concept so well, I’d go as far as to say that Whithouse chose the Russian setting just so he could put the dolls in the story. If you think that’s taking attention to detail too far, look out for a certain clockwork squirrel that Clara mentions.

‘Before the Flood’ wasn’t some cold, intellectual exercise: Whithouse delivered a cast of characters at the heart of the warped physics that you cared about (more so than in the first episode, admittedly). The bolshiness of O’Donnell (Morven Christie) and her military intelligence past was offset by girlish, infectious enthusiasm at being inside the TARDIS, while the nerdish cowardice of Bennett (Arsher Ali) hardened into angry defiance when he suspected the Doctor might have callously used O’Donnell’s death to test a theory. It was a timely reminder of the more morally ambiguous nature of the Twelfth Doctor’s character, which I thought might have been softened for good under this year’s hoodies, t-shirts, rock star shades and more mischievous personality.

This moral angle also played out in Clara’s interactions with Cass and Lunn, with the former angrily questioning if Clara had learned from the Doctor how to put people’s lives in danger. It’s a believable reaction if you were dealing with people who suddenly appear from nowhere, claiming to know how to solve a terrifying situation. This authentic level of characterisation is also one of the benefits of the 90-minute running time – the length of an old 4-parter, significantly – as you could also see in Clara’s desperate, angry reaction to the realisation that someone else she (loves?) could be dead, as well as the Doctor’s world-weary slump onto the TARDIS console as she pleaded with him.

Don't look behind you... (Image copyright: BBC)
All the actors rose to the quality of the material. Sophie Leigh Stone, in particular, communicated so much through only facial expressions and hand gestures, while Paul Kaye was just as good as he was in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. OK, the ‘they all lived happily ever after’ denouement was a bit icky, but Stone, Ali, Zaqi Ismail (Lunn), Coleman and Capaldi were so good they just about got away with it. It was a necessary release too, after sequences like the tensely brilliant one where Cass was stalked by an axe-dragging ghost. Bit of a shame Peter Serafinowicz didn’t get more to do, but it’s a minor criticism. 


One friend turned off angrily after the opening titles, incensed about the electric guitar mixed into the theme music. Another, 54, reckoned he should have watched the episode with a 9 year-old so they could explain it to him. Well, Friend 1 should have stuck with it, as he’d have seen one of the most sophisticated and satisfying Capaldi stories so far. If Friend 2 had asked his 9 year-old what it all meant, the young fan would probably have told him to watch it again – ‘cos, y’know, you can – and delighted in a monster and ghosts that were ‘brilliant’ and ‘scary.’

That’s Doctor Who as it should be: clever, frightening, thrilling, stimulating, fun and, as befits the best examples of the 21st century version, something you can watch again and see more in every time. And that’s no paradox.

Roll on ‘The Girl Who Died’.

Bit to rewind: The fourth-wall breaking prologue. And the final shot.

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