Sunday, 25 October 2015

Moist Haunted

Doctor Who
Under The Lake and Before The Flood
Series Nine, Episodes Three and Four

At some point in the last few years, Doctor Who seemingly went off the idea of two-parters.  Once a staple ingredient, they only crop up now and then, often with such a tectonic shift in setting that the episodes are more like cousins than siblings.  (Look at The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang, or A Good Man Goes To War and Let's Kill Hitler.  Actually, don't look at the last two, they're a load of balls.)  This year, for whatever reason, you can hardly move for two-parters.  Good-oh: change is healthy.

Speaking of change: the rock theme tune.
It... actually works.
Now can we stop moaning at Hartnell for wishing us a Merry Christmas?
And okay, they're already hit and miss.  (The Magician's Apprentice spent 45 minutes just warming the toilet seat for Part 2.)  But in cases like Under The Lake and Before The Flood, it feels like the writer had a reason to take up two episodes.  This isn't just Base Under Siege, Now With 45 More Minutes.  It's two separate things that work together.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  You see that bit up there, about the Base Under Siege?  Uh huh: we're going there again, and buying another T-shirt.  Make room in your wardrobe.

The TARDIS arrives (somewhat reluctantly) in an underwater base.  The crew are missing, but still nearby – the Doctor figures this out by dipping his finger in a cup of lukewarm tea, which is adorable.  They're being pursued by ghosts, who are killing them off and adding them to their ranks.  It all has something to do with an unidentified spaceship, with untranslatable words scrawled on its walls.

Under The Lake divides into two main chunks: ghosts being creepy and characters discussing the problem.  The ghosts are great, walking silently and spryly after the remaining crew.  It's refreshing to have a quiet baddie with no gnashing teeth.  (I also think the Weeping Angels are at their creepiest when they're not pulling their "GRR" faces.)  They follow strict rules, such as they only come out at night, they can only move metal objects, and they only have it in for you if you've read the words on that spaceship.  The Doctor is blissfully stumped, dismissing the whole idea of ghosts to begin with – because they don't exist, duh – but then coming around to it later on, because he's excited by new things and actually it might be ghosts.  (He dismisses the elephant-in-the-room-y idea that they are actually holograms, because um.)

Sadly, good as they are, there's a point where the ghosts aren't frightening any more.  There are just too many loopholes.  If there's nothing metal around them, they can't hurt you.  Even though they can walk through walls, you can lose them around a corner or by walking briskly.  When they're not trying to kill you, they're apt to stand around doing nothing.  If you can switch on the base's Day Mode, they disappear.  And if you lock them in the base's Faraday Cage, or go in and lock them out, you're safe as houses.  Yes, it sucks that the characters keep dying, but the ghosts themselves just become a point of inconvenience, and later, information-gathering.  This is where the episode's other chunk, the heaps and heaps of talking, comes in.

"It's deadlock sealed, I can't open it."
No, a sonic gadget can't open it.
Why is that the limit of his abilities?
What are ghosts?  Can ghosts exist?  What does the writing mean?  Why can't the TARDIS translate it?  Why doesn't the TARDIS want to be here?  What are the ghosts saying?  What does that mean?  How are the ghosts affecting the base?  Yak, yak, yak.  The characters aren't all that interesting, especially the poor bastard with Evil Capitalist written all over him (along with Next To Die).  Perhaps it's for the best that they spend most of their time listening to the Doctor.  One of them is a fan of his, which feels like a repeat of Osgood.  (Sniff.)  Another is deaf, which is really cool for the deaf community and handily enables the others to understand the ghosts (after about twenty-five minutes when they finally cotton on to lip-reading).  They're all well cast, but their sketchy personalities don't go far, as the script is busy justifying the (barmy) notion behind the ghosts.

The words on the spaceship are co-ordinates.  The ghosts (really sort-of-holograms, I think) are transmitting them out into space.  With every new ghost, the signal gets stronger.  So they want to keep killing people (but only the ones who've seen the words) to make more ghosts.  It's all an insidious plan by the original occupant of the spaceship, who's been waiting nearly 150 years for someone to happen along, read the words and die.  (Or however many someones he randomly needs to get enough signal.)  All this because he apparently does not own (and cannot find) any radio or communication equipment, and couldn't be bothered to skip stasis and just get in the spaceship and go home.  Come on.  Even by Doctor Who standards, that's convoluted.

But this is Toby Whithouse, who you may remember is banzai at writing the Doctor and not so hot on plot, so I guess this is Whithouse As Usual.  At its best, with Capaldi selling the hell out of the dialogue and the ghosts creeping along nicely, Under The Lake is traditional enough that you can almost hear Terrance Dicks novelising it.  At its worst, it's a lot of blether stacked on what looks suspiciously like bollocks.  But there are some really great lines, particularly the one about earworms: "Two weeks of Mysterious Girl by Peter Andre.  I was begging for the brush of death's merciful hand."  The music's creepy.  And the set's quite convincing.  There's mould and everything.

Anyway, it does get interesting, just before it ends.  The base starts flooding (because eh, we're bored of ghosts now) and the Doctor and Clara get separated.  The Doctor, in an uncharacteristic move, decides to go back in time to get some answers.  Then a new ghost appears.  It's the Doctor.

I can't lip-read, but he's probably saying:
"No, of course I haven't died.  God, you're gullible.
But I'll tell you my name.  Lean closer.  It's...
Hold that thought about "interesting" for a moment, because oi, you: the Doctor's going to die?  Again?  Cool cliff-hanger and everything, but is anyone going to buy that?  Before The Flood honestly seems to think so, launching into a heated emotional conversation between the Doctor and Clara, and this only two weeks after he thought he was going to cop it in The Witch's Familiar.  Guys, enough is enough; you're just crying wolf (or Bad Wolf) at this point.  Newsflash, he doesn't die.  We're not even talking dies-and-finds-a-way-to-reverse-it here.  He's fine, so all those scenes of Capaldi wrestling with time and mortality... well, they're very good, but they're a waste of time.  Worst of all, you've every reason to guess as much going in.  Keep pulling this nonsense and our expectations will only get lower.

For good measure, the Doctor is spurred into action – and possibly even changing history! – because Clara is due to die before him.  And this might be preferable, if she weren't the only other person in Doctor Who currently holding a No Way I'm Gonna Die Card.  For feck's sake, stop making it all about these two dying, especially while other people are actually copping it.  (They do make a point of how those deaths don't seem to matter as much, which says something about the Doctor's aloofness, but then it tacitly adds to the-show-as-a-whole's wonky sense of perspective.  Whoops.)

Anyway, back to "interesting".  The Doctor goes back in time during an adventure.  Despite owning a time machine, he doesn't do that very often.  It's admittedly a bit odd for that very reason – why doesn't he solve all his riddles that way, and why can't he solve this one the usual way, i.e. forwards?  But Whithouse is the guy who, in A Town Called Mercy, suggested bundling everyone into the TARDIS and getting out of there.  (They didn't do it, but it's what we were all thinking.)  If you can think of a good reason to do the undoable, or at least bring it up, then why not?  It is a really cool idea to set Part 1 in the future, and Part 2 beforehand.  And it's really all about paradoxes, so they don't take it for granted.

Ah yes, paradoxes.  Before The Flood opens with the Doctor explaining (to no one in particular) how the Bootstrap Paradox works.  In a nutshell: go back in time and give yourself an idea, which is what inspired you to go back in time and give yourself the idea.  Who came up with the idea?  This is an interesting puzzle, but it's not a new one for Doctor Who.  The most famous example is in (arguably) the most famous episode: in Blink, all of Sally Sparrow's actions are predetermined and cyclical.  It's a teensy bit weird that they're making a song and dance about it now – it's been Steven Moffat 101 for years.  But there's still a natty paradox underneath the hoopla, and it's satisfying to see Parts 1 and 2 circle each other, particular the second time around.

Sarah Jaaaaane!
Also, his guitar amp is from Magpie Electronics.
I like Doctor Who.
Just to add to the fun, Before The Flood paradoxes itself as well, Back To The Future: Part II style: when the TARDIS refuses to go to Clara's rescue (fair enough, old girl), the Doctor and co. must avoid themselves from an hour or so earlier.  There's a danger of disappearing down the rabbit hole here, but it does allow for a quick repeat of the dangers of changing history.  Which are... still quite muddy actually, since Clara tells the Doctor he's going to die, the Doctor tells an undertaker he's going to send evil messages in the future, he's risking changes in the timeline by cavalierly going back in time in the first place, and he seems to consider chucking the whole timeline in the bin just to save Clara.  (Although he might just be joking to distract the bad guy.)

It's all good fodder for Capaldi, who is generally funny, threatening and out-of-step-with-everyone-else here.  Good Doctoring is practically a Toby Whithouse trope; it's a nice one to have!  I love his attitude to the ghosts, i.e. not assuming they're hostile until they try to kill him.  (I like the way he says "Hello!  Did you want to show us this?  It's very nice!" like he's talking to a couple of toddlers.)  I'm not totally sold on his "emotion" cue cards, which veer closer to mental illness than alienness in my book, but at least he's trying, and he's not telling everyone to shut up any more.  (Apart from the stupid ones, who deserve it.)  In general, the Doctor's eccentricity and coolness came off forced in The Magician's Apprentice, but here, it's really working.  And he's not that nice: he sort of lets someone die just to test a theory – boo, you nasty alien, etc. – but then he obviously tries to get her to stay in the TARDIS first.  It's not his fault she goes, and his emotions are clear when she makes her fateful choice.  It's very Doctorly.  I'm sure McCoy would approve.  (See also, sending the bad guy to his death, apparently guilt-free.)

Jenna Coleman fares less well.  It's obvious they're Doing A Thing by comparing her to the Doctor – oh how terrible she has become by learning from him, etc.  This gives us a great bit where the Doctor has to try to keep her safe, and he hates talking like that so it makes him hilariously uncomfortable.  (Gimme a C!  Gimme an A!  Gimme a P!)  But sometimes she's so generic she might as well be her own hologram.  "I want another adventure.  Come on, you feel the same!  You're itching to save a planet, I know it!"  That's actual dialogue, spoken by a person.  She spends most of Before The Flood hanging by her iPhone waiting for the Doctor to check in.  It's eerily like they were expecting a change of actor and deliberately wrote her as generic as possible.  Jenna nearly left at Christmas, right?  But sadly, it's probably just Clara being Clara.

Sniff.  It's just like the old days!
The rest of the cast are fine, but there aren't a lot of standout moments, apart from some not-very-convincing romances thrown in at the end.  Some actors – Colin McFarlane and, most egregiously, Paul Kaye – are one-scene-wonders, not including their anonymous ghost stuff.  Cass, the deaf commanding officer, impresses the most with her (necessarily?) quiet intensity.  A Daredevil moment cringily over-compensates for her disability, but otherwise she's fab.  As for the baddie, a hulking monstrosity voiced by Peter Serafinowicz, The Fisher King doesn't really work.  He talks too much, his plan's a load of hogwash and in the end he falls for an obvious lie.  What a plonker!  As for his look, no doubt awesome in the concept art, the actual costume is more like Revenge Of The Wobbly '80s Throwback.  I'm pretty sure he bumps into a door at one point, the poor rubbery bastard.

There's a lot in these episodes that works, and as an overall package it's satisfying.  If all two parters are to be given as much attention as this, great.  At the same time it's not as clever as it thinks, over-explaining paradoxes, talking too much and significantly failing to surprise.  (No, he doesn't die and yes, you did guess who was in the stasis chamber the moment they unveiled it.  Who else?)  Call it a game of two halves, then.  Or to coin a phrase, a two-parter.


  1. Love your title.

    If egregious isn't Paul Kaye's middle name, it should be. Not that we object to that.

    We don't disagree with anything here, but we were most unhappy about something you didn't include: the soul train. The Doctor accepts that that's what they are, more or less without questioning it at all. Our eyebrows were hovering near the ceiling.

    1. It was included originally, but on second viewing I thought well, there's a whole line about how what you know changes, and the Doctor's super excited to discover new things so it... sort of fits his character? You're right, it's a stretch, but I ended up being more confused that he doesn't think they're holograms. He just dismisses them in a big list, for no reason. It's literally the first and most obvious thing they could be, and no evidence (besides the metal bit) to the contrary.

      Mind you, I don't feel like they ever fully explained what they are.

    2. Gah, we look back at our comment and it may read as if we meant we were unhappy YOU didn't talk about it. If so, our apologies. We would not be so brimful of presumptuousness. That was just the thing we liked the least. You're right that they didn't explain them, and we suspect that the reason for that is that they didn't know what they were either. You're also extremely right that staving off the obvious by having the Doctor say it isn't that, for no good reason even, then plumping for that (more or less) is pretty atrocious in the plotting department. As for the souls thing, if they want to assert that there are souls in the Whoniverse, that's up to them, but what galled us was the Doctor's pretty much unquestioning acceptance of that. Not a lot of scientific-type investigating going on there. Anyway, that's our problem and a bit of a derail from your lovely review, so never mind.

  2. It's a totally valid concern. I was just in a very forgiving mood. :)

    Definitely got some catching up to do this week!