We missed last week’s recap Whovians, MondoCon and Fantastic Fest recovery being what it is. But, conveniently Under the Lake was the first episode of a two parter, so what better way to recap than with the tale as whole.
Seeking random excitement and adventure (as ever), the Doctor and Clara find themselves in a the not too distant future on board an underwater Scottish base. The crew have stumbled across an alien vessel, salvaged it, and all hell has broken loose. Crew members are starting to die and reappear as ghosts, with black voids where their eyes used to be, whispering the names of the base’s members. It’s up to the Time Lord and his companion to save the crew and themselves by figuring out what these ghostly figures are after and how their appearance ties to the alien ship.
Under the Lake is a very stripped down, linear affair, building tension and a mystery well: a typical trapped Doctor/time running out/unexplainable threat/overall dire situation story. Before the Flood opens in dramatic style, breaking the fourth wall and showcasing Capaldi’s rock talents once again to educate the viewer on the Bootstrap Paradox (Google it). A temporal paradox underpins the story and embodies the approach of the second half. Sure there’s still a mystery and thrilling element, but a large amount of time is given over to technobabble and other dialogue. The cleverness of the tale somewhat is diffused by overcomplication and exposition.
Overall it’s was certainly a more cerebral affair than the simple ghost story it suggests, playing with established laws in the Whoniverse to allow the Doctor to travel back in time within an event, something that’s usually a no no. It’s a little bit of a cheat, but it does allow us the glimpse of the Doctor watching himself from afar as timelines overlapped, a little reminiscent of Back to the Future, and also allows the embrace of a well-debated paradox that would result from time travel. The tale puts the Doctor into a seemingly no win situation, destiny being as it is, a future outcome being unavoidable once known.
The term “timey-wimey” was coined so the show didn’t have to overly explain temporal shenanigans, yet for some reason Before the Flood commits large portions of its time to exposition and clarification. It’s an unusually deflating experience. The reveal, that the ghosts are beacons, used to perpetuate a series of coordinates and lure more people into a trap, like the Sirens of ancient Greece, is incredibly stretched. If you can think of a more convoluted way to achieve such goals please let me know. It was symptomatic of the story as a whole pushing its cleverness a little too far, a little too detatched and technical to really hit home. The big bad of it all was a brilliantly executed monster, the Fisher King. Wonderfully voiced by Peter ‘Darth Maul’ Serafinowicz, he was sadly given little enough screen-time to really make its mark, further compounding the issues with the second half.
A highlight of the tale is the casting of deaf actress Sophie Stone as crew member Cass. It strikes a blow for actors with a disability but also shows off the way such a attribute can be cleverly folded into a story. Cass is a strong, competent part of the crew and crucial to their survival, but her unknowingly being stalked through a corridor was an unsettling highlight.
We did get a cliffhanger in the middle implying the Doctor had died, a plot device always undermined because he’s the Doctor, and can’t die. Instead of fear it only provokes a mild curiosity as to how he’s going to get out of this one. That being said, Capaldi’s performance when he realizes his fate seems set goes a way to convincing you otherwise. On the positive side, this turn of events it let Clara go off and do her own thing to try and save the day, which is always welcome. Speaking of Capadi, he seems to be more like Tom Baker than ever before, which is no bad thing.
His single-minded attitude to save Clara here is mirrored by hers to save the Doctor. Clara’s decision to send one of the supporting characters into danger to help the Doctor, while based on some logic, shows a callous nature we more equate with our Time Lord. Last season showed the transformation of Clara into this mirror of the Doctor, and it’s consistent to see her displaying these attitudes. But I sense a fall is approaching; knowing Jenna Coleman is leaving the show, is it possible her loss of humanity could at some point be her undoing and also provide the ultimate lesson for the Doctor?
Under the Lake was very much intent on setting up a horror/mystery while Before the Flood embraced timey-wimey goodness to get the Doctor out of the hole he was trapped in. Each part succeeds at what it strives for but fails to form a cohesive story. Still, it’s never anything but interesting, the cast both main and supporting being tremendously engaging. But a better amalgamation of the two parts would have been welcome. Oh, and I still don’t like the sonic sunglasses.