This articles covers the episodes Under the Lake and Before the Flood, which together form a single Doctor Who story. Writer Toby Whithouse looks to the past for this story, in more ways than one. He takes the base-under-siege format as the basic structure, complete with a base commander who puts money ahead of the safety of his crew. This is so Troughton-era that Pritchard might as well be called Robson or Hobson or Dobson. Then Whithouse updates the format so it fits within the standard modern approach to a two-parter, with the first episode building up to a Really Massive Cliffhanger™, and the second episode finding a way to undo the narrative collapse that would effectively end Doctor Who.
Also borrowing from the past is the Doctor talking to the viewers, although it has taken 50 years for anyone to pluck up the courage to smash down the fourth wall to this extent again. This is “Merry Christmas to all of you at home” turned up to eleven, with the Doctor even performing the theme music during the opening credits. We could be churlish and complain that the bootstrap paradox has been used in Doctor Who before on several occasions without the need to have it explained to us as if we are children, but on the other hand it does make for a great way to bookend the second episode, and just because it is something that has happened to Clara it doesn’t necessarily mean that she (or us for that matter) has ever made much attempt to get her head around it before.
DOCTOR: I programmed my ghost to say them because that’s what my ghost had said. And the only reason I created my ghost hologram in the first place was because I saw it here. I was reverse engineering the narrative.
CLARA: Okay, that’s still pretty smart.
DOCTOR: You do not understand. When did I first have those ideas, Clara?
CLARA: Well, it must have been… Wow.
That “reverse engineering the narrative” line is the most significant aspect of the fourth wall break, because it sets the Doctor up as the creator of his own stories, and as regular readers to this blog will know that is something the Steven Moffat era has been playing with on a regular basis. This is metafictional Doctor Who on another level.
Laying siege to our base here are some ghosts, allowing Whithouse to play with horror movie techniques, most obviously their reliance on darkness. Some of the best horror films find a way to subvert that. For example, one of the most shocking moments of Paranormal Activity is when the activity starts happening in broad daylight. Here something equally clever happens, because Whithouse uses the trope as a way to increase the fear factor with a game-changer. At first it seems like the ghosts are mindless and their behaviour is simply repetitive, until they find away to trigger the night mode on the base themselves. At this point, the threat becomes an intelligent threat, and feels much more dangerous.
Conveniently, the ghosts mouth words silently, and the base just happens to have a lip-reader on board. Cass is a great character, and this is a perfect episode to include somebody who uses sign language. It’s not just that it works so well for the plot, but also that the relationship between Clara and the Doctor has softened and deepened at this point and the two actors are responding to this development by non-verbal communication. A facial expression will often do the job. By this point it is a long-term relationship between two people who understand each other very well, so they have reached a stage where they don’t always need words to say what they need to say, and there is a lovely thematic parallel here with the sign language. This becomes more literal at times when the Doctor actually attempts a bit of sign language, at one point apparently clumsily trying to sign “I love you” to Clara (perhaps subconsciously), the words he will forever struggle to say out loud to her, just like he struggled to say them to Rose. “Quite right too.”
Apart from giving us a base-under-siege and a glorious fourth wall break, Whithouse takes inspiration from other sources. The least said about the David Walliams tribute act the better, although he does at least work well when he’s a ghost. There are a couple of really interesting ideas that frustratingly get wasted. The concept of an abandoned fake village is a gift for a writer, and can’t possibly fail to be creepy… unless it is just used to pad out an episode and the writer doesn’t bother to do much with it. More frustrating is the namechecking of the Arthurian legend of the Fisher King, the guardian of the Holy Grail who was the last of his line and was wounded to the extent that he could do nothing other than fish in a river, waiting for a knight to come and heal him so he could father the next generation of Grail protectors and restore his kingdom, which is suffering with him and has become barren. So it’s a great story, but Whithouse does nothing much with it other than borrow the name, and have his Fisher King also waiting to be saved. But there is no point in doing that if you don’t make the story about the redemption and healing of the Fisher King. It’s more than just a cool name.
So we are already starting to see this series struggling under the weight of being constructed mostly from two-parters, a frankly bizarre idea in the first place considering how often both Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat have struggled to get the things to work. Despite trying to deal with this by throwing extra ideas into the mix and then doing nothing much with them, Whithouse makes a pretty decent job of things here. And if nothing else you have to admire the ambition of a writer who gives us a base-under-seige / psychological horror / Arthurian legend in a fake abandoned village with an outrageous fourth wall break. He might not quite hit the target, but at least he’s shooting for the stars. RP
The view from across the pond:
During season nine, someone had the brainwave that every story should be a 2-parter. This gave us Under the Lake/Before the Flood. It’s actually a shame because this story starts off properly creepy but loses something in the second half. Like so much of season 9, it rattles about in its faraday cage making waves that just make a mess. For instance, we start with the further deterioration of Clara as a character. She and the Doctor arrive on an undersea base and immediately she’s itching to go “on an adventure” with “things blowing up”. This isn’t a person! It’s a caricature of a companion who should want to explore, learn and grow. What happened to the audience being represented by the companion? If that’s what the producers think of the audience, why keep making the show since everywhere we go, we just want to leave? She wants to see things blowing up, she should go to a 4th of July show in the US, she wouldn’t need story, and there’d be no need to meet people… she can just get to see things blowing up. She doesn’t know where she is and for all she knows it could be a planet in need of saving, but she starts with being an arrogant fool:
Clara: “Monsters, things blowing up. Oh, hey, can we go back to that place where the people with the long necks have been celebrating New Year for two centuries? I left my sunglasses there. And most of my dignity. … I want another adventure. Come on, you feel the same. You’re itching to save a planet, I know it.”
But the Doctor doesn’t fare much better, needing cards to know what to say to comfort people. Capaldi’s first season depicted him as a bit cold, but he was coupled with a number of fairly good stories. His second season depicts him as having more heart but he had far weaker stories. (It’s not until his final season that they get the balance right and give us “great Doctor/great stories”!) But this one is a throwback to his first season. For those who don’t know, he’s over 2000 years old and has dealt with humans all of his life yet somehow he needs cards to help him know what to say and he’s not smart enough to know how to read them. It’s an embarrassing attempt to be funny on the writer’s part, but failing to do the character any justice at all.
The crazy thing is, the TARDIS has landed somewhere with monsters and adventure. And in proper Lovecraftian fashion, there are words that embed themselves in the readers mind and change them. The ghosts are extremely eerie, wandering the base without eyes and making no sound as they speak. Conceptually, it’s a win right from the start. And the underwater base is evidently peopled by Star Trek: The Next Generation fans! (Just look at the mural; if you missed it before, you’ll kick yourselves now!) The first part gives us an intense cliffhanger that begs to launch into part two.
Then part two comes around, opens with a series break in the proverbial fourth wall, which you either love or hate (and I rarely ever approve of those) and then the entire cliffhanger for part one is undone like it never happened. Oh, it was a hologram! Remember when Dorothy realized Oz was all just a dream and you felt cheated back 50 years ago? The hologram answer doesn’t fare any better, I promise. Now the Fisher King is an impressive monster in the grand tradition of scary monsters that know about Time Lords but even that doesn’t make him do anything worthy of being scary short of towering over the Doctor. The creature stands at least 7 feet tall, maybe closer to 8. He’s an impressive looking wee beastie… that gets wiped out by a wave. Cool scene, but … that’s it! Powerhouse monster, wiped away in a flood.
And then there’s the whole continuity thing. O’Donnell references events from the Doctor’s past for the standard fan service and I can get behind that but she also references something from his future that he says he doesn’t want to know about. And I’m all for the long game, but the rest of season nine elapsed with no further news of what the Minister of War was and even season 10 went by without a reference to it. So the question is: will it ever make sense? Considering Toby Whithouse gave us the TV show Being Human, and the Doctor Who episodes School Reunion, The Vampires of Venice and The God Complex (to name a few), one has to hope he knows what he’s doing and we are heading for a reveal down the road… somewhere.
So is it a good story? Moderately. It’s just that it jumps around too much and undermines itself by undoing a really great cliffhanger. The fourth wall break is, as I said, either a love it or hate it effect that doesn’t work in the context of the story. A big pet peeve of mine is when you get a novel that needs an entire appendix with it. For me, it says the story wasn’t effective on its own at conveying everything and needed a helper. That fourth wall break is the helper for the episode. It’s like saying “ok, so you know what we said before? We’re going to undo it, and here’s how…” Great concept, poor placement. It would have been better to have the Doctor and Clara debating about that later or even before Clara starts her “oh, this place isn’t cool enough” routine. Have discussion that answers it in advance.
Lastly, I have to ask, what of “her dignity” did she almost leave behind, because maybe we either need to really address the character of Clara or we need to visit that episode because I’m not above saying I’m curious! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Girl Who Died