When last we left The Doctor he looked a little damp… and dead! It’s a bit of a redundancy nowadays on Doctor Who, but nevertheless we were left to believe at the end of Under The Lake that the Doctor has died, becoming one of the signal-boosting ghosts on an underwater mining facility. Who knows, maybe this time he’ll really be dead…
The story picks up with the Doctor taking his new tag-alongs back in time to before the flood. It isn’t long before the Doctor finds what he’s looking for. The spaceship taken aboard the facility in the future is actually an alien hearse. The alien Undertaker is a Tivolian, a mole-like species that boasts their planet as the most concord world in the galaxy. This is the same race of cowardly beings The 11th Doctor encountered a member of in The God Complex. These details don’t serve a point in Before the Flood, but it was nice to see their species make a return. Makes me wonder how we’ll see them next.
Back in the future Clara must come to terms with the Doctor’s death. Only problem is that as lovely as the writing and acting is in the scenes of Clara reflecting on her lost Doctor, we know it’s not true. It’s a shame every story seems to revolve around the Doctor’s fake death, to the point where it’s looking silly. But at the same time Before The Flood has some really great scenes with Clara and the Doctor actually communicating through time, while the Doctor is already dead from Clara’s perspective. They’re great scenes, but the melodramatic death of the Doctor, yet again, makes the plot seem as little repetitive.
The Doctor’s ghost starts acting very strange. It’s freeing the previous ghosts, and not hurting any of the living. The future Doctor tries to communicate with his ghost self, and it works to a point. The Ghost Doctor seems to be trying to relay important information to the future, but nobody, including the Doctor, can fully understand.
An interesting element in these two episodes is one of the mining facility crew. An ex-intelligence officer who happens to be a Doctor groupie, she explains her fandom of The Doctor as a matter of having been privy to classified info concerning the Doctor, including something involving “The Minister of War”, which the Doctor has no knowledge of. (Spoilers?) She tags along with the Doctor as they explore the past, and it feels like she could be a regular companion. If she survives this episode, of course.
The main villain of the episode is a beautifully designed monster named The Fisher King that resembles the aliens of Independence day, and Torchwood: Children of Earth. He’s the one turning the dead into signal amplifiers, and he’s also quite familiar with Time Lords. More on that later…
A wonderfully dark moment comes when the Doctor is confronted on why he so easily tires to change history to save himself, and not the crew. The Doctor responds bluntly by stating he’s changing history to save Clara. With the Doctor so comfortable with breaking temporal law, and Clara’s almost complete transformation into her own version of The Doctor, are we seeing the result of their travels together? Are they at a point where Clara no longer keeps the Doctor in check, because she’s become too much like him? And what is the Doctor capable of without his tether keeping him somewhat grounded? I think we’re seeing the basic framework of Clara’s demise in this first half of the season.
What follows is a really great moment in the show. The Doctor starts to devolve into his “Time Lord Victorious” mentality, similar to what lead to his egotistical, selfish actions in The Waters of Mars. Without a companion the Doctor can’t control his power, and so who is left to help him? It turns out the TARDIS exerts some influence on the Doctor after all, by refusing to take him back to save Clara. His personality gets darker than I’ve ever seen, and it is a shocking thing to behold. I think it’s safe to say Doctor Who is no long “getting” darker. It’s dark. And it’s great!
It seems Clara’s transformation is also a shocking one. Those she’s waiting with back aboard the facility begin to notice how easily she’s willing to put the lives of others at risk. Clara, as bluntly as the Doctor, says that she’s learned to do what needs to be done. I really enjoy this examination of the ramifications of the Doctor’s influence over his companions. We’ve known for a long time that he turns his friends into weapons. Now we see the clearest example, with perhaps the most perfectly honed version of The Doctor’s soldier, Clara Oswald.
The Doctor finally tracks down the Fisher King. He is intent on bringing his kind to earth to strip it of its resources. Surprisingly, the creature knows The Doctor is a Time Lord. There’s a lot of chatter about Time Lords lately, with Missy, Davros, and now some other entity that knows of their existence. More and more it looks like the Time Lords are becoming a matter of fact on the show. None of it, however, seems to point to a pleasant return. The Fisher King characterizes the Time Lords as the most warlike race to ever exist. Only time will tell, but I think we’re seeing another hint of what the Time Lords’ return is going to look like.
But this is Doctor Who, and of course The Doctor becomes increasingly motivated the more intense his situation becomes. With intentions made clear, The Doctor is sure of his course. The rest of the crew fight to survive as The Doctor faces off against the villainous Fisher King. The episode wraps up as many Doctor Who episodes do, with a flurry of nervous fleeing, and The Doctor cleverly speeching his way to victory.
Before The Flood is a great example of how to make a fun, cohesive two-part story in Doctor Who. It gives us one of the better examples of reverse cause and effect only possible in a time travel show. It also makes use of the Bootstrap Paradox. Even the Doctor says to google it! This episode has elements of mystery, shock, cleverness, and everything good about this grittier version of Doctor Who.