Friday, 16 October 2015

Doctor Who:
Under the Lake / Before the Flood

The second of this year's two-part Doctor Who stories is much more of a classic tale than the first, in the traditional "base under siege" mold. After the series' massive and chaotic opener, what did the Hurds make of this change of pace?

Matthew:
Watching this first episode, I realised how much I enjoy the Doctor exploring new locations and slowly discovering what's going on. Seeing him creep around an empty base, just as confused and uncertain as we are, is way more interesting to me than when he already knows the situation, like he did with Davros. Likewise, the slower pace and single location let us get properly invested, rather than jumping from space to school to medieval parties.

And yet, at the risk of seeming like a hypocrite, I did think this episode was maybe a little too slow. It might just be the lack of resolution going into the cliffhanger, but the story seemed very slight to me - like not a great deal actually happened. Did you two feel that, or did this work for you?

Amy:
I really enjoyed Under the Lake. It was more of a monster of the week episode than a huge epic adventure. It reminded me a little of The Impossible Planet in some ways: A base at a difficult to get to location with a small crew of people, which is a format that works well. Especially if the other characters are interesting, which I thought they were. I enjoyed the Doctor's handy flashcards.

Overall, I really enjoyed it and don't really have anything negative to say about it! Apart from I still think the sound is off and I really hope the sonic sunglasses aren't here to stay.

David:
Obviously, I really enjoyed Under the Lake as well. It would be hard not to, with its claustrophobic, tension-dripping atmosphere. The episode was a clever homage to the great sci-fi horrors like The Thing and Alien, and was intelligent and well-crafted enough to never feel like a parody or an imitation.

It's always interesting to see the Doctor come across something he's not encountered before, and his excitement about the possibility of real ghost was palpable (even if the crew didn't share his enthusiasm).

This episode built on the strengths of last week's one, focusing on telling a simple story well, with a healthy focus on characters. After all, a horror movie only works if we care about the people in danger, and they made us care, even before the Doctor showed up. Is that the benefit of having a double episode, or are the writers just more confident with Capaldi now? Time will tell, I'm sure.

So what did everyone think of episode 2?

First just let me back up what you two said!

I'm a big fan of the way Capaldi doesn't fuss about or dwell on death, and I thought the flashcards were a great way for Clara to try and deal with that. Likewise, his excitement about new and unusual things - even dangerous ones that are killing everyone around him - is always a joy. I do think this story went a little too far with it's big "kiss it to death" speech, though. Ghosts with an earworm seem quite tame compared to much of what he's faced before, so I never quite bought it.

As for the second episode, I'll try to stay positive for now, and say that I really enjoy the new fourth-wall-breaking openings that we see here and in Listen. That was really fun, and letting him rock out over the opening credits was just awesome. Other than that, the design of the Fisher King looked amazing, but I thought his great design was wasted in this episode because (positivity ends here) everything else about this episode is rubbish.

I agree that the second episode wasn't as good as the first but I wouldn't say it was rubbish. I didn't like that the Doctor kept going on about "the rules". The rules only ever seem to apply when it's convenient to the plot when in many other episodes there doesn't appear to be any rules! I still enjoyed the characters and the setting and it didn't suffer from an overly complicated and convoluted plot, which has been a problem in other episodes.

I actually wasn't too keen on the design of the Fisher King though!

If last week’s episode was The Thing, then this week’s episode was The Thing (prequel), carefully ticking off all the boxes to make sure past events lined up with what we knew about the future. There was even an axe! But like The Thing and The Thing, the original is always going to be better.

That said, I actually enjoyed Before the Flood. Sure, it wasn’t as good as the first part of the story, but there was plenty about it that I liked. I agree that the opening and the design of the Fisher King (very StarCraft II) were very strong, but I was also a fan of the way it balanced the two timelines and the interactions between the characters in the present and the past. This episode continued the strong character work set up in the first episode and kept you caring about the whole crew. (Side note: What is it with Moffat and killing of Doctor fangirls? First Osgood and now O’Donnell!)

Along with the flashcards last week, this episode was also a good reminder of how callous the Doctor can be when he needs to be, allowing people to die to test a theory and valuing Clara’s life over everyone else. While the Doctor has never been afraid to make difficult decisions, after angsty Tennant and Smith, it’s refreshing that Capaldi is so pragmatic about the whole thing. The solution to the episode was obvious from about half way through (of course it was going to be him in the capsule) and the confrontation with the Fisher King seemed to be over before it began, but I still enjoyed it. The moment with the axe and Cass was really effective (and very reminiscent of Ben Affleck’s Daredevil), the lingering question of the bootstrap paradox was well done and the characters were fully formed and worth investing in. If only there’d been more Fisher King…

One bugbear I did have was that the Doctor’s impending death and his acceptance of his impending death. It seems to have been a really reoccurring theme for the last few seasons. We always get teased that this will be the big one, the proper one, and then, after accepting his fate, he finds some way to wriggle out of it. As a plot device, it’s wearing pretty thin. Although I must admit that faking his own death and putting himself in cryo (while a little Jack Harkness) was a much more satisfying workaround than pulling a handy Life Model Decoy out of nowhere à la The Wedding of River Song.

What's funny is that I don't necessarily disagree with anything either of you have said. The setting and the characters did continue to work for me, the split-timeline was a great approach that I'd love to see the show do more with, and I agree that Cass' Daredevil moment was really well handled (though couldn't she just have, y'know, turned around?).

But that's all surface stuff, and I felt like the episode was using it as a crutch - if you go any deeper it all starts to fall apart. Like you said, the totally-for-realsies fakeout death is played out by now, and the nebulous Rules of Time are even moreso. But then there's also the super-disappointing use of the Fisher King, the totally unfunny stuff with the undertaker, the complete waste of the new environment (imagine if that town hadn't been deserted), and that weird Father's Day loop that didn't achieve anything.

Even Capaldi's matter-of-fact attitude to death - which is usually my favourite thing about him - seemed almost callous and unfeeling here, which is not the same thing. He's used death to test theories before, of course (see Mummy on the Orient Express), but only when he can't do anything to prevent them. Here he puts up a token "stay in the TARDIS" objection but, beyond that, doesn't even try to stop O'Donnell running off alone to what he knows is probably her death. In fact, if we accept that he only let her run off to test his theory, then the Doctor directly causes her death by putting her name next on the list. He did that after she'd already died, of course, but also after he decided to break the Rules - paradoxes be damned!

And yet, the entire Bootstrap Paradox only seemed to be there to explain why nothing the Doctor Ghost did made any sense. It was a really stupid, nonsensical way to send a message to the future (and a dangerous one too, since it both unlocked the saferoom and got O'Donnell killed) but we're supposed to let it slide because the Doctor was just acting out the stupid plan he'd already seen, not making up the stupid plan himself. Then the epilogue goes out of its way to smugly point out the paradox, despite how stupid it is, and despite that fact that we never needed it explained any of the times the show has used it before. It's the entire plot of Blink, for goodness sake!

But the worst thing, for me, was when the Doctor started casually throwing around the word "souls" - and going on about how mystic and sacred and pure they are. In other words, Doctor Who suddenly got all religious on us which (as well as just generally bothering me as an atheist) flies directly in the face of the whole last series, where the myth of life-after-death was revealed to be nothing more than a Cyberman trap. Just like in Army of Ghosts, come to think of it.

Basically, I hated Before the Flood. I thought it was a mess of a story that misused its characters, insulted its audience, wasted its villain, and never actually paid off any of its main ideas - yet it seemed convinced that it was being really clever. I did enjoy Under the Lake, and I can see what you two enjoyed in the second part too, even if I didn't. I think that this probably would have worked a lot better as a regular one-part episode but, as it stands, this one simply wasn't for me.