13 December 2021: not really a review of Flux added.
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UNDER THE LAKE/BEFORE THE FLOOD
Yay, Toby Whithouse! Not every episode he's written is great, but for our money he's by far - by far - the most interesting Who writer we have. After two dire Moffats, we were more than ready for our faith to be renewed. And it was. It's got plenty of problems, but nevertheless it's a win.
Under The Lake starts in an underwater mining facility in 2119. You might expect, given the date, that they will all be wearing weird skiffy collars or something, but no, it's 21st century dress, which is kind of like watching people mine stuff today while wearing frock coats and bustles. Never mind, can't scare the audience by alerting them to the science fiction, so on we go. The captain's log records that they have found a craft of unknown origin and are… sending out robots to investigate? Calling for backup? Nope, they're bringing it on board to have a shufti. This cannot turn out well.
And it doesn't, when poor Colin McFarlane, who is a terrific comic actor, gets ghostified within minutes. Aw, what a waste! We were really enjoying his portrayal, and he's one of the few characters who actually makes an impact right out of the gate. Evil Capitalist quickly follows him, which is rather less tragic given that he couldn't have been painted with broader strokes if they'd written his part with a paint roller.
The rest of the characters are a bit bland and featureless, which is disappointing. On the upside, though, one of them is deaf. We applaud the inclusion of a deaf character and Sophie Stone does an excellent job with her, but proving we can moan about absolutely anything, we wish she'd been handled just a little bit better. In another hundred years, we really hope the deaf aren't going to need a whole other human in order to communicate with the hearing (in fact, there's better tech than that available right now). And something else we'll talk about downstream.
Back to the action. Which is quite actiony indeed. Yes, it's a base under siege: claustrophobia, corridor-running and all. This, frankly, has never been our favourite narrative device, but it's all in how you do it, and when the TARDIS arrives, it's done really well. Watching the Doctor in detective mode, finger thoughtfully plunged in tea, is lovely.
And not only is it actiony, it's sciency. We had a lengthy discussion about whether the lead-lined Faraday cage would actually protect you from a nuclear explosion or not, and while we concluded that yep, sort of pretty much, we loved that we had to have the discussion at all. Why, anyone would think Doctor Who was actually SF.
And after having to peek between our fingers at party-mode Doctor last week, here we could relax: his character's totally on point. From his refusal to high-five Clara, to the blissfully desiccated sense of humour (Yes! That is how you do humour for this Doctor), to his zest at being clueless about what's going on, it's exactly right. The cards gag could well be our Twelfth Doctor favourite moment thus far.
And then the Doctor works out he's dealing with actual ghosts. We really don't like this idea: that the Doctor could accept this and the existence of souls so easily is utterly unDoctorly and wrong to us. But if we have to have ghosts, Peter Capaldi is skin-tinglingly good at grappling with the idea. (Props to Toby Whithouse, too: "The splinter of time in the skin" is Robert Holmes-worthy.) It's a shame it all ties in with his impending doom, because we've had more than enough of his impending doom, thanks. They're cried Bad Wolf far too often. We're just going to stick our fingers in our ears and go la la la every time they try to convince us the Doctor's death's around the corner.
As for Clara, well. Her character's been bounced around so much it's hard to tell if this is just this week's iteration, but the official story is that she's turning into the Doctor. She loves adventuring, she doesn't mind sending out sacrificial lambs, all that stuff. Which according to the Doctor is a very bad thing. Is she on a greasy slope with her own destruction at the bottom? Let's wait and see, shall we?
Corridor-running elevated into a virtuoso set piece, creepiness abounding, cleverness from the Doctor (and his hilarious pisstake as he moans "Coooooold…." followed by a brisk "Isn't it?"). So far, so trad. Such a familiar setup left us an eensy, teensy wee bit bored on occasion, but that's us: other people love trad and they would have been in heaven. Flaws notwithstanding, the SF, the tight story and the characterisation of the Doctor make this very good Doctor Who.
And then whoa. Trad, did we say? That was last week. Because they start Before The Flood by taking it in a whole new direction. Unfortunately, however, new direction does not automatically translate into good direction. Do we mind a piece direct to camera from the Doctor? Nope. If it was good enough for a festive First Doctor… Do we mind the Doctor carefully explaining the bootstrap paradox? That's something else altogether. We didn't check our brains at the door and we doubt you did, either. We can perfectly well work the timey-wimeys out for ourselves without the help of the Doctor, PowerPoint and a laser pointer. Thankyewverymuch.
On the other hand, the segue is pure joy. If we have to have the guitar, at least it isn't as cringe-inducing as it was in its previous appearance, and we love the reworked theme to death. We're surprised Peter Capaldi survived the recording session: as he is a lifelong fanboy himself, we sort of expected him to dissolve away into the universe with the last wibble of the tremolo arm, his life's work fulfilled.
Back on dry land, we meet the instantly recognisable Paul Kaye as the pre-ghost Albar Prentis (whose funeral director's card reads "May the remorse be with you". Arf!). Clearly playing Tivolians is a comedian's gig, as the last time we saw one he was played by David Walliams. Sadly, although Paul Kaye is utterly superb he is, like Colin McFarlane, flung carelessly away far too quickly. This is a crime and a tragedy. Why are we spending time with these other not very interesting people instead of watching Paul Kaye being magnificent?
Instead, we get the Doctor banging on about his impending doom again (la la la) and Clara having a giant freakout about him refusing to bend the laws of time, causation etc to save the both of them. Which we can hardly blame her for, and it does show us an aspect of Clara we've never seen before. (We liked the callback to Clara's "Don't leave me hanging" when the Doctor refused to high-five her.) We'd call this deep character if it weren't for the fact that Clara changes to fit the requirements of the script of the week. So is it a penetrating glimpse of their true relationship, or just something else we'll never see again? Jenna Coleman does a fantastic job with it: it's just that her character has been so badly mishandled we realise that we've virtually stopped paying any attention to her. Another waste of a gifted actor.
Meanwhile, the plot gets cracking again, this time with a touch of the timey-wimeys. In hindsight, it's obvious that the Doctor suggests O'Donnell stays behind because he's realised from what his ghost self is saying that she's next to die, but with or without that information, it makes for a weird scene. If you don't know that, you’re left asking yourself why he thinks it's too dangerous for her but not for Snivelly Guy, and if you do, you wonder why he was so half-hearted about it. If he thought her death was inevitable, there was no point even trying, and if he wanted to save her, he could have tried a lot harder.
If O'Donnell were as much of a fangirl as she says, you'd think she'd realise that splitting up your party is tantamount to shoving yourself off a large cliff. It's not even obvious, other than for plot expedience, what good it would do. But do it she does, crushing the hopes of everyone in the audience (not us) who thought she might be the next companion. Snivelly Guy, who clearly has a crush on her a mile wide, is understandably miffed about this and upbraids the Doctor in no uncertain terms. This bit we do not like at all. The Doctor cheerfully puts his hands up to changing history to save Clara, leaving on the table Snivelly's accusation that the Doctor let O'Donnell die to test his theory. Either way, it puts him in a very bad light indeed if you ask us. Even though he says he tried to cheat death, he didn't try that hard for O'Donnell, did he?
Nor do we think this came over as the writer probably intended. In saying that he intended to bend the future to save Clara, the Doctor appears to be refuting Snivelly's accusation that he was trying to save himself. But to Snivelly, finding out the Doctor intends to save Clara but not O'Donnell is surely hardly an improvement, and in fact is tantamount to a big old slap in the face. However, his response doesn't seem to worry Snivelly overmuch. Mysteriously mollified by the Doctor's response, he goes on to treat the Doctor with far more courtesy than someone who sat back and let their crush die would get from us. Sorry, none of that makes sense.
Back to the future. Clara makes the perfectly reasonable suggestion that Lunn goes and grabs the phone as the ghosts won't attack him, leading to a virtuoso flurry of sign language from Cass, who is asking Clara if it's due to the Doctor's influence that he's happy to put others' lives at risk. It's a great moment wonderfully acted by Sophie Stone, although undermined by two things. One is that Clara's suggestion is hardly cold and unfeeling under the circumstances: they need the phone to save all three of them, and they've already seen that the ghosts won't attack Lunn. The other thing, which we alluded to earlier, is that after Cass says her piece, Lunn initially refuses to translate it. If you are a deaf person's voice, it's not up to you to decide on or edit what they say: it's incredibly disrespectful. Ugh.
And the Doctor finally faces off with the Fisher King. This, we have to say, is a bit of a lowlight. First of all, why reference the Fisher King archetype when it's actually totally unrelated? The closest we can get is that like the way the real Fisher King can't heal himself, this one can't get home without a lift from his mates, but it's a bit of a stretch. And second, do they have to make their potential action figures quite so obvious? It's a merchandising opportunity at the expense of a genuinely chilling villain: bringing this one out into the light makes it look less pants-wettingly terrifying and more like a cross between a skeleton and a prawn.
Thirdly, the mano-a-prawno faceoff is a way too overused item in Toby Whithouse's bag of tricks. Give the boss round a rest, dude. And fourthly? It's all a bit of a fizzer. The Fisher King flings a few insults, but the Doctor defeats him without breaking a sweat.
Under the lake, Cass wants to find out if Lunn is busy calling premium-rate numbers on the Doctor's phone or what, so she braves the axe-dragging ghosts. This is a creditable attempt to create suspense given that Cass can't hear the axe-dragging, but really. You're deaf, see, and you're also pretty smart and gung-ho. You know weapon-wielding ghosts are gunning for you, and you suspect you can detect their vibrations through the floor. Do you crouch down to touch the floor, presenting your neck for the blade and making it difficult to leap up and leg it? No, you look over your shoulder. Sigh. It's also somewhat overegged. It's an axe! He's got an axe! He's got an axe! AN AXE!
And the suspended animation capsule finally begins to open. Who's going to be in it? Well, if you thought from the first moment that you laid eyes on it that it was anyone other than the Doctor, you deserve a slap on the wrist with a damp Ood. Who else is it ever going to be?
And woohoo, everybody's in love! Hearts! Butterflies! Yes, they did the spadework for this, we suppose, but it's a bit pat, not to mention sickly.
Like we said, plenty of problems. Also like we said, a win. It's good workmanlike Doctor Who and, warts nothwithstanding, if they were all like this we'd be happy little Osgoods.
NOT THAT WE WOULD HAVE IT ANY OTHER WAY
A universe ruled by cats? Anyone who's trudged home after a hard day's work to be greeted by a luxuriously stretching cat who's spent the day doing whatever the hell it wants and is now anticipating its free dinner knows that's happened already.
Cass won't let Lunn in the shuttle - this is for plot reasons, so he can't see the words, but what kind of a leader is she that lets her whole crew do something dangerous and only stops her secret boyfriend?
LOVE IT TO DEATH
Another Doctor who fangirl. Another Doctor Who fangirl killed. Yes, we get it.
THE LATE O'DONNELL
Some things the Doctor changes, others he doesn't. O'Donnell's death is one of the things he leaves alone. So why doesn't her ghost appear much earlier?
The Doctor's "ghost" is a hologram, right? So how does it open the Faraday cage?