“I’m a dead man walking,” the Doctor despaired after the chilling conclusion to last week’s episode, which revealed the Time Lord’s own ghostly spectre lurking in the murky depths outside the story’s sunken mining base. But that’s not the only mystery left unsolved as we enter the second part of Toby Whithouse’s futuristic ghost story, Before the Flood.
Why did Pritchard’s ghost spare Lunn? What happened to the alien spacecraft’s missing power cell? Who is in the suspended animation chamber? And how did the village become flooded in the first place? Amazingly, Whitehouse succeeds in finding effective and satisfying resolutions to these mysteries – assisted by some timey-wimey jiggery-pokery, natch – whilst delivering a slick and inventive adventure that balances dramatic scares and poignant character moments with a hugely enjoyable payoff.
Aside from the fourth wall-breaking pre-title sequence, which is completely bonkers and tonally inconsistent with the rest of the episode with its Beethoven-inspired allegory of the Bootstrap Paradox (“Google it.”), Before the Flood pleasingly sticks with the spooky, unnerving mood established in part one as the Doctor, Clara and the base’s beleaguered crew continue to be stalked down tight, gloomy corridors by eerie monsters.
Whithouse is still sure to inject new life into the tale, though, by introducing a fresh new location (a Cold War-era army outpost), splitting the narrative into two halves with Clara, Cass and Lunn trapped on the base where they realise the Doctor’s ghost is reciting the order in which they all die. Meanwhile, the Doctor, O’Donnell and Bennett take a trip back to 1980 to find the clues needed to piece the puzzle together.
This zipping between locations raises the tempo considerably, especially during the episode’s bracing finale, and the use of a fake abandoned Russian village is hauntingly evocative, expanding the story’s scope whilst also maintaining the suffocating isolation established on the undersea base.
It’s these sequences involving the Doctor and his new companions that are the most exciting, not least for the introduction of an imposing monster to the Who roster in the Fisher King, the real villain behind all those hollow-eyed apparitions. After the Doctor discovers the spacecraft is in fact a spacehearse – with funeral arrangements overseen by Paul Kaye’s sprightly Tivolian Prentis, the Ned Flanders of the Whoniverse – the hunt is on for the missing alien body.
Director Daniel O’Hara expertly handles the reveal of the Fisher King, teasing the monster’s presence with fleeting glimpses and a Godzilla-aping piercing roar (provided by none other than Slipknot frontman Corey Taylor) to ramp up the sense of unease. When the monster is finally unveiled in its full form the effect is breathlessly galling. The Fisher King is not only a brilliant creature design, seemingly cobbled together using a deathly mix of skeletal and mechanical parts, but also has a menacing boom of a voice provided by Peter Serafinowicz. His thrilling confrontation with the Doctor proves they’re evenly matched in the game of fierce intimidation.
Like last week, there are more strong character moments for Clara as her story accelerates towards her impending departure. After being separated from her friend and confronted with the possibility of his death, Clara’s intense desperation not to lose another loved one is superbly evoked by Jenna Coleman.
Clara’s increasing recklessness again rears its head this week, as she pushed a brave Lunn into a dangerous plan to retrieve her stolen iPhone, and her emotional declaration that it would be unfair of the Doctor to die after he had made himself essential to her is the clearest indication yet that she hasn’t fully recovered from Danny’s death. It’s something of a bold move for a family show, refusing to merely gloss over such a significant trauma, and it promises to provide Clara with the gut-wrenching final arc Coleman deserves.
With most of the story set-up out of the way and a fair few characters bumped off in part one, Before the Flood is able to flesh out its supporting characters to a greater degree. Arsher Ali’s Bennett is a particular improvement, evolving from generic ‘scared guy’ into a rootable presence via some excellent deadpan one-liners (“Great. The first proper alien and he’s an idiot.”) and an incredibly wrought reaction to O’Donnell’s death that emboldens him to challenge the Doctor’s meddling in human lives.
Sophie Stone is another standout as the base’s mute commander Cass. Her lack of speech proves to be no barrier to delivering an emotionally engaging performance – and nor should it – with Stone relaying a whole gamut of emotions through simple expressions and actions, as every great actor should.
The only time Cass’ inability to hear is played upon is during a nail-bitingly tense sequence in which she is stalked by an axe-wielding ghost. O’Hara switches the sound on and off to place us inside Cass’ head, ramping of the paranoia and suspense to near unbearable levels.
O’Hara’s deft hand is once again evident during a tricky denouement as the Doctor attempts to manipulate his own timeline to save Clara. The flooding of the village is fantastically realised with impressive visual effects, and O’Hara also livens up the exposition-heavy scenes by switching between locations with bountiful alacrity.
The climax is knowingly complicated, full of the kind of mind-twisting time-travel bobbins that will melt your brain if you think about it too hard, and Whithouse actively encourages us to just go along with it, recalling that tongue-in-cheek opening about the Bootstrap Paradox (again, Google it), with the clear message being it’s much more fun if we just sit back and enjoy the ride.
And that’s exactly what you should do. Before the Flood is a bracing, breathless and barmy adventure that effectively switches between claustrophobic tension and heartfelt emotional depth. Let’s hope the show can continue on this excellent run of form.
Click here to watch Doctor Who: Before the Flood on BBC iPlayer