‘Doctor Who’ spoiler-free review: ‘Before the Flood’

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Doctor Who, in recent years, has been obsessed with prequels: most of them online and most of them very entertaining – although actually prologues.

Here, however, we get the real deal: a partner episode to last week’s ghostly opener that deliberately spools back in time to explain how its events came about.

This much you’ll know from the final few minutes of ‘Under the Lake’. However, while that’s where last week ended, it’s not where this week begins, because, as is now customary with the modern Doctor Who two-parter, there’s a bit of audience-confounding business to be got through first.

If you loved the ‘Ghost under the Machine’ set-up of last week – and, incidentally, what a great working title that was – you’ll get some of that again in ‘Before the Flood’, but also a dollop of timey-wimey, a dose of Cold War (we mean the political rivalry, not the 2013 episode), some frankly curious high-campery and even some breaking of the fourth wall.

Doctor Who Before the Flood Peter Capaldi Twelfth

Of these jarring ingredients, it’s the Cold War stylings that work the best: writer Toby Whithouse having been inspired by his recent BBC Two spy drama, The Game, to take us to a pretend Russian village, constructed in Scotland to give military personnel the full Soviet-immersion experience. It’s a great location and one that could have formed the setting for a great story.

‘Under the Lake’ may have begun in comfortably familiar territory, but what’s disorientating about ‘Before the Flood’ is how a story with so many traditional elements can be so crazy-ass weird in its use of them.

At times, the visuals have all the languid, bleached-out quality of a Scandinavian import on BBC Four (if the horrible over-grading continues at this rate, Doctor Who will have come full circle and we’ll be back in full 1963-style monochrome by the season finale). In the next moment, a mole-man undertaker is making a dubiously kinky proposition to the Doctor.

Doctor Who Before the Flood

The best Doctor Who stories may be happy to be preposterous, but few also aspire to be arthouse. Throw in supporting characters it’s hard to care about and you’re left with the feeling that, were the entirety of this subtitled, it would be no less bizarre.

While the Fisher King offers a truly terrifying monster, it’s a visual that perhaps belongs to another programme altogether: a towering, skeletal fallen angel with a goat skull for a face and a vaguely labial mouth. We are a long way from teapot handles and sink plungers. We are a long way, even, from mole-men.

Doctor Who Before the Flood

When Big Bads enter a story, it’s usually the cue for the action to rev up a gear; but here, the reverse happens, and the last twenty minutes are painfully slow. Perhaps it’s because the monster looks so freaky that it cannot actually be seen doing anything. Instead, this creature, who has previously imprinted his words on the crew, is now reduced to standing around and spouting a few words more.

There are threats, there is pontificating and, even come the resolution, there are more words: a final scene of exposition will still leave many searching online for a plot recap. But if you have any passing acquaintance with the Fisher King myth – a properly interesting basis for a Doctor Who story – it’s not what you hope for.

There are some, of course, who will love this episode, and we genuinely look forward to hearing from them on Saturday night and being told why we are totally wrong. Not every Doctor Who episode can please every viewer – and nor should the show ever strive to. But for us, this underwater menace never really swims.

Airs at 8.25pm on Saturday 10 October 2015 on BBC One.

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