For whatever reason, I haven’t had too much problem this year in starting my reviews. Does that make sense? Coming up with a line or a thought to get it all going. Sometimes I’ll try for an obtuse opener, which doesn’t immediately connect with the story at hand (but resolves quickly – otherwise than can be annoying), sometimes I’ll just jump straight into the main discussion, sometimes I’ll try something cute. Which is what I’ve attempted here, and it’s probably not that great. I’m doing that old, old trick, you see, where the last line of the whole piece dovetails into the first. Again.
This was my last review for DWM #492.
And where does it all begin?
Toby Whithouse has found a new take on the Steven Moffat principal of engineering a profound change across the first and second episode in a two-part adventure (see Toby’s thoughts on that elsewhere in this issue). It’s a bold move, but wholly successful, as he opts to situate the latter before the former. Although this is accompanied by a lecture from the Doctor on ontological storytelling, the whole package is actually simple, like a Möbius strip. It has an easy linearity, which, if we want, can then lead into infinitely loopy complications.
For those happy to just whistle through the twisted-ribbon of a plot, the Doctor’s to-camera intervention about “this man” who has a time machine is more a stylish diversion – plus a fun excuse to bump a spate of moshing into the opening titles – before the tale then continues to spin us around until the ride is complete. But if you’re intent on interrogating it, the closer you look the more detail becomes apparent. Like, O’Donnell’s underplayed reaction to an off-camera noise when the TARDIS first arrives in the Cold War village. This is later triggered by the Doctor – who’s now on a parallel timeline – tussling with Bennett, and in doing so making the racket that turns O’Donnell’s head.
While you’re at it, you can also marvel at the inversion of one of the truisms of Doctor Who. This time around, our hero isn’t agonising about rewriting history, it’s the immutability of the future that concerns him. This is a very powerful idea indeed, throwing fate out of the past tense and into a more dynamic phase. No longer is it the case that what has happened will happen, it’s that what will happen, has to happen.
With Whithouse’s sci fi literate script citing the Bootstrap Paradox, it in turn gives us permission to also engage on that kind of theoretical level. So, let’s throw up another storytelling theorem. What’s become known as ‘Fridge Logic’ was first inferred by Alfred Hitchcock. He talked of a potential plot hole in a movie that only “hits you after you’ve gone home and started pulling cold chicken out of the icebox.” In that vein, it’s around about now the question dawns: Why did O’Donnell’s ghost only appear in the future timeline at the comparative point she was killed in the past (cf. the ‘Meanwhile In The Future’ paradigm)? Surely her phantom has been haunting the lake for hundreds of years since her death, alongside Prentis’?
And, okay, there might be something in that, but it doesn’t diminish the story whatsoever. The evidence is there Whithouse is knowingly playing with all these conventions. “I was reverse-engineering the narrative,” says the Doctor at the very end, when he and Clara have exited the time loop. It’s a line that pushes through the fourth wall even more forcefully than Peter Capaldi’s address to camera, reminding us that in truth, what we’ve been watching is a fiction, something fundamentally contrived. This also presents yet another paradox, but it’s the most parochial of them all. It’s having your cake and eating it. While it’s fun to poke around in these workings, the pragmatic conclusion about O’Donnell’s Ghost (which I’ve capitalised, as this could be the coining of another useful time-travel plot mechanic) is that it appeared when it appeared because that was the most exciting time for it to do so.
Such reasoning also excuses the eleventh hour revelation that the ghost Doctor was actually a hologram endowed with a “soupcon of artificial intelligence and some stock phrases”. Convenient, certainly, but the convenience is coded in with the same panache that fuelled Douglas Adams’ improbability drive. It had to be so, because that’s what precipitates and also resolves the action.
More Schrödinger’s cake, anyone?
Such conceptual hardiness isn’t quite matched in the realisation of the Fisher King. Embodied by former basketball player Neil Fingleton who, at over seven foot seven, is one of the tallest people in the world, he certainly has the stature. And when it’s in half-shadow, or completely static, the creature has a nice Marvel UK-circa-1987 aesthetic, yes? But once in motion, there’s an underwhelming wobble to the (I’m guessing) fibreglass carapace that makes it seem as if the monster is teetering from one sit-down to another. There’s also a disconnect between its physicality and its voice. Maybe there’s an over-familiarity about Peter ‘Darth Maul’ Serafinowicz’s vocal style, but that computer-game big boss approach (suggested by dialogue such as: “The Time Lord lied!”) coupled with an all-too clean production sheen on the audio track makes it obvious these words have originated from a sound booth far, far away.
The best thing that happens to the Fisher King is, in fact, the flood, which dispenses with the thing itself, but sends word of it – and those four phrases – echoing back/forward from Before The Flood to Under The Lake, where it can raise the dead.
Let’s follow that route too and consider our first glimpses of the deceased.
In contrast to their guvnor, the eyeless remnants of the crew of The Drum are a design triumph. As is the form with spooks, we first see them in reflection, or as blurred movements through the foreground. But it isn’t long before the story is dispensing with any coyness, and sometimes, when they turn, we see a little through those sockets into the innards of the skull. It’s a glimpse of nothing, an empty retainer – bodies exorcised of people. This is such a frightening notion that even a fat-cheeked mole man makes for a terrifying phantom. The end-of-episode shocker in which the Doctor has also seemingly joined their ranks results in one of the most disturbing images the series has brought us.
Adding to the apparitions’ power is the fact this story contravenes normal Doctor Who orthodoxy by refusing to truly debunk them. Once the Time Lord has exhausted his checklist of why they can’t be actual ghosts, he’s left with the joyous realisation that there are indeed more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in his philosophy. “Calm, Doctor!” he flaps, preparing to deliver one of the funniest lines in the production. “You were like this when you met Shirley Bassey!”
Granted, it is later revealed the spirits are a direct result of alien intervention, and not indicative of life after death, but even still, there’s an acknowledgement of human beings having “souls” (albeit souls turned into transmitters), and that feels like an exciting departure from the show’s rationalist worldview. I don’t say that as someone with any spiritual belief, by the way. It’s solely that I’m titillated by the feeling of unknowability it lets into this universe. It’s even got the TARDIS vexed.
Modern day Doctor Who is never really just one thing, though. While this adventure’s first half takes the shape of a ghost story, the whole is also – and believe me I’ve done my very best to think around saying what comes next, but I just can’t avoid it – a base under siege tale. The characters on said base are all sufficiently well realised so that we care about their fates. Indeed, the vest-wearing, dog tag-sporting marines are very firmly positioned as the good news against Pritchard’s free enterprise oiliness. “It’s not them that loses their bonus,” he spits. It helps, too, that this incarnation of the time traveller has now worked through his leftfield prejudice towards military personnel. He even points out, when gently coercing them not to evacuate The Drum, “You have chosen to protect and serve.”
Most time is given to O’Donnell (whom Morven Christie invests with real attitude) and Arsher Ali’s Bennett, because their relationship needs to be sufficiently built up before it can be extinguished. However, Cass – played by Sophie Stone – is given one of the more imaginative moments of peril, when she fails to hear Moran’s ghost dragging an axe along behind her as he readies to strike.
But in many respects, it’s Clara who benefits most in this environment. We’ve been told this series will be ‘the glory years’ for her and the Doctor, but the way that mandate is being interpreted is fascinating. She is a companion who is now lusting for adventure, to the point it’s beginning to scare the Time Lord. “Don’t go native,” he cautions her. In this incarnation’s particularly disconnected way, he vaguely recognises something is going wrong here. And there are hints at the story’s end – when she counsels the bereaved Bennett, “You keep going” – that she is just trying to find something to propel herself onwards following the death of Danny Pink. “You’ve made yourself essential to me,” she tells the Doctor. It feels like there’s nothing else left in her life. Like the ghost crew, she too is empty inside.
Under The Lake/Before The Flood is a bit like the linguistic earworm the Doctor discovers inside the Fisher King’s inscription. It’s the kind of thing that will bounce around inside your head for the next couple of weeks. A covertly complicated Doctor Who story, perhaps. Sending out concentric pulses into the darkness. Ideas in circles. Where does it end?