Wednesday 14 October 2015

WHO REVIEW: 9-3 & 9-4: Under the Lake/Before the Flood

With Being Human, Toby Whithouse brought together vampires, werewolves and ghosts, along with such elements as time travel, to remarkable effect. In Doctor Who, he's already had a stab at vampires, and now he's utilised both time travel and ghosts in a story with a fascinating set-up. It's a very clever idea, splitting the story across two time zones, so that characters can, in theory, meet their own ghosts in the future. It never quite runs with this idea, though. The concept of being able to not only see but actually speak with your ghost is compelling, but beyond a brief interaction between the Doctor and his ghost (revealed to be nothing of the sort in any case), the idea isn't explored. The fact that the ghosts are essentially incapable of communication rather ruins it anyway; they're not characters but sinister set dressing and hazards. It's undeniably effective, but it's the less interesting option. Equally, the Fisher King, is well designed and realised - at least in the underlit interior scenes, not looking quite so creepy stomping about in daylight. However, since he does little more than rant and murder people off screen, he's a very hollow and uninspiring villain. 

Huge respect for the inclusion of the talented Sophie Stone as Cass, a deaf actress playing a deaf character, unapologetically included not as a token to disabled sensibilities but simply as a strong, interesting character who brings a somewhat different perspective to adventure. Around the country, deaf children will be watching Doctor Who and seeing a deaf person in a heroic role, not only leading the guest characters but enthusiastically told by the Doctor that she is the smartest person in the room (barring himself, of course). It's a wonderfully positive move on the part of the series' creators. Oddly enough, the Doctor doesn't know sign language; a strange omission for the man who knows fifty million languages, even if the script did make a joke about it being deleted to make room for semaphore. It's understandable in real life terms, of course; very likely, Peter Capaldi doesn't know sign, and in any case, having Cass's signs translated makes it possible for the bulk of the audience to understand her lines. However, I watched Before the Flood in the company of a fluent signer who was translating along with the episode, and I can therefore say that any viewer who can sign will get more out of the it than one relying on the interpreter. 

The remaining guest cast are all very good indeed, although in many cases rather wasted in the parts they have. Zaqi Ismail is perfectly good as Lunn but lacks a great deal in character as written; Arsher Ali seemed at risk of the same during the first episode, but he, as Bennett, came into his own in the second part once he had something to play other than spooked. Paul Kaye, rightfully recognised now as a highly talented actor, is amusing as the snivelling Prentis, but is so quickly killed off that there was never really any chance to appreciate him. The same goes for Steven Robertson and, most of all, Colin MacFarlane; talented actors whose characters are given virtually no screen time before being bumped. Yes, they then get to do their best as hollow-eyed phantoms, but that's still a waste of genuinely fine acting talent. Most galling is the killing of O'Donnell, who, particularly in the second episode, develops into an infectiously likeable and entertainingly bloody-minded character before being killed off to give the male characters the necessary angst. I'm not making a vehement feminist point here; the best character in the story was female (Cass, of course), and since much of my upset at O'Donnell's death is that I fancy the pants off Morven Christie, I'd be pretty hypocritical. Nonetheless, it grates.

Capaldi shines, as always, even though, to be honest, he didn't have very strong material to work with this time, Nonetheless, he's an interesting enough actor to make any of his scenes compelling. Clara, though, is rather uninteresting in this story, and Jenna Coleman makes less of an impression than usual. Perhaps it's a good thing she's leaving this year; there doesn't seem to be much left to do with her character. 

Ultimately, the script is packed with potentially great ideas and characters that, for the most part, it fails to explore to full effect. For all its atmosphere - and I think we need more slow-paced, unsettling stories - it's a disappointing tale, relying on rather a dissatisfying interpretation of time travel that lacks real drama.

Casting Call: Sophie Stone is the first deaf actress in the series, but not the first deaf actor. That was Tim Barlow, who played Tyssan in 1979's Destiny of the Daleks. Barlow lost his hearing in a military incident, although has since recovered much of it through the use of a cochlear implant.

Nitpick: Why didn't the base crew try switching the lights to permanent day mode, so that the ghosts wouldn't be able to materialise? I realise that the ghosts took control of the day/night systems during the episode, but you'd have thought they'd at least try this rather obvious idea.

Continuity Corner: The future parts of the story are set in 2119, and it seems that not only are UNIT still operating, but the Doctor is still well known - enough that O'Donnell knows of him and his exploits, at least. We haven't really seen much of this period in the series; The Rebel Flesh/The Also People was set in the 22nd century, presumably the earlier part, since The Dalek Invasion of Earth essentially ruined human society from the 2150s onwards. Other stories set around this time include Nightmare of Eden and possibly some other outer space stories (Doctor Who tends to go for a generic spacey future in the classic series), but we see very little of Earth in this time. The ninth Doctor considered the year 2105 "a bit boring" in The End of the World. The existence of an alien ship doesn't seem to be a huge surprise to the base crew.

The Doctor's cheat cards include one that says "I should've known you didn't live in Aberdeen," a reference back to where he left Sarah Jane Smith, according to Whithouse's first Who episode, 2006's School Reunion.

Prentis is a Tivolian, a species introduced in the form of Gibbis in another Whithouse script, 2011's The God Complex. He notes that they were conquered by the Arcateenians, another species created by Whithouse, for the Torchwood episode "Greeks Bearing Gifts." They're one of the very few species to turn up in both that series and The Sarah Jane Adventures.

The Doctor ponders whether the ghosts are Flesh avatars (right period, as noted above), Autons (Spearhead from Space, et al) or digital copies in the Nethersphere (Dark Water/Death in Heaven).

Doctor fanatic O'Donnell references Rose, Martha and Amy, and refers to the 1980s being pre-Harold Saxon (The Sound of Drums) and "pre-the Moon exploding and a bat coming out" (Kill the Moon). She also mentions a Minister of War, but what this means is as yet unknown.

The Doctor once met Shirley Bassey. At least, he thinks he did; it might have been Iris Wildthyme in her Bassey-like second incarnation. 

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