Monday, 13 November 2017

Under the Lake / Before the Flood

Chapter The 70th, which pulls itself up by its own bootstrap paradoxes.

The Doctor and Clara arrive at a sub-aquatic mining facility in the twenty-second century based in a flooded Scottish village. The crew have recently found a mysterious alien artifact - which turns out to be a space hearse - and opened it up (as you don't). Since then, they've seen ghosts, and one by one they are being turned into ghosts themselves. A warrior creature called the Fisher King (but not the Fisher King presumably as this one only arrives on Earth in 1980 long after the mythology of our Fisher King has been established, so the name's just a coincidence) faked his own death and came in the hearse to the village before it flooded, and the ghosts are part of a convoluted intergalactic transmission mechanism to alert his own people of his whereabouts. The technology used is very advanced, so you'd think the Fisher Subjects or Fisher King people or Fisher Kingarians or whatever could have just invented an intergalactic transmission mechanism that ran on electricity rather than build in the risk and tedium of having to kill someone and then get their ghost to kill someone else and so on. Anyway, basically a haunted house story in space, except not in space.

Watched both episodes on the same day (with a short gap in between parts one and two) on blu-ray with middle child (boy of 8). He hadn't been allowed to watch this two years ago, as we thought it was too scary for him; but watching it this time, he could remember details, and confessed he'd sneaked down and watched a lot of the first episode through the living room door in the evening. But mine and the Better Half's original instincts were probably right, as this time he decided it was too tense for him and stopped watching about twenty minutes before the end of episode 2; it's good that the children are now generally all old enough (including the youngest, his sister, at 5 years old) to self-select, and aren't too disappointed to bail out and miss the end if they're finding it a bit too much.

First-time round: 
This is one of the few stories so far to come up randomly for coverage that was aired after the blog began. If I were organised and forward-thinking, you'd imagine I'd have started from those days in 2015 noting down the circumstances of watching any new episodes, for better completing these 'First-time round' sections in years to come. Reader, I am not that organised and forward-thinking. I know for series 9 we were watching each new episode timeshifted in the evening of its BBC1 Saturday broadcast for suitability, and then showing the kids for the first time the following day if it was deemed acceptable (unless they were sneaking a peek at it from outside the door, of course).

One thing I was doing around the time of the broadcast of this story was blogging about its predecessor (see here). I can't help feeling these two episodes would have been a better pair with which to lead the season. Often in its long history, Doctor Who production teams didn't kick off with an all-singing all-dancing extravaganza: a 'jumping-on point' story was all that was felt to be required - no baggage, the TARDIS team just arriving and getting on with it, as the Doctor and Clara do here. The Magician's Apprentice was nothing but baggage, with reams of Time Lord and Dalek history, and a lot of false spectacle imposed, as it was the opener, on a story which at heart was a quiet chamber piece. "How can these ghosts exist?" would surely have been a better intrigue to put into the audience's minds than "What on Skaro is going on?". It would also have made Under the Lake / Before the Flood feel less of a slog. Watched in isolation, this story zips along much quicker than it seemed back in 2015 when it followed hard on a similarly paced story. Having two double-episoders in a row was something the series had never done before since returning in 2005, and it's easy to see why.

I'm warming to this idea more and more: bringing this story up front would work better with the character development. Ephemera like the guitar and sunglasses aside, the Doctor prowling the corridors of the Drum is the previous year's version - a little callous, focused more on the end goal than individuals' feelings, and not good with people (hence requiring cue cards featured in an early  funny gag). Clara too is still grieving over Danny, though she's using her travels with the Doctor as an escape, as highlighted by some subtle performance touches that I missed first time round when I was less engaged. This has a direct input into the resolution of the romantic subplot - seize the day before your beloved gets deaded, and so forth - which works very well.

There might be evidence in places of a writer who's not Steven Moffat trying too hard to do a Steven Moffat style story (The Girl Who Waited is another earlier example of this phenomenon): there's lots of timey-wimey for one's money - not just characters popping back in time to get explanations of the mystery, but also then popping back again and crossing into their own timestream, weaving in between the earlier scenes. Writer Toby Whithouse takes it up another notch, though, with the material on the paradox that we later find has driven the plot; this is delivered as a cold opening monologue by the Doctor, before episode 2 begins. There's never been anything like it in Doctor Who before or since (even William Hartnell and Tom Baker's breaking of the fourth wall was only for  brief comic moments, and Capaldi does one of those later in this story as well - witness the shameless knowing shrug he gives at the end which cannot be aimed at anyone except the audience). The show as a whole is riddled with 'meta' gags as the Doctor and the crew are all geek-aware enough to appreciate they are in a Cabin in the Woods style horror story.

Other good stuff: a great cliffhanger; the abandoned cold-war military training village is an original and visually interesting location, but there's no explanation as to why it is abandoned in 1980 with the cold war far from over; whatever the explanation is, it's also presumably the reason why no one ever fixes the dam and reclaims the flooded area, so it might have been worth making it explicit with a line or two. There are some sublime moments of tension throughout (probably the reason why our middle child found it a bit too much), and it's great to have a deaf actor cast as a deaf character, and just have them be part of the action rather than having to make anything more of it.

Both stories mention UNIT and the Doctor's status as a representative of that organisation; they also  feature the application of conductive solutions to trap the week's nasty or nasties (the Doctor's lash-up that encircles the Keller Machine in The Mind of Evil, the Faraday cage in Under The Lake / Before the Flood).

Deeper Thoughts:
A cross word or two, or some other cryptic nonsense. Coming late to the party, as ever, I realise I've missed a scandal in the world of Doctor Who Magazine. Recently, Private Eye ran a story throwing light on the change of editorship a few months back at my favourite programme's official magazine; the last editor, Tom Spilsbury - at least according to said article - may not have left entirely of his own choosing. On a few occasions over the last year, there had been outspoken comments in interviews in the mag (about Trump and Brexit and all the other stuff that everyone is outspoken about one way or another). Seems that this made compliance teams in the BBC nervous, and the DWM editorial team at the time were taken to task, possibly leading to Tom's exit. The article then goes on to describe subsequent budget cuts, which have meant that some regular articles are being canned, including The Watcher's humorous back page of every issue. It also outs the person who writes under the Watcher nom de plume, and if correct then it's who I always suspected it was, but it's not my intention to unmask them here. Culling good regular features, though, and timidity about the irreverent approach DWM has always taken, is obviously worrying - DWM has always previously had more independence than one might expect in an official licensed product, but it has felt a bit dull of late.

(Sorry, this doesn't have much to do with Under the Lake / Before the Flood, but that story doesn't really inspire much in the way of Deeper Thoughts - what am I going to write about: Slipknot?) Anyway, the Watcher, just about to have his outlet taken away from him, decided to comment on this state of affairs (particularly galling as he was in the middle of a long running feature called A History of Doctor Who in 100 objects, which will have to stop at number 87). Reading the final entry in this series, I was none the wiser, despite a few oblique references I'd seen on social media to its being controversial, but Private Eye spelt it out. Each beginning letter of a sentence in the article formed an acrostic, which was a very very rude message aimed at BBC Worldwide and the magazines publisher, Panini. He must have been incandescent with anger to have burnt his bridges in such a public way. A bit unprofessional, perhaps, but I can't say the whole thing wasn't compelling to me in a gossipy way. Right now I'm sticking with the magazine, but I don't want a bland cheerleading fact-sheet, I want my old, funny DWM back; but, it might not be the sort of world any more where the tie-in mag for a children's show aired by a major broadcaster can afford to be sly and naughty sometimes. Drabness and conformity encroaches, alas.

Observant readers may have spotted (go me!) that the first letter of each sentence in this silliness forms an acrostic too; it spells out "Acrostics Are Hard". Oh, except for that last sentence just now where I explained my own cleverness, which spoilt the effect somewhat. Perhaps I should stop now, as the sentence that followed that sentence also spoilt the effect, and this one too. Stopping now.

In Summary:
If only this story wasn't any good, I could say "it's a bit wet' or "a damp squib" but it has to go and be competently above average: there are no watery puns for competently above average.

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