Style Over Substance in (New) Doctor Who
***Spoiler Alert! You may want to watch the episode first before reading this review.***
Which came first—the chicken or the egg? In Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who universe the answer is of course “both.”
Before the Flood starts out with a scene in which we see the Doctor by himself in the TARDIS. He breaks the “fourth wall” by talking directly to the viewer as he peers directly into the camera lens. In spite of Peter Capaldi’s engaging performance, this is still considered a very poor writing technique. Dumping information into the viewer’s lap upfront means the writer doesn’t trust that the viewer is intelligent enough to discern it for himself or herself simply by watching the episode.
As in all strong writing, the principle of “show not tell” should be adhered to. The “wink-wink” of actors talking knowingly into a camera should be avoided, as it indicates to the viewer that the character of the Doctor realizes he’s a fictional construct and the episode is all just so much make-believe. Instantly, all tension and wonder at how the Doctor will survive this week’s dilemma evaporates. Why should we continue watching if we know how it’s all going to end?
But under the current producer’s guidelines it seems that the series protocol is to write down to the lowest common denominator of viewer intelligence. So, the Doctor starts out by telling us all that he believes in time paradoxes (even though this form of time travel has been forbidden in the past). He, essentially, is going to rewrite his own history, and he knows full well that he’s going to do it. Okay, this paradox of time travel was used to great comic effect on Futurama when Fry goes back in time and accidentally sleeps with his own grandmother, impregnates her and becomes his own grandfather. But why does Doctor Who feel it needs to repeat this particular sci-fi cliché?
With a thin plot about a time paradox that’s been done many times before (and often to provide comedy), there’s not much else to enjoy in Before the Flood other than the very nice underwater base set and the very interesting Cold War 1980s military training village the Doctor and two others travel back to in order to save Clara. Of course, he has to save Clara at the cost of the others’ lives. Saving other characters isn’t important, as their function is to serve as cannon fodder to create “tension” in an episode that has no inherent tension. (And why do they travel in time to the Soviet-style village in Britain anyway? Couldn’t it have been just a normal Scottish village built near a massive dam? No explanation is given, and it’s a shame, as it looked like a very unique place to set a Ten Little Indians type of tale.)
To sum up, we’re given the entire episode’s plot premise in the first few minutes, and to fill in the remaining 45 minutes we have lots of running around on well-constructed sets and a few explosions and SFX. Well done. A couple of the survivor side characters express love and admiration for each other. Nice enough. The handsome Peter Capaldi smiles some at the camera and shows off his awesome guitar-playing skills. Fan girl “squee!”
All of these things are done well, but you're left with a hollow feeling inside. You feel that nothing really has happened of any consequence for the Doctor, and nothing was ever at risk since we know how it all will end in the first scene. A true triumph of style over substance. If we know the “punch line” from the start, why tell the joke at all?
Which came first—the chicken or the egg? Does it really matter if they’re both cracked?
What do you think? Please leave your comments below. And check out my reviews of earlier episodes of this series of Doctor Who: