Don’t look now, but “Under The Lake”/“Before The Flood” is a real contender for the perfect Doctor Who introductory story. This is a two-parter that shows off just about everything the show can do. Last week, we had the quintessential base-under-siege thriller, a tight little ghost story that saw the Doctor piecing together an impossible puzzle while doing his best to keep a nervous crew alive. “Under The Lake” is a fine, traditional kind of story, and “Before The Flood” immediately announces it intends to do something far more experimental. The Doctor treats us to the most sustained bit of fourth wall breaking since his first incarnation wished a happy Christmas to all of us at home, only this time around the Doctor’s opening monologue on the bootstrap paradox is punctuated by a rocking guitar solo, which apparently is going to be part of this Doctor’s whole thing now. (Given Peter Capaldi’s punk rock roots, I have no problem at all with this.) The rest of the episode features plotting that lives up to the promise of that opening scene, as the Doctor realizes the seemingly inescapable deathtrap is actually a message he’s sending to himself.

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Throw in some more extensive character beats for the Drum’s crew than what we got last week (including two romances!) to accompany the time travel trickiness and the ghostly scares, and what you’ve got is a two-parter that combines all the best aspects of the Russell T. Davies, Steven Moffat, and—admittedly defining this very broadly—classic eras. It’s a story that consistently looks great, as director Daniel O’Hara and his team do first-rate work realizing all the disparate components of the story: the visual effects of the ghosts, the futuristic designs of the Drum and the alien spaceship, the makeup and costuming for the Tivolian undertaker Prentis and the Fisher King, the careful staging of the temporally overlapping characters and plotlines, the sound design of the ghostly Moran closing in on the deaf Cass, and the special effects that go into realizing that final onrush of water as the dam bursts and the town floods. Then there’s the Doctor’s opening monologue, which would feel hideously contrived if not for pitch-perfect execution by both actor and director. O’Hara’s direction in that opening sequence is complex without feeling showy, lending visual energy to support Capaldi’s performance without drawing attention away from the actor’s work.

Suffice it to say that there is a lot to love about this two-parter, which is why I wish the whole “perfect introduction to Doctor Who” thing wasn’t a bit of a backhanded compliment. For while this story represents a fusion of all that has made this show great, “Before The Flood” struggles to take that final step that would assert the episode’s own unique identity. Some of that really isn’t the story’s fault. Consider the Doctor’s understandable angst about the quite literal specter of his impending demise. Taken in isolation, the emotional beats surrounding that ghost all work. The Doctor is momentarily crestfallen to realize he’s soon to die, then regains his composure by playing off this entire incarnation as a glorified clerical error. His Time Lord-mandated fatalism when it comes to fixed points in time bounces off well against Clara’s insistence that he not leave her like this, that he break all the rules to save them both. This all works well on its own terms, but it would work so much better if Doctor Who did not so routinely tease the audience with the Doctor’s apparent death.

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Now, there’s a danger in painting with too broad a brush when it comes to this particular criticism. After all, any reasonably savvy viewer is going to understand that the Doctor isn’t going to die, and even a regeneration would be long since spoiled by international headlines. Saying Doctor Who can’t threaten to kill the Doctor unless it actually follows through on it would be to set an impossible standard, not to mention rob the show of a potential source of drama. It’s just that the show could stand to pick its spots. Series six, for all its flaws, did deliver a suitably epic treatment of this idea, while the 11th Doctor’s utter heartbreak at the mere mention of his grave being discovered was one of the few effective bits of “The Name Of The Doctor.” And people can certainly disagree on this—we’re talking about Doctor Who fans, so disagreement is a given—but I wouldn’t mind the show returning to this basic story every couple years or so. No, the real trouble comes when this present season’s opening two-parter flirted with the Doctor’s death for no particular reason that I can work out. If we’re judging this two-parter strictly on its own terms, then maybe the existence of similar material in “The Magician’s Apprentice”/“The Witch’s Familiar” shouldn’t matter. But if that’s at all a consideration, then the Doctor’s apparent death here feels awfully familiar, which is doubly a shame when you consider it’s this later two-parter that makes by far the more compelling use of that material.

Then there’s what is essentially this episode’s thesis, the bootstrap paradox. On a purely conceptual level, what “Before The Flood” does is pretty damn fascinating. The Doctor creates a hologram to play the part of his ghost, with the prerecorded phrases of the Drum’s occupants in the order of their deaths serving as a self-motivator to get the Doctor to take action before Clara dies, with rest of the message cluing the Doctor into his own plan. That’s a fiendishly clever bit of plotting, mind-blowing even—provided you haven’t seen “Blink.” Or “Space” and “Time.” Or “Time Crash,” or “Time Heist,” or probably a couple other stories with “Time” in the title. Sure, this episode lets the Doctor take a far more active role in reverse-engineering the narrative than did “Blink,” but tonight’s episode doesn’t take the show any further in developing the concept, as “Before The Flood” closes with the Doctor musing on the origins of Beethoven’s Fifth and giving a final, guitar-accompanied shrug to the camera. The question here is fundamentally an intellectual puzzle, a matter for the head instead of the heart.

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Which maybe wouldn’t matter if the episode didn’t come this close to asking a much deeper question about the Doctor’s role in all this. After all, when the names that came after Clara in the list might well have been random, but what about the one that came directly before? When the Doctor first hears the list from his perspective, O’Donnell is still alive, meaning her imminent demise is the clinching proof the Doctor needs before he can bring himself to spring into action to save Clara. Sure, the Doctor makes a token effort to keep O’Donnell safe on the TARDIS, but Bennet rightly points out how little a fight the Doctor puts up when she insists on coming along. The episode has Bennet call out Doctor for using O’Donnell’s death as a glorified experiment, but there’s a deeper moral question that could be considered. Maybe the Doctor can’t know where the original idea to say the list in that order came from, but it must surely have come from him, and hearing O’Donnell’s name before Clara’s informed his actions. So was O’Donnell’s death inevitable? Is there some manner of “original” timeline in which she just died, without any intervention from Doctors present or future, and the Doctor then incorporated the fact of her death into his scheme to send a message to his past self?

Honestly, I have no idea how the show could even begin answering those questions, but it doesn’t really have to. Just asking them would be enough. The Doctor has been a wonderfully fun character since “Last Christmas,” taking the alien gruffness of the first year and layering in some much-needed joie de vivre to balance out the performance. But the resolutions of both “The Witch’s Familiar” and “Before The Flood” suggest a Doctor who is close to invincible, where any apparent damage Davros or the Fisher King can inflict upon him is just a feint before the Doctor reveals his perfect plan. That’s not an issue in and of itself, because any narrative choice can work, but it would do well to be balanced out by some vulnerability elsewhere, some lingering moment of doubt regarding his actions. The Doctor definitely isn’t presented as perfect: He stands there and largely takes Bennet’s barbs after O’Donnell dies, only pointing out that his plan is to save Clara and not himself, and there’s a hint of just how remote, even limited this Doctor is when he fails to understand Bennet’s question at the end about what he should do now that O’Donnell is gone. But when it comes time to consider what, if any, complicity the Doctor might have had in the death and heartbreak they just experienced, he literally shrugs. I’m not advocating for a return to the miserabilist angst that sometimes defined the 10th Doctor’s tenure, but the ease with which the Doctor just moves on can leave a story feeling weightless.

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One possibility is that the Doctor remains remote by design, all the better to illustrate how dangerous it is that Clara is so quick to emulate him. And indeed, that forms the crux of Clara’s subplot tonight, as she draws what I’m going to go ahead and guess is Cass’ eternal enmity for putting Lunn in danger. It’s Clara who articulates what would probably be the story’s answer to those questions I raised above: “He taught me to do what has to be done.” This is a Doctor and a companion who are willing to take the longer and wider view, to risk the lives of individuals to save as many people as possible. In that respect, the Doctor maybe isn’t so different from his immediate predecessors, though he’s more honest about the calculations involved. (That said, consider the 9th Doctor’s actions in another timeline-entangling adventure, “Father’s Day,” to see an incarnation who really did appear to keep his focus entirely on saving each and every person he could.) But it feels different for a companion to be as coldly calculating as Clara is here, and even more so for her to be called out for it as Cass does.

Of course, for Clara to be the focal point of the season, the show needs to have a sharp sense of her character, and I’m not entirely sure “Before The Flood” manages that. Her phone conversation with the Doctor about how she’s not ready for him to die sure feels like it ought to be inflected by what happened to Danny Pink, yet the fact that she has already lost someone important to her doesn’t really register in that scene, with the dialogue focused far more on how the Doctor has shown Clara another way to be. The final scene between Clara and Bennet is, in fairness, very obviously talking about Danny, but that just makes it weirder that the earlier scene appears to elide his role in her life.

Look, I realize it’s weird to go into this kind of depth about the episode’s faults when my most basic takeaway is that “Before The Flood,” like “Under The Lake,” is really, really good. It’s just that the potential exists here for a truly great story, and tonight’s episode doesn’t quite push itself to get there in ways that are likely familiar to longtime Doctor Who viewers. That’s why this story is so perfect for beginners: Stripped of prior context and allowed to exist solely on its own self-defined terms, “Under The Lake”/“Before The Flood” is a triumph of writing, acting, and directing, brilliant slice of science fiction that makes a rollicking swerve from the thrillingly efficient to the giddily experimental. Yet in the context of the show at large, there’s a safeness to this story that holds it back from reaching the kind of pinnacles it might otherwise be capable of. That doesn’t change the fact that I’m guessing this is going to be a hugely entertaining story to rewatch, even to ponder. But until the show charts a clearer character arc for either the Doctor or Clara, there may well be a ceiling for what Doctor Who can accomplish. It’s a decently high ceiling, but I’ve definitely seen the show reach higher.

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Stray observations:

  • A couple other elements I didn’t mention in much detail were the two intra-base romances and the Doctor’s big confrontation with the Fisher King. The former really is very good, elevated by Arsher Ali’s portrayal of Bennet’s heartbreak and Sophie Stone’s not especially subtle portrayal of Cass’ protectiveness of Lunn. Again, it’s another element that makes this feel like good, solid Doctor Who, which isn’t a bad thing but also only offers so much to discuss. The Fisher King’s harsh words about the Time Lords are also fine, though they recall more than a little similar speeches in past Toby Whithouse episodes: “School Reunion,” “The Vampires Of Venice,” and “A Town Called Mercy” all feature similar confrontations between the Doctor and an aggrieved alien, so there’s a bit of diminishing returns in play here.
  • “You might find you’ve lost a couple other memories too. Like people you went to school with, or previous addresses, or how to drink liquids…” The Doctor’s bedside manner really has never been better.
  • So then, the Minister of War is going to be a thing, presumably by the end of this season. Duly noted. Always nice to know ahead of time who the Rani is going to be.
  • “In anger?” “Is there another way to dangle somebody out of a window?” I don’t know, I’d say Otto did some very calm and collected window-dangling. And yes, I may just start throwing in random Python-related clips into these reviews, just because.

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