★★★ Many friends and colleagues will offer me their opinions of the latest Doctor Who episodes, which are by turns laudatory and scathing, sometimes hilarious and, of course, all valid. But there’s one verdict I value above all: that of my nephew Jamie.
A bright ten-year-old, he was aghast that I was underwhelmed by Under the Lake (last week’s episode) and he assured me that it was “brilliant” and “really scary”. He told me he’d watched it with a chum who’d “given up on Doctor Who but is now a fan again” because of that episode. The boys were particularly enthralled by the final image of the dead-eyed Doctor.
I should listen to ten-year-olds. I was ten in 1975 – now that was a bountiful year to be a Doctor Who fan. Tom Baker’s first term in the Tardis. Brand-new episodes on 35 Saturday nights – yes, 35! None of your measly 12. I knew at once that Tom’s debut story Robot was crummy, that his second The Ark in Space was great, and that while Genesis of the Daleks delivered shovel-loads of thrills, there was also an awful lot of grey men standing around talking for six weeks. So even then I wasn’t a dribbling slave to the series; I was sharpening my critical faculties. But perhaps I need to reconnect with my inner ten-year-old to evaluate Doctor Who in 2015...
Obviously, it cannot be a rave every week. I have to be frank and say that while I find Before the Flood marginally more intriguing than Under the Lake, as a brace of episodes they do little to float my boat, buzz my sonic or activate my time rotor. I’m an advocate for darker, spooky, complex tales, but at a time when Doctor Who isn’t exactly thriving in the ratings, the programme needs to deliver something less gloomy and more broadly accessible.
I’m in no mood to moan on at length for a second week running. There are always positives to be found in any episode so I’ll focus on what I like about Before the Flood.
And I do like Cass, played by Sophie Stone, and applaud the BBC's effort to include, almost as a matter of course, someone who doesn't hear. Of all the crew at the Drum, Cass actually looks the part, the likeliest among them to be staffing a lake-bed mining facility – regardless of her lack of hearing. Toby Whithouse makes her essential to his narrative, able to lip-read the ghosts/zombies and relay their messages. She gets one of this tale’s few laughs with a rude (and deserved) hand gesture to Clara.
She goes it alone in the haunted tunnels, stalked by MoranGhost who is dragging an axe, noisily but unheard by Cass. As he approaches, she senses the vibration and is able to picture the imminent threat. It’s an effective moment, and I’m intrigued to know whether Sophie Stone had any input here, and what deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers make of this display.
The big baddy turns out to be the Fisher King. He may do little more than lumber about and snort like a 1980s Who monster and have a survival plan that’s timey-wimey verging on silly, but when he emerges from the shadows, he’s an impressive beast, a hulking crustacean played by Neil Fingleton (at 7ft7, the tallest man in Europe) and voiced by Peter Serafinowicz.
Paul Kaye? Um, well, he's bearable as Prentis, the mole-like funeral director from Tivoli. Remember Tivoli? No, not the tacky pleasure gardens in the centre of Copenhagen. Please rewind to 2011 and to Toby Whithouse’s creepy episode The God Complex: Tivoli was the home world of the craven-hearted Gibbis, played by David Walliams. Prentis is similarly timid, borderline endearing in the 1980 setting – a contrast to his alarming, spectral counterpart in 2119.
The Doctor’s private chats with the viewer... his soliloquies, lectures... let's call them “Doclogues”... are becoming a “thing” now. I rather enjoy them. And they’re not entirely unprecedented. William Hartnell’s Doctor would often muse aloud when alone in the Tardis and notoriously wished “a Happy Christmas to all of you at home” 50 years ago. Tom Baker’s Doctor broke the fourth wall too, directly addressing us or beaming at the camera at the end of an adventure.
In Listen last year Peter Capaldi’s Doctor shared with us his fears of an unseen intruder lurking in the dark. In Before the Flood, it’s a straightforward lecture, albeit one in which he confects a head-scratching temporal paradox about Beethoven. I don’t care to be told to go and google while watching a TV programme, but I applaud any reference in Doctor Who to classical music and composers. (Who knows, maybe one day we’ll have nods to scientists and proper science again too!) These Doclogues play to the star’s strengths and I’ve a hunch we’ll be getting more as the season progresses.
Capaldi playing electric guitar is now another “thing”. It’s certainly one up on Patrick Troughton playing the recorder and Jon Pertwee warbling La donna è mobile – and a vast improvement on Sylvester McCoy playing the spoons on Kate O’Mara’s bosom. I expect many will hate RockDoc, but I love the way he blasts out the opening motif of Beethoven’s Fifth then has the temerity to play over the Doctor Who theme.
As if to say: Peter Capaldi’s incarnation isn’t just a Time Lord; this craggy old geezer could be a Rolling Stone. And I’ll always have sympathy for the devil.