“Before the Flood” is Doctor Who at its most mediocre and frustrating

This most recent episode of Doctor Who wasn’t completely awful, but it just felt a bit ho hum, to be honest. I hate being condescended to, and I hate watching characters I like being condescended to, so I kind of hated “Before the Flood” in spite of its not being a particularly bad episode.

It really just rubbed me wrong right out of the gate, with a quick explanation of the bootstrap paradox. You know, just in case there’s anyone watching Doctor Who or interested in science fiction who isn’t at least somewhat familiar with one of the most common concepts of how time travel might work. We might not know it by this name, but we’re all pretty familiar with the idea. And, frankly, this explanation seemed patronizing enough that it ought to irritate folks even if they find it informative.

So, that happened.

We’re then launched into an episode that cements, in my mind anyway, Peter Capaldi’s Doctor as the most unlikable iteration to date. The Doctor has always been inconsiderate, self-absorbed, and somewhat manic, but in the past his actions have generally been governed (and his worst tendencies have been tempered) by a deep-seated basic decency, a reverence for life, and a real desire to help people. That’s not so much the case these days.

And this new Doctor isn’t just cavalier with people’s feelings, he’s cavalier with their lives, and there are basically no consequences for the Doctor at all. Indeed, he seems entirely unaffected at the end of this episode. The worst part, though, is that it seems that in order to protect the Doctor from criticism by the audience, all of the characters’ emotional reactions feel weirdly muted, and “Before the Flood” ends with the Doctor giving a whiz-bang explanation of how clever he was to have figured out what was going on. Considering how many people died–and at least one was clearly preventable–you’d think the mood might be a little more somber. The Doctor’s self-congratulatory tirade here is grating.

This season’s rather depressing treatment of Clara continued this week, with the companion once again sidelined with little to do and nothing to actively contribute to solving the week’s problem. She did talk to the Doctor on the phone, which gave him the information he needed to figure out what he needed to do, but Clara didn’t actually get to have any ideas of her own or take any actions that helped move the plot along.

I’m entirely convinced that Steven Moffat has no idea what the Doctor’s companions are for, and that Clara is the culmination of Moffat’s successful campaign to turn the companion into a piece of pretty furniture who occasionally makes nurturing noises. Clara seems to only exist now in order to be an object that the Doctor is ostensibly very passionate about rescuing.

The treatment of women in general has been pretty awful in this most recent pair of episodes. I wanted to scream when the Doctor (half-heartedly, really) tried to get O’Donnell to stay in the Tardis for protection. The Doctor seemed to deliberately imply that his solicitude was vaguely sexist, which of course prompted a feisty rejoinder from O’Donnell about how she’s not going to stand for that sort of nonsense. So she leaves the Tardis and is promptly killed by the Fisher King. I’m not sure there are even words to fully convey just how much I hate this particular, highly insulting and misogynistic trope.

For all the promise Cass showed as a character last week, she has just as little to do this week as Clara, and in the end is reduced to a romantic reward for the guy who is only alive in the first place because of Cass stopping him from seeing the words carved into the spaceship. Also to make Bennet look emotionally intelligent so we can see how much O’Donnell’s senseless death helped him to grow as a person. O’Donnell and Cass deserve so much better than this.

I said, though, that the episode was mediocre. It was, objectively, in spite of the many things about it that really pissed me off.

It had a genuinely creepy monster in the Fisher King, who looked really cool, although his taunting of the Doctor sounded a little too reminiscent of, well, a bunch of other enemies of the Doctor in previous episodes. And Paul Kaye as the Tivolian undertaker, Prentis, is an absolute treasure, if almost unrecognizably made up. In the end, the Doctor’s solution to their predicament was actually pretty clever, although it would have been more surprising and less grating if it wasn’t for that absolutely insufferable opening monologue.

Like many episodes in the Moffat era, “Before the Flood” is a mix of some of the best and worst of Doctor Who. The last two seasons of the show have more than demonstrated that it really, really could have been worse.

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