The ninth season of the revived Doctor Who is quickly shaping up to be one of the best of any the show has ever had. That probably sounds hyperbolic, but in many ways we’re getting the perfect meshing of the classic show’s charm with everything that went right when Christopher Eccleston first grabbed Billie Piper’s hand and said, “Run!”
The constant two-parters have lent the season all the grip from the old serials, and a good cliffhanger can be a fantastic way to sand off rougher edges. Lately, the approach to villains is also highly reminiscent of the Pertwee era, when multiple factions were common. Missy and Davros echoed The Master and the Axos, and the build this week from ghosts to the menacing Fisher King had a nice, almost video-game-like progression that felt like a boss fight.
All that, but the show still maintains the ramped-up pace that has been the norm in hour-long dramatic fantasy and sci-fi since Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Peter Capaldi gets to take his time as The Doctor, but it never comes down to feeling plodding or like filler.
And let’s talk about Peter Freakin’ Capaldi for just a few moments. From an uneven start last season, he has become a force of nature. He truly is the oncoming storm. What other actor before could take a few minutes in the first part of an episode to directly address the audience on a time travel concept while playing Beethoven’s 5th Symphony on an electric guitar, even going so far as to show his shortness over having to explain something to us by coldly telling us to Google the “bootstrap paradox.” Sure, actors have broken the fourth wall all the way back to Hartnell, but Capaldi is an aggressive, impossibly energetic presence from the moment “Before the Flood” starts.
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The list of what goes right in “Before the Flood” is pretty long. It’s the first time in a while a truly imposing alien threat has been seen. The Fisher King terrifying. Imagine Silent Hill’s Pyramid Head but also an alien, and you get the idea. The Moffat era of Who is marked by sympathetic monsters to the point that getting scared is often anticlimactic since you know the ending will involve some misunderstood beast needing a hug. Admittedly, this is both closer to real life than the good guy/bad guy binary and a better lesson for the viewer, but it’s nice to be honestly scared.
The care with character development this season and in “Before the Flood” in particular is amazing. That’s a key component of the more horror-oriented adventures and horror films in general. You have to honestly care about characters to feel anything when they are murdered. It’s the reason “Blink” remains a classic. Sure, the concept of the Weeping Angels alone was frightening, but it would have been a lot less so if you didn’t actively root for Sally Sparrow.
There is some room for improvement, though. This is the second adventure in a row where Clara in danger has been reduced to nothing more than a reason for The Doctor to get angry. I’d hesitate to call it damseling exactly, but it is increasingly making Missy’s comparison of her to a pet more and more apt. Where’s the Clara who led the resistance against the Cybermen in “Nightmare in Silver” and outwitted the Sheriff of Nottingham? I mean, I’m glad that the show is borrowing some of its gravitas from the time of the Third Doctor, but let’s leave the way that time treated its companions back in the ‘70s, don’t you think?
“Before the Flood” was fantastic, an epic story in a season where epic stories are becoming the norm. I have no idea if the show can maintain this level of intensity and quality, but it has done well so far.