Doctor Who – Season 9 Episode 4
“Before The Flood”
Doctor Who opens quite unexpectedly for the second part of a two part story. Instead of picking up where the last episode left off, the Doctor spends some time breaking the 4th wall and explains what the “Bootstrap paradox” is. In case you can’t be bothered clicking the wikipedia link I’ve supplied, the “Bootstrap paradox” is when a time loop causes the creation of something. The example used here is Beethoven’s music. If a time traveller went back in time and discovered that he was the one responsible for the existence of Beethoven’s music then who had the idea in the first place?
This may seem like a random way to begin the episode but it does become more important than it initially seems. It is unknown at the time but it ends up becoming the thing that the whole solution to this problem hinges on. I’ll get more into that later in this review. As a side note I really want to keep the rock version of the main theme, it seems to suit Capaldi’s version of the Doctor perfectly.
At the end of the last episode the Doctor decided that he needed more information about what was the cause of this problem so he decides to go back in time to investigate. He takes Bennet and O’Donnell with him leaving Clara back on the base for reasons. It’s probably because he trusts her but from a narrative point of view she’s there to fulfil an important plot point during the episode.
The Doctor’s departure created another problem with a Doctor ghost appearing in his absence. It appears that his death is inevitable due to something that happens in the past which I guess is supposed to raise the stakes but in reality it only serves to make me wonder what convoluted way he’ll use to get out of it.
Despite the fact that any audience member will be smart enough to deduce that the Doctor won’t really die the important thing is that the characters believe it. Clara is noticeably upset as she feels as if she has been abandoned by the man who promised never to do that. With the TARDIS in the past and the only man who can pilot it apparently dead then it looks like she’s stuck there. I really liked how Clara reacted to it as it suggested that she was barely holding her grief back before now. There’s an explosion of emotion for her that shows there is another ghost looming over this story in the form of Danny Pink. It’s something that still cuts Clara deeply and she can’t deal with losing the Doctor too. It’s very emotionally powerful stuff and Jenna Coleman puts this across wonderfully. I will be sorry to see her go when she leaves.
The Doctor is faced with the inevitability of his death…again. Seriously, how many times has this guy been told that he’s going to die and there’s nothing that he can do about it? This happens so often that it’s become more of a joke than a revelation that raises the personal stakes for him.
At first he reacts maturely and points out that he’s had a good run with his current regeneration being a “clerical error”. I’ve always thought that the Doctor accepting his death is a bit defeatist as his entire life has been defined by running from what was expected from him. He ran from the Time Lords because they wanted a certain type of life for him and he rejected it and ever since he has been running from one thing or another. In all cases this defeatist attitude wears off and he can get on with the adventure.
In this case he tries to go back to save Clara and essentially give time the middle finger, I would say that he sticks his tongue out but this is Malcolm Tucker after all. The TARDIS resists this and throws him back to half an hour before he arrived. It’s a device clearly designed to have him accept his inevitable death and it does throw him a little. It does successfully raise the stakes and I like how Capaldi plays the Doctor as terrified here as he seems to go through the motions on something he has no control over.
It is at this point he meets the Fisher King (Peter Serafinowicz), a terrifyingly large creature -so not the one from Arthurian legend- who is responsible for this. The Doctor’s conversation with him is the highlight of the episode with lots for fans to chew on as well as some really powerful performances. Capaldi plays the Doctor as being disgusted with the Fisher King for robbing people of their deaths and using their souls as a beacon to attract his armada. The Doctor sees this as the worst crime imaginable as it takes something away from people that every living thing should have a right to.
The Fisher King seems to have a lot of information on the Time Lords; calling them the galaxy’s most War-like race. This is something that really hits the Doctor as he knows it to be true given what he has experienced in his long lifetime. More curiously is the reference to the Minister of War, something that the Doctor hasn’t yet heard of. I imagine this will be something we’ll encounter as the season goes on. Perhaps it’s a title the Doctor finds himself with sometime or another.
It’s a shame that the Fisher King was a bit of a disappointing villain overall. When the episode started to make his presence felt it was really well done as it created a sense of terror with some unseen powerful force picking people off but the reveal made it less intimidating. I liked seeing the Doctor talk to the shadowed figure but once it came out of the shadows a lot of the menace was lost. It’s an old horror tactic to have what you don’t see be more terrifying and that is something that should definitely have been adhered to here. It was also defeated far too easily.
I liked the binary setting structure with the old Scottish town set up during the cold war to train people to fight the Russians during the Cold War. The setting suggested something that didn’t quite belong which meshed with the theme of the episode perfectly. Connecting the two locations using Clara’s phone was a nice device as well. It felt like the Doctor was a part of the other location without actually being there and kept the pacing at the level it needed to be to move the story along.
The past setting also gave us the brief but memorable appearance of Prentis (Paul Kaye). He is a Tivolian and the first of the ghosts. His characterisation shows a significant contrast between his malevolent ghostly presence in both parts and his good nature here. It’s hard to believe that he could cause any harm which makes it more effective when you learn what the Fisher King does to people once he claims their souls. Prentis had some funny lines around being enslaved and having items that could be used to oppress him. There’s something a little pathetic about his species as his home planet is the most invaded in the galaxy with their capital city having a sign saying “If you occupied us, you’d be home by now!”. Really pathetic but he’s an entertaining piece of cannon fodder.
As with the first part the secondary characters are fairly underdeveloped. There’s a love story sub-plot in this episode that feels completely unearned and more suggestions that travelling with the Doctor changes someone as Clara had pointed out to her. Seeing these people look for reassurance from her doesn’t impact the way that writer Toby Whithouse probably wanted it to. O’Donnell’s death in the past doesn’t quite have the emotional impact it should have. Morven Christie gave a good performance and having her be a Doctor fangirl worked well enough but there wasn’t really enough from her to make her a presence that would be missed.
There standout moment in the episode was an incredibly tense sequence involving Cass being chased by a ghost that she can’t hear. The way she detects the ghost makes her seem more than a little superhuman like Daredevil but it was awesome so I’ll let it slide.
As with the last two parter the resolution felt a little too neat. The Doctor ghost being a hologram was a little too obvious given that a holographic Clara was used in the first part. I also found the way that he set up the resolution by encouraging himself to think of a way out of the situation by suggesting that Clara would be the next death to be a little contrived. I get that he doesn’t really care about the bystanders but suggesting that Clara is his inspiration to solve a problem doesn’t really work for me. Surely saving his own neck would be enough of a motivation.
This ending is where the “Bootstrap paradox” comes in. The only reason the Doctor passed the information to his ghost/hologram counterpart is because he saw it reciting the information. In effect he never had the idea to solve the problem on his own, all he did was fill in the missing pieces of the narrative. The whole notion completely blows Clara’s mind and I suspect the mind of many of the audience. I do love a time travel story that has no easy answer and this one does that really well and makes it interesting.
In case anyone is counting, that is 4 episodes of Doctor Who in a row that I have enjoyed. That might mean that I like Doctor Who again, I didn’t think I would ever see the day but roll on next week.
Not quite as strong an outing as the first part and the resolution feels a little too neat but still an enjoyable viewing experience.
The opening of the episode being the Doctor explaining to the audience what the “Bootstrap paradox” is was a strange way to begin but it ultimately worked and held together once the reason for doing so was revealed at the end.
I liked the binary settings of the episode with the Doctor in the Scottish village made to look Russian giving the impression of something that doesn’t belong there and adding to the unease of the overall situation. Using Clara’s phone to tie together the two time periods was a nice touch and had the Doctor part of both aspects of the story.
Having the Doctor face the inevitability of his own death was a bit of a contrivance as he seems to face this regularly. So regularly it has become a joke rather than something that raises the stakes for him personally. Clara’s reaction to the whole thing was well done as she has an explosion of emotion at the prospect of being abandoned. Clearly her grief just needed an excuse to release.
In order to beat the inevitability The Doctor tries to go back to save Clara but the TARDIS won’t let him due to the rules of time travel. This does successfully up the stakes and add a sense of hopelessness to the situation for the Doctor. Capaldi’s performance is great as he goes through the emotions surrounding his seemingly inevitable death.
It’s a similarly powerful performance when he meets the Fisher King and points out that he is completely disgusted that by using the souls of people for its own purposes they have been robbed of their death. This is something that the Doctor feels every living thing is entitled to so what the Fisher King has done is unforgivable in his eyes.
The Fisher King is a but disappointing as villains go. It is much more effective when it an unseen threat in the shadows but once revealed it looks a little goofy and robs it of most of its menace. It is also dealt with a little too easily.
In this part the secondary characters are as underdeveloped as ever. There’s a romance sub-plot that feels unearned as well as a death that doesn’t have the impact that it should.
There’s an overall sense of neatness to the whole resolution as the Doctor has set things up so that the whole thing can be wrapped up. It feels too contrived for the most part but it doesn’t take away from the well built story up to that point.