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Hurrah! Doctor Who brings us a bootstrap paradox treat in Before the Flood

Twisting time to flush out beasties

By Kelly Fiveash, 10 Oct 2015


Jennifer says:

Let’s deal with the timey-wimey bit first. The bootstrap paradox or “who wrote Beethoven’s Fifth?” question is a good one. Towards the end of David Tennant’s tenure and during the Matt Smith years, the awesome opportunities of time travel were sidelined.

A bit about “fixed points in time” that everyone accepted for the sake of the plot ... apart from those of us shouting “you’ve got a bloody TIME MACHINE” at the screen. With any luck this season we’ll see more mind-bending plots that really use the TARDIS.

The Doctor observes that O’Donnell seems to know an awful lot about him, which given he’s done a stint as President of Earth is hardly surprising.

All those trips to London and Cardiff and no one noticing his interference was getting a little far-fetched, and recognising the Doctor has a sort of alien celebrity allows the characters to act out the audience’s feelings. Who wouldn’t jump up and down and squeal: “it’s bigger on the inside!”?

I'm a dead man walking. I'm changing history to save Clara.'

Less exciting is the new reliance on Earthly tech.

Clara’s smartphone looks on course to get billing of its own this season, but a short lesson on phones and Faraday cages is useful for the under-tens. The time paradox as it is raised again is a trickier conundrum for parents to unravel on a Saturday night. But this is Doctor Who as it should be; getting kids interested in questions of science in between hiding from monsters behind the sofa.

The big monster of this episode takes his time being revealed and despite impressive costuming, is a little underwhelming, preferring like Davros in previous episodes to attempt to talk the Doctor to death. Ho hum.

Doctor Who – Before the Flood. Pic credit: BBC

Doctor Who, Season 9 – Before the Flood. Pic credit: BBC

The ghost hologram is a touch predictable and the emotional fallout of short-term companion humans is something viewers have come to expect, making Before the Flood the sort of episode that in parts is just going through the motions.

Closing the episode with reference to the opening lesson is neat, even if the Doctor’s claim that he's “reverse engineering the narrative” sounds like a clever way for getting out of plot holes in stories. But it’s done with such charm and swagger, that surely no one really minds ... unlike the sonic sunglasses! Are we going to have to deal with such travesty Every. Single. Week?!

Kelly says:

Perhaps, just perhaps, I was a little too harsh about Under the Lake. Or anyway, this two-parter finally sprouts alien legs in Before the Flood now that we have a giant upright-cockroach-style beastie named the Fisher King: a villain the Doctor needs to outsmart to save the day. World. Whatever.

But unlike the Fisher King of Arthurian legend, this one can stomp around the place making an almighty racket. Well, except that is, when it wants to surprise its human prey-cum-transmitter.

Am I the only one disappointed to see Doctor Who fangrrl O'Donnell (played by Morven Christie) exit so early on, though? I don't doubt that the show's producers are playing with us by hinting that maybe (just maybe) O'Donnell will be the next assistant once Clara pops her clogs.

Doctor Who – Before the Flood. Pic credit: BBC

Doctor Who, Season 9 – Before the Flood. Pic credit: BBC

O'Donnell – in her wispy, Scottish tones – even gets to utter the excitable line "It's bigger on the inside" over-and-over again, while jumping up and down.

But then, she fails the first test set by the Doctor with her refusal to "mind the shop" and stay in the TARDIS.

Are we now seeing the Doctor's recruitment process in play?

(If so, my money's on UNIT scientist Osgood (played by Ingrid Oliver) going all wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey with Peter Capaldi, especially since it's already been confirmed by show runner Steven Moffat that Osgood is returning to Doctor Who, despite the fact that we last saw her being vapourised by Missy in the previous series.)

Before the Lake opens with the Doctor looking down the lens of the camera before, once again, wielding a guitar as he prepares the audience for what's to come: "This is called the 'bootstrap paradox'. Google it."

Ahh yes, that old chestnut. We've seen this device used a few times in the rebooted version of Doctor Who; such as 2005's Father's Day and Blink, which was first broadcast in 2007. And, of course, loopy paradoxes paradoxically loop their way through the TV drama's 52-year-long history.

'How do you do it? Is it a special pen? The technology you use, give it to me now ... I'm going to take the batteries out.'

A weak point for me in this ep comes when the Ghost Doctor is revealed as a not-so-cunning hologram. Why isn't it obvious to the crew and Clara that this is a fake? Especially since a hologram of Clara is created in Under the Lake to help trap the ghosts in the Faraday cage.

The Doctor's explanation of the hologram "with a soupçon of artificial intelligence and a few pre-recorded phrases thrown in," doesn't really cut it for me and it doesn't help when he adds: "All beamed from the sonic glasses. As soon as you brought me and the chamber on board it connected with the base's Wi-Fi and Bob's your uncle for the Ghost Doctor."

It's only a minor niggle, though, for an otherwise terrific episode. Without the Ghost Doctor hologram, the Doctor wouldn't know when the chamber will open so as he can deliver his "morning breath" gag save Clara and the remaining crew.

Top points for the Fisher King's kill, too: what better way to take out a giant, thudding cockroach beastie, then to flood it into oblivion.

Gavin says:

Rarely does a piece of sci-fi arrive that twists your grapefruit segments to the point where it takes massive deconstruction and discussion to absorb.

12 Monkeys, Inception, Looper did that. Not Doctor Who. Ever. Not until Before the Flood, that is – the second part to Under the Lake.

In last week's episode the challenge had been to advance a storyline of humans trapped and getting dispatched by an unseen, psychopathic alien presence.

Doctor Who’s writers, led by Toby Whithouse – the brain behind vamp, werewolf and ghost “domestic” drama, Being Human – succeed by throwing in that classic of time travel: cause and effect; consequences to actions.

In this case: the bootstrap paradox.

Whithouse wraps this concept with drama and comedy rather than bowling it cold and hard – making it palatable to an audience beyond the usual nerd demographic.

The Doctor’s straight-to-viewer monologue did this, setting the scene and lacing it with sly humour – verging on Bill & Ted and rocking into the opening credits.

This opener also reveals a hidden, second feature: eye contact with the Doctor, for the first time. Who else is immediately hooked?

Finally, in a daring touch of writing we return to this theme, if not this exact scene, at the end, closing the circle. It comes with the added pay-off of the Doctor’s "whatev" shrug to the viewer: “Yes, to answer your question, it was I who wrote Beethoven’s 5th.”

There was a serious intent here, though: if the Doctor could change time to create the Beethoven’s 5th he can also change time to stop things existing.

Doctor Who – Before the Flood. Pic credit: BBC

Doctor Who, Season 9 – Before the Flood. Pic credit: BBC

To stop things such as the Fisher King baddie, who proves to be a suitable psychopath conquistador with a loathing of Time Lords and a readiness to embrace death.

But this isn't the only good thing about Before the Flood.

This episode’s power comes not only from having to keep mentally sharp, unravelling and re-assembling the changing situational-time narrative.

There's drama and setting, too: switching between that benignly sinister oil platform beneath the lake and fake Soviet village on a wind-blasted valley on the fringes of civilisation in an era when nuclear war is always just seconds away.

'This isn't just any spaceship, it's a hearse.'

For once, both locations are maximised. There's no charging around with the Doctor using his sonic screwdriver to do improbable things.

Instead, Doctor Who cuts tightly between the two: the chase through the rooms of the fake village pursued by the as-yet unseen Fisher King; the “uh-oh” moment when the Doctor and Bennet see themselves with the now-dead O’Donnell; and you know everything is suddenly more complicated with the now heart-broken Lunn fighting the impulse to alter time and save the tough-but-shy O’Donnell.

The Doctor’s answer to Lunn should transcend all films and such TV that tackle this classic you can’t save somebody already dead on a slab: because then you really do then see ghosts.

There's inevitable defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory horror moments like when O’Donnell’s ghost lifts Clara’s iPhone, plus the rising tension of the opening suspended animation chamber.

But perhaps best of all is Cass’ pursuit, seen from her perspective as a deaf person – with each sound of metal scraping rendered more threatening for being so excruciatingly muffled.

And, as with any really good story, nothing is over until the credits roll and you need to pay attention right to the end in case you miss something.

There's no resurrection of the Predator-like Fisher King. Rather, an explanation of just how tight things were: the Doctor had programmed the words his hologram ghost uttered only once he’d seen the ghost on Clara’s phone in the present while he was 150-years in the past – where he created that hologram ghost.

Clara sums this up best: “Wow.”

The premise, of course, is should you – given the opportunity – change events in history to alter the outcome? If you could go back in time and kill Hitler, would you?

The Doctor, we learn, would – but only on certain conditions – to save Clara.

His justification? Changes are permitted when confronted with an even greater wrong: bending the rules of life and death, as Fisher King was doing by creating ghosts to serve as transmitters. Changing the past to affect the future corrects that wrong.

Hey, nobody said being a Time Lord is easy. But what is the point of having a Time Machine if you can’t meet your heroes? Or to save the ones you love.

Hopefully, I’ll have stopped hyperventilating by next Saturday evening, too. ®

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