This week’s Doctor Who, “Before the Flood”, started out with The Doctor talking about Beethoven and something called the “Bootstrap Paradox,” and in true Capaldi fashion he flippantly tells us to Google it. By the end of this episode you get a clear understanding of what exactly the “Bootstrap Paradox” is and it’s a real mind-blower, but more on that later.
I really enjoyed this week’s episode, both on its own and as a complement to last week’s part one. The Doctor goes through his Beethoven spiel asking, in a hypothetical timeline where Beethoven doesn’t exist, if one went back with his music and got it published, then who wrote Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to start? The chicken, the egg, a very old question. Here punctuated by The Doctor’s electric guitar rendition of those four iconic notes from said symphony, blending into a fantastic remix of the main theme to the show with electric guitar accompaniment throughout. While I’m sure this was a one-off thing, I would love if they adopted this version for the rest of the season. It fits Peter Capaldi’s punk rock attitude and style, plus … it’s just cool.
We quickly find out that the first ghost we met last week is not a scary ill-intentioned being but rather an alien funeral director. He happens to come from a race that is constantly being conquered and left due to their incredible ability to annoy everyone. He has come to earth to facilitate the funeral of “The Fisher King,” a powerful alien who has recently passed, or so we are led to believe. We never get a real explanation on just how the “Fisher King” faked his death to someone who is supposed to have a career dealing with the dead, but that’s just what he’s done. The Fisher King plans to set his signal up to create “ghosts” which will draw in his people to take the planet and mine it for its resources. So same old song for The Doctor. The Fisher King by the way, is a really interesting monster design, think of the alien suits from Independence Day mixed with a bit of Cronenberg’s The Fly. Large and imposing, the creature makes a fast impression without really doing much.
I love, love, love when this show does interesting things with time travel and this episode is a great example of clever things one can do in this universe. The Bootstrap Paradox looms over them the whole time. If the events of the future cause The Doctor to go to the past and create the situation in the future that drove them there, was there a timeline where something or someone else was the catalyst? If not how did the town get flooded in the first place? We never get any answers to these questions and that’s totally fine. It’s something for you to mentally chew on, discuss with friends or online forums. Good storytelling should stimulate us intellectually, leave you wondering, and this episode does so very successfully.
Speaking of wondering, a few more questions were raised this week. Crew member O’Donnell shows a lot of knowledge about The Doctor, referencing past companions Rose, Martha, and Amy. She also mentions the Minister of War. The Doctor seems perplexed by this and can’t place the name, brushing it off as something he’ll learn later. I was reminded of earlier seasons with David Tennant and the lead up to Torchwood being revealed. Much in the same way small, seemingly unimportant details were sprinkled in episodes leading up to the big reveal. Could the Minister of War be where this season is heading? Or maybe Steven Moffat is just having fun with us.
He also teases us with a little foreshadowing of Clara’s final fate. Ever since the BBC announced Jenna Coleman was leaving at some point this year fans have been wondering how she’ll leave The Doctor. Will she get a happy ending or does a darker fate lie in store for her?
“We all have to face death eventually be it ours or somebody else’s.” tweet
These are the words The Doctor says to Clara and she replies, “I’m not ready yet.” In the context of the episode we think she means The Doctor’s death, but are we actually getting some clue as to what will make her leave the TARDIS for good? Maybe her death is on the horizon and this is their way of giving us a hint.
The saddest point though of this episode was one that directed us again to The Doctor’s character, the death of crew member O’Donnell. After watching her try to act cool at the start of the episode it was adorable when she hangs back and giddily exclaims “It’s bigger on the inside!” over and over. She was obviously a huge fan of his and was trying to impress him. This made it that much more painful, first after she is killed by the Fisher King, and secondly when crew member Bennett states the obvious … The Doctor knew she was going to die, or at least suspected it and allowed it to happen to test a theory. Just like last season, it seems the question of whether The Doctor is a “good man” is still very much in play. Also like last season, The Doctor’s cagey answer to this accusation gives just enough wiggle room to let him slide but leans towards him being a selfish bastard. He even admits he’s willing to cheat the laws of time to save Clara but not others. Clara mirrors this selfishness when she tells him he can’t die with her, “die with whoever comes after me, you do not leave me!” Again these two are kindred spirits, for better and worse.
It would be criminal if I didn’t also point out a similarity to another classic time travel story. When the TARDIS gets stuck in The Doctor’s timeline, they travel to the time they initially landed. They see themselves from the start of the episode and have to hide out until they catch up to the present. If anyone can watch this and not think of Back to the Future Part II I would be extremely surprised. Unfortunately other than a brief gag this does not affect the story any further but again it’s nice to see a show about time travel play with crisscrossing timelines a bit.
All in all another great episode this season. Four for four is a great start to the year and let’s hope they keep up the good work. From writing to cinematography this week’s was fantastic. Smokey shots with lots of shadow gave the scenes mood and tension; just all around a great job. The only drawback I can see this week was the final reveal of The Doctor being in the hibernation chamber. I guessed when I watched last week’s episode and the hologram ghost he uses feels like a cheat. If his ghost activated as soon as the chamber was on board why did his fake ghost take so long to appear? Convenience, that’s why! But big grain of salt here, turn a blind eye to this one glaringly cheap bit of writing and you have a great addition to the Who canon.