Hurrah! Doctor Who brings us a bootstrap paradox treat in Before the Flood
Twisting time to flush out beasties
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, 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. ®