No, this isn’t an episode about that seminal Bob Dylan concert. But it’s still pretty good!
Who composed Beethoven’s Fifth?
Maybe the only thing I can knock “Before the Flood” for is not making more use of its 1980-Soviet setting. Sure, the town was supposed to be abandoned, but that just meant it could have been anywhere. It could have been an Old West ghost town. Or a mine. Or Iceland. Instead, it’s a beautifully-filmed mountain valley with a big ‘ol dam keeping the water at bay — and look, I still spun that into a positive!
The point is, Toby Whithouse’s two-parter represents the best of what modern Who can offer, and it’s neck-and-neck with “Listen” for the most overall successful outing of the Capaldi Era. It’s got genuine chills, distinctive locations, a memorable villain in the Fisher King (both visually and loquaciously), and the tacit acknowledgement that all this timey-wimey business is nonsense anyway. Whithouse just gave a name to the causal loop that has been Steven Moffat’s bread and butter since the beginning: “The Bootstrap Paradox.”
The Doctor told me to Google it, so I did.
One definition is “Where an object or information can exist without being created.” In a highly irregular breaking of the fourth wall, the Doctor gives us the example of the lonely time traveler who, in his effort to meet and befriend Beethoven, gives the composer all the melodies for what will become his masterpieces. We’ve seen this multiple times on Who. In Moffat’s “The Big Bang,” a future version of the Doctor gives himself the idea to do a thing that positions the future Doctor to send that message. Way back in Season 3’s “The Shakespeare Code,” the Tenth Doctor can’t help but incept the Bard with a few of his more memorable turns of phrase. And of course, just about all of “Blink” was reverse-engineered. Can you, in essence, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps? Who really wrote Beethoven’s Fifth? How can the Doctor get the solution for saving the day from his own “ghost,” which he sent himself having been given said instructions from said ghost? To quote another Loop-y film about time travel, it’ll “fry your brain like an egg.”
I greatly enjoyed all that loosey-goosey paradoxination (my computer is telling me that’s not a word). If “Under the Lake” proved the Who truism (Whoism?) that simpler, claustrophobic stories often make the best episodes, “Before the Flood” proves that you can have more fun in — as the Doctor says — going off the map, and throwing out the rulebook. Too often, the second hour of a two-part story is a letdown (see: “Forest of the Dead,” “Flesh and Stone”). This time, their differences in style and tone kept both installments on equal footing. And if you’re looking to indoctrinate a friend into the Who-verse, this isn’t a bad place to start.
Peter Capaldi was in rare form this week, rocking his now trademark guitar while pushing this “crazy uncle” version of the Doctor so far even Rick Sanchez would bristle. He takes the idea of him dying in his near future (or past? ah, forget it) rather well, though the obligatory scene where Clara begs him to do something to change it goes on a bit longer than it needs to considering he’s obviously not really going to die (and we literally JUST did this in the season premiere, so come on guys). So instead, the Doctor spends much of the episode trying to preserve the sequence of events as it’s already been explained to him, including witnessing the deaths of the unctuous Tivolian Prentis (twice) and the unfortunate O’Donnell, until he can pop the metaphorical trap door on the Fisher King and rescue the others.
Not for the first time, someone calls him out on his cavalier attitude towards the cannon fodder; this time it’s Bennett, who figures the Doctor let O’Donnell die just to prove his working theory, and that he’s only going to act now because he judges Clara to be in the most immediate danger. That’s a moral dilemma that gets right to the heart of Doctor Who: what makes some people worth saving, and others bait? Is O’Donnell any less of a hero for never knowing that it’s her maiming that provides the impetus for the Doctor to save the rest? He doesn’t really answer Bennett, nor does the show really answer for him. It even paints Clara in a similar light when she persuades Lunn to go after her cell phone, horrifying Cass. (He’s a Time Lord. What’s her excuse?) We’ve already moved on past the “Is the Doctor a good man” question — he just does what needs to be done. If it were up to him, he’d only ever be the one in danger, but that’s just not how things work.
His confrontation with the Fisher King is the latest in a long line of episode climaxes where the Doctor puts himself directly in the line of attack, hoping his synapses will fire in time to get him out of it (last season’s “Mummy on the Orient Express” is an excellent example). He’ll never make a move if he doesn’t know he can win — UNLESS his companion is in immediate danger. And because he knows that about himself, his fake ghost/hologram tags Clara as the next victim so it will spur him to action, even without a fully formed plan. It’s clever writing in that it’s simple on its face, but filled with meaning several layers deep.
The Fisher King himself (and with that name, someone is either a big fan of Arthurian legend, or Robin Williams movies) was so cool, I wish they had included more of him. He’s not only successful as an imposing physical presence (provided by Neil “Tallest Man in Britain” Fingleton, last seen on your screens as the giant Mag the Mighty on Game of Thrones), but as an actual character, who monologues about the Time Lords (calling them “cowardly, vain killers”) and his race’s plan for world domination. The great Peter Serafinowicz’s posh velvet tones are a delightful fit, equally conveying intelligence and menace. And he’s especially intrigued by the Doctor, “a man lost in time, who would rather die than change one word of the future.”
The Doctor, unfortunately for the Fisher King, can’t say the same. The big crustacean-bug-man “violated something more important than time…you bent the rules of life and death.” Turning peoples’ souls into electromagnetic projections just to broadcast your message to your bloodthirsty brethren is not cool, Fisher King. So, all the mysteries are tied up in a neat bow: the Doctor took the missing power source to blow the dam; the Doctor is inside the suspension pod; the Doctor’s ghost is not a ghost, but a hologram. He and Clara are free to fly off and fight another day, leaving one happy couple (congratulations, Lunn and Cass), one grieving scientist, and a Faraday cage-ful of cranky ghosts in their wake. All in all, another successful adventure, right? So why do the final scenes leave us so…unsettled?
Of course, naming your paradoxes out loud isn’t enough. You have to actually reconcile them. Hopefully, that’s still to come.
- Mag the Mighty wasn’t the only Thrones alum in this two-parter: the sniveling Prentis was played by Paul Kaye, Thoros of Myr himself. He brought a ton of personality to what could have been a brief, one-note character.
- Honestly, the Tivoli (carried over from Whithouse’s “The God Complex”) are more interesting as a concept — a race that will surrender to anyone — than in execution. But I would be curious to see a screwball episode set on their planet, just to witness Capaldi’s mounting frustration.
- The Doctor, talking to himself: “I’ve always been a huge admirer; finally, someone worth talking to!”
- Still not sold on the “sonic sunglasses.” In fact, assume I hate them until further notice.
- More successful is the return this season of the TARDIS as an actual character, with a will of its own. Simply bringing Bennett and the Doctor back 30 minutes previous was pretty clever, even if there wasn’t time (ha!) to get a lot of gags out of it.
- Oh, right — throwaway mention of the “Minister of War.” File that one for later.
- Nice bit of horror filmmaking from director Daniel O’Hara: Cass’s slow realization with the axe dragging on the ground. She was probably safe to turn around and look, though. The ghosts hadn’t been shown to be terribly smart or fast.
- Do the breaks to commercial feel especially arbitrary this year, or is it just me?
- NEXT WEEK: We keep the Thrones-mania going with Arya Stark! YES, PLEASE.