What fourth wall? The TARDIS is bigger on the inside, but is it big enough to allow millions a front-row seat to the Doctor as he walks the corridors narrating fairy tales and admonishing viewers to google bootstrap paradox, which may be necessary knowledge to unravel the knots in the rest of the episode? In addition, the opening segment provides a convenient avenue for Peter Capaldi, aka the RockDoc, to bring out the guitar again. Given Capaldi’s musical roots and his ability to play the guitar, this may be a recurring incident. Despite the somewhat disconnected feel of the narration from the story, the opener in “Before the Flood” did command attention. Murray Gold’s rock version of the Doctor Who theme was a nice touch.
In the stew
Mix mythology, physics, and the appearance of potential paranormal apparitions and what do you get? You get the second episode of the two-parter “Under the Lake/Before the Flood,” written by Toby Whitehouse. While Who’s Fisher King has nothing to do with the Holy Grail, he does have a similarity with the Arthurian legend. The mythological “wounded king” waits for someone to heal him, while Who’s Fisher King waits to be saved, to be returned home, in essence to heal from a perceived death and removal from his planet. Our hero goes back in time to the city before it flooded to find the spaceship from “Under the Lake” and eventually comes face-to-face with the Fisher King. But not before he meets the undertaker from Tivoli, still alive, passing out cards, and using a blatant reference to S&M that makes one wonder if R.T. Davies was whispering in Whitehouse’s ear during the scripting.
Confronting the Fisher King
Bennett and O’Donnell, two members of an underwater base called the Drum, have accompanied the Doctor on this fact-seeking trip. O’Donnell is a warm and straight-forward fan of the Doctor and isn’t about to be treated like the female assistant left behind to watch the office. Since she’s already been demoted once for dangling a colleague from an open window, it seems reasonable that the Doctor allow her to go. Yet, after we find out that the Doctor knew she was next on the list to be killed we are left wondering (and maybe a bit angry) that he was not more persuasive in her remaining behind in the TARDIS. When O’Donnell decides to split away from the Doctor and Bennett, her demise appears to be imminent. The Fisher King finds and kills her in an abandoned building. Bennett is heartbroken and accuses the Doctor of using O’Donnell as an experiment. Did he? Why does her ghost return to the underwater base? And why does she take Clara’s phone? Despite the annoyance, the easy answer is that it was convenient to the plot because the Doctor wanted Clara to keep the phone close. Is this another instance of “accept it” as was implied in the “Witch’s Familiar?”
The more complex answer is that the Fisher King was directing the movement of his electromagnetic minions through sound vibration. Given the consistent use of electromagnetic radiation in this two-parter, the more complex answer is, perhaps, more plausible. The use of Vector in Vector Petroleum was not random, but further affirmation of the physics. Doctor Who, after all, has a history of promoting science. And Michael Faraday (ah, yes, the Faraday cage) was the scientist behind the vector field.
Science tangent aside, after a discussion with Clara, the Doctor sends Bennett back to the TARDIS and makes his plans to confront the Fisher King. It appears that the Fisher King has the Doctor in a corner, but in traditional Who fashion, he comes roaring back with power. Did anybody else wonder why the Fisher King simply listened in silence? The Doctor tricks the Fisher King into believing that the message in the ship has been erased and he strides out of the building to check on the ship while the Doctor hijacks the suspended animation chamber and ends up back at the underwater base. Seriously? How? Clearly the Doctor did a lot of off-screen planning, including programming the TARDIS to return to the underwater base, bringing Bennett back to safety.
Meanwhile back at the Ship, Timey-Wimeyness, and Paradoxes
Clara holds court with Cass and Lunn in the Faraday cage. Her assessment is that Lunn does not have the homing words imprinted and that he should go retrieve her cell phone. After heated communication from Cass and the only vocal utterance she issues in the two-parter, an anguished “No,” Lunn leaves the Faraday cage. Up to this point, it could have been said that Cass was not only deaf but mute. When she utters “No,” I am left wondering why she hasn’t spoken words before and why she didn’t use words when left alone with Clara sans sign interpreter. Lunn encounters the ghosts who appear to assess him, but then let him pass. He finds the phone on a table in the cafeteria and is promptly locked inside the room by the ghosts. When he doesn’t return in a timely fashion to the Faraday cage, Cass and Clara take off to look for him and end up separating. One of the eeriest scenes of the episode ensues when the ghost of Moran follows Cass down a corridor dragging the axe. The sound of the axe dragging its metal against metal is not heard by the deaf Cass. When the camera shows us her perspective, there is no sound. The sound returns when she moves forward and the audience sees the ghost once again. As the ghost gets closer, Cass’ other senses kick in and her intuition tells her something is near. She reaches down and touches the floor to feel for vibration (shown well on film) and is horrified to realize that danger is so close. She turns and runs through the ghost projection before he can get her with the axe.
The two women end up in the cafeteria with Lunn and when the ghost projections enter through the walls, the trio makes a run for the Faraday cage. Before they get there they encounter the doctor exiting the suspended animation chamber. He has arranged for a sound projection of the Fisher King’s howl emanating from his holographic projection. The howl draws the ghosts into the Faraday cage where they are entrapped.
The Doctor debriefs the remaining crew. This included explaining how he used a holographic projection of himself as ghost to manipulate situations on the ship for their benefit. The philosophy that time is not linear serves its purpose well during this episode, because the tangle of cause and effect that leads to the ultimate capture of the ghosts is definitely timey-wimey. If “Before the Flood” does nothing else it makes good use of the bootstrap paradox or causal loop. If you were confused by the opening Beethoven scene, you were probably not alone. Embracing paradox is not always easy to do. Suffice it to say that if something did not happen in the past, a time traveler could go back and create its occurrence, which would affect outcomes in the future. From the quantum timey-wimey perspective, is this a sci-fi device or could this be reality?
Only Love is Real
We were treated to two romances in “Before the Flood.” There was no real prior evidence for the romance between Bennett and O’Donnell that became prominent with the tragic death of O’Donnell. But when we go back and consider events, there was plenty of evidence for the underlying romance between Cass and Lunn. Life lessons serve no purpose unless they change us and/or allow us to help others see things a bit more clearly. Bennett took full advantage of that, utilizing his grief to point out wasted time to Lunn. Apparently Bennett knew of Lunn’s love for Cass, which Lunn had never expressed to her. Yes, Doctor Who, can affect life from an social commentary perspective and from a social/emotional perspective. In a measured plea, Bennett tells Lunn: “Tell her that you’re in love with her and you always have been. Tell her there’s no point in wasting time. Because things happen and then it’s too late.” Lunn is at first taken aback by the suggestion, but does translate these words to Cass (who may have already known them through reading Bennett’s lips). When she hesitates to respond, Lunn begins to falter indicating that he was only translating Bennett’s words, but Cass grabs him and kisses him. From this writer’s perspective, if one person is awakened to the fragility of life, if one person realizes that they have taken someone for granted, if one person accepts the genuine love of another into their life, the scripting of these lines will have been well worth it. For these characters, and for so many other people, Clara’s words to the Doctor are true: “You’ve made yourself essential to me. You’ve given me something else to be.” And that is beautiful.
Critical discussion for “Before the Flood” varies. There are those who loathe the episode, those who are meh in regard to it, those who found it worth viewing but acknowledge the faults, and those who loved it. I am among those who found it worth viewing, but acknowledge that there are faults, questions, and aspects that are difficult to disentangle if not downright confusing. The writing was experimental, perhaps, in some places and the plot full of challenges. The measure of success lies in whether or not Whitehouse was able to create a successful end to his two-parter. Success may not be seen only in perfect continuity. Perhaps, success can be seen in the ability for an episode to provide further discussion and/or questions. Perhaps, success can be seen in the great number of people who may have taken the Doctor’s words to heart and googled bootstrap paradox. Perhaps, success will be seen in the number of Who fans prompted to pull up back episodes to search for continuity. And perhaps success will be seen in those who examine the relationships between the characters and apply their connections to the relationships in their own lives. Fiction can provide the words and scenes we need to move feet and mountains.