“Before the Flood” opens with the Doctor breaking the fourth wall and providing the viewer with a hypothetical example of the bootstrap paradox. The bootstrap paradox is a paradox of time travel that occurs when a future event is the cause of a past one. This creates an endless loop that makes it impossible to determine the moment of creation of the event. From this, it’s pretty clear that as the episode unfolds, we will see another example of a bootstrap paradox and, of course, we do. This isn’t the first time that Doctor Who has dealt with such a paradox. In fact two fairly recent scripts by Steven Moffat spring to mind: “Time Crash” and “Blink.” While both deal with the bootstrap paradox, this episode is the most in-depth exploration of it on the show to date.
My biggest disappointment of the episode was the Fisher King. While he looked impressive, he really didn’t make that big of an impression in the story. I enjoyed the aspect of going back before the flood, but I found the Fisher King very forgettable. We learn very little about him; he and his armies conquered the planet Tivoli before being ousted by the Arcateenians. Prentis has brought him to earth to bury him, but he is clearly not dead. Why did the Arcateenians think that he was dead? Did he fake his death to be brought to a new planet, or was he in some sort of deep coma?
Furthermore, his plan is to create enough ghosts to have his signal be strong enough to call his armada to the planet, at which time he will “drain the oceans and put the humans in chains.” How is he creating the ghosts? I’m guessing we don’t get an answer to that question because Doctor Who doesn’t want to get too into the question of souls, but I wouldn’t have minded even a vague explanation.
Additionally, why does he want to drain the oceans? Is his desire to drain the oceans the reason he’s named The Fisher King? Did he drain the oceans on Tivoli? Because I’ve also puzzled over the meaning of his name. I can see a slight parallel to the Arthurian Fisher King (it’s from this character that the Terry Gilliam film draws its name) in that he is an impotent king (being stranded leaves him powerless) who has to rely on others to save him. However, that makes his name rather prescient, and it’s a weak connection at best. One could, perhaps, make a slight parallel between the Doctor’s mission in going back before the flood and a grail quest, but that doesn’t really work for me either. Maybe it doesn’t really have any deeper meaning and I’m over thinking this…
I wrote quite a bit about the crew of the drum in my post about “Under the Lake.” In that post, I criticized the lack of development of O’Donnell. Well, she did get more development in this episode, only to die as soon as I began to really become invested in her character. I guess this shouldn’t surprise me; if you look back at Toby Whithouse’s previous episodes, he has not shied away from killing the characters with whom the audience connects. The first person to jump to mind was Rita in “The God Complex,” but the sheriff in “A Town Called Mercy” is another example. In the case of O’Donnell, I was very sorry to see her character go, but it was necessary to support the overall theme of grief and loss. Without her death, the only characters who die are characters the audience doesn’t get time to know or who the audience doesn’t particularly like. The death of O’Donnell is the death that really counts in the episode.
I’ve also read some criticism of O’Donnell’s character after “Under the Lake” aired, saying that she was just like Osgood. Certainly, the parallels continue in that both of the Doctor fan girls met with an untimely end (which means that I’m sure some will suggest that Steve Moffat is taking out his hostility by killing fan surrogates in the show) I, however, thought that she developed past basic fandom in this episode. It’s revealed that she previously was military intelligence until she dangled a colleague out the window after a sexist remark. She is clearly a strong-willed, determined individual who doesn’t like being told what to do. It made perfect sense to me that she would adopt the Doctor as her hero, since he is someone who plays by his own rules.
Getting back to the theme of the episode, we see themes of grief and loss ultimately culminating in the idea of living in the moment (or carpe diem to reference another Robin Williams movie). The idea of seizing the moment emerges through the relationship of Cass and Lunn. Their relationship had a solid foundation built for it in the first part of the story, even though nothing overt was said or done. At Bennett’s urging, they finally confess their feelings for each other. This allows a story that is largely about loss to have something good come out of it.
The main focus, however, was on the idea of grief and loss and I loved the way that it contributed to Clara’s character development. Again, the seeds for this development were laid in the first part of the story. It seemed as if the name Danny Pink was on the tip of both Clara and the Doctor’s tongue during their exchange in the TARDIS, even though nothing specific was said about him. His name is still not spoken in this episode, but his presence is felt even more. Through Clara’s phone conversation with the Doctor, it is clear that she is still grieving for Danny. He is the main reason she is not ready to lose someone else, and, it becomes clear, the reason for her lust for adventure; she wants to keep busy so she doesn’t have to think about Danny. What better way to not think about something than to place yourself in peril that requires all of your attention to survive? She also mentions her loss a bit more explicitly with Bennett, when she realizes that he was in love with O’Donnell, telling him that he has to keep going, despite his loss.
Overall, I enjoyed the episode. My disappointment with the Fisher King didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the episode as a whole. I thought the second half remained scary, even if it wasn’t quite as scary as the first half, while turning the narrative in slightly new and interesting directions. The second half developed subtle aspects of the first episode that lead to richer character development and a story that stuck with me long after the episode ended. One aspect of the show that I’ve enjoyed under Moffat’s tenure is his tendency to want stories that deal explicitly with time, instead of using the time machine concept to simply place the Doctor in a new setting. Exploring the bootstrap paradox places time right at the heart of the story. This two-parter has now become my favorite Toby Whithouse story. Maybe one day I’ll even be able to get over my disappointment that he failed to make “A Town Called Mercy” truly a western. Maybe.