Per The Doctor’s (and by extension, episode writer Toby Whithouse’s) instructions at the opening of “Before the Flood,” I went ahead and Googled “bootstrap paradox.” In short, it refers to a time-travel paradox in which certain objects or pieces of information are never literally created due to the fact that their existence involves said object or bit of information being delivered to the past from the future. Or, as The Doctor defines it in his opening monologue, say you travel back in time to meet Ludwig van Beethoven, only to discover he never actually existed. Not wanting to live in a world without the composer’s legendary music, you copy all the Beethoven sheet music you have in your possession and publish it under the name “Beethoven.” And so, we are left with a head-scratching question—if Beethoven never actually wrote out all these concertos and symphonies, where did the music come from in the first place?
It’s the kind of circular, loopy problem that can turn your brain to mush if you sit mulling over it too long and, indeed, The Doctor’s remarks provide a sharp indication that what follows is going to be infinitely more complicated than a simple matter of ghosts attacking a water base. What makes “Before the Flood” exceptional, however, is how it—like the best Who stories—marries complex, heady concepts with a rollicking adventure that can be enjoyed by anyone without a PhD. in quantum mechanics.
As per the set-up in “Under the Lake,” the episode tracks two parallel stories. One finds The Doctor in 1980 Scotland where, along with registered Doctor fangirl O’Donnell and her companion Bennett, he seeks to understand how the malevolent alien shuttle came to land in the area. Upon arriving, O’Donnell makes note of how this time period is pre-the moon exploding (see last season’s “Kill the Moon”) and pre-Harold Saxon, which provides a nice nod to the Russell T. Davies era and The Master’s pre-Missy identity (albeit, while also bringing up a potential continuity error given that The Doctor erased people’s memories of that “The Last of the Time Lords” kerfuffle). O’Donnell also mentions a Minister of War, a reference that piques The Doctor’s curiosity before quickly concluding that he’ll no doubt “find out soon enough.” Here’s hoping this proves to be a major story to come, though, knowing Steven Moffat’s style, it might be another year before this comes back into play.
It’s not long before the team runs into the mysterious alien ship as well as Prentis, the Tivolian creature who will later torment the crew as the first ghost. As of now, he’s merely the ship’s driver, whose cargo is none other than the body of The Fisher King (seemingly a separate entity from the Arthurian legend), a powerful being whose armies enslaved the Tivolians for a decade. Having been overthrown by another alien race (Tivolians are nothing if not prideful of their revolving door of oppressors), the Fisher King is to be buried on an alien wasteland—or, in this case, Earth.
Meanwhile, in the other storyline, Clara, Cass and her sign language translator Lunn must figure out how to survive once The Doctor ghost from the button of last week’s episode opens the Faraday cage and releases his ghostly brethren. What’s more, The Doctor appears to be repeating a list of names, beginning with the names of the dead crew members, as well as something about a “chamber opening.”
Hearing the news of his ghost’s appearance, The Doctor concludes that this is where his life will finally end, since changing the course of history could have a profoundly destructive ripple effect. Despite noting that this current body was a “clerical error anyway” (see Time of the Doctor), Clara orders him to find a way of circumventing his fate. Besides upping the episode’s stake, news of The Doctor’s imminent death serves to reintroduce a theme that has been a nonstop debate throughout the series—can time be rewritten? The Davies era point towards “eh…?” with episodes like “Father’s Day” showing its dangers, whereas Moffat’s era has proven to be more liberal in that regard (“time can be rewritten” was a tag line for Season Seven after all). In the end, so long as this show keeps going, there will never be a consistent answer, though the episode does invent a nifty way to avoid giving a hard answer.
The danger subsequently becomes more pronounced when the Fisher King is revealed to be not-quite-dead, as he kills Prentis and embeds the message in his ship that will contaminate the base centuries later. Moreover, the King ends up killing O’Donnell who manages to have a final moment with her beloved Bennett before passing on and becoming a ghost in the 22nd century. Perhaps it’s indicative of some fan fatigue amongst the writers that, between O’Donnell and Osgood, the show keeps finding ways to kill off its fangirl stand-ins—in any case, it’s a bummer that we lose O’Donnell so early, given that she’s an infinitely more dynamic character than Bennett. What’s more, seeing her deathbed goodbye to him feels a bit awkward given that we never really were given a good enough sense of the two’s relationship in the first place.
O’Donnell’s death suddenly snaps into focus the reason for Ghost Doctor’s recitation of the various names—he’s listing them in order of when they die. Next on the list is Clara. The Doctor jumps into action, much to the anger of Bennett, who accuses him of being callous to O’Donnell’s fate and only willing to help when the situation involves someone close to him. It’s an interesting point, made all the more complicated by the fact that The Doctor might have known about this death list all along and potentially risked O’Donnell’s life to prove a theory. Similarly, back at the base, Clara hatches a plan to send Lunn about to retrieve her cell phone, which is her only means of communication with The Doctor. He’ll be okay, Clara argues, because he’s the one crew member that was never infected with the writing. This reasoning does very little to calm Cass, who takes her to task for playing loose and fast with the man’s life.
Both O’Donnell’s demise and Clara’s willingness to put Lunn in harm’s way hones in a certain cold determination that has permeated the duo’s relationship ever since Peter Capaldi’s Doctor came to the forefront. And while, in the case of The Doctor, this personality trait had been there from the start, it’s a newer look for Clara. Ultimately, there’s not too much done with this question in the long run, but I can certainly see it being a theme the writers explore throughout the year.
Back in 1980, The Doctor faces down The Fisher King, whose appropriately intimidating appearance vaguely resembles that of a battle-ready alien from the movie Independence Day. In spite of his immense authority, however, the King still ends up falling headfirst into The Doctor’s flat-out lie about having “erased” his message from the ship. And so, the creature finds himself right out in the open when the dam explodes and the flood commences. On the base, the Fisher King’s chamber opens to reveal The Doctor, having stolen the King’s survival tool by putting himself in suspended animation for 150 years. And here is where the complications start—The Doctor reveals that it was always his body in the chamber and, moreover, his “ghost” was merely a hologram figure programmed with pre-recorded phrases via The Doctor’s sonic sunglasses. Returning to the idea of the “bootstrap paradox,” The Doctor points out that he had his ghost list Clara’s name so that he would be inspired to act and that the message about the “chamber opening” was so he would know to get into the life chamber and when to set it for. But there’s still the question of how he would have known to program those phrases in the first place without knowing what the ghost had said originally. What came first—the chicken or the egg? Or, in the context of the episode, who wrote Beethoven’s Fifth?
The “Under the Lake/Before the Flood” two-parter represents, in many ways, an ideal Doctor Who story. It’s a standalone adventure that expertly incorporates nearly every facet of what makes the show its own unique beast—there’s scary monsters, intense moral conundrums, broad comedy and the sort of time travel wonkiness that’s complex without ever feeling completely alienating. With the first third of the season completed, the series has shown itself to be on a certified winning streak. Certainly, the creative team are delivering the kind of tremendous moments that are sure to be included on Capaldi’s Who highlight reel in the years following his departure.