Season 9, Episode 4 “Before The Flood”
Directed by Daniel O’Hara
Written by Toby Whithouse
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Sophie Stone, Arsher Ali, Morven Christie
Air date: Saturday, October 10, 2015
Can the future re-write the past? That seems to be the question before us on Doctor Who this week in Episode 9.4 “Before The Flood.” One way to put it is this: Suppose you could travel back in time and meet your own grandfather before he met your grandmother. During that meeting, you cause his premature death. Could that death really happen? Would you still exist if it did, and how could the death occur? It’s a classic paradox… at least in the minds if philosopher and fiction writers. It is the conundrum that writer Toby Whithouse tries to mine for dramatic gold. What he finds, well, that feels a little unsettling.
I’ll give it this: the episode started very well. When we left our heroes at the end of last week’s episode, “Under The Lake,” the Doctor and two others, Bennett and O’Donnell, had traveled back in time to observe the origin of events. They returned to 1980, to a town made up to look like somewhere in the Soviet Union. The break was so clean that a whole bunch of possibilities seemed to emerge. Here, in O’Donnell, we have a companion who knows something of what the Doctor is before they meet. She relishes what he is, or at least she thinks she does. She knowingly savors the experience of finding the ship from the bottom of the lake freshly landed and meeting the occupant. That is a marvelous beginning that in another time and other place could lead to longer term possibilities.
Yet it is over all too quickly. In its place, Whithouse tries to weigh us down with the appearance of jeopardy. The show under Steven Moffat likes to repeat the phrase “Rule #1: the Doctor lies” as if it is the most important thing to remember. It isn’t. The most important thing to remember is the title of the show and what it means: the Doctor cannot die. Off and on for over 50 years, many, many shows all named Doctor Who have come and gone and the Doctor has never really died. He’s regenerated, yes. Shows with the same name cannot go for fifty years with the same leading actor. Killing the Doctor kills the show. Since we know that this is episode four of twelve in this season, his ghost cannot be his ghost because he cannot be dead.
So we are left with blather. For the first time since who knows when, the Doctor breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly toward the audience to explain The Bootstrap Paradox. This does not seem like a good idea. In one sense, the intent appeared to be to tie the idea behind this episode to another body (or bodies) of “serious” work. In another, the intent is that the screenwriter or the producer is not sure that the audience can fully comprehend what they are about to see, and needs a map to illuminate events as they unfold. I don’t like either option.
We get even more blather when the true villain, the author of these events, finally does appear. How will the Doctor escape his death? Can he bring himself to change both his past and his future at the same time? Well, it’s only really changing the sequence of events if he is really dead. See Rule #0, the most important thing, above. He can’t really be dead. So we’re left asking how will the Doctor get out of it, and I have to say that this isn’t very artfully handled. Rather than leave a trail of bread crumbs that combine into some kind of sum that is greater than its parts, we’re left with a reiteration of the Bootstrap Paradox.
Physicists who wonder about temporal paradoxes examine the mathematical model of the billiards table. What happens if a ball appears from the future to strike another ball on the table? Well, a number of things can happen. It turns out there is always at least one possible action of the future ball that is consistent with the state of the future ball. In other words, there is always at least one action that changes events, but avoids the Bootstrap Paradox. The models are simple, but this suggests that the Bootstrap Paradox is more of a fiction-writer’s thought experiment than something that could happen.
If want to look at a much better treatment of the consequence of the Doctor’s actions in the past, look at serial 14.4 of Classic Doctor Who called “The Face of Evil.” There, the Doctor is traveling alone after the groundbreaking serial “The Deadly Assassin.” He arrives alone on a planet to discover a world that he somehow visited long ago in his personal past, and affected strongly for the worse. He infected a ship’s computer with his own personality and drove the computer insane in the process. The result was monstrous phantoms with the Doctor’s face, a eugenics experiment conducted on two separate parts of the descendants of the ship’s crew, and his own face carved into the side of a mountain much like Mount Rushmore. Much of the serial’s puzzle revolves around understanding what the consequences are of the Doctor’s distant personal past are. Jeopardy feels real because it is not the future Doctor visiting his past, but the inverse: the future Doctor is threatened by the narrative of his past off-camera self.
So, sorry Toby Whithouse, you don’t win the prize this time around. Points for some interesting twists, but the underlying plot structure is weak. Suspense involves the path of the flow of information. Here, the path created by this sequence of scenes is weak, and your villain is just a formula baddie. Better luck next time.