I love Doctor Who—I hope that’s clear—but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that this show, sometimes, gives me a goddamned headache.
“Before the Flood,” alas, is one of those times. Last week I talked about how refreshing I found “Under the Lake” for being a relatively straightforward “base-under-siege” story, uncluttered by the sort of complicated, wibbly-wobbly cleverness that has too often plagued the Moffat era. As it turns out, however, “Lake” was just the quiet set up for the tidal wave (pun intended) of mind-boggling, headache-inducing cleverness that is “Flood.”
I didn’t dislike “Flood,” exactly: there’s a lot of good stuff here, and overall I still think this two-parter from Toby Whithouse constitutes a strong Doctor Who story. But it was one of those times when my enjoyment of the story felt like a conscious, qualified choice, entirely dependent on my determination to not think about any of it very much. That’s not an entirely unfamiliar feeling for Doctor Who fans, but it’s also not an entirely comforting one. It makes for a compromised sort of enjoyment, one that requires me to constantly tune-out the shrill, nagging voice in my head saying, over and over, This doesn’t really make a lick of sense.
Fans of the new series alone—and in particular those who came on board during the Moffat era—may not realize that Doctor Who was not always so headache-inducing. Time-travel was always a key component of the show—the very first story takes place in 10,000 B.C.—but it was not always, and not even frequently, an important plot device. For most of the classic series, the TARDIS had one job to do: to get the Doctor and his companions to the story. The TARDIS was very rarely used to resolve the story, and in fact the show often went to great and contrived lengths to separate the Doctor from his all-powerful ride. It would be far too easy for the Doctor to just pile everyone into the TARDIS and escape a problem, and it would open up a huge can of worms to let the Doctor just pop back in time and stop problems before they began. (Various vague, pseudo-logical explanations were given for why he couldn’t do that, but at their core all these prohibitions had one explanation: if he could do that, there would be no story.)
Steven Moffat—more than any showrunner in Doctor Who‘s 52-year-history—has been willing to open the can of worms. (That’s an understatement: what Moffat likes to do is dump all the cans of worms into an Olympic-sized swimming pool, dive in, and do a merry backstroke while joyously spitting a fountain of wibbly-wobbly worms into the air.) His very first televised story—the non-canonical 1999 Comic Relief sketch “The Curse of Fatal Death”—loudly telegraphed his penchant for time-travel shenanigans. It featured—among other nonsense—an extended sequence in which the Doctor (Rowan Atkinson) and the Master (Jonathan Pryce) each took turns going further back in time to undermine the other’s carefully laid plans, to ridiculous and hilarious effect.
It was very funny—you should watch it if you haven’t seen it—but it actually wasn’t very Doctor Who—not then. That sort of Bill & Ted approach to problem-solving hardly ever happened in the classic series. What “Curse” looks like now, therefore, is not so much a send-up of classic Doctor Who, but a prescient parody of Moffat’s own approach to Doctor Who, which he would institute a decade later. (Thus, ironically, it itself stands as an example of non-linear causality: Moffat was somehow making fun of a version of the show he hadn’t even invented yet.)
To be clear, I’m have nothing against a little wibbly-wobbly. Moffat’s 2007 story “Blink” is still the gold-standard for how to do it well, but I’d argue that many other stories in the modern era—including “The Girl in the Fireplace,” “The Big Bang,” “A Christmas Carol,” and “The Girl Who Waited“—have done interesting and worthy things by incorporating time-travel as a plot device.
This is not to say that these stories all made complete sense, of course. (They didn’t, usually: their internal logic often fell apart on closer examination, and the “rules” of traveling through time in one story almost never adhered to those “established” by other stories.) But they made for good storytelling: in each, the time-travel device was used for a real purpose, to enhance larger points and tell a story that wouldn’t have been possible any other way.
And I’m just not sure that’s what’s happening in “Before the Flood,” a story in which the time-travel element seems to muddy the larger picture more than it clarifies it. First of all, it’s an impossibly hard story to follow: I’ve watched it three times now, and I still don’t think I could reconstruct what actually happens.
I don’t have any desire to sit here and pick apart all the confusing and unanswered elements, which would take all day. But I confess I don’t understand the first thing about the Fisher King. I don’t know why he’s called that. (I know the legend, but its connection here is tenuous at best, and doesn’t explain why he would call himself that.) I don’t know why he ends up on Earth in the first place. I don’t understand what his plan is. I don’t understand the thing with turning “souls” into transmitters, or even if that’s what was supposed to be actually happening. I can’t even tell for sure whether the Fisher King himself was actually alive or dead in this story, since the plot is set in motion by his funeral. There may be explanations for all of this in Toby Whithouse’s mind, but none of them made it to screen in any coherent way.
Nor do I understand the logic of the ghosts turning up in the “present” after people are killed in the past. In this story, Moran and Pritchard are killed in the present, and turn up as ghosts immediately. Prentis is killed in the past, and is already a ghost when the Doctor and Clara arrive in the present. O’Donnell, however, is killed in the past—just a few minutes after Prentis is killed—but her ghost doesn’t turn up in the present until much later. This happens long after the Doctor’s “ghost” has appeared, even though—if we’re following the parallel timelines—the Doctor doesn’t do what he needs to do to make this happen until long after O’Donnell has died.
Look, I’m not saying I couldn’t find a way to logically justify all of this. (I could, if I were willing to intensify and prolong my headache. And I have no doubt other, more patient fans will.) What I am saying is that it’s bad storytelling: where all the wibbly-wobbly in stories like “Blink” and “A Christmas Carol” makes those stories more fun, the complicated time-travel element here just makes the experience of watching “Before the Flood” more frustrating. Instead of being intriguing and engaging, I found it annoying and off-putting. There is a line towards the end in which the Doctor talks about how he was “reverse-engineering the narrative,” and this feels very meta to me: the plot of this entire episode feels reverse-engineered, like Whithouse was working backwards from a handful of arresting images—like the Ghost Doctor—and going to a lot of convoluted trouble to explain them.
(There has been a lot of discussion in the entertainment press lately about how Doctor Who‘s ratings have slipped a bit over the last couple of seasons. Continually presenting stories that can’t be followed at all without multiple repeat viewings may be a factor in this. I’m the last person who would argue for “dumbing down” Doctor Who, but there is a way to be complex and challenging without alienating viewers who don’t want to spend hours and hours sorting through the nonsensical paradoxes of temporal physics.)
So I found the storytelling in “Before the Flood” problematic, especially after praising the internal logic of “Under the Lake” last week. The larger problem for me, however, is that the confusing plot logistics just muddy the waters on what this story is actually about.
Whenever Doctor Who flirts with this kind of story, it runs into a problem of inevitability. Is the Doctor changing the course of events by going back in time, or is he simply becoming a part of them? Some stories—like “The Waters of Mars” and “A Christmas Carol”—make it clear he is changing history: things he does in the past demonstrably change the fabric of reality in the future. In other stories—”Blink” among them—there’s a suggestion that time may be a closed loop: things happen because that’s how they always happened. (There’s still a third category of stories in which it is ambiguous. Did the Doctor get a “do-over” in “The Day of the Doctor“—deciding to save Gallifrey this time instead of destroying it—or did he “always” save Gallifrey and just didn’t remember doing so? The story deliberately allows for both readings, as does the scene with the Doctor and young Davros in this season’s “The Magician’s Apprentice” and “The Witch’s Familiar.”)
Like I said: headache. But “Before the Flood” seems to want to have it every which way, and that’s a problem because the Doctor’s actions either have disastrous consequences or they don’t. The Doctor was presumably always going to be part of the Fisher King’s downfall: the missing power cell, the town being underwater, the Doctor being in the suspension chamber, etc., all point to a closed-loop model here on the larger points. But the bit with the ghosts of the Doctor and O’Donnell showing up after all the other ghosts—and only after they have traveled back in time—means that they are changing history: the future (present) is in flux because of what they do in the past. They have choices.
But once something happens in the future, the story says, it must happen. (This is a recurring principle from stories like “The Angels Take Manhattan,” though any number of other stories would seem to contradict it.) Thus, the Doctor—once he knows his own ghost has been seen in the future—must find a way to account for it in the past without actually dying. Hence, the device of the Hologram Ghost, which is—in a way that just barely skirts the edge of painful contrivance—fairly clever.
But then there’s the problem of O’Donnell. “You change history to save yourself,” Bennett accuses him. “But not to save O’Donnell.” And Bennett is right: the Doctor gets O’Donnell killed, and it was not inevitable. It hadn’t happened “already”—her ghost was not present in the future—and yet the Doctor does virtually nothing to prevent it, even after he is warned who is next to die. (Bennett actually accuses him of letting O’Donnell die, in order to test his theory.) Whithouse tries to make it clear that going with the Doctor is her decision—she is eager to come along on the adventure—but that doesn’t erase the Doctor’s culpability. After all, he went out of his way to talk everyone into staying last week, after they all planned to flee to safety. If he hadn’t talked them into staying, O’Donnell would still be alive.
“If this little speech ends up getting additional members of the crew killed next week,” I said, in my last review, “I think we’ll have a pretty good clue about where this season—and the conclusion of Clara’s arc—is headed.” Lo and behold, that’s exactly what happened, and the fact that it happened should be at the center of what this episode is about.
Thematically—and emotionally—this episode should be important. All the signs so far this season point to a continued exploration of what I’ve called “the Companion Conundrum”: the problem of the Doctor’s choosing to endanger normal human beings just because he wants a little company. Clara is clearly changing in ways that we are meant to worry about: she is becoming more reckless, eager for—even addicted to—adventure; and she also is becoming more like the Doctor herself, increasingly willing to put people around her in danger. Cass is furious with Clara in this episode, and accuses her of taking needless risks. “She said to ask you whether traveling with the Doctor changed you, or were you always happy to put other people’s lives at risk,” Lunn says. “He taught me to do what has to be done,” Clara replies coldly, and that’s a problem. It’s an intensification of the theme that began to be developed last season—in episodes like “Flatline“—of Clara becoming more like the Doctor and becoming less concerned with people getting killed around her. (O’Donnell asks the Doctor if there is any way to dangle someone out of a window, other than angrily? But yes, there is: the Doctor does it all the time—in fact, he does it with O’Donnell—and now Clara is becoming an angerless dangler herself.)
I actually like this direction for the season—as I very much enjoyed Moffat’s exploration of “the Companion Conudrum” throughout Season Six—and I appreciated the fleeting moments in this episode that seemed to give these questions the weight they deserve. (Bennett’s accusatory speech to the Doctor was excellent, and Capaldi plays it well: it’s subtle, but he genuinely looks troubled—even doubtful—about his own actions.) But these moments were all too quickly lost in the frenzied noise of dealing with the various timeline shenanigans: all the talk about set futures and potential futures and bootstrap paradoxes just confuse the issue, and make the emotional impact more vague and uncertain. The Doctor’s subsequent explanations to Bennett about how you can’t “cheat time” feel like so much smokescreen in the end. You can cheat time: the Doctor does it all the time, and he does it again here to save himself and Clara. He just doesn’t do it to save O’Donnell: in fact, he may do it to kill O’Donnell. (“When did I first have those ideas?” the Doctor asks Clara at the end, as he explains the bootstrap paradox to her. But that’s the wrong question. The real question, the sinister question, is this: if, one way or another, it was the Doctor who created the Ghost Doctor, then wasn’t it he who decided O’Donnell was next to die?)
Sigh. It’s getting late, and my headache is only getting worse, and I’m still not sure I’ve articulated what frustrated me so about this episode. I think, in retrospect, my frustration stems not so much from any particular issue with the complexities of the time-travel dynamics—though they were confusing and contradictory—but from the fact that I’ve spent most of my time talking about them when I really wanted to be talking about the emotional core of the episode. Time travel can be a fun device: it can even be a productive, expressive one. But it shouldn’t overpower what the story is actually about. “Before the Flood” just struck me as complication in service of complication, to the detriment of the actual characters and themes it was halfheartedly trying to develop. A little less self-serving wibbly-wobbly, and a little more actual substance, and this might have been a great story.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- This could just be pet peeve, but I was also not a fan of the Doctor talking to the camera in the cold open. First of all, it was an unnecessary bit of spoon-feeding, setting us all up to expect the twist at the end. (We don’t need that: the twist would have been more enjoyable without the condescending prep work, and it’s not like anyone who watches this show isn’t already familiar with these concepts.) Second of all, I just don’t want to see the Doctor talk to the camera, ever. He can talk to himself all he wants—as in the opening of “Listen“—or he can deliver endless exposition to his companions—that’s what he has them for—but he should stay the hell away from the fourth wall. (His smug little shrug to the camera at the end of the episode made it even worse.)
- My prediction is that Clara will leave to go back to her job at the Coal Hill School, and be part of the announced spin-off: it will be her deciding to take care of other people (children), instead of putting them in danger. (This is the ethical direction Danny was pushing her in last season’s “In the Forest of the Night.”) I have wondered, however, if Moffat would dare to do something the new series has yet to do: actually kill one of the Doctor’s main companions. That would be an unfortunate (and problematic) end for Clara—putting her entire character arc in service of the Doctor’s character arc—but it would be the logical extension of Moffat’s obsession with the Companion Conundrum. It may come down to contract negotiations: if Jenna Coleman turns down the spinoff, I wouldn’t bet a lot of money on Clara’s ultimate survival.
- It really was nice to see a deaf character (and actress) in this story, and for everyone to treat her presence in a command position as no big deal. It would have been nicer, however, if her deafness—specifically, her ability to lip-read—hadn’t been demanded by the plot.
- There were disturbingly sexual undertones to Prentis’s desire to be submissive. “You could enslave me. In the ship I have directions to my planet, and a selection of items you can oppress me with.” Whatever floats your boat, Tivolian.
- The Fisher King is a full-on Monet: from far away he looks great, but up close he’s just a big old mess.
- “You robbed those people of their deaths…You violated something more important than time. You bent the rules of life and death.” Funny, those were more or less my exact words to Moffat about “Death in Heaven.”