Doctor Who: “Before the Flood”

It’s all about paradoxes this season so far. In the opening two-parter, we got the Grandfather Paradox: if you go back in time and kill your own grandfather, how can you have been born and then gone back in time to kill your own grandfather? It was a softer version — if you go back in time and kill Davros before he creates the Daleks, then the Daleks will never have existed and given you a reason to go back in time and kill Davros — but the same principle. This time around it’s the Bootstrap Paradox: if you go back in time and hand Beethoven a modern copy of the sheet music for his Fifth Symphony before he actually wrote it, so that all he has to do is copy it out…who actually wrote it?

If the paradox is slightly less clear this time out (requiring the Doctor to explain it through the fourth wall at the beginning of the episode), well, so is everything else, really. There’s the nagging feeling throughout that something is missing, that there’s a piece or two or three left unexplained and perhaps inexplicable, given the absurdities and impossibilities of time travel. A friend of mine raised the question of why O’Donnell’s ghost doesn’t appear in the future until she’s killed in the past. She’d already been killed years earlier than anyone else, right after the creepily subservient Tivolian, in fact, so why wasn’t her ghost hanging around the base before it was even built? Perhaps the answer is something to do with the technology animating the ghosts, and when it starts to project them, but since this is never quite clarified either (why are ghosts mouthing words a more efficient means of interstellar communication than, say, a radio transmitter?), who knows? Or maybe it’s something to do with our point of view, or the Doctor’s: if changing history through time travel involves slipping between infinite universes that all vary slightly from one another, perhaps we don’t see the new ghost until we slip into the universe where she didn’t stay in the TARDIS but stepped outside instead.

Really, very little of the so-called Fisher King’s plan makes much sense to me either, but it’s tough to concentrate on puzzling it out when his giant wobbly puppet head and cowl are so distracting. At least it’s a practical effect, and an ambitiously designed one. If last week’s classic series motifs were bases under siege and running through corridors, this week’s include endearingly unconvincing monsters and villains that spend a little too much time revealing their plans through monologues rather than shooting first and asking questions later.

One mystery that perplexed me on first viewing made more sense on second; presumably the attempted TARDIS trip that causes Bennett and the Doctor to cross their own timestream is what ends up giving the Doctor time to create his holographic ghost and to prepare a trap for the Fisher King. It does seem a little excessive — though spectacular — to blow up a dam and flood an entire landscape in order to kill a single alien, even a very tall and Gigeresque one.

All that said, this is a surprisingly enjoyable second half. The structure, the characters, and the settings all seem vivid and fresh. There’s something appealing (though a bit random) about the Cold War village as a setting, about having a spacecraft parked incongruously in its midst and two actual aliens wandering around in it. Capaldi’s dialogue seems smoother this time, leaving out the “morning breath” joke. There’s time, since this is a two-parter, to stop and enjoy a few nice character moments, particularly the one where Lunn asks Clara what he should say to comfort her in a miniature reiteration of the Bootstrap Paradox. It’s a classic series story through and through — at root, it’s just an evil alien trying to invade Earth — and yet it doesn’t feel like one, and this time that’s not a bad thing.

So who did script the Doctor’s ghost? Who, for that matter, wrote Beethoven’s Fifth in the Doctor Who universe? These seem like intractable problems, but mainly if we assume (as most of us do every day — I know I do) that we have free will. If a symphony and a plan to vanquish an evil alien warlord are both things that require a brain to actively and deliberately choose to imagine them, then sure, there’s a paradox. But if we imagine that we are all part of and not separate from the universe, that the act of composing is in some way no different than the acts of recognizing, remembering, transcribing, or imitating, then maybe the notes of Beethoven’s Fifth are in a sense already written on that universe. Maybe they get inside our heads like four ideograms on the inside of a spaceship wall, just without a Fisher King to write them. Maybe this isn’t something we’re capable of noticing because we can’t travel in time…but if we could, we might find that every idea we think we’ve created has always been there in our heads, waiting to fall without a guiding hand into a particular shape the way a speck of dust from an exploding, expanding universe fell into the shape of the Earth.

Or maybe I’m just tripping out on that guitar-enhanced theme tune. We’ll probably get the illusion of free will back next week, but let’s hope we keep the guitar in the opening credits.

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