Tonight’s episode of Doctor Who sees the Doctor in an impossible situation, where his fate appears already sealed. In other words, it’s another day at the office. But this time around, the Doctor is only able to find a way out when he’s given the proper motivation: an even worse looming disaster.
In “Before the Flood,” the Doctor faces another one of his no-win situations. Just like when he was apparently shot to death by River Song in an astronaut suit, the Doctor’s death appears to be set in stone. But this time around, he’s willing to cut some corners and create a “bootstrap” paradox, because he gets a hint that unless he does something drastic, his companion Clara will also die.
Basically, the Doctor has traveled back in time to 1980s Scotland, in a recreation of a Russian town during the Cold War, to find out what happened to the alien spaceship that was found in the town’s flooded remains in 2119. And as soon as the Doctor leaves in the TARDIS, his own “ghost” appears in 2119, because anyone who dies near that alien spaceship leaves behind a ghost that keeps repeating coordinates to bring more aliens to Earth. So apparently the Doctor died in the 1980s.
Except that, as we learn at the end of the episode, the Doctor’s “ghost” isn’t actually a ghost at all—it’s a hologram, because the Doctor faked his death yet again. (In fact, the Doctor’ ghost is just like Amy and Rory’s gravestones in the episode “The Angels Take Manhattan”—it would have been easy enough to pay some gravedigger to put up a fake gravestone for the Doctor’s two companions, and then whisk them away from the 1930s, where they were supposedly trapped. But moving on.)
Anyway, in this case, the Doctor is confronted with evidence (via Clara) that he’s dead in the future, and there’s no way out. The desperation with which the Doctor realizes his time is running out (after his jacket rips in the same way his ghost’s jacket is already ripped) is pretty moving, and Peter Capaldi really sells the idea that the Doctor is in an impossible situation, and he’s just desperate to find a way to save his friend before his inescapable death.
The tension heightens after it’s revealed the Doctor’s “ghost” isn’t repeating the same coordinates as everybody else, but instead is rattling off the names of everybody in the base, in the order of their deaths. And after O’Donnell’s death, the very next name is Clara’s. The Doctor tries to convince O’Donnell to stay in the TARDIS where she’ll be safe, but he also seems pretty curious to see if the pattern of deaths his “ghost” recites is real or not.
It seems, at first, as though the Doctor’s only way out is to change his own future, which would be a huge violation. And when he meets the Fisher King, he bluffs that he’s actually willing to do just that—but it’s just a ruse to get the Fisher King to go back to his ship, where the Doctor’s already planted a power pack set to explode and flood the town.
The Fisher King, incidentally, is a pretty creepy villain, even if he doesn’t get much to do. He’s the leader of the species who had recently enslaved the Tivolians, those cowardly, surrender-prone aliens. The Tivolian undertaker was carrying the Fisher King in a space hearse, to give an honorable burial to their beloved conqueror, but the Fisher King has woken up in the 1980s and wants to conquer Earth—hence writing his message on the wall of his ship and creating a device that will turn anyone who sees it into a “ghost” broadcasting it. (You have to think there’d been an easier way to send a signal into space, but whatever.)
The Fisher King sees the Doctor as weak, just like the Tivolians, because he’s not willing to do whatever it takes to win. Even though the Time Lords went from being timid observers, unwilling to intervene in history, to being some of the most feared warriors in the universe. The Fisher King doesn’t believe there’s any strength without total ruthlessness, and the Doctor uses this belief against him, by pretending he’s erased the Fisher King’s message on the wall of the spaceship (which would be a pretty big change to the future). This is a trick, but it gets the Fisher King to go right into the path of the Doctor’s flood.
And of course, when the suspended-animation chamber opens, it reveals not the Fisher King, but the Doctor, who’s been hiding out in there for 140-ish years. Meanwhile, the TARDIS returns to 2119, carrying Bennet, the only other surviving member of the Doctor’s party.
So the Doctor doesn’t actually just straight-up change his future, or break time entirely, but he does resort to creating a paradox. He only knew about his “ghost” appearing in 2119 because Clara showed it to him, and then Clara basically told him what to have the “ghost” say—both in order to fulfill the future events Clara already saw, and to motivate the Doctor himself to do what’s necessary to save Clara.
It’s not actually that huge a paradox, by Doctor Who standards—again, referring back to “The Angels Take Manhattan,” River Song writes a book that she is careful to ensure will have all the stuff the Doctor read in the book earlier. And then there’s “Blink,” which is full of this stuff. But this episode begins with an entertaining explanation of the “bootstrap paradox,” in which the Doctor basically addresses the audience and imagines a scenario where someone goes back in time to meet Beethoven and becomes Beethoven.
Meanwhile, Clara continues her thread of being a little too gung-ho to become like the Doctor—this time around, she’s willing to send Lunn out to face the ghosts, based on her theory that Lunn will safe since he hasn’t seen the writing inside the spaceship. Cass, Lunn’s commanding officer (and eventual love interest) is horrified at Clara’s callousness, but Clara sees it as a justifiable risk to get back the phone that the ghosts stole, which is the only way of reaching the Doctor.
I really hope the running idea of Clara learning callousness—from the Doctor, but also from Missy—pays off, and this storyline is leading someplace interesting. Despite some weak episodes, last year’s season eight still stands out as a high point for recent Doctor Who, because it had a had real character arc for Clara that saw her changing and confronting loss as a result. Thus far this year, Clara’s character development has been more in the margins, and I really hope the show takes advantage of the extra year of Jenna Coleman to pay off all of the development she’s gotten. Fingers crossed!
All in all, this was a creepy, scary two-parter that gained a lot of energy from the Doctor’s palpable feeling of desperation. Peter Capaldi continues to prove that he can inject new life into the show’s most time-honored tropes, with a performance so feverish, you might just catch a chill.