...a blog by Richard Flowers

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Day 5396: DOCTOR WHO: Under the Whelm


So the Doctor begins the episode by giving us a lecture on the Ontological Paradox – or as he calls it the "Bootstrap" Paradox, as in Baron Munchausen lifting himself into the air by pulling up on his own bootstraps because it's the "it happened because it happened" with no visible cause or means of support one.

He does this by means of an extended metaphor about Beethoven and you think "ah, clever – Beethoven was deaf and one of our characters is deaf and the ghosts are mute so this is going to be relevant". Only it's not.

And that's typical of why this episode disappointed me. It's full of clever or intriguing or just plain well-designed things, which it holds up for us to examine and then does nothing with. Certainly it never weaves its plot-points into anything that meaningfully amounts to a story.

It looks great: the empty, abandoned village, with its Soviet Russia dressings, haunted by Cold War ghosts (before we get the electromagnetic ghosts, but again no one tries to draw a connection).

But it's full of signifiers that don't signify anything.

The title, for starters, "Before the Flood" suggests an allegory or myth: in Biblical terms, perhaps, it could refer to the age after Eden when we had become sinners over that business with the apple and the talking snake, corrupt and degenerate before God sent Noah's flood to literally clean up our act. It was a time of "great wickedness" when there were "giants" in the World.

Were the Nineteen-Eighties an "age of great wickedness"? Is the monstrous Fisher King a "giant"?

Or is there no metaphor here, only the literal: we have travelled back in time to before the valley was flooded?

It doesn't drive the plot or fit to any kind of narrative that writer Toby Whithouse is constructing. Is it just so that the Doctor can blow up that damn dam in the certainty that there are "no Thals left on Skaro"?

Similarly, why is the big bad named The Fisher King, after a significant if minor character in the Arthurian myth cycle? Surely it's not just because he's a fish?

The Arthurian Fisher King is wounded (read: emasculated) and his kingdom is blighted because king and kingdom are spiritually linked. The knight Sir Percival spends a night at the Fisher King's keep and is granted a vision of the Holy Grail, which has the power to heal the king and hence the land. When he wakes, the castle is deserted as though long abandoned.

This foreshadows the darkening of Camelot when Lancelot and Guinevere betray Arthur – in some readings the Fisher King is Arthur – and the king and kingdom are likewise spiritually wounded, precipitating the Grail Quest where all the knights go off to look for the cup, ultimately leaving Camelot so weakened that Mordred is able to take over.

There are elements of that here: the village is long abandoned, say. But does that amount to anything?

Is the Fisher King in "Before the Flood" supposed to be an Alien Arthur, sent to Earth as Avalon to be healed and return to the stars as their "Once and Future King"?

Because he looks a lot more like a big stompy monster.

Again, it looks pretty impressive, in an after-Geiger fashion, but what's it supposed to mean?

He's given a handful of lines to make his place in the plot seem bigger than he is – knowledge of the Time War and all. But he really does very little.

Addressing – recognising – the Doctor as "Time Lord" (and along with the Soviet trappings) makes me think of "The Curse of Fenric". But the reason that "Fenric" as story was powerful (and Fenric, in-story too come to think of it) was the way it wove together elements from previous adventures into something that actually gave greater meaning to those events, repainting Ace and the Doctor's exploits together as a bigger chess game for her very soul pitted against an ancient Lovecraftian god. Here it's more like the baddie has read the series' PR bible.

Peter Serafinowicz who provides the voice of the Fisher King previously did the same for Darth Maul in "Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace". And, as on that occasion, gets all of three lines before being unceremoniously offed. Here it's by being hit in the face by the titular flood.

Unless, of course, he's not dead and all this – not just the dropped-in hint about a "Minister for War" – is set up for something else. In which case it might be a tad less frustrating with hindsight.

Likewise, if Paul Kaye as Tivolian undertaker Prentis seems wasted in a minor cameo, albeit one shot from two angles for time-travel reasons, it's because the episode does nothing with him.

The resolve isn't particularly clever: it's always the Doctor in the box, whether it's the Pandorica or an old Eighth Doctor Adventure ("The Deadstone Memorial", if I remember rightly). The monster was dead all along – which at least references the fate of Arthur in "Battlefield – and the ghosts are just ghosts in the machine, echoes of a design that never came to be.

And then everyone was in love with everyone else at the end, like some kind of instant Shakespeare. We'd had an underplayed hint that Bennett had feelings for O'Donnell last week, when he clearly stays because she does. But Cass and Lunn? I think at least the HR department would have a word.

Killing off of fan-of-the-Doctor O'Donnell earlier – and after killing off fangirl Osgood in "Death in Heaven" this threatens to become a trope – seemed the most gratuitous "insert death here" moment we've had in ages. Plus, they totally blew how to do it – the Fisher King, having set his "ghosts" in motion would have no interest in wasting time adding to his collection. So he would stomp on past on his merry Fisher King business. Only for undead Prentis to appear through the wall and, now programmed to multiply the signal, murder her from behind.

(And it's a completely massive cheat that O'Donnell's ghost does not appear in the "future" until after we see her die in the "past" – no such restriction applies to Prentis.)

So the plot played out just the way it had to because that was the way it had to play out. Practically the very definition of going through the motions.

Which brings us back to that Bootstrap Paradox.

And as for that paradox… it really only amounted to: "well, I had to pretend to be my own ghost because we needed a cliffhanger last week".

And the hiccoughs with the TARDIS (needing the handbrake last week; refusing to return to the Drum; skipping back in time half an hour) were just signs of her not liking that there was a Paradox about. (And not just an excuse to have the Doctor rugby tackle Mr Bennett to prevent a recurrence of "Father's Day".)

After all the set-up with Beethoven at the start, it was something of a let-down that it was only there for lampshading: "I worked out what to do when I realised what I must have done". He didn't even use the guitar!

Why draw attention to it?

It's not like Doctor Who hasn't done Ontological Paradoxes before oh boy, from "Blink" to "The Big Bang" to Clara's entire timeline being retroactively caused by "The Name of the Doctor" (basically anywhere the Grand Moff has left his fingerprints – although the biggie is "Earthshock"). Is Mr Whithouse just writing "HOW HE DID IT!" for the Mister Moffster?

Alex is reminded of Steven Moffat smugly explaining how "The Fire In the Girlyplace" is "Doctor Who Discovers Girls" because he was too important a writer to notice that Russell had just spent the whole Eccleston season doing that more subtly. And when Whithouse is more smug and less subtle than the Moff…

We should at the very least understand that the paradox is in some sense bad, if for no other reason than it's a perpetual motion machine and if left revolving in time and space will eventually wear an entropic hole in the universe.

Turning to the camera with a shrug really won't do. Another name for the Ontological Paradox is the Predestination Paradox or Destiny Trap. It kills free will. Because once you are in it you have no choice but to do what you have already seen yourself do. And the Doctor really ought to be against anything that restricts his free will.

There was an opportunity here – after refreshing our views on the "Let's Kill Hitler" moral dilemma in the first two-parter – to have a look at another cornerstone of Doctor Who: "you cannot change history, not one line" versus "time can be rewritten".

And we completely failed to.

The risk of invalidating your own past is creating a Grandfather Paradox. That's the one that usually spins people's heads because of the way it flips and flops between preventing itself happening and so not happening so it doesn't prevent itself happening so it does happen and back again.

Funnily enough, the Faction Paradox masterwork "The Book of the War" suggests that Grandfather Paradoxes are a way of creating something very like ghosts – if you kill one of your own ancestors you reduce your own level of "reality", becoming less connected to the Universe. (If you are 50% "real" and you kill your Grandfather that only 50% applies to reality and so you create your own 50% existence – and so it actually adds up.) The possibility that the ghosts in "Under the Lake" are actually a result of the Doctor breaking time back in the past of "Before the Flood" would have made for a very much more interesting threat. Unfortunately we didn't go there.

But why would a Grandfather Paradox be bad and a Bootstrap Paradox a… shrug?

I'd say that, in Doctor Who, the exact opposite ought to be the case.

A Universe riddled with contradictions – rather like the continuity we've got, as it happens – or one of rigid order and doing what you're told? You know which choice the Doctor ought to make.

Which, again, is where throwing in the ghosts as consequences of choosing to break the Destiny Trap would have challenged the Doctor, been an actual story about something.

From a writer's point of view, outside the story universe, the Ontological Paradox makes you look clever, it leaves the audience with a satisfied sense that the piece fits together that the end is the beginning is the end and so on. Whereas the Grandfather Paradox looks like you've forgotten something. Because you have to end on one flip or the other, so it's never "complete".

But the Bootstrap, because it has no starting point, can never be created from within the Universe, only imposed from outside by the writer. Or god. Which is why it flatters the writer. The Grandfather Paradox means the characters take charge of their own narrative, in fact rewrite their own backstory, and set themselves free.

But in "Before the Flood" everyone remained trapped in their own perfect little clockwork plots full of references to nothing very much really.

However, Peter Capaldi can play electric guitar on the main theme every week forever, as far as I'm concerned.

Next time… Maisie Williams! Vikings! Maisie Williams! Cyber-Odin! Maisie Williams! Metal Judoon things! A thousand articles on how Maisie Williams should be next companion! Also Maisie Williams! "The Girl Who Died"


Nick Campbell said...

Great assessment, as ever. Very astute to point out that the Doctor's shrug at the concept of free will diminished is rather un-Doctorish (a reversal of Inferno which is perhaps the closest formal parallel to this story). It occurred to me, while reading, that this story is a victim of the 'trying to write what the show is supposed to be' problem. The paradox only exists here because Whithouse wants to give the Doctor something to agonise over (and of course it has to be his iminent death). Once upon a time, the only person to see the Doctor's ghost would be 'Clara' - it's the Doctor's plan all along, tra la la. A pity, because a story about Clara genuinely believing the Doctor's finally kicked the bucks would make a natural profession to her storyline. Rather than her neurotically insisting he doesn't die...

Nick Campbell said...

Kicked the bucket, even.

Unknown said...

Yay, not even Mr Fluffy Tries to Positive Elephant liked this one

And I so wanted to & all. I like Whithouse's other television, but find his Who a bit lacking. I hoped this one would prove me wrong, but it was all of his worst bits in one, or rather two:
You had the 2D characters, weak world-building, lack of decent explanations for what the villains are up to, and worst of all promising to be about big interesting things & then not developing those ideas.
And part 1 had such promise. But a good part 1 is meaningless with nothing to follow it. Just ask Silver NemesisI'm thinking of starting a competition, come up with a better part 2. Take the clues Whithouse left and do something better with them

Oh and for the record, right on with Kill the Moon! Agree completely. Never be ashamed to support it. Clever, witty, hopeful genre-busting television. Far too many people seem to hate it for what they wanted it to be, rather than what it's trying to do. I have a feeling it will be our Ghost Light.