Doctor Who Series 9, Episode 4
“Before the Flood”
Posted by Kim
In all my years watching Doctor Who and Back to the Future and Lost and reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, I’ve learned that the rules of time travel are simple and finite.
- Whatever happened, happened.
- Meddling in past events can erase you from existence.
- Interacting with your past self can fry your brain.
- You can’t change a fixed point in time. See rule #1.
Of course, all of these rules go out the window when the life of one Clara Oswald is at stake. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Much like Series 8’s “Listen”, “Before the Flood” opens with the Doctor breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly. He tells a story of going to meet Beethoven, but Beethoven didn’t exist until the Doctor GAVE him the music for his 5th symphony. So who then is responsible for writing Beethoven’s music? Time travel is REALLY hard to write about. This is an example of the Bootstrap Paradox, which occurs when a future event is the cause of a past event, which in turn is the cause of the future event. Both events then exist in spacetime, but their origin cannot be determined. (Yes, Doctor, I did google it.) What this story does is inform us that we’re in for a bit of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey in this episode, so basically we need to prepare to have our brains wrinkled. The Doctor then proceeds to bust out his electric guitar and play the opening of the 5th Symphony (and THEN the Who theme), with a sly look on his face because Peter Capaldi just won’t LET ME LIVE.
“Under the Lake” ended with our heroes being divided into two groups, Bennett and O’Donnell with the Doctor (and the TARDIS) and Cass and Lunn trapped in the base with Clara. The TARDIS takes O’Donnell, Bennett, and the Doctor back to before the town flooded, right when the spaceship first landed. O’Donnell outs herself as a MASSIVE Doctor fangirl when she comments that she doubts that Rose, Martha, or Amy got sick in their first TARDIS trip. (Okay, but Donna Noble though. MOST IMPORTANT WOMAN IN THE UNIVERSE AND NO ONE KNOWS AND LEAVE ME HERE TO DIE.) With a delighted “It’s bigger on the inside” fangasm to Bennett, we KNOW that O’Donnell is marked for death because all Doctor fangirls die in the Moffat-verse. RIP Osgood.
Clara’s phone rings and her relief at seeing the Doctor (god bless Facetime) alive is palpable. If she can tell the Doctor about his ghost, surely he can change his fate, right? However, the Doctor doesn’t take this little revelation as a fate he can avoid. “It means I die,” he says, and you actually SEE him deflate. “It’s already happened.” Like Harry Potter realizing what he has to do to stop Voldemort, the Doctor accepts his fate immediately, even if he doesn’t like it. “I have to die.” (His FACE though. Even though he cracks a joke about this regeneration being a mix-up, you can TELL he’s not ready to let go yet.) Clara, however, is having none of it. Just because the Doctor so readily accepts his end (fuck that though), doesn’t mean she has to. I’ve read a fair amount of criticism with the way Clara handled this situation, that she was selfish and that she lorded the Doctor’s love for her over him. Listen, people. If Sage ever called me and said she was going to do something that would likely result in her death, I would react the exact same way. (As I said to her last night, even if it was something as trivial as potentially moving away, I would shout “IF YOU LOVED ME YOU WOULDN’T DO THIS”, so get on my level.) Honestly, who WOULDN’T lose their shit in this situation? How can you expect Clara to be above being selfish in this moment of panic? Honestly, if she had been calm, I would have been yelling “WTF is wrong with you” at the telly. There are times to be rational and “do whatever you want” but your best friend/great love potentially dying is not one of them. Clara is not using the Doctor’s love as a bargaining chip, she’s using it as a means to get him to fight (the future).
(Not to mention there’s the whole layer of Danny Pink’s death still being a very raw wound for her, so the last thing Clara needs right now is to lose ANOTHER man that she loves. The series so far has made a VERY obvious point that Clara is a bit unhinged at the moment, so again, her reaction to potentially losing the Doctor is completely valid and HUMAN.)
Subtext: I love you, Clara.
The Doctor and Bennett try to convince O’Donnell to stay behind in the TARDIS (just in case Clara calls) but with a “Have you two MET me?”, she joins them as they go back out to the spaceship. The Fisher King, having risen, cuts off their direct path, forcing them into a warehouse to hide. Here, we get our first glance of the Fisher King and he looks like one of the bad guys from The Dark Crystal, so I am immediately terrified. Naturally, our band of heroes gets separated, and if you didn’t think O’Donnell was doomed because she was a fangirl, you DEFINITELY know she is when she gets isolated. Having claimed another victim, The Fisher King retreats (he needs to digest?) and Bennett and the Doctor find O’Donnell close to death. Bennett cradles her body to him, because there really isn’t anything else he can do in that moment except be there for her. (“Don’t you fret, Monsieur Marius. I don’t feel any pain.”) The Doctor watches grimly and Bennett puts it together. The names on the list? That’s the order they are going to die. O’Donnell’s name was next and Bennett knows that the Doctor knew that and was testing a theory. “Who’s next?” he accuses, even though he knows the answer.
Clara’s next. And that just won’t do.
Is it completely shitty that the Doctor didn’t do anything to save O’Donnell? Is it shitty that her life meant nothing but the moment Clara’s life is on the line he refuses to accept her fate? OF COURSE IT IS. No one ever said the Doctor can’t be a completely shitty person. But THIS IS WHY WE WATCH. Or at least, this is why *I* watch…give me shitty people making selfish choices ANY DAY. It’s much more compelling than watching perfect people making rational choices. What’s funny is that Bennett accuses the Doctor of taking action because it’s one step closer to him losing his own life. HA. As if the Doctor gave a shit about his own life. “This isn’t about saving me, I’m a dead man walking. I’m changing history to save Clara.” At least he’s upfront about it.
Back in the future, Ghost!O’Donnell appears and she takes the phone, which has been placed juuuuuust outside the Faraday cage. Now the ghosts aren’t playing fair and Clara, Cass, and Lunn are in a world of trouble.
Because the TARDIS is a clever girl with a sense of humor (and she knows the Doctor is where he needs to be even when he doesn’t), she locks the Doctor in his own time stream instead of allowing him to go back to the base. Thus, we have a bit of a Prisoner of Azkaban situation as Bennett and the Doctor watch their past selves and are helpless to do anything to stop either Prentis or O’Donnell from dying again. “You can’t cheat time,” the Doctor says, holding Bennett back from saving his girl. “I just tried.” (They make enough noise that O’Donnell definitely notices something before they dive out of view. That killed me.)
Meanwhile, Clara has gone full Doctor!Clara, and since “Flatline” was one of my favorite episodes last season (if not my favorite), I’m totally on board with that. She figures out that the ghosts are only attacking the people who saw the numbers inside the spaceship. The only person who DIDN’T see them? Lunn. Thus, he should be able to safely retrieve the phone. Cass is NOT cool with this plan in the slightest and it becomes abundantly clear that her feelings of protectiveness towards him extend beyond the realm of being his captain. I love how she calls Clara out here, asking her “whether traveling with the Doctor changed you or whether you were always happy to put people’s lives at risk.” There’s been chatter that unlike previous companions, Clara has actually become a worse person for having traveled with the Doctor. I would argue that Clara’s been the most heavily INFLUENCED by HER Doctor but she has by no means become a bad person. Though he may have softened, Twelve is still the most outwardly ruthless of the Modern Doctors. He doesn’t coddle anyone and everyone he meets (no, he reserves all his cuddles for Clara, thank you very much). You’d never hear Twelve say “You just stand there cause I’m going to hug you.” He’s not the type to stand in awe of human beings and call them giants. All companions learn something from their Doctor and what Clara has learned is ruthlessness. Goodness has nothing to do with it. She can stand there and have Cass curse her out, no translation needed, because she knows she is doing what needs to be done to survive.
While all of this is going on in the future, back in the past, The Doctor has realized that his jacket is now torn, bringing the moment of Clara’s death closer (“I need more time.” Objection, rude.). He steels himself and goes to face the Fisher King alone (“I open at the close.” ALL MY HARRY POTTER FEELINGS THOUGH)…because he’s the only one who can. No one else is going to die today.
There are certain moments I’ve come to expect from every Doctor and boy, did this episode deliver what my notes gleefully called “HIS SATAN PIT MOMENT”. Like Sage, I would name “The Impossible Planet” and “The Satan Pit” as my favorite modern Who story and it birthed the moment that I look forward to every Doctor having now. Naturally, I mean the moment where the Doctor goes one on one with a monster and monologues the CRAP out of them. (See also: Eleven in the “The Rings of Akhaten”.) This is probably my favorite Doctor moment because not only is the Doctor Who staff capable of writing killer monologues about life, death, and the human condition, but I just like seeing these actors being given free rein to just act their faces off. And boy, does Peter Capaldi deliver.
So it turns out that the Fisher King has been killing everyone to siphon their energy into bringing himself fully back to life (okay Voldemort) as well as build a new army. “My ghosts will make more ghosts” aka they just plan on wiping out all of human existence. There is nothing that pisses the Doctor off more than monsters like this, monsters that have such a callous disrespect for the very gift of LIFE.
The Doctor: You will hijack other people’s souls and turn them into electromagnetic projections. That will to endure. That refusal to ever cease. It’s extraordinary. And it makes a fella think. Because you know what? If all I have to do to survive is tweak the future a bit, what’s stopping me? Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, the ripple effect. Maybe it will mean that the universe will be ruled by cats or something, in the future. But the way I see it, even a ghastly future is better than no future at all. You robbed those people of their deaths. Made them nothing more than a message in a bottle. You violated something more important than Time. You bent the rules of life and death. So I am putting things straight. Here, now, this is where your story ends.
I love that, in the end, the Doctor’s quest became less about saving Clara and more about setting things right. Because what the Fisher King is doing? It’s fucking insulting. And if Clara gets saved in the process of setting things straight? All the better. The Doctor taunts the Fisher King, telling him that he’s failed, that he’s seen the future and none of the Fisher King’s great plans come to fruition. He causes the Fisher King to run back outside, under the pretense of saying that he erased the numbers from the spaceship. (TFK: WUT? That was some of my best graffiti, bro.) The Doctor then CAUSES the very flood that buries the town where Clara is trapped in the future. The Fisher King is destroyed. Emergency protocol 712 activates, whisking Bennett away from harm. Causal loop = closed.
Meanwhile, the ghosts have cornered Clara, Cass, and Lunn in the room with the chamber/the Fisher King’s coffin. The chamber opens, but instead of a basilisk emerging, it’s just a roguishly handsome Time Lord with a hint of morning breath. Though something tells me Clara wouldn’t have minded planting one on him.
The Doctor calls the ghosts away, using the call of the Fisher King, and imprisons them in the Faraday cage. Ghost!Doctor disappears because he was nothing but a hologram (much like Clara’s hologram in “Under the Lake”). The hologram was there to tell the Doctor what to do to save them because it was one that he set up himself. Basically, the hologram was James Potter saving Harry and Sirius from the Dementors because it was Harry all along casting the Patronus, not his father. See? Everything can be explained in Harry Potter terms.
The Doctor, using the sonic sunglasses, erases the memory of the spaceship numbers from the crew’s brains, potentially along with the ability to drink liquids. They find Bennett outside the Faraday cage, looking mournfully at O’Donnell’s ghost. “What do I do now?” he asks. And THIS is where Clara Oswald puts her grief over Danny Pink to good use. Because no one else quite understands the magnitude of what Bennett lost like Clara does. “You keep going. You have to.” She urges him to live the life O’Donnell would have WANTED him to live. He can take his 5 minutes every day to mourn her loss but he has to keep going. If he doesn’t, what did she die for? I LOVE how this moment brought Clara’s grief regarding Danny full circle and allowed her to pass on what she’s learned to someone else. Call Clara Oswald a bad person and I will cut you.
Bennett, in turn, uses what HE learned about missed chances, and passes that knowledge down to Lunn and Cass. “Tell her you’re in love with her and you always have been,” he says to a shocked Lunn. (Come on, dude. The love was obvious. You weren’t fooling ANYONE.) “Tell her there’s no point in wasting time cause things happen and then it’s too late. Tell her I wish someone had given me that advice.” Lunn translates what Bennett said and then tries to pass it off as “just translating” but Cass plants one on him and TODAY LOVE WINS.
Back in the TARDIS, Clara and the Doctor try to make sense of the timeline of events…
Clara: Here’s what I don’t understand. You did change the future. You stopped the Fisher King from returning.
The Doctor: The Fisher King had been dead for 150 years before we even got here. But once I went back I became part of events. But here’s the thing. The messages my ghost gave, they weren’t for you, they were for me. That list. Everyone after you was random, but you being the next name, that’s what made me confront the Fisher King.
Clara: And saying the chamber will open?
The Doctor: That was me telling me to get inside and when to set it for.
The Doctor: Except that’s not why I said them.
Clara: How do you mean?
The Doctor: I programmed my ghost to say them because that’s what my ghost had said. And the only reason I created my ghost-hologram in the first place was because I saw it here. I was reverse engineering the narrative.
Clara: OK, that’s still pretty smart.
The Doctor: You do not understand. When did I first have those ideas, Clara?
Clara: Well, it must have been… Wow.
The Doctor: Exactly. Who composed Beethoven’s 5th?
- The Doctor’s Amp is made by Magpie Electronics, the same people behind the TV’s in “The Idiot’s Lantern”.
- I’m not going to say WHERE we saw something else about a Faraday Cage at Comic-Con this weekend, but when we DID, our brains exploded a little bit.
- The Fisher King called Time Lords “curators”. Who knows? WHO nose?
- Okay, can we talk about the way that the Doctor bats Clara’s hands away from the sunglasses just so he can take them off HIMSELF?
- Also WHAT PERSONAL SPACE?
- FLIRTY FACES JUST KISS ALREADY JESUS.
And that’s it for this week! Sage will be your guide through “The Girl Who Died” where reportedly we will find out JUST why the Doctor has the face of the man he saved from the fires of Pompeii. Till then, leave your thoughts on Beethoven’s 5th Symphony in the comments.