Quite a lot going on in Before the Flood. There’s a common issue, but you have to consider things separately to see it. Consider a few questions.
1) Is Toby Whithouse a very original writer?
2) Who is this War Minister?
3) What sort of crime is violating the boundary between life and death?
4) Did we need a lesson in time paradoxes?
first, then answers.
1) Not really. Let's look at the different ways he's unoriginal.
A) I’ve already mentioned that his stories tend to conform to old, worn-out or wearing-out conventions. Like The Game, Whithouse’s underwhelming Cold War action drama, one more tired old story of angsty male anti-heroes brooding through their moral compromises.
I mean, you can make a story about that kind of character if you really want to, but our culture's Frank Miller phase is over, and Whithouse (as well as the fans of Sin City) has yet to realize this.
Now, Before the Flood wasn't particularly angsty in that sense. There was one scene where Cass asked Clara if the Doctor taught her to be so callous with risking others' lives, and where Bennett asks the Doctor whether he used O'Donnell's killing merely to test a theory. But those scenes don’t sit at the heart of Before the Flood’s narrative.
Maybe they would have if Steven Moffat wasn't the script editor.
Given where Capaldi’s Doctor is as a character, he's already dealt with that level of angst. It could be acceptable, if tired, in The God Complex, since all except a small part of the Matt Smith era carried the weight of the Time War.
|However striking the Fisher King's design is, it hasn't|
really grown beyond the shadow of H. R. Giger. This
story's second Alien reference.
The Doctor had reason to be in an angst-driven character narrative, but Whithouse’s story was proof that Doctor Who could take this concept no farther. With Before the Flood, Whithouse has given us another red flag for Doctor Who's narratives.
B) I’ll have to take back my endorsement after last week. Whithouse in the second half returns to the worst tendencies of the base-under-siege story, after spending the first half doing wonderful and interesting new things with that setup. He just returns to the worst features of generic monster suspense stories.
The Fisher King is a terribly generic monster, nothing but murders and bombastic dreams of conquest. Only his abilities to make electromagnetic echoes of the dead make him at all remarkable. But that distinction belongs to the ghosts themselves.
The Fisher King is a beautifully intricate, grotesque, haunting monster suit. But there's simply no personality other than “Send signal, summon invasion fleet, destroy Earth, enslave humans.”
Similarly wasted is Prentice the Tivolian, who gets a single scene of irritating all the characters before being shot in the face. David Walliams in The God Complex at least got a whole story's worth of dialogue to explore the character. Though I think the only reason he was so interesting was because David Walliams played him.
Tivolian culture has a lot of potential for storytelling and character development. I could tell some wonderful stories about a people for whom cowardice, surrender, and betrayal to the stronger power is a virtue. I could tell a wonderful story about a monster who resurrects ghosts from a traumatizing death, weaving together elements from the Fisher King myth.
|As Jane Campbell says at the Eruditorum Press review of|
this story, it would have been much more interesting if
Bennett had died in a botched attempt to chase the
monster away from his Unspoken Love™ O'Donnell,
giving in to his alpha-male idealism at the cost of his
own life. We would have had more time to follow
through on its tension and plot fallout if Whithouse
hadn't chopped 4 minutes off the front of the episode
with a lecture about the Bootstrap Paradox.
C) Then for the generally unnecessary detail of the two nerdy introvert men having unspoken loves for the women with which they work closely, and one of them being eventually and blatantly reciprocated.
Bennett’s lost chance with O’Donnell, her not surviving the story, works as a good moment for his character, and for Clara’s. It lets her express how she moved on from Danny's death at the end of last season. Her and Bennett's brief conversation lets the details of his relationship with O’Donnell stay silent, so we can fill in the blanks as we prefer.
Because after talking to Clara, Bennett tells Lunn to express his own feelings for Cass, whose last act in the story is passionately kissing Lunn. This narrative of a man’s passionate unspoken love for a woman he can’t bear to approach about it used to be a central model for a romantic story.
It isn't anymore. That’s the story of a man who does a great harm to the woman he loves. Because it isn't love: it's blind, single-minded obsession. Unspoken love isn't a paragon of romance anymore because from the perspective of the woman, it’s a creepy, hovering attachment.
It’s only in the last few years (much too late, by any margin) that I've fully understood that the Unspoken Love story isn't romantic, but a stalker narrative. And I don't think Whithouse has at all. Given the importance of a critical female audience for Doctor Who today, this isn't the direction for the show to travel.
Oh yes, and O’Donnell – the most interesting and charismatic character among the base crew – is fridged so her bland, nebbishy, unspoken lover can brood over her. There's actually a very nice scene between Bennett and O'Donnell just after they arrive in the past, which let me imagine that perhaps they really were an open couple. That way, O'Donnell's death would have had some proper narrative punch, instead of the distasteful scenario Whithouse actually gives us.
2) After more than a decade of carefully seeded clues for the hidden villain of the finale nearly every season, O’Donnell’s brief mention of the War Minister is a clear flag.
But it could just as easily be a false flag. It’s mentioned in a list of continuity points, including previous season flag Harold Saxon. The Doctor even says he expects he’ll meet him eventually.
We in the audience know that this is a standard Doctor Who trick (Bad Wolf, Torchwood, Saxon, “You are not alone,” disappearing bees, the crack in time, Lake Silencio, Clara’s echoes, the soldier theme). We expect it.
One thing Steven Moffat said about his plan for this season is that he wanted to change Doctor Who around, run against expectations. Part of this meant returning to multi-part stories and cliffhangers, as one-episode 45-minute stories were becoming ordinary.
But the Doctor dismisses the mention of this War Minister, saying he's sure he'll run into him eventually. Capaldi’s Doctor is more openly meta-fictional than any previous one, so I’ll take his dismissal as a sign that this is just a red herring, playing with the expectations of the audience.
3) It’s an ethical wound in this case. A violation of a person’s whole existence. Terrible enough, and more terrible than breaking the coherence of your own history.
Not in its effects, of course. Whole timelines are erased, as in the last time the Doctor crossed over a piece of his own timeline in Father's Day, which Whithouse obviously evokes without doing anything new with. More unoriginality there.
It’s not so much that the Fisher King's desecrations of people’s deaths has a larger importance to the fabric of the universe than the integrity of your own timeline. The Time Lords probably wouldn't care. But the Doctor lives by the principle of trying to make the universe a more ethical place, so he’s much more invested in righting this violation.
The whole thing turns out to be a bluff to trick the Fisher King into standing outside so he can die when the town floods and the Doctor can hide in his suspension capsule. I totally knew that was how the Doctor would create a ghost projection and survive, by the way.
4) The opening sequence was a good primer. But it was totally unnecessary to the resolution of the story. It’s a cool narrative framework, but a footnote to the narrative itself. It served to take a few minutes off a story that was running low on plot and made for some more meta-fictional commentary from the Doctor.
Bootstrap paradoxes do play with our expectations of how reality works, however, which is nice. The Doctor didn't know what words his future ghost would say to Clara before he saw them through her phone. Having simply remembered the words, he never thought of them himself. So who did?
Bootstrap paradoxes only appear to be problems because we often think that ideas are generated only through people’s conscious thought. But the story had been playing with that since the beginning. The words that turn a person into a ghost on their death act as active creatures themselves, ideas that exist independently of conscious thought.
So the solution to the bootstrap paradox is to throw away our presumption that all ideas must have a thinker to exist. Accept the notion that a thought can arise from a situation itself – the narrative itself invented the sequence of words that the Doctor’s ghost said. He remembered having heard them, so he spoke them from the suspension chamber.
It’s the same as the central problem in the plot of Moffat’s Time Crash. You can watch the whole thing at the link. It only takes seven minutes. The Doctor never needed to figure out how to fix the TARDIS malfunction that threatened to blow a hole in the fabric of spacetime and brought Peter Davison’s and David Tennant’s Doctors together.
Tennant remembered being Davison, watching Tennant fix the TARDIS. They were both part of a narrative in which the narrative – not the people in it – was the active force.
If the story had explored this idea in more detail – how to act when you’re passive before pre-destination – we’d have a second part of this story that could live up to the innovations of Under the Lake. As it is, all we have are blogs like mine – and any sci-fi stories I may write about bootstrap paradoxes down the road – to explore it.
Instead, Toby Whithouse has written another story with a lot of really interesting ideas, but which ignore their true potential. I don’t think I want him to write Doctor Who anymore.