“You Remembered Being Me Watching You Doing That!” Doctor Who: Before the Flood, Reviews, 12/10/2015

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.

The Doctor's empty ghost is a beautiful and haunting
image. But I could guess how the Doctor survived his
apparent death easily. That's short-hand for the
problems of this story, Toby Whithouse's whole
approach to narrative, and why he isn't really suited to
write contemporary Doctor Who.
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. 

One brief line of Prentice's sketches another interesting
element of Tivolian culture that the story has no space
to follow through on. They're so wheedling to the
invading armies who conquer them, that the empires
eventually get sick of dealing with them and leave.
Their apparent submission is actually a strategy of
resistance. Not passive resistance, but passive-
aggressive resistance.
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.

I can imagine Steven Moffat being so disappointed on
receiving Whithouse's script for Before the Flood,
spending so much time pedantically explaining the
Bootstrap Paradox when he'd written a better story
about it nearly a decade ago. And it was only
seven minutes long.
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.


  1. Nope, I don't really want any more of Whithouse's Who either.

    1. I suspect that Whithouse will find himself getting lower in the priority list of finding Doctor Who writers in future. That depends on how well Jamie Mathieson's second story turns out – Flatline was marvellously inventive, and next week is going to be something of a comedy as well. As well, it's a co-authored script, which could mean that Moffat is taking Mathieson under his wing in a way that he isn't with Whithouse. Whithouse is a more established television writer, and after several years of working with his scripts, the Moff would be well aware of his limitations.

      I also have high hopes for Peter Harness' Zygon two-parter, and Catherine Tregenna's episode, the sequel to Mathieson's story, will likely be her first of many Doctor Who stories. Sarah Dollard seems to be an example of finding a writer better than Whithouse through Whithouse's networks, as she wrote a knockout late-period episode of Being Human and an episode of his The Game.

      Doctor Who has always been a show that struggles to find its best writers. It's plain difficult to write for this show, generally speaking. So you sometimes have to hang on to the folks who are solid enough at stringing a story together, give them a less-prominent spot in the season, and let the bright talents shine brighter in comparison.

    2. Yeah I think also that Whithouse may be lower in the list of sought after writers. I think too that it is kind of needed to have fairly standard writers to put some basic episodes into the mix - and yeah what a tough show to write for I imagine!

      I am *really* looking forwards to Tregenna, Mathieson, Harness and Dollard. Great to have some women writing on the show again!

    3. Yeah, I'm looking forward to the rest of the season far more than I was these first four episodes - I hoped "The Magician's Apprentice/ The Witch's Familiar" would be a surprise classic, but feared it would be overstuffed. I think it mostly balanced its continuity-heavy plot well, but while interesting, it was ultimately the weakest of Moffat's two part stories, for my money. Similarly, I expected Whithouse's two parter to be my least favourite story of the season, but I got my hopes up after the first part, and it ended up letting me down anyway. As a result, I'm feeling less positive four episodes into the season than I was after "Listen", but I'm genuinely excited for everything left in the run. Even Gatiss, who I doubt will be great, but has made a habit of being pleasantly surprising lately.
      I'm less certain Treganna will becoming a regular on the writing staff: by his accounts Moffat seems to have to put a lot of effort into persuading her to write for the show, and needed a really strong episode pitch to persuade her. As a result, I have high hopes for "The Woman who lived", but I'm less certain Treganna will come back afterwards.

  2. I feel as though Unspoken Love can lead to a stalker story, but doesn't have to. In particular I think this episode is a poor match for the narrative you're talking about (which I agree is problematic and outdated). If anyone is shown to have a hovering attachment, it's Cass for Lunn, not vice versa. She's fiercely protective of him, not letting him on board the spaceship and barely tolerating him leaving the Faraday cage at Clara's behest. Unless there's something subtle I'm forgetting, the only sign we're shown that Lunn reciprocates her feelings is that he stays on the base as what he feels is a natural consequence of her decision to stay (which is just as easily read to mean "she needs me to stay because I'm signing for her"), up until he actually tells her how he feels. I wouldn't call Cass's a "creepy, hovering attachment," but is it just because she's a woman?

    Bennett's attachment to O'Donnell is similarly subtle, I think. Being in love with someone and being reluctant to admit it is an emotional state, which one can't really help. Hovering and creeping and stalking are actions, which one can choose to commit or not. I didn't get much sense of Bennett doing the latter either. So while I agree with you that there's a risk of a toxic trope here, I don't think I saw it the same way you did.

    I do like your discussion of the resolution to the bootstrap paradox, though (and whether the Beethoven interlude was necessary or not, I think it was the most pleasurable part of the episode). I think we arrived at more or less the same place in our thinking about it, though I approached it with slightly different phrasing in my review. Is the notion of ideas independent of human thought a common way of puzzling out this paradox? Is there more reading I ought to be doing about it?

    1. I think I've just become especially sensitive to the problems of the Unspoken Love™ story because I've made that mistake myself when I was younger. It's one of my bigger regrets in my life, and it cost me some friendships that were very important to me. So when I see it in the media, where it unfolds in that same way to make people think that you can fall in love with someone in your circle without their ever knowing it, but all you have to do is speak it once and they'll fall into your arms? . . . . It makes me shudder.

      When it comes to ideas thinking free of a person to think them? It's mostly my poetic / pretentious pickup of concepts from reading Deleuze and Sandifer over the years. D&G's What Is Philosophy? could be a good place to puzzle out the notion.