“You can’t cheat time,” the Doctor admonishes us repeatedly in this latest episode. And then he simply goes and, you know, cheats time.
That’s what the Doctor does. And it’s a joy to watch, even when what just happened remains a bit of a head-scratcher, as it does in the very satisfying “Before the Flood.”
The Doctor goes back in time to witness the events that led to last week’s ghostly underwater menace, and so creates a potential temporal paradox—changing the outcome of events that he, and we, have already seen.
Instead, he sidesteps this potentially universe-destroying contradiction by creating another (less devastating but still completely bonkers) one: a bootstrap paradox. Which he does us the favor of explaining in great detail right at the start of the episode.
One of the great virtues of having Peter Capaldi and his avuncular eyebrows playing the Doctor (along with the relief it provides from all those kinda-creepy Doctor/Companion romances) is how natural it feels for him to just turn to camera one and give us a lecture. This Doctor’s a teacher—his TARDIS has a chalkboard!
The bootstrap paradox, the Doctor explains, is a time travel riddle in which the narrative of time is preserved through causal loops that have no beginning or end. Which may not violate the laws of time, but it’s a massive punch in the face of common sense. You find a message buried in your backyard. So you travel back in time to find out who wrote the message—but there’s nobody there and no buried message. So instead you write down the message yourself and bury it for yourself to find. The paradox, of course, is: Who thought up the words of that message? Where did they come from? (Did they always exist? Did the universe create them somehow?)
The Doctor travels back to 1980 with Bennett and O’Donnell and discovers that an alien warlord called the Fisher King created the murder-ghost-transmitter system to kill a bunch of people and make them into beacons. He’ll go into suspended animation and wait until his people can come and enslave Earth. So the Doctor blows up the dam, flooding the town, trapping the ghosts underwater, and killing the Fisher King, while he gets into the suspended animation chamber himself.
Thus time was never actually changed: the Doctor had always created the lake 150 years before, and it was his body, and not the Fisher King’s, in that coffin the whole time.
BUT the whole way he came up with that plan is that he sent an avatar of himself, looking like a ghost, into the future to scare Clara and get her to relay messages back to himself in the past—messages that showed him how to execute the plan. Which: paradox. Because who came up with the plan, then?
Of course, this kind of paradox happens on Doctor Who all the time; the premise of the show basically guarantees that it will. But here the paradox is explicitly foregrounded, which makes us focus not on how clever the Doctor’s plan is, but instead on all the things that don’t quite make sense about it. If the Doctor didn’t actually create the plan, then where did all of the weirdness and nonsense that was part the plan come from in the first place?
It is easy to imagine a simpler version of this plan that saved everyone more directly and didn’t involve so much hand-waving and running around. But that wasn’t the plan, because…it just wasn’t the plan. Since the plan has no origin, there’s no way to ask questions about it.
For example, though the whole point of the plan was to save Clara, it effectively put her in more danger for most of the episode: The Doctor’s ghost-avatar unlocked the Faraday cage and let the ghosts out. The show suggests that maybe this was done to raise the stakes, to make the Doctor throw caution to the wind and save her. But was that really the only way he could have accomplished that?
More damning is the fact that O’Donnell’s death seems to have been part of the plan. The list of names the ghost provides, the order in which he various characters would die, was actually a message the Doctor sent to himself to get off of his ass and do something. He fully admits that the order of names after Clara’s was totally random—the fact that Clara’s name was next meant he had to find a way to save her life now. But O’Donnell’s name was before Clara’s on the list, meaning the Doctor knew she was going to die next, and he let it happen, presumably as a way of proving to himself that this was how the plan would work. She was essentially sacrificed to the plan.
And the show doesn’t shy away from this fact: Bennett calls the Doctor out on it. And the episode goes out of its way to make us like her—she wasn’t very strongly characterized last week, but this week she emerges as a charming, interesting, relatable person, right before she is about to be killed. “Under the Lake” clearly wants us to feel her death, and to ask ourselves why she had to die. Was this really a necessary element of the plan?
Welp, sorry, there’s no way of knowing—the plan was just the plan; nobody actually created it. Sucks to be you, O’Donnell.
This is an explicitly ethical dilemma. The show is asking us if the Doctor—who really wants to know if he’s “a good man”—bears responsibility for deaths that he causes if he is not acting under his own free will, but shouldering the demands of the timeline, of narratives that have no beginning or end, but simply exist. Is he excused from all guilt because it was inevitable? Does that really feel just?
All of which brings us (at last) to the legendary figure of the Fisher King. Doctor Who’s no slouch when it comes to mythical-literary allusions, but this one really takes us into the reference rabbit hole. Care to follow me down?
There are about 1,000 versions of the Fisher King story, but they all have a few things in common: a king who is severely injured with a wound that won’t heal, lands that somehow suffer from his injury and become barren wastes, and a knight who has to prove himself worthy by fulfilling some task and thus heal the king.
There are clearly dozens of resonances between that mythical story and this one. The abandoned city (“the forsaken”) stands in for the king’s wasted lands. The association with water: In many stories the Fisher King is unable to move much, so he has taken up fishing. The idea of words that are more than simply words: often the knight simply has to ask the right questions to heal the king. The life that is extended beyond its natural span: the Fisher King is the keeper of the Holy Grail, which sustains his life. And so on.
But the most interesting echo here is the tension in the myth between virtue and predestination. The young knight in the story (usually Parsifal/Perceval) is almost always on a quest to become the perfect “spiritual knight,” a beacon of moral goodness—only then can he heal the king. But of course, he is also known to be destined to be the one to do this, which makes him a cocky little shit, in the parlance of our time, and prevents him from becoming the good man he’s supposed to be by blinding him to the possibility of his failure.
Remind you of anyone?
When Doctor Who faces the bootstrap paradox head-on, it asks us to admit that the choices we make always matter—even when we don’t actually have any choice. And that’s something the Doctor still has a lot of trouble with.
Finally, there are still a whole lot of things that happen in the episode that still can’t be explained through the Doctor’s causal loops. For example, if everything that happened in 1980 had already happened by the time they got to the underwater base 150 years later—the flood the Doctor caused back then, the missing fuel cell, etc.—then why wasn’t O’Donnell’s ghost there the whole time? Prentiss the alien undertaker was there, and O’Donnell actually only died a few minutes after him. But she only appears there when she dies in the timeline of the show, which should have zero relevance here. The fact that the episode is switching back and forth between two times shouldn’t matter, since the two narratives aren’t actually taking place in parallel—one has already happened 150 years before the other.
Similarly, when the Doctor calls Clara on the phone from the past, he hangs up and tells her to wait for his call later—which causes trouble when a ghost steals the phone. But why call her later? If the TARDIS has a phone that can call Clara at a particular time in the future, why not just call her again right away after she ends the first call? What does it matter how much time has passed in the past?
It is almost as if time passing in the two different timeframes actually does matter somehow, as if the show’s narrative timeline, the order it presents events in, regardless of what order they actually occur in, is actually relevant to its internal plot. And not only that, but the Doctor seems to somehow be aware of and constrained by this order of events.
Here’s a hypothesis: What if the Doctor actually knows that he is the main character on a television show? That would certainly give him the confidence to take the insane risks he is always taking, since he’s aware that someone is pulling the strings in his favor. What if on some level he knew, even as he was seeing his own ghost, that he wouldn’t be dying in this episode, because it’s only the fourth episode of the season?
Now how’s that for some predestination?