The Bootstrap Paradox
A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
Before the Flood opens with a major breaking of the fourth wall, a thrilling begin to an episode that closes out the season’s second two-parter in exciting fashion. The Doctor looks right into the camera and like an eccentric professor giddily excited about teaching his actual specialty in a general course, begins to explain the Bootstrap Paradox. More commonly known as the Causal Loop in scientific terms, it is a simple paradox of time travel where an event in the future is the cause for an event in the past, which itself is the cause of said future event. This is certainly not the first time the loop has been used in Doctor Who, but it is one of the most memorable instances of the show using scientific constructs in open explanation of its narrative deceits. The narrative itself opens right where the previous episode left off, with the barrier between the Doctor and Clara rapidly disappearing beneath a tidal wave of water. The Doctor, Bennett, and O’Donnell are zipping through to a town in Scotland made to look like a Soviet town just in case the Cold War got a little hotter. They come across a seemingly abandoned spaceship and a quivering Tivolian as Clara, Lunn, and Cass try and discover a way to keep the ghosts at bay.
The Fisher King first originated in the Arthurian legends, where he was also known as the Wounded King. The Fisher King’s narrative varies wildly depending on the interpretation and or version (there are sometimes a father and a son instead of just a man wanting to become a father), but the main thoroughfare was quite similar. He was the last vassal of the Holy Grail who became wounded and thusly incapacitated. Along with his incapacitation, he becomes impotent, which is how he becomes the last vassal of the Holy Grail, unable to further the following generation to take his place. In a more metaphorical sense than a literal one, his lack of health creates destruction throughout the land. He ends up garnering his name from only surviving on the fish in the nearby river as he waited and waited for someone to arrive and cure him. As expected, a plethora of wannabe healers undertake the journey to garner glory, but only a few are able to accomplish this arduous task, like Percival for example. A tale with fascinating variations, Who’s version is tangential at best, with Toby Whithouse’s script choosing largely to focus on its characters. The characters as a result are rich and rewarding, but the Fisher King never comes across as anything resembling a legitimate threat despite looking like one.
While the Fisher King was frankly a massive disappointment, the strong supporting character work her mitigates that irritation by a fair amount. The most successful parts of Doctor Who’s tenure were, are, and will be imbued with legitimate heartbreak. It became common, as Game of Thrones has become famed for today, for tears to follow rabidly when the Doctor and Rose were on opposite sides of life, holding out their respective hands as if clinging to the most desperate of hopes that they would never be lost to one another. Or when Madame de Pompadour’s carriage was riding away from the Palace of Versailles and the Doctor’s expression conveyed his broken heart without a single word. And don’t even get me started on the departure of the Ponds. Point is, death is a tricky beast to deal with in a time travel narrative, but when Who stuck to its guns about it and didn’t throw caution to the empty wind, that emotion resonated. When the show, as it has gotten into the habit recently, reverses death so quickly, that air of finality goes away but takes the weight of that emotional resonance with it. The death of O’Donnell struck hard and not just because her excited fangirling over the Doctor and the TARDIS is basically what every Whovian is likely to do. Whithouse’s script stuck to her death and refused to take an easy way out even when the Doctor and Bennett go back in time and she’s standing right in front of them, the smile on her face breaking Bennett’s heart into smithereens over and over again.
The most significant portion of this episode, however, deals with the Doctor and Clara themselves. Understanding that the Doctor used the bootstrap paradox and the reveal of the order of deaths, Bennett becomes furious. His accusations that the Doctor would do anything to save Clara out of his love for her but would not do the same for others like O’Donnell rings quite true. Parallel to the Doctor, Clara recognizes that Lunn is immune to the ghosts because of his lack of original contact and pushes him into harm’s way. Cass is incensed at the mere suggestion of Clara doing so, questioning that perhaps in traveling with the Doctor has made Clara as nonchalant as him when it came to placing people in harm’s way, that perhaps traveling with the Doctor has made Clara immune to the potential suffering the two of them might cause. Clara immediately retorts that the Doctor taught her to do what needed to be done, but that pronouncement rang quite loudly as if warning bells. As I’ve noted on several occasions, the relationship between the Doctor and Clara is more equal than perhaps any Doctor and companion and in that equality they’ve forged a relationship of real strength and care for one another. “You’ve made yourself essential to me,” Clara tells the Doctor and that holds quite true for him as well. Perhaps they have become too essential to one another and that might prove to be their undoing.
Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:
+Ludwig van Beethoven and the Doctor? Where’s that episode, Moffat and BBC? I demand it!
+“One small step for man, one giant [vomiting noise].”
+“Is there another reason to dangle someone out a window?” Maybe.
+The Minister of War. The big bad for the season?
+“It’s bigger on the inside!!! It’s bigger on the inside!!! It’s bigger on the inside!!!”
+“First proper alien and he’s an idiot.”
+“Yeah, once or twice.”
+“You do not leave me.”
+“I’m not ready yet.”
+“Finally, someone worth talking to.” Clara’s expression is perfect here
+“It’s almost like you wanted to test your theory.”
+“You can’t cut tragedy off its roots.”
+“Has traveling with the Doctor changed you, the way you always have to put other people’s lives at risk?”
+“He taught me to do what has to be done.”
+The shots of Doctor between the church and the Lenin poster – a God inclination?
+“How many ghosts do I create?”
+The sequences of Clara and Cass being followed down the dark, damp corridors were quite eerie
+“How many ghosts can I make of you?”
+“That will to endure. That refusal to ever cease.”
+“Even a ghastly future is better than no future at all.”
+Regardless of the Fisher King’s wasted potential, the shot of him standing before the breaking wall was fantastic
+“You keep going, you have to.”
Episode Title: Before the Flood
Written by: Toby Whithouse
Directed by: Daniel O’Hara
Image Courtesy: IGN