Doctor Who trips over its own bootstraps in Before The Flood (S9E04)
Usually, the habit of not immediately addressing the previous episode’s cliff hanger at the start of the episode bugs me but this time out, with Capaldi’s Doctor back in “Listen”-style lecture-the-audience mode is just so good it didn’t bother me. I’m really starting to like the 12th Doctor’s fondness for the electric guitar (it’s becoming his scarf, his stick of celery or his question mark umbrella and it certainly beats the recorder hands down). The fact his rendition of Beethoven’s 5th blends into a shredded version of the theme tune is great fun, evoking the Howell arrangement (my personal favourite) of the early 1980s.
Having travelled back in time to before the valley was submerged, the Doctor finds himself trapped in events, his future inescapably behind him in the future and The Fisher King stalking him in the present.
Being freed – for the most part – from the undersea base releases much of the tense atmosphere of the previous episode and thanks to the expositionary prologue, the sense of peril is palpably reduced. Instead, the story pivots to be one of how the Doctor’s cleverness will resolve the seemingly inescapable situation?
The highlight of the episode is the gruesome, Giger-by-way-of-Predator-esque presence of The Fisher King. It’s a great creation that owes a little to the Sycorax from “The Christmas Invasion” but bigger. There’s also something curiously old school about the design, a hint of man-in-a-suit creeps through and it wobbles a little bit when it walks. Not nearly enough to spoil the terrifying effect, but enough to provoke a pang of nostalgia.
Speaking of nostalgia, The Fisher King’s knowledge of the Time Lords is a first for the revived series. He knows them, rather than hearing of them in rumour or legend; knows their nature from before and during the Time War. It’s almost as spine-tingling a moment as when a Fenric-possesed Dr Judson solemnly declared to the 7th Doctor, ‘We play the game again…Time Lord’.
I don’t think we’ve ever been treated to an adventure where the Doctor not only goes back in time to try to sort things out but jumps back again and ends up crossing his own timeline. It’s been done a few times in Big Finish but never in the TV series proper. It’s used well, if a little heavy-handedly, to reinforce the Doctor’s unwillingness to undo events but it’s apparent early on just how The Doctor’s going to get out of the fix he’s in. The immunity through ignorance of the message is a nice touch, explaining a mystery left over from last week and once again, Clara’s Doctor-ness is called out in what feels like foreshadowing.
In the end, everything is sorted out – admittedly The Doctor’s explanation of his ‘ghost’ being a hologram feels like a cop out, a couple of underwritten romantic subplots get their fifteen seconds of fame and The Doctor is back in the TARDIS teasing Clara with the Bootstrap Paradox. It’s an unexpectedly lightweight ending to the two part adventure. There’s a lot to enjoy but it doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor and while it’s nice to see Doctor Who take on some highfalutin temporal mechanics, it’s hard not to think that it may have left some of the audience scratching their heads (and the cadre of Moffat-haters no doubt grinding their teeth at this blatant remix of the paradoxical Pandorica escape from “The Big Bang”). The plugging of the sonic shades into the control console was just stupid though.