The opening was a bit jarring and I didn’t appreciate that much, especially as according to TV.com‘s article, “Doctor Who “Before the Flood” Review: Why So Explain-y?“:
Do you have a friend who constantly ruins jokes and stories by telling the punchline or ending too early? I knew a guy like that once. He always started at the end, as if he was too excited to build up the suspense via normal linear progression. Frankly, his stories were never the best, so my enjoyment of them likely wouldn’t have been affected even if he had started at the beginning, but I’ll also never know because he never gave me the chance to discover them on my own. And that was “Before the Flood.”
The follow up to “Under the Lake” opened with the Doctor breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the camera in order to explain the bootstrap paradox—also called an ontological paradox—via a nifty little anecdote about Beethoven. If you didn’t have time to Google the paradox, as the Doctor suggested you do, it’s when something can exist without ever having been created. This isn’t the first time Doctor Who has played this particular game; in fact, it toys with it a lot. Think Rose seeing the words “bad wolf” splashed across the universe leading her to eventually become the Bad Wolf entity, who then actually scattered the words across time and space. Think about “Blink” and the transcript of the Easter Egg on the DVD that explained how to escape from the Weeping Angels which the Doctor created from the transcript after receiving it from Sally. It’s impossible to pinpoint the true causal origin of these events which makes it a loop, much like how there was no independent origin of the Doctor’s memories used to create and program the Doctor hologram in “Before the Flood.”
I suppose that someone already knows what I’m going to say (that’s a little time-travel humor for you), but I have to say it anyway: the explanation that opened the episode was entirely unnecessary, and although the episode as a whole was pretty enjoyable, it also revealed a problem that’s cropped up twice now this season, which is that the writing is too on-the-nose and the show must think its viewers are incapable of reaching their own conclusions and need to be spoon-fed information. First there was Missy’s dreadful explanation of how she survived in “The Witch’s Familiar,” and now the series has done it again. Half the fun of Doctor Who—or any show that deals in time travel, really—is the brain-melting that occurs when the pieces you barely have a grasp on begin clicking into place before ultimately slipping away again when you start to think too hard about them.
I can’t speak for everyone, but I personally love it when the difficulties of time travel confuse me and force me to pause for consideration. I love that feeling of being slightly out of control as my mind tries to bend the story to fit what my brain thinks is logical. But I also really love it when I’m allowed to reach the conclusion on my own without being nudged toward it or, in this case, having it bronzed, mounted in a glass case, and then put under a giant spotlight. If I wanted to watch a series where everything was spelled out for me in black and white, don’t you think that’s what I would be doing on a Saturday night? Don’t you think I’d be watching something outside this particular genre?
What’s frustrating to me as a viewer is that, as far as I recall (and I could be wrong here, I don’t have a memory like the Doctor’s), Doctor Who has never really felt the need to so explicitly explain time travel and the wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimeyness of it all to the audience, except in the episode from which I just stole that description, of course. But in the context of “Blink” it made sense because the Doctor was explaining the non-linear concept of time to a new character within the show, a character who was a stand-in for the viewer, but a character within the narrative nonetheless. It was a clever means of disseminating information, but here it came across as an unnecessary bit of exposition that because of the nature of its delivery, completely removed me from the show. It also, in a way, ruined the rest of the episode for me by revealing how the magic trick was performed before it even happened.
And yet, despite the fact I think the device cheapened the overall impact of the resolution of the story, especially when the Doctor referenced the opening anecdote at the end of the hour, I did enjoy the Doctor’s trip back in time, meeting the Fisher King, the time loop, the Doctor lying, the dam breaking, and the Doctor waking up in the suspended animation chamber (which several of you rightfully predicted last week). When put together, all of those individuals pieces made for a pretty enjoyable self-contained trip in the TARDIS even if it was also a format we’ve seen played out many times before. But the hour also accomplished all of this and still also found time to address more long-term issues, like Clara’s increasingly Doctor-like attitudes.
When she sussed out that Lunn hadn’t seen the writing on the wall of the space ship and that was the reason the ghosts (which turned out to be electromagnetic projections of souls, something else a few of you predicted!) could not or would not hurt him, she wasn’t wrong to send him after her cell phone. He was only one who could possibly do it. But the question of when exactly it was that she stopped worrying about the lives of others and was happy to put them at risk was one that needed to be asked. The danger wasn’t immediately there, but it could have been. What’s to say she won’t do it again on the next adventure? The Doctor is usually the person making these calls, but now it’s also Clara, the character who’s supposed to be the voice of reason and the stand-in for the viewers, and that’s certainly not going to turn out to be unimportant. The show is making it pretty obvious that it is.
However, calling back to how knowing the ending can warp one’s perception of a story’s execution or how it can even take the wind out of its sails, knowing that Clara’s time in the TARDIS is limited almost makes me care a little less about this hardening of her personality. Or maybe care is the wrong word. I guess I’m just not concerned or alarmed by it because I knew this was her final arc and I expected something big to come of it. I knew going in that the through line of the season would involve Clara’s character in some fashion, and so none of what’s transpired in the first four episodes has been all that surprising.
But because this is her final season, I suppose it’s also worth talking a bit about it. In addition to saving his ass, Clara’s role, and the role of many companions, is to humanize the Doctor, and Clara isn’t really doing that anymore, at least not on the surface. She’s very obviously a little rougher now than she used to be, and a little more accepting and understanding of the idea that sometimes you have to make the tough decision for the greater good, and although this change in her character is important, is there really a reason to sound the alarm? Is anyone really bothered by this? It feels like the show is setting up a more permanent end for Clara than previous companions—which probably should have me concerned—but for now I’m mostly just pleased that she took action in the Doctor’s absence. It’s so much more refreshing than when she existed solely to save him.
Notably, Slipknot and Stone Sour‘s Corey Taylor does the voice of the Fisher King, which was pretty neat so I am very familiar with both of these bands.
In rather a bit of irony, The Doctor’s actions in this episode will essentially parallel them in The Girl Who Died, and even Face the Raven, as according to Whovian Feminism‘s review on The Girl Who Died:
Beneath a series of lighthearted Viking escapades and outlandish villains is probably one of the most quietly heartfelt and terrifying episodes of Series 9. It shows the Doctor at his best and his worst, a man who tosses lives into turmoil as easily as he saves them. And although the Doctor is optimistic and lighthearted after saving Ashildr, there are eerie echoes of the Time Lord Victorious in his actions.
This was the Doctor at his most triumphant — and also his most reckless. This is the angry, wounded Doctor who views himself as an all powerful figure capable of doing anything if it weren’t for those pesky rules. And while his aims and intentions may seem good, he is largely attempting to ‘save’ these people to alleviate his own grief and sadness at their loss. And in ‘saving’ them, he usually ends up violating their own express wishes and desires.
In fact, viewed from another perspective, his actions may seem horrific rather than heroic. It’s amazing how his criticism of the Fisher King from the previous episode almost exactly fits his own actions in “The Girl Who Died.”
That will to endure. That refusal to ever cease. It’s extraordinary […] You robbed those people of their deaths […] You violated something more important than Time. You bent the rules of life and death.
Ashildr may still have her agency and autonomy — she isn’t a soul slaved to the Fisher King’s bidding — but when the Doctor placed that medical kit on her forehead and made it a part of her biology, he bent the rules of life and death. More importantly, he violated her agency to choose how to live her life.
Donna’s inclusion in this episode becomes more than a bit ironic then, as the Doctor once violated her wishes in a rather selfish attempt to keep her alive. Donna begged him not to erase her memories even if it meant her death, but the Doctor ignored her. I actually view that moment when the Doctor violated Donna’s agency to keep her alive as the beginning of his descent towards the Time Lord Victorious.
The Time Lord Victorious isn’t just about the Doctor’s desire for power and control over the laws of time — it’s about his paternalism. The problem with seeing everyone as being under your protection is that someone’s death is seen as a personal failure, not just a tragedy. And it means that you think you have the right to make decisions for them and ignore their own wishes when you think you know better.
The Doctor’s paternalism is one of his most fascinating character flaws when handled well, and I was thrilled to see Clara calling out the Doctor’s paternalistic attitude towards her in “The Girl Who Died.” I was mildly concerned while watching “Under the Lake” when Clara seemed fine with the Doctor insisting he had a duty of care over her, but since she had the tone and body language of someone trying to keep the peace to get out of an uncomfortable conversation, I held off my criticism. Thankfully in “The Girl Who Died,” Clara shut that attitude down very quickly, telling the Doctor that he definitely did not have a duty of care for her because she never asked for that.
For all that fans praise Clara for being the Doctor’s equal and essentially turning the show into Clara Who, we tend to overlook the fact that the relationship between Clara and the Doctor is not always one of equals. And that is largely the Doctor’s own doing. Clara is more than willing and capable of being an equal partner with him. She knows the risks of traveling with him and is free to leave whenever she wants — and has nearly done so several times. But she always returns, aware of the risks but craving the excitement and purpose those adventures give her.
And obviously the Doctor is concerned that she could be harmed during one of their adventures. But the Doctor’s concern for Clara isn’t just the simple concern of one friend for another. He believes he has a paternalistic responsibility for her well-being. His statement that he has a “Duty of Care” over Clara is very telling. The last time we heard that phrase used, Clara was using it to describe her duty to protect one of her students. But Clara is not a child, and the Doctor needs to trust that Clara has accepted the risks of traveling with him.
The Doctor asks what he has made of Clara, this schoolteacher whose hobby is fighting monsters alongside him, but the Doctor didn’t turn Clara into anything she didn’t want to become. He merely gave her the opportunity to discover her unique skills and put them to good use. And I’m sure Clara would appreciate it if the Doctor respected her decision and stopped lecturing her like a child.
This is an observation, not a critique. But I’ll be curious to see how this dynamic plays out as we get closer to Clara’s departure or, if the foreshadowing is to be trusted, her possible death.