It shouldn’t be surprising, given how The Doctor travels through time and space, that he has also encountered the fourth wall: and broken it. In fact, it’d not be all that shocking if this was neither the first, nor the last time, Doctor Who flirts with this form of paradox.
In either case, it is also not the last time we will be hearing about paradoxes. The Doctor begins the continuation to the last episode “Under the Lake” by introducing us, or reintroducing us to an old science-fictional staple: the bootstrap paradox for which he tells us to Google. After posing us with the conundrum of “Who wrote Beethoven’s Fifth,” a nice play on words and a Timey-wimey introduction to what is about to happen, or what has already happened rather, The Doctor plays a rock version of the song followed by another rock version of the Doctor Who theme.
With both bad-ass introductions upping the ante, we’re now left to see how Clara and The Doctor deal with the fact that he is now a ghost. But first we get to see The Doctor and his two temporary companions back in the 1980s at the Army base before it was flooded: where they meet the Tivolian before he died and the strange ship. There is a body of a tyrant called the Fisher King on board the vessel: deceased when the Tivolians had been conquered yet again by another species.
But the strange writing on the wall of the ship isn’t there and the missing ship’s power cell still in place. The Tivolian Prentice also has no idea as to who is projecting transmitter ghosts and has no knowledge of this technology. So we get more mysteries at this point in the game. And it only gets more convoluted and strange when The Doctor talks with Clara.
It’s a surreal scene, you have to admit. The Doctor is confronting the fact that he is going to die and become a ghost, while Clara is looking at the ghost itself: who has actually released the other ghosts from the Faraday cage. But this is a key event. Even Clara demanding that The Doctor more or less die on another Companion’s time doesn’t take away from this fact: that and the fact that his ghost is saying something different from the others. He is actually repeating the names of the crew, and Clara, over and again silently.
It also doesn’t take The Doctor long to realize that the Fisher King isn’t actually … dead. In fact, he probably knows that it is the Fisher King that wrote the writing on the ship’s wall: which imprints information into those that read it. What sort of information? Well, it’s the very information that manifests after the reader dies: and turns them into ghosts, which in turn changes them into transmitters to summon … something to Earth. In this way, this form of writing is actually very reminiscent of the Carrionites and their word-algorithm magic: except that it is more like a viral psychic meme that utilizes a person’s soul or essence to serve one function. As The Doctor states later, it is an ultimate form of violation beyond even time itself.
But the interaction with the Fisher King becomes even more eerie. When The Doctor actually does confront him — essentially meeting what he thinks will be his death — the monster reveals a lot of information. The Fisher King remembers the Time Lords. It is a strange thing when you consider the cracks in time, the second Big Bang, and the fact that The Doctor spent so much time and energy erasing all knowledge of himself and the Time Lords from the face of the universe. But this monster, who we have never seen before in any way, remembers this and even how they acted during the Time War itself.
Then more questions come up. The Fisher King reveals that if he kills The Doctor he can create a massive amount of transmitter ghosts: perhaps thirteen of them. In this way, once he goes back into that suspended animation pod we were introduced to in “Under the Lake,” this perversion of the Arthurian Fisher King myth can wake up centuries later, greet his people summoned from the stars, and conquer the Earth. But there is only one Doctor ghost that we’ve seen so far. How is this possible?
It’s at this moment that The Doctor knows what he has to do. First, he lies. He tells the Fisher King he erased the writing on the wall: that he would rather have a distorted and destroyed space-time than nothing at all. Then The Doctor, having already planted the power cell near the dam, causes the flood which kills the Fisher King.
But wait. The mysterious suspended animation pod we were introduced to in the last episode has been activating. This whole time we have been led to believe that the Fisher King will awaken and that his transmitter ghosts are about to bring his people down.
So what is in the pod?
Remember that Bootstraps Paradox? Recall just how much emphasis was placed on what was in that pod in “Under the Lake” and how The Doctor couldn’t open it? And remember how The Doctor isn’t supposed to cross his own time-stream?
The thing that you need to understand about time travel for The Doctor is the following. He still has to deal with fixed points in time: events he can’t change. However, he doesn’t have a human mind. He is a Time Lord. His mind works differently and in other tangents. And even if that weren’t an issue, there is the fact that just because the overall structure of an event can’t be negated, it doesn’t mean that details can’t be rewritten by someone who knows what they are doing.
Remember the Doctor’s ghost? Well, it makes a shriek like the one that summons the transmitter ghosts and lures them all to the Faraday cage again. It’s almost as though it did everything so that others could see him having this ability. But it seems so redundant … until you look back and see that The Doctor was watching all of this happening. Then The Doctor’s ghost disappeared.
And guess what — or rather who — comes out of the pod.
It turns out that the only reason The Doctor enacted his plan was before he saw the holographic ghost of himself that he hadn’t even made yet: and yet there it was. That is a bootstraps paradox.
Still, for all of the simple elegance and convoluted genius of this solution, it doesn’t come without a cost. Whereas the crew of “Into the Dalek” were, for the most part pretty brusque and hostile, and you almost got this satisfaction with the callous way The Doctor just didn’t bother being emphatic towards them, the cast for “Under the Lake” and “Before the Flood” are much more relatable. It really hits home when you see how Bennett realizes The Doctor knew that O’Donnell was going to die and how he had to prevent Bennett from crossing his own timeline to save her when the TARDIS went back one hour before they themselves arrives in 1980. There were moments where it seemed as though Bennett was seriously going to punch The Doctor: especially when he reveals he was doing this all to save Clara.
He did it all for Clara. The tone of that still comes out flat, but all right. All right Moffat. We get it. You want to remind us of how close they are. Why don’t you just bludgeon us with that a little more.
And even Clara, who is acting like a mirror to The Doctor again, gets called out on her behaviour: first by Cass and Lunn who asks just how easy it becomes for her to dispose of other people’s lives, and then by Cass herself who wants to go after Lunn who left to get Clara’s stolen phone. The ghosts also remain in the Faraday cage and Bennett has to look in on the remnant of O’Donnell and realize that even though some part of her is there, the woman he loved was long gone.
Cass has a bad ass moment, though, where even though she is deaf she actually bends down to feel the vibrations in the floor to know when to avoid getting killed by an ax to the head. And at the very least, she and Lunn finally admit their feelings to each other. So at least some emotional good came out of the resolution to this episode.
But now that this mystery is over, perhaps we will get to see just who the girl is who refers to The Doctor so familiarly as “old man” in the next episode of Doctor Who: “The Girl Who Died.”