Hello, everyone! Today I’m reviewing “Before the Flood,” the fourth episode of Doctor Who series nine! This review is a little late, and I’m sorry about that – my review partner had technical issues! (INTERNET, WHY ARE YOU SO TEMPERAMENTAL.) I decided that posting the reviews in order was more important than posting them in a timely manner, so… I just decided to sit back and wait for Mawa’s half of the review, and everything turned out just fine!
So, THANK YOU for putting up with my lateness in posting this – and thanks, Mawa, for letting me know what was going on because for a while, I was really freaking out!
Also, I just realized that between this review, the review of last week’s episode, and the review of the upcoming episode, I will post three Doctor Who reviews within the span of about a week. HAHAHAHA OOPS. Have fun, I guess?
P.S. You can find previous collaborative reviews of Doctor Who‘s ninth series here.
Mawa Mahima is a 17-year-old book blogger and crazed student. She has way too much to study and watching Doctor Who has become one of her sole comforts in her new school-filled schedule. Fun fact: She only watches the show with all the lights off and the door closed. She’s pretty sure she couldn’t sleep the night they aired the episode with the Daleks levitating over stairs! (She thought she was safe from them!) She blogs at All Things Wordy.
Warning: Spoilers ahead, sweetie!
The Bootstrap Paradox
Engie: …so I had a movie night with my friends last weekend, just a few hours after watching the new episode, and one of the movies we watched was Interstellar. (This was actually the second time I’d seen it.) And I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between the two stories, with their questions of “Who/what/which idea came first?”
Engie: I feel like it’s worth mentioning that these stories are not one and the same, though – “Under the Lake” and “Before the Flood” represent the bootstrap paradox, while Interstellar is a predestination paradox. But still. Basically, I’m just really amused at the exceptionally good timing I sometimes have, what with watching that episode and that movie on the same day.
Engie: I’m not quite sure that whole Beethoven monologue was a good addition, though. I wonder if the writers thought we wouldn’t be able to see and understand the paradox for ourselves? I don’t know, it just… didn’t make sense from a writing point of view. It felt like we were being told, “OOH A PARADOX THIS IS ABOUT A PARADOX DO YOU UNDERSTAND THAT THIS STORY FEATURES A PARADOX.” It felt heavy-handed.
Mawa: Doctor Who really has a knack of brushing aside all the mystery and suspense with stuff like paradoxes, but I have a soft spot for their use of paradoxes to explain away impossible phenomenons because of that episode with the Master using the TARDIS to create a paradox for those weird circular aliens.
Mawa: Still, I am heavily anticipating an episode in the future where the writers don’t use a paradox to do away with all the mystery, and finally use the plot to make us understand something we could not have ever guessed. Paradoxes are such great scapegoats, but too easy. Oh, flying pig? There’s a paradox behind that. The Doctor’s a woman?! My gosh, there’s a paradox behind that.
Engie: I do have to say that I wasn’t too impressed by the actual design of the Fisher King. I’m giggling as I write this because, well, he was scary until we actually got a good look at him? And then he just looked very… rubber and foam and fake-alien-bits. He looked like those cheap, grotesque Halloween masks that are part of, like, Grim Reaper costumes.
Engie: So, yeah, There’s that. Usually the aliens look pretty realistic, which is kind of the point – really good costuming and/or makeup should make everything look realistic, should make you temporarily forget these are just characters and not real beings. But…. meh. This one, not so much. OMG I LOVED SOME OTHER ASPECTS OF THE FISHER KING, HOWEVER. Like his scream? That was creepy. I just couldn’t get past the children’s-Halloween-costume aspect of that character, though.
Mawa: Yes to a villain who actually has a background story. (Huzzah!) It makes having random villains that come from nowhere and won’t make any reappearances any time soon all that more easier to tolerate. I agree on his costume though – I don’t see why it had to be so tacky. Ugh, they should have just kept him as a shadow or something.
Engie: [Goes off on a tangent] HOLY CRAP OK SO I WAS GOOGLING SOME THINGS JUST NOW AND I FINALLY FIGURED OUT WHY THAT NAME SOUNDED SO FAMILIAR. Sooooo… Terry Gilliam (from Monty Python) will be at my school later this month to give a lecture, and the local indie movie theater has shown one of his films each weekend since the beginning of October, and one of them is The Fisher King! (That’s what played last weekend, actually!)
Engie: OHHHH MY GOD. OK, it all makes sense now – I’ve seen that name on posters all around town, that’s why it seemed familiar. Because I googled the Fisher King, and he’s part of the story of the quest for the Holy Grail. And, like, I know about the quest, but it’s just not something I’ve ever studied or read about in great detail, so it seemed highly unlikely that I’d picked up his name from reading my abridged version of King Arthur when I was but a wee Engie.
Engie: …and now I don’t know how I didn’t make the Gilliam connection immediately, because in my Superheroes Unleashed class we’ve been talking about Monty Python’s Holy Grail as a modern-day version of Quixote. I DON’T EVEN KNOW. ANYWAY.
Engie: I can’t be the only one who was completely confused when the Doctor claimed he couldn’t change time… right? I mean… he can. He has. He does it all the time. I rolled my eyes when he said he couldn’t change “the future” because… well, that doesn’t actually have any meaning on this show. He can travel through time, so this whole idea of “the future” is pretty relative, isn’t it? I mean, isn’t that the point of Doctor Who – that there’s this alien who loves to pop over to some faraway planet and alter time/history?
Mawa: He can rewrite time. There was a whole freaking dramatic double-episode on Time Being Rewritten. It had Churchill and Matt Smith in a toga. Damn.
Engie: It felt like the writers were stalling here, like they didn’t have quite enough material for two full episodes. It felt like they were trying to create pointless drama/angst, and trying to make the episode clock in at the same length as the others by having the Doctor monologue and not do anything to solve the ghosty problem. Not only did it not make sense in the context of the show, it threw off the pacing of the whole episode too.
Mawa: They just create problems and don’t solve them, and the plot doesn’t move on, and the Doctor is so different from his usual self.
Engie: So, there are a few things I want to talk about here. First of all, I would’ve liked to see Clara do a little more. I don’t think the writers gave her much to do in this episode, and I’m really over this whole thing where the female character doesn’t get to do much while the male character does, and then her main function is to look impressed in a scene at the end when he explains how brilliant his actions were. This happens a lot on Doctor Who, and in many other stories.
Mawa: That’s her role, but it has also been her role since forever. You’ve just totally described the missing thing in Doctor Who these days – this is why Donna is my favourite companion. She was epic because she did things.
Engie: Secondly, what was up with the Doctor telling O’Donnell to stay behind in the TARDIS? It felt very patronizing. I can’t imagine earlier regenerations telling people to stay behind. I remember some times when he told them not to do anything foolish – and sometimes they did anyway, and he was sad or mad about that – but… he was never just like “stay behind while I have all the adventures.” It was clearly supposed to show that O’Donnell was spunky (look at her! fighting sexism!) and Not Like Other Girls (look at her! dangling people out of windows!).
Mawa: It was a move to show that O’Donnell was spunky and not your typical submissive girl, but to be honest I’m so tired of writers going out of their way to so obviously do so. When people instruct others to create media that is inclusive they don’t expect nor want you to do it just because they told you so. I don’t think I’m making much sense but what I’m trying to say is that it was an unnecessary scene that did nothing for the episode which makes her whole “defying the Doctor’s orders” thing a bit useless to be honest.
Mawa: Also, that was SO out of character for the Doctor in general. The 2005-series Doctor has never been so explicitly demeaning towards women. You could see that they were trying to make the scene ever so obviously feminist but it didn’t work for that same reason.
Engie: Exactly! It’s like… they can’t fix the sexist writing with a single quip about how one of the female characters dangled a man out of a window. I feel like the writers were all like, “Take THAT! Our show is Super Feminist!” and that’s just… not how it works? At all? There are deeper, underlying problems regarding how River and Clara, specifically, are treated by the narrative and how, within the past few series, the Doctor has been written as a more and more dismissive character when it comes to his female companions wanting to go on adventures and save the day with him. They don’t want to stay behind and mind the TARDIS! I want to see the writers address that. But instead they make quips about dangling people out of windows and it’s just like… yeah, OK, whatever, that accomplished absolutely nothing.
Engie: Finally, the writers fridged O’Donnell. UGH. WHY. I’m tired of female characters being killed off to further a male character’s story arc, to cause him pain. I’m soooo tired of this. I’m frustrated that when O’Donnell died, we weren’t supposed to feel sorry for her – we were supposed to feel sorry for Bennett, because he was in love with her but had never told her.
Engie: I? Don’t? Care? O’Donnell was curious and enthusiastic and full of excitement. She was – or should have been written as – a person in her own right, not just some guy’s love interest. (Also, I can’t even begin to understand that weird scene at the end – he wanted to bring O’Donnell back from the dead somehow because… why, exactly? He just assumes she’ll love him back? I don’t know. It was all very weird.)
Mawa: I didn’t even ship them – I saw no romantic potential in the previous episode – so it felt extremely forced, to be honest.
Engie: I know, right?! I can see why Cass and Lunn ended up together, because they had an actual friendship in “Under the Lake”! O’Donnell and Bennett didn’t even interact with each other that much. It felt as though the writers went, “Well, we have a man and a woman, so… clearly this is romantic, because how can a man and a woman be just friends?! THERE IS NO OTHER OPTION.”
Engie: Also, here’s a really good, but long, quote from the blog Whovian Feminism! The writers on that site have such a good way of phrasing things – they always explain them better than I can, so I’ll let you see what they have to say!
But their deaths are about more than just losing a potential companion – they’re about more than that lost potential, about their stories being cut short before they could go on the adventures they craved. It’s about how their deaths impact the men.
The way each of the Fisher King’s victims die is actually a really good illustration of how fictional deaths vary and how some fictional women’s deaths become about the story of the men who mourn them.
Prentis is killed by the Fisher King – his death is the conclusion to a story where a cowardly man attempting to survive allows himself to be oppressed repeatedly, until he is finally killed by one of his oppressors.
Moran dies attempting to save his team – his death is the conclusion to a story of a man who spent his life leading and protecting others.
Pritchard dies after foolishly leaving his team and attempting to find the missing energy unit – his death is the conclusion to a story of a man who let his greed trump his caution.
Even the Fisher King’s death is entirely his own story. He killed others, he bent the laws of life and death, and his actions ultimately led to the Doctor killing him.
But O’Donnell’s death is not her own story.
Before her death, her story is of a woman craving adventure. She’s the woman who dangled a military intelligence officer out of a window when he suggested she stay inside for her own protection. She’s the woman who fought ghosts in an underwater base and travelled back in time to save her friends.
And then she’s killed by the Fisher King – and her story starts to shift.
At first she said she followed the Doctor to join in his adventures, and then she suddenly says she followed him to keep an eye on Bennett. The tragedy of her death now is that Bennett is being forced to watch the woman he loves from a distance and is unable to intervene to save her life. It’s about his hopelessness and powerlessness. And in O’Donnell’s final scenes, her death becomes the story of the boy who loved her and waited too late to tell her.
So yeah, they’re targeting the potential companion characters, and those characters happen to be women. But let’s start looking at why they’re being killed, and what story their death is being used to tell.”
Engie: I LOVE CASS. She is my small nerd and I love her very much. And oh my god, that scene in the tunnels when she’s being followed by one of the ghosts? I was FREAKING OUT because he was dragging that ax along, but she couldn’t hear it, obviously, because she’s deaf, and I was just like, “Please, please, PLEASE, turn around and see him, or notice the vibrations in the floor from the ax! Ugh, if the writers don’t go this route, and they fridge her, too, I will be so mad.” But they didn’t, and she did! And I’m so happy!
Engie: I mean, we did get a weird Daredevil-ish scene with, like, outlines of the vibrations depicted on screen, which was… I’m not sure what to think. I’m pretty sure everyone could’ve figured out what she was doing as she was reaching down to touch the floor.
Mawa: Oh, that scene had me biting fingernails, it was so tense! I was just waiting for her to touch the floor or something, but then I was like she’s walking, can’t she feel it under her feet, OH MY DAYS HE’S GOING TO KILL HER – and then she feels it and runs and I’m so happy!
Engie: So… obviously, I was not a fan of some parts of the ending: I wanted Clara to do more, and I didn’t like how the narrative treated O’Donnell, but there were other things that I really DID like. (And some more things that I didn’t!)
Engie: I loved the bit with the hologram!Doctor at the end – that was impressive, and I can’t believe I didn’t see that coming, either, because they’d used a hologram of Clara to trick the ghosts in the previous episode. (Also, somehow I didn’t realize it was the Doctor inside the stasis chamber all along! Now I feel ridiculous!) I also loved the scientific explanation for the ghosts, and the reason why the Fisher King had created those ghosts.
Engie: I didn’t love the explanation at the end, however, because… well, I already mentioned one of the reasons I didn’t like it, but I also just… didn’t like how it broke the “show, don’t tell” rule?
Mawa: I thought the ending was as tacky as the Fisher King’s costume. I did not like it at all, it was so basic and simplified everything into a story of love – when that theme of being too late was never a theme in any of those two episodes until the very end.
Odds & Ends
Engie: THE THEME SONG ON THE ELECTRIC GUITAR, THOUGH. OH MY GOD. Peter Capaldi is such a nerd and I love it.
Mawa: That theme song was a classic, and I just want to listen to it again, and again, and again!
Engie: I thought it was amusing that a Tivolian showed up in this epsiode – I mean, the only other time I remember seeing one – in New Who, anyway – is in “The God Complex,” which was also written by Toby Whithouse? I THINK THAT MAN JUST REALLY LOVES TIVOLIANS. Bless his little geeky heart.
Engie: When my friend and I were watching this episode, she pointed out that both Clara’s outfit and O’Donnell’s scarf were University of Iowa colors. THIS ISN’T REALLY RELEVANT TO OUR DISCUSSION. I JUST THOUGHT IT WAS FUNNY BECAUSE AT THE TIME WE WATCHED IT, IT WAS HOMECOMING WEEK. OMG.
Engie: What did you think of this episode overall?
Mawa: To be honest, this is one of those episodes that made me a bit tired of Doctor Who. I love the show so much – heck, I’ve been raised with it – but it seems like the writing isn’t up to scratch anymore, it’s like they’re really dumbing the whole show down and that makes me so disappointed. However, inclusion of different characters and Toby Whithouse’s “whitty” (haha, pun!) one-liners for the Doctor were hilarious and so it wasn’t that bad.
Engie: There have certainly been worse episodes, but this is probably my least favorite of series nine so far. I loved the actual outwitting-the-Fisher-King aspect of the episode, but I wasn’t happy with the treatment of the women on this show, and there were a LOT of times when I just didn’t understand why the writers made the storytelling decisions that they did. There were moments when the characters didn’t seem very, well, IN CHARACTER – and moments when things were overexplained.
Engie: I think “The Magician’s Apprentice” and “The Witch’s Familiar” worked fairly well as a two-part story, but I think the first and second parts of this story didn’t hold together nearly as well.
Engie: Thank you for reviewing with me!
Mawa: THANKS SO MUCH!
What is YOUR opinion on “Before the Flood”? I’d love to know!