WARNING: The following review will contain spoilers for “Before the Food,” because there’s little way to discuss it without talking about the plot. We advise that you please watch the episode prior to reading.
My gosh, this series is already shaping up to be one of my favorites. Who’d have expected an episode about underwater ghosts to have a second part all about fate and paradoxes and being your own grandfather? I didn’t, but I should have. Or, more accurately, since it’s Doctor Who, I should have expected the unexpected. Toby Whithouse turns in easily my favorite story to date from him with these two episodes. Huge winners. But, enough of general gushing (*salute* General Gushing!) – Let’s dive in…haha…to “Before the Flood.”
When I was in college, I took a class called Playscript Analysis, and the big thing we learned there is that if you read a story front to back, you understand the what, but if you read it back to front you understand the why. Last week’s “Under the Lake” set up the whats very nicely; we (and the Doctor, of course) figured out that the lake used to be a military test village but got flooded, that there was some weird alien craft under the water, that the craft contained a stasis chamber, and that there were words etched into the wall of the mostly-empty ship. We also discovered pretty quickly that there were ghosts without eyes which were trying to kill the others in order to amplify a radio signal to…someone. And we cliffhangered with the Doctor having gone back in time to figure out what happened only for Clara to see his ghost appearing as well.
Those are all the whats, now in “Before the Flood,” we learned the whys, and also the hows. What I think I love the most about this episode is that it tells you the answer in the cold open. In what is a totally unique moment, the Doctor is talking only to us, for the purposes of making us think, and he tells us about the “Bootstrap Paradox,” which is the fundamental part of a Causal Loop. We’ve seen causal loops in the series before, in “The Big Bang” when Amy awakens from the Pandorica with the sonic screwdriver which she gives back to the Doctor who then goes back in time and has Rory put the sonic screwdriver in Amy’s pocket. He only knew to do that because it had already happened. It’s a paradox, and it’s one of the most fun parts of time travel theory. Here, the Doctor tells us about Ludwig van Beethoven, and what if a time traveler made “Beethoven” the person happen simply because he was already a fan of Beethoven’s music? Then who actually wrote the Fifth Symphony? Did anyone?
So, in this episode, all of the information we and the characters receive comes from the Doctor’s ghost – the fact that he is a ghost and that he’s listing names in a particular order (Moran, Pritchard, Prentis, O’Donnell, Clara, Doctor, Bennet, Cass) before switching to saying the chamber will open at a specific time. If we once again remember that the Doctor always goes into every situation thinking he’s going to win, it makes perfect sense for him to eventually realize he’s the one who set these things in motion, allowing himself to be locked in suspended animation in the stasis pod for 150 years. The Fisher King was already dead, but nobody in the underwater base knew that. But, like the paradox says, he only knew to do that because he’d seen the results; he reverse-engineered the narrative, which is exactly what Whithouse did. Is it a cop-out? Is it cutesy clever? A little bit, but who cares when it works this well?
The Fisher King had three people playing him, which is sort of silly. Neil Fingleton is the man in the costume, the hilarious and great Peter Serafinowicz was the voice, and Slipknot singer Corey Taylor provided the roar. You know, the roar that I thought was just some kind of audio effect. Good thing they got recording artist Corey Taylor to provide that distinctive noise, huh?
Beyond the story, which I’ll probably be unpacking for a while, there was a surprising amount of character interplay. The story of Bennet and O’Donnell, which it was hinted at in the last episode she had an adorable crush on him, ended up pretty tragic, with her being the episode’s lone sacrificial lamb. The Doctor gets called out by Bennet for using her to test his theory about the order of people dying, which once we know the ending, that the Doctor is the one who programmed everything the hologram ghost would say, is a pretty dick move. But, O’Donnell had to die. I think the episode’s only cheat is that her ghost only shows up once we know she died, and there’s never any explanation for that. I can overlook it, but it made me cock my head slightly.
Similarly, there’s the romance between Cass and Lunn, who at no point ever was allowed to look at the words, making him effectively safe. Not that Cass thinks that’s worth risking his life for it, of course. Cass clearly has affection for Lunn because she never let him go in the ship, even though everybody else went in. She’s the reason he was kept safe. I had wondered if she somehow knew what was happening and chose to keep him out of it, but she didn’t; she just loved him is all. Aww. Also, the scene where Cass is walking down the corridor and obviously can’t hear Moran dragging the ax behind her but is able to feel the vibrations was pretty cool, if a little Daredevil-ish.
And we have a nice moment between the Doctor and Clara, where we get a sense that Clara truly has completely allowed herself to be absorbed in the Doctor’s world, and she probably needs to keep traveling with him to get over whatever loss she’s feeling (I sort of doubt she’s ALL THAT hung up on Danny still, but it might be that) and the idea of losing the Doctor too is too much for her to take. He owes her staying alive. She seems, I don’t want to say desperate, but let’s call it determined to keep traveling with the Doctor. Once again, I feel like something’s really gonna break here and I’m not excited for it.
And finally, we got a hint at what might be this series’ big arc in a throwaway line from O’Donnell. When the Doctor tells her they’ve landed in 1980, she says it’s before Harold Saxon, and lists a couple of other things, one of which is the Minister of War. The Doctor doesn’t know what that means but he says “I expect I’ll find out soon enough.” Oh boy! There’s a bad guy named.
“Before the Flood” is an awesome little sci-fi, time travel paradox story and coupled with “Under the Lake” makes two separate two-parters in a row where the second part in no way diminished from the first. In fact, I think it enhanced it. One part was a ghost story, the second was a paradox. They have very little to do with each other tonally and yet they fit together perfectly. That’s exactly what you have to do to keep a season full of two-parters nice and fresh.
And next week, we get the first episode to feature Game of Thrones‘ Maisie Williams, “The Girl Who Died,” written by Jamie Mathieson and Steven Moffat and directed by Ed Bazalgette. She looks just like a regular old peasant girl, so it’ll be interesting to see how everything plays out with her in the episode thereafter. But that’s next time. Go listen to shredding guitar Beethoven (and the Doctor Who theme for that matter).
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor, a film and TV critic, and the resident Whovian for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!