Ah, Toby Whithouse. Once a stalwart member of the core “reliable Doctor Who writers” group (like Mark Gatiss, but you know, good). Now a surprisingly polarizing figure of love-it-or-hate-it marmite. When and how did this happen? I’ve said that Whithouse has yet to write an episode of Doctor Who that I didn’t like, and that’s still largely true. “Under the Lake” & “Before the Flood” may be my least favorite of his episodes yet, but that’s not saying much as I have pretty positive feelings towards all of the others.
So what’s going on this year? I’ve seen it said that those who didn’t like series 8 are loving series 9 so far, and vice versa. Blogtor Who declared that no one had a bad word to say for the episodes. According to some, Whithouse apparently “gets” Capaldi’s Doctor in a way others haven’t. On the flipside, another cadre of of fan-academics whose opinions I respect (if not always agree with) seem to have sworn Whithouse off for his lack of creative ideas and traditionalism.
It’s one of those weird cases where the discourse around a particular episode is making it very hard for me to figure out what I think. As usual when things become political and polarized, I find myself somewhere in the middle, sympathizing with everybody and agreeing with nobody. Neither instant classic nor abject failure, I’m left both kind of admiring some potentially envelope-pushing ideas with a surprising lack of follow-through.
Let’s take the Fisher King for example. Before Mssrs. Gilliam & Williams came along, the Fisher King sprang from the Celtic roots of Arthurian legend. First appearing in Chretien de Troyes’ 12th century French romance Perceval, the famously wounded Fisher King is associated with the quest for the Holy Grail (he serves as the Grail’s guardian) and the fabled Waste Land. The legend goes that the fertility of a kingdom is derived from its king, and so his woundedness reflects and even causes the desolation of the landscape.
Now, we do get a sort of waste land in the episodes. The abandoned Cold War training ground on the Scottish heath looks about as barren and uninviting as you can get. But beyond that (and the relationship to water which the word “fisher” implies) I’m not sure what to make of the Fisher King’s significance. It feels like a slightly wasted opportunity, like the invocations of the Magician & the Witch were in the first set. Maybe I’ve been reading too many books on fairy tales lately, but I keep wanting Doctor Who to embrace its magical titles a bit more than it has been lately.
Let’s also take the opening monologue in which the Doctor breaks the fourth wall at considerable length and explains the bootstrap paradox to the audience. Pair with that the unusual structure of pairing a quite linear first episode with a non-linear, timey-wimey second half and I got properly excited at the prospect of the show intentionally going out of its way to break rules and experiment. This is of course more than a little undermined by the fact that Doctor Who employs the bootstrap paradox on a regular basis, and so it feels slightly silly for Clara to get freaked out by it when she’s already lived through the events of “The Name of the Doctor.” Isn’t that what makes her the Impossible Girl, after all? That’s why he calls her impossible!
Clara: But this is what I’ve already done. You’ve already seen me do it.
So where the story promises to be daring, it’s unfortunately not.
Now, before this gets too one-sided, there were several moments which redeem the story. The inclusion of the deaf character Cass is an obvious plus, and in particular the moment in “Before the Flood” when she’s stalked in the hallway by the ghost dragging the axe across the floor. This is a genuinely scary moment which relies on our being aware of a noise which she isn’t, evoking horror films like Wait Until Dark (in which a blind Audrey Hepburn is stalked by intruders which we can see but she can’t). I loved the cutting between the horrible scraping of the axe and her own perfectly-quiet POV. And yet, it doesn’t all become about her disadvantage because it’s her feeling the floor for vibrations that allows her to duck the axe and escape at the last moment. The use of the camera and visual cues to convey all of this was quite well done.
There are also some interesting character moments, particularly with furthering Clara’s increasingly bizarre story. Her emotional cue cards are clearly the big moment, indicating a kind of phoning-in of the traditional companion role as the Doctor’s conscience. Then there’s the great reversal, in which he (unsettled by her increasing alienation) awkwardly tries to act as her conscience.
Doctor: I just felt that I, I had to say something.
Clara: I know, and I appreciated it.
Doctor: Because I’ve got a duty of care.
Clara: Which you take very seriously, I know.
Doctor: So can I stop now?
Clara: Please. Please do.
Finally, there’s the startlingly honest moment when she tells the Doctor not to die:
Clara: Not with me! Die with whoever comes after me. You do not leave me.
From Clara the bossy control-freak who creates and image of perfection for those around her, this is a pretty raw glimpse of selfishness, but one that feels true and perfectly relatable. Reluctant though we might be to admit it, we all want to push the consequences off onto the next day, the next adventure, the next person. In this way, Clara’s embracing of her own selfishness actually feels like progression for the character.
Finally, with all of the ghosts and lost love in this episode, Danny’s ghost is certainly hovering around in spirit if not invoked outright. Clara’s painful admission in “In the Forest of the Night” that she “doesn’t want to be the last of [her] kind” seems interesting in light of her consoling words to Bennett that in the face of loss he should “keep going”:
You have to. Take it from me, there’s a whole world out there. A galaxy, a life.
The woman who keeps running, never looking back because she dare not out of shame? I’m not sure, just some food for thought.
Next time: Maisie Williams. Vikings. The return of Jamie Mathieson and the first episode by Catherine Tregenna. Ohmygodohmygodohmygod. Permission to squee.