“Who really composed Beethoven’s Fifth?”
oh gods oh gods oh gods
I’m not sure, but I think Doctor Who just went postmodern.
The follow-up to the tightly structured classic-Whoishness of Under the Lake, Before the Flood ties up (if you can call it that) the mysteries of the ghosts’ message, the whereabouts of the ship’s captain, and the entity that lies in the old abandoned church. The episode doesn’t actually seem all that interested in these things, though.
It’s interested in the figure of the Fisher King – not the perfunctory narrative backstory writer Toby Whithouse chooses to give him, but in the mythological imagery that goes along with him: church and flood and powerlessness.
It’s interested in the Bootstrap Paradox, whereby an event in the past causes an event in the future which then causes the event in the past which caused the event in the future (got all that?).
It’s quite interested in the fact that the Doctor can now play the electric guitar and uses it to play a) Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, or, actually, its first few bars (da da da DUM) and b) his own theme tune.
How do these things go together?
Well – they don’t.
Actually, it seems to me that the link – the only link – between them is a kind of artistic fragmentation. The Fisher King is probably best known to the 21st century through T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, a masterpiece of fragmentation (“these fragments I have shored against my ruins”). In that poem (if we want to believe Eliot’s rather cryptic notes, which he later retracted in any case, though I suspect Whithouse doesn’t care too much about that), water restores the Fisher King rather than drowning him as it does in Before the Flood; the fragment is itself inverted and fragmented and divested of cultural meaning. The Doctor’s illustration of the Bootstrap Paradox (spoken to the audience, for reasons) involves the idea that a work of art (Beethoven’s Fifth) can be cut off from temporal and cultural context; that it can literally come from nowhere. And the joke about the electric guitar seems to revolve around the fact that it defamiliarises familiar snatches of culture. I suspect Ron Grainer never expected his theme tune to be played like a Brian May solo; I know Beethoven didn’t.
To take up the question that I’ve been asking all series, then: “What is Doctor Who?”
Under the Lake, we remember, was classic Who. It was something we understood because we’d seen it about a zillion times – a rather silly but rather wonderful story about running around after scary monsters.
Before the Flood is the same thing, only different. For the most part, the mechanics of the episode make absolutely zero sense, at least while you’re watching them. The time loop is impossible to follow. “Why did the ghosts only come out at night?” asks Clara reasonably. The Doctor gabbles something about electromagnetic entities not being in phase; he may just as well have said “because they are ghosts”. These aren’t reasons; they’re retconned plot devices. The Doctor even points this out at one point: “I reverse-engineered the narrative.”
“These fragments I have shored against my ruin.” (Literally: the Doctor changes the narrative so he won’t die.)
Before the Flood, then, quite cleverly hinges upon the nostalgia of Under the Lake to illustrate the thesis that Doctor Who is and has always been a show where people fling bits of popular culture at the wall and see what sticks. Doctor Who, Whithouse thinks, is quintessentially a postmodern creation: a thing which creates narrative out of fragment, which takes the flotsam and jetsam of modernity and makes it (however precariously) into an edifice of story. It retcons myths and legends to make the plot go. It helps us make sense of chaos.
Personally, I think this is probably an overly generous reading to lay at the feet of such creations as The Talons of Weng-Chiang and The Pirate Planet. But the advantage that Whithouse has, being a writer for the edifice he’s writing about, is that he is always retrospectively changing what Doctor Who is, because he’s creating it. We can say, then, that the work of new Who is exactly the work that Whithouse is ascribing to classic Who: creating out of the randomness and chaos of 60s TV a retconned narrative that helps us make sense of it. And, because what Doctor Who actually is changes with each episode, Whithouse’s theory of Who becomes true even as he writes it.
These fragments the BBC has shored against its ruin.
(It’s not, incidentally, a very good episode. A female character has to die to provide two male characters with a Life Lesson. I formally retract all Feminism Kudos.)
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