Doctor Who Series 9: A Change of Bootstraps

Doctor Who Series 9 Under the Lake and Before the Flood
“Well on the plus side, at least he doesn’t need those sonic sunglasses any more…”

The second of a series of essays inspired by the stories of Doctor Who Series Nine, it’s time to take on the waters of time with Under the Lake and Before the Flood. Headache inducing, but reassuringly unexhaustive in this timeline.

“There’s nothing more ironic than an unfinished requiem”

AFTER THE LEGACY-SERVING ROMP OF STEVEN MOFFAT’S TWO-PART DALEK PREMIERE THE RELIABLE HANDS OF TOBY WHITHOUSE BROUGHT US A CLASSIC STORY THAT MANAGED TO MARRY CLAUSTROPHOBIA WITH THE EXPANSE OF TIME. It was almost a story of two parts, but not quite. Below the Lake and Before the Flood were linked by an internal logic in almost as distinctive in New Who as the episodes’ striking locations. Depending on how you looked at it, Before the Flood could be set in the past with flash-forwards or the other way round. But while cause and effect was at the forefront of the episode, and crucial to the resolution, the mystery of the first part was only pushed a little further back rather than pushed out he way.

As is always the risk, the least surprising part of this story was that things weren’t quite what they seemed. But how could it be when the Doctor had been so certain that he was dealing with ghosts? His previous younger and more excitable selves hadn’t been blown away in Army of Ghosts or Hide.

It was a jam packed story. The Jörmungandr Norse mural was writing on the wall in its true sense. A portent as the affectionately Star Trek uniformed characters set sea against a storm of a big dragon like, red faced monster. Norse mythology will continue its running theme throughout this series next week… And while there were franchise scrambling references to Star Wars as well as Star Trek on the way, the real paradox was classical and physical.

Yes, In this case the bootstraps were pulled from the feet of the Doctor, Clara, us, and poor old Ludwig Van Beethoven. We weren’t expecting that at the end of Under the Lake. Nor maybe a talking to…

Physics lesson

Of course those bootstraps belong to a paradox, as we were immediately informed in the second part’s opening lecture… I suppose it started with Listen. The Doctor popping up ambiguously address the audience directly, like good old Bob Ballard showing up at the end of an episode of SeaQuest DSV. If only Tom Baker had thought of that instead of a talking cabbage for a companion in the mid-1970s. Then again, while it’s effective it’s a horrible short-cut of an expository plot device that can’t help undermine what’s otherwise a clever little story. We may not have to worry about over indulgent catchphrases at the moment, but that will hopefully be kept on a short leash. Or we’ll find that all this time there’s been someone else aboard the TARDIS…

The collective noun for paradoxes

Familiar to Doctor Who fans…

So what was the Doctor explaining? One among a number of different posited temporal paradoxes. A familiar one is the grandfather paradox, postulated by writer Nathaniel Schachner in Ancestral Voices in 1933. There the easy logic is that a time traveller cannot venture back in time and kill his grandfather at a point before the time traveller’s existence is guaranteed. To do so would eliminate the possibility of the time traveller existing in the first place, so would eliminate his actions in the past… Only to ensure the grandfather existed so the time traveller could in fact attempt it. And so that spirals on. It can’t help but appear a rather banally biological and very human approach to temporal physics.  It also conjures up other issues. Even if the time traveller attempted the same after his bloodline was secure, he wouldn’t be able to alter anything that would prevent his travelling back in the future. For instance a badly injured grandfather with years of in-built aggression against a homicidal grandson – or one who withdraws his science funding. All grandfathers should be prepared to do that. See Ray Bradbury’s marvellous Sound of Thunder for an alteration that leaves a time traveller acutely aware of the horrifically minor changes resulting from his mistakes in the past.

The Novikov self-consistency principle expands on paradox this by suggesting that any attempt to travel back in time would (only be possible if it were/already be) part of past events. For instance, you may travel back, but you’d be ‘physically’ incapable of killing your grandfather. Perhaps the bullets would never leave the gun, perhaps you’d be unable to pull the trigger or perhaps a giant Acme weight would fall on you. The time line takes care of everything, so there’s no nasty paradox to screw up the future. That idea of becoming part of events is one very familiar to Doctor Who fans.

Multiverses and evolutionary puzzles

Another way paradox creation is the slightly more tiring and energetic solution of parallel universes, where each action causes a different timeline to branch off from specific different points. A paradox then wouldn’t be possible, as contrary points would exist in different realities. That seems to be the current tack of the increasingly convoluted Terminator franchise.

An interesting side note of the grandfather paradox is the head scratching conundrum of the Temporal Paradox confronting palaeontologists. Where the consensus that birds evolved from dinosaurs is rather scuppered by the fact that the known ancestors of birds… date from a time when birds already existed. Surmised by the gender correcting observation that “you can’t be your own grandmother”. Perhaps that’s the case in fact, but not in fiction.

Ontology and causality

An uncertain point of principle…

For Before the Flood brought us crashing into another intriguing type of paradox, one familiar to the Who universe: the causal loop – the ontological paradox that the Doctor prefers to call the bootstrap paradox and we were pointedly told to ‘Google’. This is the one brought to Hollywood predominantly by The Planet of the Apes. And also the one at the heart of this story, its name derived from Robert Heinlein’s story By His Bootstraps (just to shoehorn another giant of science fiction in there). That fascinating story sees multiple iterations of a man craft his own fate as a man who’s forced to create his multiple iterations. It’s a headache-inducing romp around the implications of time travel.

It’s impossible to be exhaustive about temporal paradoxes because there’s no human experience of them. Yet. It’s difficult to be exhaustive about fictional temporal paradoxes because of the entropy of Time balls and continuity snarls that often creep into them. What can be said is that there’s a great many of them about and understandably they’ve popped up in the world’s longest running science fiction show. What’s extraordinary is that they’re relatively rare in the run of the Classic Series while they’ve become far more frequent in the New Series. Or perhaps not, in a universe as we are without Time Lords or higher time sensitives. While the Lords of Time seem immune to the effects of paradoxes, it’s possible that like some other quantum concepts things were far more regulated before the Great Time War because of the act of observation. That’s an uncertain point of principle.

Classic problems

Enter the Blinovitch Limitation Effect…

A whole nine years into the Classic Series run, Day of the Daleks was the first serial not only acknowledge paradox in time travel but build a plot around it. Awarded a certain nostalgia among Whovians thanks to its striking story, its early release on VHS and a Louis Marks script lacking the rather old fashioned hooks of Terry Nation stories, including Planet of the Daleks and Death to the Daleks that followed it. Day of the Daleks confronts the grandfather paradox, where a group of human guerrilla rebels travel to the past (our contemporary) to assassinate generic Third Doctor-era Knight of the Realm Sir Reginald Styles who both organised and, they presume, blew up a conference that created their dystopian future. In the end, their intervention is revealed to be the real cause of the explosion they were seeking to avert, although thanks to their presence in the past, the delegates are evacuated and World War III averted. We hope. Foreshadowing the spectres of Under the Lake these time travellers are at fist considered suggested to be ghosts.

Rather brilliantly Day introduced the Blinovitch Limitation Effect. That wondrous law of time that the Time Lords deigned not to give a name which became a by-word for all manner of time limitations that a script required. In Day of the Daleks it’s the reason that guerrillas can’t endlessly travel back to assassinate Sir Reginald once they’d already failed. Roughly akin to confirming the Novikov self-consistency principle and with a similar smoothing effect on the story. A couple of years later the Third Doctor would state that the BLE “tends to limit research into time travel,” but it’s already looking far more like a script limitation effect.

By the time of Mawdryn Undead in 1982, the Blinovitch Limitation Effect is a rule that threatens to shorten the time differential if two people or items from two different time streams are brought into contact with each other. If that happens the energy discharge will either blow a hole in the universe or, as it does with the Brigadier, knock the subject out and give them a good dose of amnesia.

The Target novelisation of Invasion of the Dinosaurs described Blinovitch as a “great bear of a man from Russia” and he’s proved to exist in the New Who universe as someone Series Eight’s temporary time sick traveller Courtney Woods would later meet (Kill the Moon – possibly due to her laughably becoming President of the United States).

By the time of Father’s Day in 2005, the BLE doesn’t deserve a mention; we’re in a new world of people able to interact with and even touch other versions of themselves.

A part of events

Caught in a causal loop…

A few years and one Doctor after Day of the Daleks, Pyramids of Mars had a short hand to expand the dangers of the TARDIS’ travels in time. This time the travellers are caught in a causal loop, under the confident storytelling of Robert Holmes. Companion Sarah Jane understandably suggests to the Doctor that they needn’t worry about the events of 1911 as she’d grown up in a future world that showed no ill effect. One chilling leap forward to 1980 shows that the time travellers have already become part of events, or need to be, to allowing the 1980s that Sarah Jane knows to exist. She would have trouble driving her Austin, MG or Nissan around in that desolate wasteland of Sutekhian devastation. “The actions of the present fashion the future” as the Doctor simply but sternly puts it. It’s surely no coincidence that 1980, one of the greatest years of all time in this writer’s opinion, is the pivotal year in Before the Flood.

A new outlook

The long way round…

Yes, the idea of becoming a part of events is a key part of the New Series. Since 2009’s Waters of Mars fixed and flexible time has been a movable feast depending on the writer, but we’ve seen paradox by the boot load since the show’s return in 2005.

By Series Three, the show’s longest paradox crossed The Sound of Drums and the Last of the Time Lords where even the Master had to convert the universe’s last TARDIS into a Paradox Machine (that means new lighting) to enable the last of humanity come back to the 21st century to kill their ancestors and steal the Earth. That’s a similar idea to the role of the evolutionary vampire Haemovores returning to the 20th century in The Curse of Fenric, but with a less mystical fuel. It pays to keep those Nordic references rolling during Series Nine.

Earlier, The Parting of the Ways and The Girl in the Fireplace found the Doctor explicitly stating that he had become part of events – “Stuck in the time line” as the Ninth Doctor eloquently put it; so far so fixed in a causal loop. While the time travel of The Girl in the Fireplace saw the Doctor seriously consider taking the long way round, the Doctor of Before the Flood is able to opt for the slightly less long way round to get to his right point.

The prime exploratory of the bootstrap paradox is show-runner Steven Moffat himself. It formed the crux of his brilliant time-crunching two Doctor pile up Time Crash in 2007, a mash-up that even used the time differential to explain away the Fifth Doctor’s older appearance. There, the crux of the plot rests on one version of the Doctor remembering the actions of his previous self. …

Moffat’s sublime Blink similarly involves one time period influencing and creating another in order to combat a monster that itself lives on time. The Weeping Angels were fuelled by the creation of paradoxes, but by the time their MO had been expanded to the creation of farms in the Angels take Manhattan that sort of paradox and their welcome has been stretched to breaking point.

The less said about his twee exploration of in Space/Time, where multiple versions of the TARDIS crew from minutely separated time lines find themselves in the TARDIS porch, the better. But what those 2011 charity shorts did prove was that time was very much on the agenda.

The Timey-Wimiest

The worst abuser of time…

Time, if it isn’t altered, may pull the twelfth Doctor into the same causal nexus, but as it stands it’s his predecessor the Eleventh Doctor who takes the Jammy Dodger as the worst abuser of time.

The backbone of Series Six was the knowledge of the Doctor’s death, a fate he knows he can’t escape just as he does in Before the Flood. That series tussled with cause and effect, with the most interesting aspects arising from the idea of pre-determinism once the Doctor had accidentally become aware in one Under the Lake’s significant precursors. Right at the start of arc, there’s a throwaway nod to the grandfather paradox. We don’t see the bullets, but River’s inability to shoot the assassin we discover is her (and therefore stop herself being there to shoot herself in the first place) is clear. “Of course not” as she succinctly puts it. The Doctor’s method of cheating of death come the finale was pure nonsense in comparison to that logic.

Series Six’s The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People formed the last two-parter until Series Eight’s finale some three years later. It came in the a string of episodes that (bar the indiscretions of The Black Pearl) formed might lay a claim to being the resurgent Doctor Who’s strongest stretch were Series Nine not nipping at its ankles already. Until Under the Lake it was also the show’s last two-parter in the classic base under siege mould. That trope began way back in the First Doctor’s Final adventure The Tenth Planet and became synonymous with the show under the tenure of his successor in the late 1960s. But while The Rebel Flesh kept the siege story running across its two episodes, Whithouse’s developed the concept retaining but lightening the siege aspect while drawing in paradox and unexpectedly a main theme of love and lost opportunity.  While in 2011 there was the social commentary of the two types of being and ensuing body horror, in 2015 there were two types and, death and time.

Cheating the Pandorica

By pulling on his own bootstraps of course…

And before that paradox, there was the show’s most extravagant exploration (or misuse depending on your perspective) of the bootstrap paradox. Unlike the way that Whithouse’s intriguing two‑parter was woven together, Series Five’s a finale had two distinct parts. Over a killer of a cliff-hanger, the mysterious, creeping and effective set-up of Roman Britain and the Underhenge in The Pandorica Opens was lost for the nonsense time romp and physical comedy of The Big Bang. A totally different location and wildly differing style. How did the Doctor cheat his fate and avoid the mythical Pandorica? By pulling on his own bootstraps of course. His future self simply unravelled the trap so that he would be able to exist in the future to make sure that happened. Quite why he felt the need to do that so soon when he could have simply ravelled the universe indefinitely and a certain invulnerability thanks to the self-consistency principle isn’t clear… Apart from the universe ending destruction of the TARDIS that conveniently took place at the same time. Cue some horrid comedy and tricky sleights of hand, mop and fez.

All makes you rather think that the Doctor didn’t need to patronise us at all at the star of Before the Flood. Although his electric rendition of the theme tune forgives him everything. Talking of which, why Beethoven?

The Fifth Symphony

“I’ve met Beethoven. Nice Chap. Very intense. Enjoyed an arm wrestle”

Various historical figures have been used as the subjects of the theoretical exploration of time paradox from the great and good of religion and culture to the darkest of human history. The grandfather paradox can also go by the name the Hitler paradox. So why Ludwig van Beethoven this time round?  Well, the root could be a neat reference to the Doctor’s expanded universe.

“Great art is just a matter of knowing when to stop, simple as that” – Mozart, My Own Private Wolfgang

Big Finish had made quite an impression in the science of time exploration, pulling out the role of the Time Lords and the effects of their politics and domain. Of particular note are their explorations into that austere possible future Doctor The Valeyard. No one else in the Classic series canon can claim to represent paradox so well. From that rogue’s first appearance in The Trial of a Time Lord through to the Sixth Doctor’s recent swansong in Big Finish’s The Last Adventure, his entire existence is dedicated to it. About getting one over and taking the future lives from his younger self to prolong his own, or so we still think… it’s incredible the Valeyard has been referenced but not so far appeared in Moffat’s Who, he seems ready made for it.

 “Is there anyone in this house who isn’t Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart?”

When it came to Big Finish’s 100th monthly release, Who legend Rob Shearman contributed a time-spinning short to a collection that fell under the banner 100. My Own Private Wolfgang is a comic, headache inducing exploration of paradox. What’s most intriguing about it is that it doesn’t start in our reality but one where Mozart has lived to 100, achieving the ubiquity of Shakespeare while reduced to composing soundtracks that sound like terrible versions of the Doctor Who theme and baking terrible scones. During “Concerto with Firearm” he shoots himself three times in the head, but is naturally unable to kill himself, due to a deal with the devil rather than an obvious grandfather paradox.  It begins as a retelling of Faust before resolving around a bootstrap paradox.

“He gets to go on living, I get to never get born. This way, everybody’s happy”

Masterfully voiced in multiple by John Sessions, this paradox hinged around the completion of his unfinished Requiem comically involves multiple Mozarts in a fine pastiche of the original Heinlein short story that gave the paradox its name. Only brilliantly written from the ‘wrong’ angle. And Heinlein’s is not a story that had been previously missed by the Who production team. The time portals and the fez that the Eleventh Doctor first throws through it are he throws through it in The Day of the Doctor are clear references to the Time Gates and hat in the Bootstrap short.

The serpent of time

Moffat era’s Who has shovelled the ‘it’s a show about time travel’ approach since the start, and for all the storytelling difficulties of its exposition, Before the Lake is easily one of the better examples. There’s even that slightest touch of that greatest of paradoxical blockbusters Back to the Future in the Doctor’s difficult tip-toeing around the past. Only right as that’s the most popular film of ontological paradox piled on top of ontological paradox that there’s ever been (and had already influenced Who, most notably in Moffat’s Blink when a note is mysteriously delivered from the past).

To expand the bootstrap analogy, the Doctor’s solution may seem an adynaton in the literary and software sense, but it fulfils the criteria he sets out. It would have been a terrible lecture had it not.

And while the Nordic imagery, particularly in the premonitory mural we see on the wall of the drum may have other Loki-style tricks to play, it’s clear that this time Jörmungandr is fulfilling his role as the Midgard Serpent of ouroboros in more ways than one.

Jokerside’s Series Nine’s essays will continue on 19 October, after the Vikings have finally shown up …

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