Doctor Who #956: Flatline

"You were an exceptional Doctor, Clara. Goodness had nothing to do with it."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Oct.18 2014.

IN THIS ONE... Attack of the two-dimensional aliens while the Doctor is trapped inside a shrunken TARDIS.

REVIEW: New writer Jamie Mathieson has just had two fantastic ideas produced in a row, Mummy on the Orient Express and this. No, wait, THREE fantastic ideas, because Flatline features two ideas that could have worked separately, but he combined them to make the episode even more fun and incredible to look at. I'm not one to care all that much about special effects, but these are indeed "special". On the one hand, the two-dimensional aliens who can flatten things and people (that sofa sequence was indeed worthy of being shown twice) before they learn to become graffiti zombies ("wearing the dead" is certainly a motif this season). So unusual and even painterly. The "Boneless" made for excellent enemies. The idea shares a strand of DNA with Fear Her, except it's not complete bollocks, you know? And on the OTHER hand, we have the TARDIS shell leached of its dimensions, and the Doctor trapped behind a door now too small for him - just a face in box, or a hand crawling the ship to safety - it's crazy and awesome. These two problems are almost too much for our heroes, and they keep failing, staving off destruction until the next cliffhanger moment. It's quite exciting and urgent.

But what this twin dilemma actually does is force Clara to act as the Doctor's proxy, which is what we've been moving towards for a number of episodes now. Her taking on the role, even if he can talk to her (though the solution is all her, with the help of an artist; how often does art figure into Whovian solutions, as opposed to science or, uhm, the power of love?), gives her the chance to deconstruct the Doctor for us. Sometimes it's done in fun, and she takes pleasure mocking the show's tropes. Sometimes it's dead serious, and she assumes those attributes and ways of working she identifies with the Doctor as a coping mechanism. She recruits a companion, she gives the people hope, she shuts down the one man without imagination (amusingly, Fenton can't even make psychic paper work for him) who must be how the Doctor sees almost every human, and above all, she lies her head off. The Doctor lies; Clara lies. And at the end, she sweeps the fact that people have died under the rug, because "on balance", some survived and the world was saved. It's the Doctor who's pushed into the role of companion, shocked at Fenton's callousness, and perhaps at Clara's too. Has she learned the wrong lessons? Or has she learned the right ones too well? He thinks she made an exceptional Doctor, not a "good" one, because it's not "goodness" that makes you the Doctor. Well, that's a harsh evaluation from a notorious self-loather, more a comment on himself than on the monster he might have created in Clara. We know he's wrong anyway, because where the Doctor has often inspired someone to sacrifice themselves - call it the "Doctor effect" - and Clara does the same with Rigsy, she refuses to let him go through with it. The fact there's an easier way to accomplish what he's trying to is a factor, of course, but dramatically, it's a different take.

That he can step away from who he is, or from his reflection (Clara), to comment this way is the whole point of the episode. Trapped within ourselves, we're missing that "third dimension" that would allow us to see inside. The Boneless are echoes of this idea. By allowing Clara to become him, he can observe himself and finds what he sees disturbing. Ultimately, he must step back into the role of Doctor, and he does so almost literally with a blazing speech about the Boneless playing the monsters' parts thus summoning him to play his own, their opposite number and their destroyer. If it's a role - a mantle - could it be played by someone like Clara? There's a thread running in Season 8 that seems to test the waters for a female Doctor, and if Jenna Coleman, who DOESN'T have the casting for it, can pull it off, we could see an actress cast in the part when Capaldi has done his tour of duty. In fact, I'm CONVINCED of it.

THEORIES: The Doctor hacks Clara's visual cortex in this episode so he can see through her eyes. Then we see Missy, and she's looking at what might very well be the Doctor's POV on an iPad. Has the hacker been hacked? And is this how Missy keeps tabs on the Doctor? We're just a couple of episodes away from my exploring this issue fully. But now's not quite the time.

REWATCHABILITY: High - Incredible effects and clever ideas are just cherries on the sunday. A great episode for Clara and a fine audition for the concept of a female Doctor. Funny, exciting, insightful.


Anonymous said...

I say the Doctor made his comment about being "good" because "goodness" really didn't have anything to do with it. When you're fighting for survival, good doesn't much enter the picture.

Which is of course by no means a denunciation of the Doctor, just a statement that, in this particular adventure, "goodness" didn't play a huge part. Sure, the Doctor tried to talk to the Flatsies* rather than jumping to the conclusion that they were monsters, but it wasn't much of an effort or a risk.

*: My horrible new slur for two-dimensional beings.

Ryan Lohner said...

I hope we see much, much more of Jamie Mathieson, with the huge splash he made this season. One other neat thing to note about this episode is that it's the annual "Doctor-lite" story so they could film two episodes at the same time, yet done in a much more subtle way than usual. They were able to quickly knock off all the scenes of Capaldi by himself on the TARDIS set, then spend most of the time on Clara's scenes.

I especially love how it perfectly handles the Doctor's desire for pacifism. This can often come off as horribly self-righteous and annoying (Ten in particular had this problem, which is a major reason why I don't care for him as much as apparently every other fan on the planet), but what we see here with him holding on to the possibility as long as he can but finally admitting that these creatures just don't want a peaceful solution is beautiful.

I do have one minor issue with this one, which is that it feels like it was written more for Eleven than Twelve. That's especially clear with the Doctor's big speech to the Boneless, which Capaldi doesn't seem quite comfortable with. Moffat has said he actually hasn't made any writing adjustments in going from Eleven to Twelve and any perceived change is down to the actor, but if that's really the case than this is the one time it's really become apparent.

LiamKav said...

"Moffat has said he actually hasn't made any writing adjustments in going from Eleven to Twelve and any perceived change is down to the actor, but if that's really the case than this is the one time it's really become apparent."

RTD said the same thing going from 9 to 10. I'm not sure I buy it here, though. 9 was often grumpy, but could be manic as well. 11 and 12 though seem much more different than each other. If nothing else, I can't see Matt Smith doing all the cruel complimentsults than Capaldi does so well ("You look nice. Have you had a wash?")

Anonymous said...

Heh, the Doctor is the ultimate PUA.

Paul C said...

I'm warming to the idea of a female Doctor and this series has played a big part in it, so I definitely think you're on to something. I'm terrified Moff will make the Doctor one of his flirty, bollocks-talking female characters (River, Vastra etc), but if how he's handled Clara (and all the other female characters) this series is any indication then he should actually do a good job of it.


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