When 14 episodes of Doctor Who per year were going to be too much for any lead actor to cope with, the Doctor-lite episode was invented, one that would include the Doctor but only to a limited degree, often allowing the companion to take centre stage. For Capaldi’s era we get 13 a year instead of 14, but the tradition of the Doctor-lite still continues. It’s just that you wouldn’t really notice this time round because Jamie Mathieson works with fewer scenes with the Doctor so brilliantly. Also, the series has been building up to something like this, with Clara’s role constantly challenged and re-worked. We are still building up to something, but this is the moment where Clara’s ability to be Doctor-ish is really explored, but the key point is the question of whether she should be Doctor-ish in any case. The answer to that, of course is a resounding “no”.
There are two big moments in the episode that drive this home, and you could be forgiven for missing the first one because it’s reasonably subtle. Clara’s relationship with the Doctor is platonic but it is still being painted as an affair, with her lying to both Danny and the Doctor. And she’s getting really good at lying. Leaving aside how Danny back-develops as a character, failing to react in the way that he should to her obvious lies and then dropping out of the story, the important moment is the Doctor praising Clara for her lying skills because it is an important survival skill. But here’s the thing: it’s not an important relationship skill or friendship skill. So to become like the Doctor, Clara has to sacrifice normal human relationships, just like the Doctor does, and substitute them out for a version of them that is a bit warped. Secondly, we get this conversation when Clara spectacularly fails to develop as a character (the one big failing of the script: it goes nowhere in this respect) and is still obsessed with an egotistical need to validate her worth in terms of being like the Doctor:
Clara: Come on, why can’t you say it? I was the Doctor and I was good.
Doctor: You were an exceptional Doctor, Clara.
Clara: Thank you.
Doctor: Goodness had nothing to do with it.
Rightly or wrongly, this is a series where the Doctor has been struggling with the question of whether he is a “good man” (wrongly, by the way). He doesn’t actually need another Doctor in the TARDIS. What he needs is a moral compass. That was the point of what he attempted in Kill the Moon. He needs Clara to fulfil the same role as Amy did in The Beast Below, and he tried to force her into that role. Every attempt to shape her into the kind of companion he needs results in her moving in the opposite direction, and he knows it’s going to get her killed if it continues. He can’t truly be the Doctor when Clara is around, because Doctor Who is not about two Doctors travelling around together. It hasn’t been that since the Doctor was travelling with Romana, and in those days he didn’t need a moral compass because he actually had one of his own. To be the version of the Doctor we want him to be, the Twelfth Doctor needs a Rose, or an Amy, or a Donna. Somebody to tell him when to stop. Somebody who can bring him back to some kind of a shred of humanity. And here he just gives up and lets her be the Doctor. The series is missing a vital ingredient, and it’s not going to find it again until Clara has gone.
We have talked a lot about Clara lately, and particularly for this episode that’s unavoidable because it’s supposed to be her being the Doctor, but there is more going on. The Doctor doesn’t get usurped completely and still gets his big heroic moments, even getting a little knock on the fourth wall by defining his role for the viewers:
I tried to reach out, I tried to understand you, but I think that you understand us perfectly. And I think that you just don’t care! And I don’t know whether you are here to invade, infiltrate or just replace us. I don’t suppose it really matters now, you are monsters! That is the role you seem determined to play, so it seems that I must play mine! The man that stops the monsters!
The “trying to understand” bit is just as important as the “stopping the monsters”. Because he has to be fair to his enemies in that way, it might seem like the Doctor is a bit slow to grasp what the viewers can see here, that these are two-dimensional creatures in more ways than one: their motivations are two-dimensional as well. They work like a psychological horror movie insidious evil, never speaking and finding non-verbal ways to threaten and taunt their victims (their response to the Doctor’s pi sequence). It’s all about exploiting the fear of the unknown, the enemy within and then of course there is a lot of body horror, in a reasonably Doctor Who family friendly way. For the second episode in a row, this is Jamie Mathieson writing Doctor Who as a horror movie, and it’s superb.
The way Doctor Who gets away with being a horror movie that children can watch is by balancing it with humour and absurdity. Only Doctor Who could make us believe in the sight of a hand in a box walking away from the path of a train, and have this as a big dramatic moment that is simultaneously hilarious. It took a while to get here, but Mathieson has finally given us two magnificent Twelfth Doctor episodes in a row. It’s just a shame that the Doctor doesn’t actually have a companion any more. He has another Doctor instead. RP
The view from across the pond:
You are monsters. That is the role you seem determined to play, so it seems I must play mine: the man that stops the monsters!
Doctor Who is many things but at its core it’s the story of a man who explores the universe and saves people. He puts his own life on the line for the sake of others and stands for those who cannot stand for themselves. There’s something almost biblical about that. Unfortunately, most of Capaldi’s era has lost sight of it. Instead, we find a guy who has someone else do the caring for him, remains aloof at the death of others, and abandons his friend when she has to make a major life or death decision. Even his final dialogue in Mummy on the Orient Express is cryptically vague when Clara asks if he was just pretending to be heartless. (He says “would you like to think that of me?” which is curiously vague on what “that” is: that he’s heartless or that he was pretending?) And this is a damned odd choice for the writers to make the star of the show.
But then Flatline comes along and defines him. He attempts to communicate with this new life form but failing that, he is willing to take action. The Boneless (as he names them) are malevolent so he intervenes with that great line, above. It’s an intensely triumphant victory, coupled with some truly epic music. It’s a victory for the Doctor as those he saved are awed and grateful! Well, all but Fenton who, having never gotten over his encounter with “the Bat” (Batman, 1989), is pretty annoyed by the whole ordeal. Sadly that cynicism is unpleasantly modern; he probably embodies more of the audience than I care to admit. I hope I’m wrong. But that begs the age-old question: what is the show’s target audience? (More on that over the weekends!)
What also makes that line so interesting is the use of the word “monsters”. I typically don’t like it because there’s something pejorative about it. It speaks more to the “monster of the week” image of having some creature on the screen rather than an alien life form with its own motivations. But in this episode, I’d argue that he uses the word correctly; he calls them monsters not because of their look, but because of their actions. And that’s what makes Doctor Who a show that should always have a character that our kids could look up to. It’s not about appearances; they can be deceiving. It’s about the actions taken by others and being willing to “fight the monsters”. In that moment the Doctor stands for something again and it’s aspirational.
While this season has been all over the map, I believe this episode was an astounding success. It’s “new” in a way we have not seen before. Or at least not since Flatland or 1964’s Outer Limites: Behold, Eck! Unlike Eck, these two-dimensional beings are curious about us and dissect us to understand what they are dealing with. They cannot be reasoned with because three-dimensional beings are beyond their scope, not unlike the way we dissect lesser lifeforms to gain better understanding of them. There’s no way to fight it. We simply can’t beat them if not for the Doctor. For a change, New Who remembers that the Doctor is the title character and makes him count!
The only downside is that the “New Who” need to give the companion center stage is still present. Clara ends up playing the part of the Doctor through most of the episode, which is a brilliant strategy for keeping the Doctor on the sidelines until he’s needed to save the day but it again takes the main character and makes him unimportant. On top of that, it shows Clara trying to be the Doctor and picking up all his worst traits. He lies, manipulates, and cheats and so does Clara. Worse, she’s proud of it! And the Doctor sees the unfortunate parallel: she gets his worst qualities but none of his good ones. Which seems to be where Moffat brought the show ever since that stupid axiom, “The Doctor lies.” Great job, Moffat. If that’s what you’re teaching your kids, they will live very unhappy lives but I want better for mine and all the generations that could start watching the show. I want to see Doctor Who outlive all other shows, but if the creative powers behind Doctor Who lose sight of the character, what will be the point?
Overall, I still see Flatline as a victory for the season; it’s one of the best. But Clara’s attempt to mirror the Doctor falls flat. And I draw a line at having a hero without heroic qualities… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… In the Forest of the Night