In a season replete with peaks and valleys, “Flatline” was a perfectly enjoyable peak. Perhaps the annual “Doctor-lite” episode was so engaging because it was a “Doctor-lite” episode, following in the footsteps of one-off greats such as “Blink” and “Turn Left” rather than, of course, The Episode That Must Not Be Named. But for a Doctor-lite episode to shine, the plot and/or companion(s) need to step up. Fortunately, writer Jamie Mathieson (also responsible for last week’s “Mummy on the Orient Express”) ensured that both the episode’s Big Bad and Doctor Clara & Co. were up to the task.
The pre-credits opening scene added fuel to the argument that new Who is becoming too scary for kids—the classic show’s intended audience—as a terrified, bearded man in a dark room whispers ominously into a telephone until he disappears, screaming, into the night. Or, well, the wall. Aside from the fear factor, there’s also the detail that kids under 14 would be too hopelessly baffled by the concept of a phone with a cord attached to understand what’s going on anyway.
Clara and the Doctor have presumably just returned from a Unsanctioned-by-Danny Adventure when they notice that the TARDIS door has shrunk. Which leads to the discovery that the entire outward manifestation of the TARDIS has shrunk. Which leads to an episode-long slew of wink-wink “bigger on the inside” jokes that—like the “Are you my mummy?” line in last week’s episode—are somehow predictable and yet hilarious, possibly because both hearken back to familiar and beloved Doctor Who tropes.
The Doctor proceeds to bounce around the diminished circumference of the TARDIS like a tireless puppy, but Grumpy!Clara complains about the “ishness” of the Doctor’s landing coordinates. “Could you not just let me enjoy this moment of not knowing something?” says the Doctor. “I mean it happens so rarely…” After this line, I knocked off my Whimsy hat and drew on some Attack Eyebrows. Because…really? How many times in recent episodes has the Doctor explicitly stated that he “hates not knowing”? Is this lazy writing or bipolar characterization or intended dissonance or what? Perhaps I’ve been seesawing so violently with regards to my opinion on this season because the season itself has been seesawing with regards to how it wants us to view the characters. Is this Doctor the type who hates not knowing or delights in not knowing? Is this Doctor the type who gives alien creatures the benefit of the doubt or assumes that they’re all “pudding brains”? Is this Doctor the type who is perfectly comfortable jabbering aloud to himself in the TARDIS, or does he need Clara’s companionship? Already I’m cringing at my use of the word “type,” because I hate putting people into boxes. We all contain multitudes; we are complex and multilayered and hella paradoxical. One-dimensional characters (if you’ll forgive the relevant pun) are not compelling because people don’t exist like that. But on the flip side, there are basic standards for characterization that suggest that characters must at least be recognizable. Even if their most identifiable trait is their fickleness.
But to have characters that contain blatantly contradicting traits makes no sense. It turns them into two-dimensional characters equal only to the sum of their parts, rather than three-dimensional characters who grow and develop.
And then we have, of course, the overarching character-based question that was established back in “Deep Breath”: Is the Doctor a “good” man?
The reason this question fails as a season-long tension-builder is because it should be rhetorical. In my mind, there is absolutely no doubt about the Doctor being “good.” He may even be Goodness Incarnate. That’s how much I believe in the ideal that is The Doctor. He is not a jaded, quasi-ludicrous, post-9/11 anti-hero. He is a hero. Plain and simple. The only mystery is in the details—what kind of a good man is he? Will he perform a goofy victory dance in front of other sentient beings, or only while alone?
With the Doctor cooped up in his quickly shrinking TARDIS, Clara is obliged to run point on the investigation for this episode. A quick jaunt to a local underpass leads her cross paths with Rigsy, a local street artist whose character tips a baseball cap to the real-life Bristol-born graffiti artist called Banksy. Joivan Wade is no Carey Mulligan, but his Rigsy certainly comes close to achieving Sally Sparrow status as a Doctor-lite episode character who steals the show. Over a span of a mere 45 minutes, both characters blossomed more than certain characters who have been around for ages. Cough cough.
Rigsy is charmingly coy with Clara during their first interactions, while he also provides some necessary Background Exposition. People have been disappearing. No one knows how or why. Look at these portraits of the missing people lined up along the cement walls of the underpass which will totally be used a plot device later on.
Clara hurries off to inform the Doctor of her findings, only to discover that the TARDIS has miniaturized even more. She giggles and says, “That is so adorable!”, echoing me and thousands of other fans word-for word, as Doctor Who retailers offer up effusive prayers of thanks for what’s bound to be a sudden influx of orders for TARDIS paperweights and whatnot, as their merchandise officially becomes canon. Putting the mini-TARDIS in her purse for safekeeping, Clara steps into the role of the Doctor, sonic screwdriver in one hand, psychic paper in the other, and a definite spring in her step.
When she runs into Rigsy again and he asks her name, she smugly introduces herself as “the Doctor.” “Doctor of what?” he asks. “Of lies!” a grumpy voice in her ear pouts. Ain’t that the truth. Poor Danny doesn’t deserve this gal.
Eager to impress his new Doctor/Spy friend, Rigsy brings Clara to the literal scene of the crime. “Ooooh, I love a good locked room mystery!” gushes Sherlock the Doctor. Rigsy praises Clara and her earpiece for getting involved in the investigation because the authorities weren’t doing anything to help, and “people were thinking that no one was listening, that no one cared.” Though this causes the Doctor to immediately enter into “Exasperated by Pudding-Brains” mode, I was deeply touched by his words. And though this incarnation of the Doctor eschews sentimentality (something I don’t think I will ever fully accept), the larger character of The Doctor represents that merciful, sympathetic ear. This is what drove the Doctor to save the family from Pompeii (*cough* “who frowned me this face?” *cough*), and this is why the wheezing and groaning sound of the TARDIS brings hope everywhere it goes. So quit your eye-rolling, Twelve, and embrace your inner goo.
Clara and Rigsy continue deducing, as Clara and the Doctor continue bantering, and at some point, Clara gets fed up with the Doctor’s nagging and turns off his video feed—the companion equivalent of a petulant teen slamming her bedroom door in her parent’s face. Speaking of faces, Clara gazes back at her reflection just before using the sonic on the Doctor, enacting a trippy scenario in which she is looking herself in the eye, but discoursing with the Doctor, who is looking at Clara through her eyes. Meanwhile, the Doctor is telling Clara not to scare off “Local Knowledge,” passing it off as his own idea, even though just a moment ago he was telling Clara that Rigsy is utterly useless, while Clara was advocating that Rigsy should stick around. And all of this meta-communication reminds us that the Doctor and Clara have been lying to and at each other so much that they barely interact normally anymore. Also: metaphorical mirrors!
Doctor Clara and Companion Rigsy move on to the next crime scene, as the Doctor comes to the conclusion that the perpetrators may have been absorbed into the walls. Clara removes a hammer from her Mary Poppins/Hermione Purse and begins hacking at the walls, which IMO seems like a pretty pointless plan, coming from two alleged geniuses. Anyway, it gives PC Forrest an opportunity to leave the room and promptly be sucked into the floor and splayed out onto the wall. Which is pretty terrifying and gross, but I’ll admit that the “mural” on the wall that turns out to be PC Forrest’s actual nervous system looked like an aesthetically pleasing bucolic sketch at first glance.
And that’s when the inventive CG team really goes to town, with the Doctor’s voiceover explaining that these creatures are “experimenting, testing, dissecting…trying to understand…three dimensions.” Suddenly, the doorknob flattens, and the pastel-colored couch literally melts into the floor. Clara and Rigsy are surrounded by invisible 2D monsters, and their only option is to scramble onto a suspending chair and swing through the window Like a Wrecking Ball.
Hey, come to think of it…
(Adrian Rodgers, BBC)
and so but wait also…
…Nope, no way I’m pursuing this further. Moving on.
Back to the underpass, where Rigsy’s community service cohorts are about to paint over the murals of the missing people. A brief argument ensues, but the Grouchy Old White Man tells the one named Stan to just “do his job.” Poor Stan approaches the wall and then takes a page from the book of his literary namesake, as he’s flattened into a mural himself. Everyone’s all, WTF, but Clara—channeling the Doctor impeccably—tells them to 1) “forget Stan” and 2) run.
The remaining half of “Flatline” is spent, essentially, running from and then fighting “the Boneless,” which are the absolute coolest Doctor Who villains in quite some time. They’re like an evil combination of two beloved children’s books, Flat Stanley and Harold and the Purple Crayon, much like the Tennant-era episode “Fear Her,” in which a hideously clichéd ending and a subpar plot diminished the excitement over an otherwise fascinating monster-of-the-week premise. I’m glad that episode finally got the makeover it deserved, in terms of creativity and innovation.
So Clara takes charge of her little crew, explaining to the Doctor how she’s going to continue to channel him in order to get the job done. How is she going to save them? First: “Lie to them. Give them hope. Tell them they’re all going to be fine. That’s what you do, isn’t it?” Geez, Moffat, getting a little heavy-handed with the white lie theme, dontcha think?
Interestingly enough, the Doctor softens as Clara hardens, suggesting that despite all of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, perhaps the shapeless monsters are merely trying to communicate with the humans, and are only incidentally murdering them. Not so, as we’ll find out later. Some monsters just wanna be monsters.
But I’m getting ahead of myself; first, there is a lot of running across Underground tracks to be done. The Doctor needs to channel the Addam’s Family’s disembodied hand in order to evade an oncoming train clearly labeled A113, an Easter Egg allusion to the California Institute of the Arts classroom that spawned many animation greats. He then provides Clara with the newly invented “Toodis,” a device that is meant to restore flattened objects to 3D.
For a Doctor-lite episode, the Doctor seems to be pretty involved. But it is Clara who takes center stage, playing the hero and ensuring the safety of her companions using her stubborn resolve and ingenuity. Her plan to use a painting by Rigsy to trick the Boneless into powering up the TARDIS was Clara at her “Oswin Oswald” best, and though her arrogance often makes me want to hurl, her confidence is exhilarating; Clara’s character is most admirable when, in her moments of extreme doubt, she effectively gives herself a pep talk. “Doctor: what would you do now?” she ponders, when the Doctor is nowhere near and in no condition to assist. Abruptly, her demeanor changes. “No,” she corrects herself. “What will I do now?” This line reminded me of another similar situation from the beginning of “The Caretaker,” when Clara is attempting to juggle her old life with the Doctor and her new life with Danny, and she sits in front of the mirror and despairs: “I can’t keep doing this. I can’t do it.” Then, strengthening her resolve: “Yes, I can do it, of course I can do it.” This is why I never really liked her as a companion—she always struck me as the kind of person who is so fiercely independent that it feels incongruous to coop her up with someone else, let alone have her tag along as his assistant. And so when Clara flounces after the Doctor like a loyal worshipper, it’s not only insulting, it seems out of character. I couldn’t stand her nauseating need for the Doctor’s approval at the end of this episode, because Clara Oswald isn’t supposed to be like that, and her thirst for praise almost serves to retroactively cancel out her previous instances of self-propelled confidence.
In contemplating this particular scene, I was reminded of Martha Jones’ “You know what? I am good” line right before she walks out on the Tenth Doctor. I’ll save my thoughts on why Martha Jones is my favorite companion for another time, but suffice it to say that this parting line was so gut-wrenchingly effective because it was such a long time in coming—as she herself states, she spent a long time traveling with the Doctor and thinking she was “second-best.” Martha is one of the few companions who truly develops as a character, and her achievement of self-confidence does not come easy. Despite—or because of—her unrequited romantic feelings for the Doctor, she develops into a strong, confident young woman, and the Doctor, too, is better for having known her. Cut to Twelve’s relationship with Clara, and you’ve just got a whole mess of idolization and disgust and too many egos for one TARDIS, while each seems to be worse off in the company of the other.
But aside from that blip at the end, Clara pretty much owned this episode, and her chemistry with Rigsy made each scene they shared that much more enjoyable. Especially in the scene where Rigsy nobly resolves to sacrifice himself by ramming the train carriage into the Boneless in an attempt to get rid of them Once and For All. Clara’s part in this scene is notable for several reasons: 1) The Fourth Wall is certainly dented, if not broken entirely, when Clara points out the ridiculousness of the unnecessary and overdramatic sacrifice. “Ok, fine, yeah,” she says drily. “And I’ll always remember you.” Clara: 1, TV Tropes: 0. 2) This is why I always carry around a hair band. Hair bands >>> Duct tape. My hair band may one day save the world. 3) The Doctor has been accused of turning people into weapons, of letting others die “in his name,” and of “making them want to impress him.” Rigsy’s name was about be added to that ever-growing list. But Clara, as hard as she tries throughout this episode, is not the Doctor, and she doesn’t let Rigsy sacrifice himself.
After Clara’s nifty trick restores the TARDIS to its regular dimensions, the Doctor emerges to deliver his version of Eleven’s “Hello, I’m the Doctor, and this planet is protected” speech from “The Eleventh Hour.” And the day is saved!
But the jubilation doesn’t last long—for Clara at least—when the Doctor refuses to tell her that she was “good.” Instead, he says: “You were an exceptional Doctor, Clara.” But? “Goodness had nothing to do with it.” Clara is appropriately shocked into silence. (Though technically speaking, the Doctor did call Clara “good” as well as “a mighty fine Doctor” earlier in the episode, when he thought she couldn’t hear him.) As I mentioned earlier, I refuse to believe that this pontification over “goodness” is more than just a smokescreen, because the Doctor’s goodness must be a given at the outset. Fingers crossed.
Oods and Ends
- Missy Watch – !!!!!!!!!! The episode ends with Missy cradling Clara’s face on an iPad, crooning, “Clara, my Clara. I have chosen well.” What does it all mean??? Do they have phablets in heaven??
- Why did Clara answer Danny’s call when she was otherwise distracted by a carnivorous swarm of invisible aliens? Seriously, why?
- “What up, bitch?” is Danny’s greeting of choice to Clara? ….is that necessary?
- I just had a thought. Can you imagine a Wholock universe in which Sherlock encounters Clara? Everyone in the room would suffocate from the overbearing smugness within seconds.
- I found the discussions about dimensional space as it relates to the TARDIS fascinating. “If the TARDIS were to land with its true weight, it would fracture the surface of the Earth.”
Till next week, Whovians!