Season 8, Episode 9 “Flatline”
Be Careful Who You Become.
When invaders from a two-dimensional plane trap the Doctor in the TARDIS, Clara finds herself taking on the role of the Time Lord… that’s right folks, it’s CLARA WHO!
OK, no, but if you thought that Moffat & Co. had forgotten who this show was about this season, here’s the clear answer that they haven’t. Certainly there has been a vocal segment of the fans who seem to think so, and God knows their complaints about how Clara-focused this season has been have been loud enough. The show is still about the Doctor, but like much of the series since it returned in 2005, the Companion’s life serves as both a filter and a lens for looking at the character.
It does seem a little unfair to Clara, though, this vocal fan-hate that seems to be out there. Certainly we spent a LOT of time with Rose’s family (and Donna’s too), and much of Amy’s entire arc was about her family, and I don’t recall this level of upset about a Companion being the focus of the storyline there. Yes, her first few episodes were rocky at best, and she seemed to be more of a plot point than anything else until “The Name of The Doctor”, but Clara has had character development in spades this season. It could be that she has become so intertwined into the Doctor’s life, past and present, that fans are tired of her having such an impact on the Doctor’s life, seemingly always being there to save him, even if that is something of an exaggeration. Yes, she’s saved him quite a bit, but he’s saved her too, plenty of times. That’s kind of the deal with the Companions.
Or maybe it’s her reaction to the Twelfth Doctor in general. There are quite a few fans who are upset about how Clara is treating the Doctor since he regenerated, and here I have some agreement; well, at least conditionally. Yes, Clara’s reaction to the “Old” Doctor seems a little out of place, considering that she begged the Time Lords to save him, knowing that he’d regenerate into a new body. And it’s not as if the Doctor has changed so much in personality, if you look beyond the surface levels. He’s still got that sense of wonder, but it’s not as child-like. He’s still fighting against the monsters in the Universe and saving the innocent, but he’s doing it without the layer of kindness of the Tenth and Eleventh displayed, seemingly unconcerned that people are dying around him, and sometimes for him, even as each episode has shown that to be more and more untrue. The Doctor cares. Of course he cares, he just knows that there will be those he cannot save, and he focuses on the ones he can. Those bad choices he talked about in “Mummy on the Orient Express”.
But Clara is also hardly the first Companion to become angry with the Doctor, is she? The high point of that would be in the Smith run, with episodes like “The Girl Who Waited” and “The God Complex”, where Rory angrily accuses the Doctor of trying to force him to make the kind of choices the Doctor makes all the time, and Amy’s blind faith and love for the Doctor nearly get her killed. In both cases, the Doctor is revealed to be manipulative and consciously shaping his companions, turning them into what he needs them to be, even as he realizes that in doing so he’s putting the lives of those he loves in risk. Or how about when Martha left him, realizing that he was essentially using her to fill the void left by Rose, but also stringing her along by never letting her in beyond a certain point? Donna, River… yep, pretty much everyone the Doctor has let into the TARDIS since the show came back has had a moment or two or more where they railed against the Doctor for being who – and what – he is. And sometimes it’s been just as unfair.
Here, forced to essentially step into his shoes, Clara shows that she’s actually been a pretty good student of the Doctor’s ways, for good and for ill. She starts to see the reasoning for the way he acts, especially in the way that he takes over a situation, recognizing that someone is going to be the leader in any circumstances, and based on centuries of experience, everybody’s odds go way up if it’s the Doctor calling the shots. Not taking the time to mourn, not while there are still lives to save and lying to those around him about their chances, because hope will make you run faster than despair.
And oh, those lies. Clara’s are exposed here, both to the Doctor and Danny, and while the Doctor can acknowledge that lying is a necessary survival skill, it’s also a terrible habit and hard as hell to break. And he would know, wouldn’t he? It’s a little tough to believe that the Doctor hasn’t realized that Clara was lying before now, but then again, we know he’s lonely and needs his friends to keep him sane, and it could easily be not wanting to recognize that she is lying to him about Danny. It is, however, hard to believe that both men are taken in by Clara here, so it feels a little hand-of-the-writer, but then we still haven’t learned Danny’s story yet either, and that’s even more so.
But back to Clara being good at being like the Doctor, and the resolution of the story. Is it any real surprise that the Doctor isn’t happy that Clara is good at being like him, considering how much the Doctor doesn’t actually like himself? That Clara’s ease of slipping into that mindset of weighing saving everyone against saving a few doesn’t please him? That he thinks “goodness” has nothing to do with it?
Of course not. Time and time again, we’ve seen that the Doctor needs his Companions to keep him grounded, to keep him from becoming the Time Lord Victorious and, in Clara’s case, to be his “carer”. Why? Because he knows that he is powerful, he knows that he is dangerous – though he tries to forget it – and that he can become a monster himself if he doesn’t have someone to protect and care for. He needs friends… people to stand beside him and believe in him, because he doesn’t believe he is a good man, but the man who does what needs to be done because no one else can. Why would he want to see Clara become like him, to realize that he is making her like him, just be her being around him?
Combine that and the claim by Missy at the end that she “chose” Clara, and things look somewhat dark for our Impossible Girl, don’t they? And when one considers that this is a show about time-travel and paradoxes are a fairly common thing, one really can’t be counting on the implied future of Orson Pink, can we?
Again, as this season has shown us again and again and again, for all the story highs and lows, none of this would work without the fantastic performances of Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman. Jenna in particular has had so much to play with this season, and it’s been a real joy for me to watch her Clara develop, even if I’m not certain I’m all that happy with where she’s going. Jenna as an actress though, I have no complaints about.
And Peter Capaldi was born to play the Doctor. He’s simply that good.
In other thoughts, the Boneless (terrible name, by the way) were really interesting villains – and make no mistake, these were villains – especially since it’s been a while since we’ve had a new monster that was just evil. No misunderstandings here, or clashing points of view, or tortured antagonists, were there? Just a straight-up alien invasion with entities that were going to kill you, and that’s kind of refreshing, really. I really enjoyed the design of the Boneless and the effects overall were rather disturbing, which is what you need in a story like this.
Our guest stars this week suffered a bit from the 43-minute runtime, and that’s a shame, sort of. With the Doctor and Clara separated and the focus being on Clara, there was precious little screen time for character development for Jovian Wade’s Rigsy and Christopher Fairbanks’s Fenton, so we have to be content with broadly stroked at best. That works overall, but Rigsy in particular could have benefited from some more screen time, even if we get more than enough of Fenton’s general awfulness. Fairbanks, by the way, has an amazing resume, and American audiences may recognize him from Guardians of the Galaxy, The Fifth Element and Pirates of the Caribbean, but I’m looking it over and there’s Z-Cars and Sapphire & Steel and loads more, as well as voice work for Doctor Who audio. He’s very convincing as the bigoted Fenton, and one can hardly blame the Doctor for wishing that he had been included among the dead. I wasn’t familiar with Jovian Wade, but he does a good job and seems like someone to watch, and there’s been some buzz about 1 Way Up, the BMX film he’s in and co-wrote.
The Adams Family bit was funny, if a little too cute, but the Doctor’s dance was my laugh-out-loud moment. There seems to be much online consternation about the length of Capaldi’s hair at points in the story, and while it seems to be that shooting schedules included a haircut, it didn’t register to me all that much. At first glance, I honestly thought it was story-based, with the Doctor’s hair just sticking to his head as the TARDIS’ life-support failed, but it wouldn’t be the first time that such continuity errors showed up, or the last.
So there’s “Flatline”! Pushing us forward on the (apparent) Descent of Clara Oswald, giving us another interesting monster, and hinting at dark days ahead at the hands of Missy. The Cyberman eye-shape behind her was particularly interesting, but early word on “In the Forest of the Night” is that we don’t get anything of consequence in her storyline, so it’s the season’s two-part finale we have to wait for.