Season 8, Episode 9 “Flatline”
Directed by Douglas Mackinnon
Written by Jamie Mathieson
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Jovian Wade, Jessica Hayles
Air Date: Saturday, October 18, 2014
In her book To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee imparts a very important piece of advice: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” That moral lesson is on full display this week in Doctor Who, as the Doctor is trapped in the TARDIS and Clara (Jenna Coleman) must fully function as his proxy. She must must assess threats, uncover clues, save others, and ultimately formulate a course of action that will save the Doctor, who can then end the threat. Along the way, she discovers that being in the Doctor’s shoes is both harder and easier for her than the previously thought, and that purity is something very difficult to maintain.
Brought to us by the director of “Time Heist” (Douglas Mackinnon) and the writer of “Mummy On The Orient Express” (Jamie Mathieson), “Flatline” feels guided by strong, capable hands. The writing is crisp, concise, and shows how to construct a base under siege scenario for half an episode that still means something. The direction is taut and creates proper menace, though whether or not it meets the standard set by “Kill The Moon” remains to be seen. Together the writing and direction succeed very specifically in conveying the moral ambiguities of what it is like to the Doctor; some good people die, some bad people live, and sometimes there are no good choices. Steven Moffat is to be commended for creating a series of episodes that so carefully demolish and reconstruct our notions of who the Doctor is before our eyes, and doing that through the same process of end and re-birth for the character of Clara.
Thematically, this episode deals in some of the oldest plot tropes in Doctor Who: characters trapped in a TARDIS under siege, miniature characters in a full-sized world, and (for the third week in a row) the base under siege. Little more about the last trope needs to be said after the last two weeks. The notion of a miniature Doctor and TARDIS were first considered in the 1964 serial “Planet Of The Giants.” The concept of the TARDIS under siege reaches back even further to “The Edge of Destruction,” the third Doctor Who serial ever. Both stem from a time when the show was trying to discover the boundaries of its format (and budget), and have been reused to notable effect a few times in the last 50 years (particularly in “Logopolis”).
Their use in this rather unique because of their symbolic value. The goal here is to allow Clara to function more and more as the Doctor for story purposes. To do so, the real Doctor must be increasingly marginalized. First, he is made figuratively smaller by trapping him in a shrinking TARDIS. His connection to the outer universe is symbolized by the size of the TARDIS doors, which first become small enough for Clara too escape, and then trap him behind an aperture only inches high. Once trapped, the Doctor himself is attacked by his faithful ally, the TARDIS, and rendered nearly incommunicado for a significant amount of time. The Doctor becomes moot and the TARDIS turns into something like a child’s toy. This creates a void, that other elements of the story must fill.
With the Doctor and the TARDIS marginalized, two other story elements leap to the fore: the companions and the monsters. That the monsters would take shape and grow more menacing is a completely normal development. Clara, the companion, does something quite unusual: she becomes the Doctor, first by calling herself Doctor Oswald, and then assuming the authority reserved for the Doctor by gathering companions and deciding their fate. Now one might say, where is the novelty in that? In “Last Of The Time Lords,” Martha Jones spent a year traveling the Earth, gathering allies to defeat the Master. Looking back even further, Sarah Jane Smith was separated from the Doctor by capture in “Genesis Of The Daleks” and arranged a rebellion amongst workers forced to build a Thal rocket.
The crucial difference is that in neither instance did the companion aspire to supplant the Doctor. Martha was the Doctor’s proxy, very capably implementing his plan during his imprisonment by the Master. Sarah was desperately attempting to return to the Doctor, but the agency of action in the story was still ultimately his. Here, Clara gets to call herself a Doctor and is even complimented by the real Doctor for being an outstanding Doctor. The importance of this fact is underlined in the final scene in two ways. First, Clara ignores a call from Danny (to whom she otherwise tries to give priority, even in the direst circumstances) to establish her “Doctor” credentials. Second and more important, her status is the moral lesson imparted by the episode: being the Doctor sometimes has little to do with being “good” in the strictest sense. In “Kill The Moon,” Clara reprimands the Doctor for the amorality of his choices, and here, he teaches that sometimes amorality is the best choice among a series of bad alternatives. It’s a moral lesson that’s been weeks in building, and Steven Moffat is to be commended for fostering it.
Three episodes remain in this slightly smaller Series 8. From the preview, I suspect that Danny Pink will once again play a larger role in next week’s “In The Forest Of The Night” and will have to reckon with how Clara’s double life continues to affect her. After that, there will be only two-part story this year. Written by Steven Moffat, these two episodes will finally reveal the significance of the Missy plot line and (as we learned this week) Clara’s part in it. The series and the story arcs are now moving toward end game. The beginning and the middle of the series has been long on character drama with an effective re-tooling of both the Doctor and Clara, and some fine sustained story telling. Let’s hope it finishes as strongly as it started.