Clint Hassell gives his verdict on the ninth episode of Series 8.
Clara Who, indeed.
In “Flatline,” the concept of the companion character is pushed to the next level, as Clara practically becomes the Doctor, seemingly crossing items off a “how to be the Doctor” checklist. This allows Clara, the Doctor, and the audience to examine the Doctor’s typical behavior from a fresh perspective. Suddenly, the increased focus on Clara in Series 8 makes sense; it was necessary to make this episode’s role reversal believable.
“Flatline” certainly does all it can to depict Clara as the Doctor. Dressed in an appropriately Doctor-ish coat, Clara carries the psychic paper and the sonic screwdriver, and even gets her own “I’m the Doctor” moment, much to Twelve’s chagrin.
Rigsy: “What are you the doctor of?”
The Doctor: “Of lies.”
Clara: “Well, I’m usually quite vague about that. I think I just picked the title because it makes me sound important.”
The Doctor: [incredulous] “Why, ‘Doctor Oswald,’ you are hilarious.”
Like the Doctor, Clara chooses to assume the best in others, including the two-dimensional monsters, as she suggests that their communications may be apologies or demonstrations of language comprehension. At various points, Clara also gains companions, states her version of “rule number one,” and comments on the amount of running involved.
Certainly, Clara is still guided by the Doctor (hilariously, from her purse), but this plot point-cum-thematic device transcends its comedic set-up to provide meta commentary on the Doctors actions. When the Doctor tells Clara to “take charge of the confused group, before a clear leader emerges,” one wonders if the Doctor’s habit of immediately barking orders is him being brilliant, or him maintaining control, giving him time to think.
Not that the quick-witted Clara needed much guidance. She’s seen so much of the Doctor in action that she doesn’t hesitate when her identity is questioned. “I am the one chance you’ve got for staying alive,” she says, “That’s who I am.” A surprised Doctor can only admit, “Well done.”
In fact, Clara may know the Doctor a little too well, as even he is surprised by how matter-of-factly she assesses his motives:
Clara: “I just hope I can keep them all alive.”
The Doctor: “Ha. Welcome to my world. So, what’s next, ‘Doctor Clara’?”
Clara: “Lie to them.”
The Doctor: “What?”
Clara: “‘Lie to them.’ Give them hope. Tell them they’re all going to be fine. Isn’t that what you would do?”
The Doctor: [hesitantly] “In a manner of speaking. I-I-It is true that people with hope tend to run faster, whereas people who think they’re doomed – -”
Clara: “Dawdle. End up dead.”
The Doctor: “So, that’s what I sound like?”
One can sense a hint of disdain in her voice, and a touch of regret in his.
Despite the numerous ways “Flatline” portrays “Doctor Oswald,” the episode is careful to demonstrate the ways in which Clara is not like the Doctor. In arguably the episode’s most important scene, Clara refuses to let Rigsy ram the Boneless with the subway train. It’s obvious, as she openly admonishes Rigsy’s blind willingness to abnegate his life, that Clara has seen the sacrifices others have made in service of the Doctor, and she doesn’t like it. The Doctor is a romantic character, though not in the sense that he bedded Rose, courted Queen Elizabeth, or married River Song. No, the Doctor romances sacrifice, especially his own. Clara, being the first companion in the modern era to find love outside of the TARDIS, while still traveling with the Doctor*, sees his attitude for what it is: self-pity from an immortal Time Lord, sullen about his lonely, vagabond existence. “You’re not getting off that lightly,” Clara says, chiding Rigsy’s “heroic” actions with sarcasm, “There’s work that needs doing.”
Clara was similarly tested with Doctor-esque responsibility of cosmic proportions, in “Kill the Moon.” There, she was faced with an unwinnable situation; in “Flatline,” she is again left alone, but rises to the occasion by being resourceful, and encouraging her new companions to use their unique gifts to save the day**, even coaxing Rigsy into succeeding with a very Doctor-y, “Well, if you don’t think you’re up for it…” More importantly, rather than relying on the Doctor, as in “Kill the Moon,” Clara truly embraces her capability. So profound is the change, Clara’s line, “Doctor? Doctor? What would you do now? No. What will I do now?” is practically character-redefining.
So focused is “Flatline” on Clara becoming a “Doctor” that the guest cast, by necessity, is fairly two-dimensional. (Yes, pun intended. Don’t you know me by now?) Of course, Fenton is a grouch and a bigot – he has to be to drive home the point that, sometimes, not-so-nice people stumble to the end of these adventures. This concept has been covered before (and better) in “Voyage of the Damned,” but this is Clara’s first taste, as she has had a fairly constant stream of adventures where the “good” characters live and the “bad” characters meet an untimely demise. This occurrence is common in Western art, which often serves as a morality tale for the viewer; characters who engage in “bad” or immoral behaviors often die because of their actions. In “Flatline,” however, it appears that random chance saves the last three survivors, which actually makes the adventure more realistic, and more somber.
Though a standard of Russell T Davies’ era, this episode may be the best modern example of a Doctor Who episode that is both funny and truly scary. Beyond the Clara/Doctor role-reversal, which certainly lends itself to comedy, the episode includes a bevy of gags. The set-up of Clara being on the phone with Danny, who is seemingly unaware of the danger faced by his girlfriend, on the other end of the line, is a terribly overused trope. Why, in the face of such danger, would she even look at her phone? However, the scene is a great example of how deftly “Flatline” melds comedy and terror. Danny can barely mask that he realizes that she is lying, as he flatly asks, “Where are you, and are you in danger?”
More impressively, the episode includes a great deal of visual humor related to the ever-shrinking TARDIS. While the Addams Family-inspired, one-handed, crawling TARDIS was undoubtedly what SFX touted as “one of the best ever sight gags,” seeing Clara pull a sledgehammer out of her purse required no special effects beyond clever editing, making it incredibly effective.
Also expertly realized were the Boneless, who shuffled like zombies as they shifted between two- and three-dimensions. One of the most visually unique monsters ever seen on Doctor Who, the Boneless almost look claymated or stop-motion animated. Paired with a tortured, crackling sound effect, the creatures effortlessly bridge the gap between conceptual 2D, and fully realized 3D, in a way that a man wearing a foam suit never could. It’s fascinating.
Albeit slight, “Flatline” does make one misstep. When the TARDIS is dropped onto the train tracks, the Doctor laments that there is not enough power for the shields to function, and that “structural integrity is compromised.” “The Name of the Doctor” establishes that, as the structural integrity of the TARDIS breaks down, the “bigger on the inside” leaks onto the outside, causing the TARDIS to swell, not shrink. Further, this is the second time that Clara has seen the TARDIS massively shift in size, as she was present in “The Name of the Doctor,” so it seems odd that there is no mention of that event in “Flatline.”
So, what if the Clara that sees the oversized TARDIS in “The Name of the Doctor” isn’t the Clara that carries the tiny TARDIS, in her purse, in “Flatline”? The production team has written the Series 8 Clara as having almost no relation to the Series 7 Clara. What if – like Oswin Oswald and Clara Oswin Oswald, before – they are actually distinct characters? What if Eleven and Twelve are somehow traveling with different versions of the Clara matrix? That could explain Missy’s fascination with Clara, who has died before, yet still maintains a link with the living.
*No, Amy Pond doesn’t count, as her storyline was primarily based upon being pulled between her love for both the Doctor and Rory.
**Admittedly, this is more reminiscent of an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures than Doctor Who.