Lie to Me

Review of Flatline
Warning: This review contains episode-specific spoilers and wild speculation about future episodes.

Long since having tired of Moffat's "the Companion is the main character" mantra, I was doubly irritated that Clara got to "be the Doctor" in Flatline. But when I started deconstructing the episode a little, I decided there was enough going on beneath the action that my irritation soon turned to fascination.

Flatline has turned into a very think-y episode for me. So much of the character development is intertwined. Right off the bat, we get clues to resolve the question at the end of last week's episode about whether Clara's change of heart about traveling in the TARDIS really did have Danny's support (spoiler: nope).

The Doctor learns the truth of the matter by the end, and we can see threads of lies and identity woven all through this story. Clara lies to the Doctor. Clara lies to Danny. Clara "becomes" the Doctor. Clara lies to the people she's with to emulate the Doctor. Clara gets "welcome[d] to [the Doctor's] world" when she takes responsibility for solving the problem and trying to keep the bystanders alive.

The Doctor watches Clara play his role. The Doctor hears what he sounds like from the outside. The Doctor recognizes that what Clara did to save the day—the same things he would have done had he been able—had nothing to do with goodness.

Is the Doctor a good man?

Is Clara a good woman? She certainly appears to be developing more Doctor-like tendencies, but at what cost? Usually the Companion stands in as conscience for the Doctor (e.g., "She cares so I don't have to" and "Why do I keep you around?" "Because the alternative would be developing a conscience of your own."), but Clara's new addiction, as the show has intimated her travels with the Doctor have become, is taking the TARDIS team perilously close to ethical homogeneity.

Based on her actions here, she's well on her way to derailing her relationship with Danny, and some self-loathing feels nearly inevitable. Yet even that didn't set off as many alarm bells as Clara's newly revealed but ambiguous connection to this series' Big Bad.

My working hypothesis about Missy has always been that she's the Master. With this latest appearance, though, all of my Spidey-senses are tingling; she sounds much more like the Valeyard than the Master. "My Clara"? Eleven called her that all the time. And he admitted to her when he met the splinter version of her in Victorian England that he "never know[s] why, [he] only know[s] who." Maybe he didn't exactly choose his Companion himself. (I guess Clara-the-enigma isn't completely in the rear mirror after all.)

The Valeyard is supposed to be an aspect of the Doctor from between his "twelfth and final incarnations." Since Handy seems to count "canonically" as a full incarnation, that makes him the twelfth, and Eleven the thirteenth (or final, in a normal Time Lord's cycle). Assuming the Valeyard spawned somewhere in the middle there, and Missy is a new regeneration (there's some seriously weird Time Lord philosophy going on in that entire concept, I realize), she'd have been around for a while. I can't even begin to speculate how that all fits into the Series Eight arc, but I have to admit I'd be ecstatic if that does turn out to be Missy's true identity.

Returning to Clara: although I don't like the show focusing so much on her, I do approve of the fact that she is becoming a stronger, more rounded character—flaws and all. Notice, for example, how much agency she has here, especially once the TARDIS goes into siege mode. (I'll note in passing that its outward appearance reminded me both of the cubes from The Power of Three and the message boxes as seen in The Doctor's Wife. I couldn't figure out why I thought it looked so familiar, though, until someone else pointed out it looks just like the Pandorica.)

First she tries to model her solutions entirely on what she knows of the Doctor. "What would you do now?" she asks him, barricaded within the TARDIS. Then she stops herself and tries again. "No. What will I do now?" Her realization that finding her own way out is the only thing that matters is powerful stuff.

Even more than the fun bits (like the Addams Family part), it's those small, deep moments that have raised my opinion of Flatline beyond my annoyance with the series' focus shifting onto Clara. Some are far subtler than the "lying liar who lies" subplot, but they're just as intriguing.

Take, for example, the sharp dichotomy between Rigsy, the clever, underprivileged graffiti artist, and Roscoe, the nasty, entitled council drone. Rigsy has not only accepted the weird shit Clara has shown him, but gets it right away when she asks, "Did you ever meet them, or did they just appear after people disappeared?" Roscoe, on the other hand, is too close-minded even for simple subterfuge.

"This is blank. Try again, sweetheart."
"Takes quite a lack of imagination to beat psychic paper..."

If one wants to looks them that way, it's easy to see the characterizations of these two individuals as a commentary on class issues (and, if the writer had been from the US, I'd have said race issues, too).

Then there's the way the Doctor reacts to Rigsy. First it's all "fluorescent pudding brain," but the metamorphosis to grudging admiration is quick. By the end, he's praising Rigsy openly. "Your last painting was so good it saved the world. I can't wait to see what you do next."

Given the way he traumatized Courtney after their initial meeting (clearly not having made it past the pudding brain stage), the Doctor's metaphorical embrace of Clara's "companion" struck me as almost out of character.

Maybe he was just distracted by Clara's unsettling tendency toward Doctor-ness. Although he conceded that she "made a mighty fine Doctor," I can't imagine he found it comfortable to watch her walk a path toward the darker side of the work he does in his travels. After all, if he's using his Companions as his own Jiminy Cricket, then the more like him they become, the less effective they are.

Which makes me wonder: if the Companion becomes the Doctor, who will Moffat think the show's about?

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Comments

This, to me, was finally "it". The episode in which the new Doctor fit, the preachy dark became fun, and I felt excited for the series again!

By Travis (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

Yay! I'm glad this one clicked for you. :)

By mrfranklin

I loved this episode but it also highlighted the problem of the 45 minute format in that it was quite frenetic. I won't therefore go over your rather excellent summation

My observations re Missy and Clara are as follows:
* The obvious conclusion to jump to is that Missy is the Master. Not sure I buy that unless the Production Team are preparing us for a female Doctor, Sue Perkins or Siobhan Redmond if they do go down that route please.
* I do like the idea floating that Missy is a corruption of Miss C, i.e. Clara but whatever the denoument I have no doubt it will not be a game changer as the Grand Moff usually likes to pronunce these teasers and I will go something along the lines of "Oh ok" shrug my shoulders and carry on.

By Wholahoop
mrfranklin's picture

Yeah, I've had pretty much no interest in the Missy mystery all series. I've come to expect that Moffat will do something he thinks is clever and I think is annoying, so I've stopped even trying to figure his shit out.

By mrfranklin

Interesting thought just occurred to me - in his first episode Capaldi mentioned (more like raved in his post regeneration madness) about his face being familiar. We haven't had anymore mention of that. Is it just intended as a throwaway line for the audience?

By Travis (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

I'd bet money it's just a slow burn instead. There's been talk about how RTD had an explanation for Capaldi appearing in Fires of Pompeii (as well as Torchwood: Children of Earth), and that Moffat was going to use it. I think we just haven't seen it resolved yet.

By mrfranklin

OK, The Boneless is a stupid name but I found this week's alien species very interesting indeed. The FX were excellent and quite creepy. We don't know what they were up to. I hope they come back again.

By Kara S (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

It's a very stupid name. I prefer the Verities' name for them: Flatliners.

They were definitely super creepy, too. :) Ambiguity lends to that!

By mrfranklin
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