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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Review: Doctor Who, "Flatline"

This week saw the second episode in a row of new Who scribe Jamie Mathieson, and last week’s “Mummy on the Orient Express” saw a lot of praise for the way it developed the relationship between the Doctor and Clara in a meaningful way. While perhaps not as exciting, “Flatline” actually improves on some of those ideas and develops them further in this season’s quest to define the Doctor.

With a show that is seeing it’s 13th iteration (counting the War Doctor) of its main character, asking what makes the Doctor the Doctor is a valid question. We often like to spit out a couple easy characteristics to answer this: he’s clever, caring, and generous–but we’ve seen time and time again throughout the series’ 50 years that these rules are often broken. What makes “Flatline” particularly interesting is that it explores this question by effectively making the companion fill the shoes of the Doctor, to see how it changes her.

First, the Doctor acts through Clara: he gives her his tools (the sonic screwdriver and psychic paper) and an earpiece that lets him see through her eyes as well. He’s almost controlling her like a robot (or like a soldier...), using her body and mind as a middleman. Before long, though, the Doctor begins to lose control as his own situation becomes more dire, and Clara is forced to become the Doctor. For the first time, she sees how difficult it is to save everyone you can while telling the truth–the Doctor even tells her, “Congratulations, lying is a vital survival skill,” which continues the theme of last week, ‘pretending’ to be heartless. This of course, begs the question: is pretending to be something any different than actually acting that way?

The most important development here, though, is when Clara is seemingly stuck and asks herself over and over, “What would the Doctor do?” only to find that the solution comes when she changes her way of thinking: “What would I do?” she finally realizes. Clara comes up with an exceptionally clever answer to the life-and-death puzzle she faces, saving herself, her friends, and the Doctor in one fell swoop. One of my issues with the episode lies in the fact that after this victory, it takes the Doctor only moments to fully defeat the Boneless, sapping some of the glory away from Clara.

Clara begs the Doctor to tell her she was a good Doctor, and at first he almost seems jealous in his hesitance to praise her. We see instead, however, that the conversation with the awful older man who shrugs off the deaths of the youths that were serving community service has gotten to the Doctor. “You were an exceptional doctor,” he tells Clara, “Good has nothing to do with it.” Being forced to see his actions from a distance, perhaps the Doctor finally sees why Clara and Danny have seen him as so callous and uncaring.

The new monsters in this episode, The Boneless, are an initially very clever concept, one that a whole host of science fiction stories are based on: what if there is life in two dimensions? (Which, in science literature, is often a thought experiment to show that there could be a 4th dimension and 4th dimensional beings that we cannot even comprehend.) These 2D creatures wish to invade the 3rd dimension, which paves the way to all sorts of clever perspective tricks, both visual and theoretical. Like many episodes this season, I feel that this one has a shift about halfway through, when the Boneless are able to create 3D bodies. While the effect is cool as hell, they lost much of their creepiness and became more generic baddies from that point forward, complete with evil energy beams shooting from their hands. Luckily though, the idea behind them has a lot of thematic presence, implying that who the Doctor is often is just a matter of perspective.

The biggest takeaway from the last two weeks is that Doctor Who has landed a fantastic new voice in Jamie Mathieson: these two episodes are fun and extremely sharp while managing to bring something interesting to the Doctor and his companion. While “Flatline” may not be quite as memorable as “Mummy on the Orient Express”–although it will be hard to forget the Doctor’s giant face and hand sticking out of the Tardis doorway–it took the clear theme of the entire season and really explored it in an interesting way. Looking forward to more!

Thoughts to Ponder

–This season they seem to be much more open about letting strangers know about the Doctor and the Tardis. Not that I’m complaining–how many times were they going to explain away alien invasions before the general public became okay with the idea of a time-traveling hero?

–As part of the season arc, we see at the end that our mysterious villain Missy has her eyes on Clara: “I’ve chosen well,” she says...

–Favorite line, the kid asking Clara: “What are you a doctor of?” The Doctor: “Of lies!”
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