Doctor Who Recap: Flatline
By Edwin Davies
October 21, 2014
Much of this series of Doctor Who seems to have been geared towards doing two things: deconstructing the idea of who The Doctor is, and finally figuring out how to develop Clara Oswald as a character. Both of those strands dovetailed rather nicely in this week's episode, but the latter one was particularly well served. Jenna Coleman has been on the show, either as Clara or as one of her various permutations throughout time, for over two years, but since she was more of a mystery to be solved in her first eight episodes as a Companion, there was rarely any sense that she was a real character. Coleman was always very good, but Clara never really had a strong identity in the way that Rose, Martha, Donna and Amy did. The Doctor's regeneration last year seems to have served as an opportunity for Steven Moffat and his writers to start more or less from scratch with the character, turning her into an assertive and dynamic figure, rather than one who simply delivers rapid-fire dialogue with consummate ease. It's been one of the most promising developments in a very promising run.
"Flatline" marked the most clear example yet of the show making Clara into a character who can stand on her own two feet by separating her from The Doctor and, in doing so, turning her into The Doctor for a brief period of time. A malfunctioning TARDIS lands the pair in Bristol, which is a serious inconvenience since Clara needs to be in the right place at the right time so that Danny won't realise that she is still travelling with The Doctor, but becomes a further inconvenience once they realise that The TARDIS has shrunk. Clara reconnoiters the surrounding area and discovers a series of murals that supposedly honour local people who have gone missing. When she returns to The TARDIS, it has shrunk so much that The Doctor has been trapped inside, and so he is forced to give her his psychic paper, his sonic screwdriver and a small communications device so that she can act as his eyes and ears as they try to figure out what is going on. The Doctor is still an important part of their efforts, but he is very much a supporting player to the nearly qualified "Doctor" Oswald.
In shifting the focus from The Doctor to Clara, "Flatline" continues the development, started in "Kill the Moon" and continued in "Mummy on the Orient Express", of giving Clara a greater insight into what The Doctor does. Whereas in those episodes she was placed in a position where she had to make a terrible choice or watched as The Doctor seemed to callously use innocents to solve a problem, here she has to put her experience and her observations into practice. When the head of a community service team (played to loathsome effect by Christopher Fairbank) asks who Clara is, she replies with the decidedly Doctor-like line "I am the one chance you've got of staying alive. That's who I am." (Which elicits an impressed "Well done" from The Doctor.) When pressed to come up with the next step of a plan, she tells The Doctor that she plans to lie to the people around her so that they will have hope, boiling down one of his key strategies into the starkest possible terms.
It's a clever bit of deconstruction of who The Doctor is, but it also makes for a compelling study of how Clara views him after all their time together. It's telling that at the end of the episode, The Doctor seems genuinely disturbed by having witnessed just how effective Clara was at being him, and how little the experience seemed to affect her. (And it's even more telling that the mysterious Missy, observing from her pseudo-afterlife, seemed very pleased by those exact same qualities.) Again, one of the things this series has done so well is wrapping self-reflection in the emotions of the characters.