“Goodness had nothing to do with it.” — Doctor Who: Flatline.

Previously on Doctor WhoThe Mummy on the Orient Express.

What I like about this series of Doctor Who is that it doesn’t make everything alright. Things are allowed to not be ok, people are allowed to not be ok. “It’s ok,” could so often have been the tagline to the denouement of the week, but not this time. Not with this Doctor. What I love even more is that this time, they truly used the Doctor-lite episode to give Clara/Jenna exemplary material to work with, and she did, even more excellently than in Kill the Moon, and that was challenging already.

What both the Doctor and Clara have to get through now is the fact that Clara has seen the other side, she has seen through the Doctor’s eyes. She didn’t become him, that would have been too easy. No, she has had so long to observe his coping mechanisms, the ways he carves himself that little bit of sanity he has left into his brain every damn time he has to take charge of a situation, every time the lives of innocents depend on him and his companions. And that’s the thing — yes, he has companions, and without them, he couldn’t have done most of what he’s accomplished. But they’ve also been coded, for decades, as his counterpoint, as his conscience; one notable exception to that might have been Romana I, who was actually softened up a bit by travelling with Four. But on the whole, companions — especially in new Who — have been coded as the ones to stop the Doctor when he goes too far. Clara herself has been that force, she prevented him from destroying Gallifrey. Clara has, in all her travels with the Doctor, been the one who found another way.

It’s not Clara becoming the Doctor — it’s understanding his mindset

“Oh, wow! This is an honour. Does this mean I’m you now?”
“No, it does not. So don’t get any ideas.”

And that’s because she could afford to. She wasn’t the one whose shoulders everything rested on, she wasn’t in the Doctor’s spot. But now, she is. She recognises and realises that need to compartmentalise, to act with calculation, to make the tough decisions. She knows she cannot do it as Clara, not as the Clara she is, at her core. So she assesses the situation and acts accordingly — by using the Doctor’s coping mechanisms for herself.

It all starts off in good fun, really, and some of the observations Clara makes while out and about in the first few minutes are just her poking fun at him, knowing he can hear her, but they still ring true. And they sting a bit.

It’s not about Clara becoming the Doctor and being lauded for it. It’s about Clara being forced into something she never should have had to take on. It’s about her having an experience that she never should have had to face. She shouldn’t know what it feels like to be the Doctor. But now she does, and she insists that he tell her that she did it well. He doesn’t see himself as good, or a hero. He doesn’t understand how he could be Clara’s hero, how being “a good man” factors into what he does. She comforted him once by saying that she thinks he tries to be, and that that’s probably the point. But so much has happened since then, so much has happened before… Seeing Clara act like him and believing that she did good makes him absolutely miserable.

It’s not about being good because the Doctor doesn’t believe there’s any good in himself

That’s where the not-being-ok comes in. What we have to realise is — the Doctor hates himself. There is nothing in the Universe he hates as much as himself, and now he sees his friend, his best friend, act like himself, solve a crisis like he would, sees her getting something that she never should have had to understand. She was supposed to call him out on this stuff. And now she understands, and she liked it, and he’s miserable. Just for a day, she was the Doctor, and that’s, from his point of view, just about the worst thing that could happen to a person. Clara hasn’t changed, she’s still compassionate and kind and occasionally insensitive. But that compassion has now fully extended to seeing the world through the Doctor’s eyes. Something that Rose and Donna once did only in so far that she had to do something, to help, when no-one else would. Before, when companions saw events through the Doctor’s eyes, they got the good bits. The never giving up, the helping when no-one else can, or will. Like Amy did when she saved the Star Whale. The one companion in new Who who’s gotten closest to being the Doctor was Martha, when she was forced to watch over him when he had to go undercover as human and didn’t remember who he was, and when she wandered the Earth to save the Universe from the Master. But even then, she got mostly the good bits, she got the Archangel Network. What Clara gets is a dramatic shift in morality. She found herself making the tough calls that she hated the Doctor for last week, because she realises that she has to — precisely because she cares, because she wants to save as many as she possibly can.

“Seriously?”
“Seriously.”
“Fine. I’ll tell you who I am. I’m the one chance you’ve got of staying alive. That’s who I am.”

That’s it. That’s when she harnesses what it means to be the Doctor to her advantage. She does it because she has to, she knows, not because that’s who she is. It’ll surprise herself when she realises it — the Doctor guided her towards this, tells her that she needs to emerge as the leader of this band of misfits, but he didn’t think she’d do it like this. Like him. Nevertheless, he tells her “well done.”

“I just hope I can keep them all alive.”
“Ah. Welcome to my world. So, what’s next, Doctor Clara?”
“Lie to them.”
“What?”
“Lie to them. Give them hope. Tell them they’re all going to be fine, isn’t that what you would do?”
“In a manner of speaking. It’s true that people with hope tend to run faster whereas people who think they’re doomed —”
“Dawdle. End up dead.”
“So that’s what I sound like?”

That right there. That’s the Doctor concealing how much he cares in moments like these, carefully packaging it into survival skills and probable outcomes. That’s him with a mirror in front of his face, being in the place of the companion, watching himself as someone who knows him well and who can adapt to his way of thinking makes the decisions he doesn’t even think about anymore. This is extraordinary, because he’s genuinely surprised, the last time he had a true mirror image, he stood opposite another him that had grown out of his own hand; and when he stood opposite 10.5, he was violently opposing Dalek genocide at the time. And I think he understands a bit better now how hard that must be for his human companions — at the same time as Clara understands what it’s like for him. And then, they meet in the middle of that issue, and that’s a dangerous space for them both to be.

The question is, however, in how far what she felt in that moment, that discord within herself, knowing what she wants to do and knowing what she has to, really matches up with what the Doctor feels. A desire to help, surely, a pressing need to save the world. He became the Architect and chose only people who he could genuinely help, who desperately needed him to give them what they sought in the vault of Karabraxos. But he’s also been using Clara as an excuse not to outwardly care, not to let his guard down, because Clara used to wear her heart on her sleeve. But at the end of this, her emotions are more guarded, too, and he can only read her as he does because he’s known her for so long. But even for him, that will probably become more difficult.

The moment when Clara jumps on the train, rigs the train to keep going with her headband, and then tells Rigsy not to be a damn idiot and be the heroic headband-saver is so good. Like, yes, heroic sacrifice is all good and well, and it happens so often on this show, but not on Clara’s watch.

The episode comes complete with terrible cliffhanger moments and Clara believing the Doctor’s dead and gone, crushed in his TARDIS by the oncoming train. Jamie Mathieson has managed what’s an absolute art in Doctor Who scriptwriting: keep up the suspense, and hold it high, complete with great pacing and plot movement that makes sense without feeling too convenient or, worse, forced. It’s got shockers, scary moments, dilemmas… well done, sir, truly well done. All under the caveat that I still think Clara should have left last week, this episode is one of the few I’d call fantastic.

Funnily enough, the TARDIS in siege mode looks a lot like the Pandorica…

“Doctor? What would you do now? (a beat) No. What would I do now.”

With the Doctor unable to speak to her, Clara’s on her own now. That’s the second decisive moment in her characterisation as Doctor Oswald. That’s when she makes the deductive leap to use the principle of 2D becoming 3D to have Rigsy graffiti her a power source that will bring the TARDIS back to speed — a door.

The Doctor’s (what he believes to be his last) words to Clara are heartbreaking, though:

“Life support failing… I don’t know you if you’ll ever hear this, Clara. I don’t even know if you’re still alive out there. But you were good. And you made a mighty fine Doctor.”

And just then, she saves him. And that’s when he becomes the Doctor again.

“I tried to talk, I want you to remember that. I tried to reach out, I tried to understand you, but I think that you understand us perfectly. I think you just don’t care. And I don’t know whether you were here to invade, infiltrate, or just replace them, I don’t suppose it matters now. You are monsters! That is the role you seem determined to play, so it seems that I must play mine: the man that stops the monsters. I’m sending you back to your own dimension, who knows! Some of you may even survive the trip; and if you do, remember this. You are not welcome here, this plain is protected. I am the Doctor, and I name you the Boneless.”

And against all odds, he’s still Clara’s hero in that moment. And yet, he never stays. And he never asks to be thanked. The train driver Clara saved thanks her, gives her a kiss on the cheek and a hug, but he turns to the Doctor to do the same, and quickly thinks better of it, leaves instead. It’s like the Doctor’s eyes are daring him to thank him, to thank him for doing this, for doing this to Clara, to them all.

“You ok?”
“I’m alive.”
“A lot of people died.”
“Yeah, but we saved the world, right?”
“We did! You did.”
“Ok, so, on balance…”
“On balance?”
“Yeah. That’s how you think, isn’t it?”
“Largely so other people don’t have to.” — So Clara doesn’t have to.
“Yeah, but I was you today, I was the Doctor. And apparently, I was quite good at it.”
“You heard that, did you?”
“Yeah, but the power was going off, so I suppose you were delirious, you didn’t know what you were saying.” — Say it again, say it so I know you mean it.
“Yes.”
“Admit it, I did well!” — And that’s when Clara can’t take Danny’s call, not when she’s in the middle of wrapping her head around this. Of getting the Doctor to praise her. Rory was right, he has no idea how dangerous he makes people to themselves when he’s around. Or perhaps he does, now.
“Just say it! Why can’t you just say it? Why can’t you just say I did good?”
“Talk to soldier boy.”
“No, come on. Why can’t you say it? I was the Doctor, and I was good.”
“You were an exceptional Doctor, Clara.”
“Thank you.”
“Goodness had nothing to do with it.”

That’s the thing. The Doctor asked Clara whether she would like to think that way about him, that he just shoves his caring side down so he can focus on what must be done, like she did today. When, really, it could just be that he doesn’t care. Yes, he cares about Earth and the people on it, it’s his second home that he will always protect. But the small stuff, Local Knowledge, Pudding Brains… he wants to defeat the creatures, but what about the people caught in between?

How much will life on the TARDIS change after this?

She and the Doctor will both have to deal with what that means for their relationship and what that means for, well, whoever they’re on track to save next. It’s even more difficult to stomach against the backdrop of Clara’s dramatic decision last week, when she recanted her intention of leaving the TARDIS and instead kept travelling with him. The Doctor has now revealed to Clara that he knows that she’s lying to Danny, that she tried to lie to him about Danny. (And Danny is now also reasonably sure that something is very, very wrong. As the Doctor says. She made an exceptional Doctor — but goodness has nothing to do with it. She’s been his compass, his guide, even though he’s not one to fully understand human emotion, it matters to him whether she thinks he’s a good man. She kept him right. And now… they’re truly partners in crime now, and I love that potential for havoc that is peeking through right there. But then — we’d have two Doctors on our hands. And that’s not the point, now is it? It’s a fantastic episode, truly, because it’s such a shift in the Doctor-companion relationship, compared to what we’re used to, and it opens so many possibilities, even if just temporarily.

“Congratulations, lying is a vital survival skill.”
“Well, there you go.”
“And a terrible habit.”

I love how he handed over his Screwdriver and the Psychic Paper — not only out of necessity, but out of conviction. He knew she would do the right thing, he knew she could do this, and it had nothing of the patronising vibe of taking off the training wheels. It’s just that he’d hoped that it wouldn’t happen like this. That she’d be… Clara. Not Doctor Clara, fantastic though she was. The Doctor’s final speech was heartbreaking, too, because he did try. He tried so hard to trust the Boneless, he didn’t want to catapult them back into their own dimension and thus so many of them into certain death, but he swore once that this planet was protected, and that vow holds true. It’s the Twelfth Doctor’s big speech. He’s the man who stops the monsters, and that speech gave me chills like only the Words Win Wars speech in The Pandorica Opens could.

And then, we get Missy… oh God, what is it now? She chose Clara? For what? Goodness, I’m half glad the series is nearly over, we’ll finally have a resolution to this ridiculous charade.

Next on Doctor WhoIn the Forest of the Night.

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2 thoughts on ““Goodness had nothing to do with it.” — Doctor Who: Flatline.

  1. Great analysis, I really enjoyed this episode for the reasons you just mentioned. I think the Doctor does care, he is just more pragmatic, thinking about the bigger picture, rather than taking the time to apologize to those who will die, like 10 and 11 would.

    Like

    1. Thank you! I suppose this Doctor is less in touch with his feelings, which creates his own ambivalence towards them. He might care, but he’s not even sure himself. And now that Clara knows how he thinks, he doesn’t have her to hide behind anymore when it comes to that. I really like the look of it — and with Danny back in on the action next episode, maybe he will have to act as compass for them both.

      Liked by 1 person

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