Sunday, October 19, 2014

In Which I Review Doctor Who (8x9)

In last week's episode of Doctor Who, we established how Clara Oswald is a TARDIS addict, and an abusive one at that. In this week's episode, "Flatline," we take that addiction idea further--Clara becomes the Doctor. There is a tradition in modern Doctor Who known as the Doctor-lite episode in which the companion plays the larger role in saving the day. More often than not, they are not gifted with the psychic paper nor the sonic screwdriver, two things inextricably linked to the Doctor and his....Doctorness. In other words, they constantly ask themselves, "what would the Doctor do?" instead of knowing and performing actions in the vein of the Doctor. However, this week, Clara names herself as the Doctor and freely uses the sonic and psychic paper--not to mention adopting the Doctor's less than savory tendencies. And the Doctor himself? His gaze is reversed and he sees himself through Clara's eyes, and it's not exactly a pretty picture. This was my favorite episode of the season to date. It was a proper science fiction mystery and spooky story and it presented the audience with some tantalizing reversals of fortune that will likely play out in the weeks to come. And Peter Capadli finally got his "I am the Doctor" moment. 

This image is hilarious. This is like a fun house mirror where suddenly everything is smaller and less focused and you're left wondering what is real and what is a distortion of your perception. The plot this week, which was far more substantial than in the weeks past, was quite intriguing both from a TV enjoyment standpoint and from a metaphorical standpoint. The Doctor and Clara land back on Earth only for the TARDIS to have shrunk considerably, as you can see. There's a lot of science mumbo jumbo that gets thrown around but I'll boil it down here. Clara is sent off to investigate, with the psychic paper and the sonic, after she learns that people have been vanishing from Bristol. The Doctor stays behind to try and learn why something is eating the dimensional energy, hence the shrinking of the TARDIS. It gets so small in fact that Clara carries it around in her purse. It's actually adorable. The long and the short of it is that there are aliens from a universe that only exists in 2 dimensions, not three like ours. These 2-D aliens have crossed over and are, in effect, reducing people and objects to 2-D beings. The Doctor thinks it might be for communication or for study. Now, here's where this is really interesting; I think this is a nice metaphor for the Doctor and for Clara, both as individuals and as Doctor/Companion relationships go. The Doctor and Clara are rather 2-D themselves aren't they? At least as far as staying within the confines of their archetypes.

He's the mythic hero who comes from above to save the day, wielding what is, essentially, a magical sword (the sonic). She's the (mostly) weepy sidekick who keeps him grounded and reminds him why he should be a hero. Honestly, the Doctor and his companions are all a bit like this. There are shades of gray but you'd never have the Doctor presented as a straight up bad guy. Even here with 12, he's not bad so much as he's not wholly good. The writers would never take away the idea that the Doctor is the savior, no matter how much 12 may fight that label and in the final moments of this week's episode, he openly embraced that specific nature of his archetype (but we'll get to that). On the other hand, the Companion will always be in awe of the man from space, always see him as perennially "good" and sadly even in the modern era have that starry/doe eyed wonder about her. Clara has undergone a change this season, but if you're looking at her narrative arc from start to finish, she's mostly a very emotional, dare I say, feminine girl who is inherently less than the Doctor, despite the claim that she's the most important woman in the Doctor's history. Through a pretty anti-feminist lens, her entire life story is wrapped up in the Doctor (a man) and even though she has been fleshed out considerably this season into something more, her main story is still a cliche one of, what I would call, a truly bizarre love triangle. Take out the monsters and the TARDIS and traveling in time and space and the Clara dilemma of "which man do I choose" is a straight up classic TV trope. So what I like about this episode as metaphor is that it's trying to make the 2-D Doctor and Clara into something that is more fleshy, more 3-D. And the writers accomplished this, quite well I might add, by reversing their roles.

Meet Doctor Oswald. But you can call her Clara. Watching our companion become the Doctor was quite interesting and also quite scary by episode's end. The transformation of Clara, the nice sweet idealistic girl who used to quote Marcus Aurelius, is one that turns her into someone who thinks of human lives in terms of balance. She's even got her own plucky little sidekick who is prone to acts of heroism because Clara inspires such things. Rigsy deciding to take the bus and ram it into the monsters reeks of Clara jumping into the light at the end of "The Name of the Doctor." And our real Doctor? Well, as he put it himself "I see what you see." The little scientific earpiece that also connects to Clara's ocular nerve obviously serves a greater metaphorical purpose here--and it's not exactly subtle. What do you do when you realize that you are responsible for fundamentally changing the core of a close friend? By the end of this episode, Clara is more Doctor than she is Clara--by this I mean that she's not the girl who once got super emotional when she realized that, to the Doctor, we are all just ghosts. By the end, she's someone who is thinking in terms of balance: what are the lives of a few humans when you've just saved the whole world? And worse still, Clara's proud of herself. She's more or less reveling in just how well she did playing Doctor. Credit where credit is due, she did come up with the overall plan to return the TARDIS to normal so that the Doctor could defeat the monsters and she did it in "Doctor style." But did she lose something in the process?

Put a pin in the proper review because I need to fangirl over this moment. THIS was a quintessential Doctor Who moment. I've said it before; while the majority of Peter Capaldi's episodes have been enjoyable, they've been lacking something and I think we just figured out what it was: a "I am the Doctor" moment. Every Doctor should have one. 10's was his speech during "Voyage of the Damned;" 11's was his incredible performance at Stonehenge. But thus far, 12 hasn't had one of these; he's been actively fighting these kinds of moments, distancing himself from his role as savior and hero. But this, this right here, this is who he truly is. Who he always has been. Who he will forever be. "You are I must play my role...the man that stops the monsters. This plane is protected. I am the Doctor!" Oh, so much fist pumping was going on during this scene. This is the glorious mythical divine hero is all his classical majesty, wielding once more his magical sword as all heroes must (love that Clara threw him the Sonic in a symbolic return of power). This is the Knight slaying the Dragon. This is the Savior of the Universe standing before the demons of Hell and banishing them back to the underworld. Bravo to Peter Capaldi; he nailed it, just as I suspected he would. So if the Doctor is truly the hero, even if he still struggles with it, then what does that make Clara? Where does she go from here, having tasted that little bit of power that is so much more exciting that any adventure?

It's interesting that Clara wants praise from the Doctor. I think, on some level, she's expecting that they are now on equal footing--the hero and the heroine, not the hero and his companion. But what's really remarkable is that she essentially wants what she once rejected and criticized the Doctor for, patting her on the head and telling her what a good girl she is. Now she wants that praise. She wants to know that she did well as the Doctor. I flashback to the second episode of the season, "Into the Dalek" and how the rogue Dalek told the Doctor that he would make a good one of them, and of course this isn't seen as praise by the Doctor. Clara did make a good Doctor, but "goodness had nothing to do with it." Clara took on the Doctor's less than ideal qualities; she's okay with the fact that lives were lost because in the end, the Earth was saved. She looks at this in terms of balance and puts a check mark next to this adventure as a job well done. Not only that, but she is lying. She's lying a lot. Clara questions out loud if it isn't better to lie to someone if it is for their own good, in this case Danny who keeps inserting himself into her perfect little Doctor-fueled fantasy world, asking her to join him back in the real. When Clara is trying to keep the members of her team safe, she embraces the idea that she must lie to them, give them hope and tell them it'll be alright, even though it won't. Feed them false hope, in other words. It's what the Doctor would do. Ah, but as the Doctor tells her in the end, he does this "largely so others won't have to." The divine shoulders can bear the brunt of all those lies and false hopes and dreams shattered and lost. But can a human's? I've speculated before that Clara will leave the TARDIS willingly, having lost faith in the Doctor. But now that the Doctor has got some of his own faith back, might he abandon Clara for her own good? Might he ditch her, tell her to get on with her life without him? It's an interesting hypothesis. At some point, one of them has to be strong enough to break this addiction, and I don't think Clara is going to be the one to do it.

Miscellaneous Notes on Flatline

--A smattering of funnies:
"Don't give me an --ish." "These readings are very ish-y."
"What are you doctor of?" "I'm usually quite vague about that. I think I only picked up the title because it makes me sound quite important."
"This is embarrassing. I'm from the race that built the TARDIS, dimensions are kind of our thing."

--The Doctor becoming "Thing" from the Addams family and moving the TARDIS as a train speeds toward him. Brilliant.

--Some really fantastic CGI effects this time round.

--Oh, did I neglect Missy again? Honestly, I can't be bothered by this. The writers are only going to tease it until the very end and not give me anything to work with, so I'll just sit back and wait. But apparently Apple iPads are available in Heaven now. Well done, Steve Jobs.

--Poor Danny. I do hope we get a bit more of his story sooner rather than later because he's becoming quite one note as of late.

--The Doctor did a little dance. Adorable.

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