Our Ideals Are Our Ethical Skeletons, Doctor Who: Flatline, 19/10/2014

Thematically, Flatline was a strange episode. Phil Sandifer’s review caught all the problematic points in terms of plotting and characterization: Danny is given too little time in the story to be anything but a signifier, when his appearances in the first half of the season indicated so much more; the episode’s tone can veer too far too inappropriately.

I think this dance might literally be my favourite part of
this episode, possibly Capaldi's entire tenure. The Doctor is
doing a Grandpa Dance. Think about that.
That said, with a cursory mention of those


Flatline succeeded on a host of levels. And even the elements that didn’t entirely succeed still offer intriguing possibilities. For one, the episode was properly paced to be quite entertaining, moving from set piece to set piece throughout, and each individual set piece being top-notch exciting and visually striking. Capaldi himself is brilliant, especially in moments like his hand crawling the shrunken TARDIS off the railway tracks and his happy disco celebration dance immediately thereafter. 

Mostly this season, the Doctor has been treated as an alien object, someone to hold at a distance, a force too cosmic for human interaction. But Capaldi’s Doctor is capable of these very funny charismatic moments, which will be important to how his character must eventually develop: when Clara leaves, he’ll need another companion, and he’ll have to express himself in such a way that someone else will want to travel with him. He’ll need to display himself in ways like he did in Flatline, Robot of Sherwood, and The Caretaker: his version of the larking, smiling, slightly mad Doctor. 

Because in addition to having two-dimensional villains this week, we’re in danger of having a two-dimensional image of Capaldi’s Doctor. This is another effect of the pre-transmission press coming from Steven Moffat’s publicity wing: that this would be a dark Doctor, and this season would explore dark themes. The aesthetics of the stories and imagery are definitely taking on more of a horror style, but this message “the dark Doctor” is having detrimental effects on Capaldi’s own image. 

Jamie Mathieson's pitch for Flatline was apparently a
drawing, which I quite badly want to see.
We remember the harsh sarcasm in the face of death from Mummy on the Orient Express, the haughty pretence of Kill the Moon, the chilling bombast of Into the Dalek, and the disturbingly still intensity of Deep Breath. We forget the wit of The Caretaker, the mischief of Robot of Sherwood, the grandpa dance in Flatline, and the joyous smile at the end of Mummy on the Orient Express. 

Capaldi’s Doctor isn’t only pure callousness, alien sublimity, and utilitarian calculation of who should live and die on the fly. He is as he’s been since 23 November 1963: a fantastically complex character who’s only grown in internal multitudes since then.

Yet Clara seems to be making the same mistake of elision that the audience does when we give too much credit to the quick lines of a publicity message like “dark Doctor.” She ends the episode, having ignored and lied to Danny, having carried most of the heavy lifting of the adventure, presuming what she thinks is the Doctor’s moral point of view. Because only a few people died, but the world was saved, those deaths were acceptable. You give people hope only because it’s a better motivator than thoughts of certain doom, but you don’t believe in that hope yourself. 

But the Doctor makes it clear in his reaction that Clara has made a mistake: those aren’t his ethical principles for adventuring; they’re his moral compromises. The distinction is clear philosophically. A principle or an ideal (they’re equivalent in this context) is a concept, including its behavioural imperative, to which you believe you should structure your life accordingly. The Doctor’s would be freedom, hope, wisdom, and progress. That’s why he fights creatures like The Boneless.*

The irony of casting Christopher Fairbank as
the brutish, stupid, abusive leader of Rigsy's
community service group is that his most
famous role was as the sympathetic ex-con
plasterer Moxey on Auf Wiedersehen, Pet,
one of the greatest working class dramas
that Britain ever produced.
* Incidentally, The Boneless** are nakedly Jamie Mathieson’s attempt to add a monster to the Doctor Who pantheon. They fit all the templates of a Doctor Who monster: a purely malevolent and destructive nature, plus a visual or conceptual gimmick of some kind. Honestly, I think he’s done a pretty good job. The Boneless are visually amazing, though they’d be impossible with most any special effect known prior to the 21st century. Their methods are genuinely creepy, and their central concept of two-dimensional creatures invading three-dimensional realities is freaky, and is simple enough to return.

** Some would say that the end of this story was a cop-out. Yes, Clara did trick the Boneless into recharging the dying, shrunken TARDIS, but once it was restored, the Doctor just waved a magic wand, and energy from the TARDIS made the monsters disappear. But this was actually an instance of the TARDIS’ nature as an alchemical machine: it transforms the material world by manipulating symbols and reflections. The Boneless are monsters, demons without an identity, and in naming them, the Doctor gains power over them. So the Doctor literally won by magic. He’s named them: they are no longer unstoppable monsters that will overthrow our world, but Doctor Who monsters who can now have their proper Wikia page.

* Problems, I think, would include their simplicity. They don’t really do much other than amble after the main characters. They’re much more exciting as shadow-like presences, distortions on walls and floors that can otherwise be easily missed. Any future Boneless stories would have to complexify their relations with each other, and anything that could be adequate to the weird intimations we get this episode would require some deep and strange thought. Still, what else is Doctor Who for?

For all the Doctor may tactlessly speak to him, he does
praise Rigsy, and try to be his usual inspirational self.
"Your last artwork saved the world; your next better be
just as good." But Clara had already built the friendship
that would have made those words count, even though
she ignored his huge mural in the tunnel.
Where were we? I’m not sure if that recursion was totally pulled off. It was an interruption within an interruption. Oh, I have it!

That’s why the Doctor fights creatures like The Boneless. He is the man who fights monsters, and his role is to fight malevolence on its allegorical level, as monsters and villains in our stories. Doctor Who is a modern myth in the strongest sense, and the stories we tell in the television show (along with all the other media) constitute the collection of this myth. The Doctor embodies his ideals, and fights for them. He makes the compromises he does because even in his stories, the world is a complex place, so there are losses and mistakes in every battle, just as in our far more complex battles in real life. 

The Doctor struggles through his adventures not to let his compromises overpower his ability to find the better way. And now here’s Clara presuming that his compromises constitute the whole of the Doctor’s character. This is the real tragic arc of the Doctor and Clara’s relationship this season, not that her relationship with Danny and her Earthly life is pushing them apart, but her having forgotten her friend’s ideals. 

At the end of Deep Breath, Clara said that she could accept the new Doctor for who he was, but I think this episode has confirmed that she still feels a dissonance between the Doctor she first knew, Matt Smith, and the Doctor she now deals with, Peter Capaldi. Capaldi’s Doctor defaults to a gruff, sarcastic attitude, where Smith’s was more typically warm and jolly. Clara has come to define Capaldi’s Doctor through his harshness, and has forgotten that this was once the same man she shed a tear for on the last day of the Time War.

Perhaps if Clara had watched Capaldi’s Doctor stand at the Moment’s activator with John Hurt and David Tennant, she would have let him push the button and kill billions of people who should have been saved. It would have been just another moral compromise that the Doctor makes all the time. But if the Doctor ever teaches us anything, it’s that our moral compromises shouldn’t define who we are. They’re what we should regret as we fight a world so hostile that our ideals become impossible. 


  1. Great post! But is "most any special effect known prior to the 20th century" really what you meant to write?

    1. Not the first time I've made that typo. Thanks, and fixed.

    2. Of course the original claim was true also.

  2. Nice review; I really enjoyed this episode. I liked that the monsters were in the end just monsters; simple but effective. However, hate to nitpick, but Auf Wiedersehen, Pet was actually an ITV show - the BBC just did the '20 Years Later' follow-up

  3. Nice review. That dance was the funniest thing I've seen. It was perfect. That whole episode had so many funny moments. I honestly feel that even though it was written for Matt, coming from Peter, who is playing a more serious doctor, is just plain brilliant!

    1. The way I think about it, all Doctors are variations on each other; the same personality with different emphases and manners of expression. Capaldi tends more to sarcasm, distance, and seriousness, but he also has that humourous streak. It's not only in Flatline, but is on display in Deep Breath, Robot of Sherwood, and The Caretaker, and even a few lines in Listen when he's blissfully oblivious to how uncomfortable Clara is that he's just introduced a 22nd century time traveller who would appear to be genetically linked to her, but who looks just like her new boyfriend Danny. As well, I loved his bleak jokes in Into the Dalek, though my own sense of humour tends to darkness quite a bit.

      Every Doctor was capable of doing something like that Grandpa dance; they'd each do it a little differently.