One of the many assets of Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity (spoilers ahead) is Clive Owen’s character, called the Professor. Like Jason Bourne, the Professor’s one of the Treadstone program’s assassins, a laconic piece of work who says nary a syllable until he finally catches up with his quarry. And once Bourne has gunned him down, he uses his dying words to reflect on the terrible bond they share:
Look at us. Look at what they make you give.
Bourne himself will repeat those words in The Bourne Ultimatum. It’s a commentary on the way Treadstone has leached the good from them both, in the name of a supposed higher purpose.
And after seeing the latest Doctor Who, the road from the Professor to the Doctor might not be as far as you’d think. Or hope.
Coming just a week after “Mummy on the Orient Express,” “Flatline” is another gem from writer Jamie Mathieson. Once again, he has brought us genuinely creepy monsters, rich humor, and a glimpse into the Doctor’s dark morality. Granted, he may be typecasting himself, but as long as Mathiesen keeps producing stories this good, it’s a great problem to have.
The monsters are pretty unique, and pretty disturbing, in the show’s history: beings from a two-dimensional world, who capture, examine, dissect, and imitate human beings like living grafitti, in an effort to understand our three dimensions… and perhaps to conquer them as well. The effects that realize “the Boneless” (another Tuckeresque nickname from the Doctor) are some of the most creative I’ve seen in the run of the show; the episode’s use of CGI is at once simple and terrifying.
In the process of their gruesome experiments (we won’t get into what happens to poor PC Forrest), the Boneless latch on to the TARDIS and start leaching energy from her (there’s that word “leaching” again). As a result, the TARDIS’s exterior begins to shrink, which heightens both the episode’s tension and its humor, often in the exact same moment.
Beyond this picture, I’ll not spoil the delights of the shrinking-TARDIS storyline, except to say that it inspires a few of the show’s great visual gags. It gives full rein to Peter Capaldi’s comedic genius. It raises the stakes for the Doctor as time begins to run out. And it forces Clara to be the Doctor for the run of the episode.
I know there’s been some criticism of Clara’s prominence in this season’s storylines. And I do understand where it’s coming from – the show’s called Doctor Who, after all. But the best companions have always held a mirror up to the Doctor, and the great thing about Clara’s arc this season is the way it does just that. Especially in “Flatline,” where Clara must do the Doctor’s work for him, forcing her to make the impossible choices he makes every moment, and allowing us to see how she perceives those choices:
“So what’s next, Doctor Clara?”
“Lie to them.”
“Lie to them. Give them hope. Tell them they’re all going to be fine. Isn’t that what you would do?”
Doctor Clara does a share of lying in this episode, less to the people she’s trying to save (including her “companion” Rigsy, played with charm and grace by Jovian Wade) than to Danny. It’s hard to say whether he’s buying it (I don’t believe he is, which should cause her no end of grief when they meet again in “In the Forest of the Night”), but the Doctor clearly isn’t: “Lying is a vital survival skill. And a terrible habit.” I’m not altogether convinced Clara knows the difference.
As it turns out, Clara has those Doctoral skills down pretty well. She investigates, she lies (or at least omits), she makes the hard choices. And she ultimately figures out how to hold off the Boneless and save the Doctor in one bold move, allowing him to emerge from the restored TARDIS, deliver another priceless I’m The Doctor monologue, and save the day. He couldn’t have done it without her, as Clara takes great pains to remind him.
Which leads to one of the most chilling lines in Series 8, as Clara dares Twelve to admit that she was “a good Doctor”:
You were an exceptional Doctor. Goodness had nothing to do with it.
And like that, we’re back to that essential question of Series 8: “am I a good man?” But the Doctor’s answer to Clara is nowhere near as comforting as her answer to him at the end of “Into the Dalek.” You can try. You can save everyone. But it doesn’t matter. You still have to make those choices. You still have to be the Doctor.
And look at what it makes you give.
It’s amazing to me how this season has managed to find space for these powerful dramatic moments. But it’s all the better for them. I can’t remember the last time I was this excited to see where Doctor Who was going.
Thank you once again for going there with me. Until next time…