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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Doctor Who blogging: “Flatline”

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[previous: “Mummy on the Orient Express”]

warning: spoilers!

Oh my god

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this is so amazing

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and just a little bit

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adorable (sorry, Doctor!)

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and scary

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and hilarious:

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(Doctor Who has made a thing out of things being Things, and now the Doctor himself is actually almost Thing. Thing Addams, that is. [Did Thing take the family surname?])

The levels of awesome here are… tiny.

Just when I thought I was out, Doctor Who pulls me back in.

Just as I was thinking that the really cool thing about science fiction is that you can tell almost literally any type of story and Doctor Who seemed to have forgotten this lately in favor of covering old ground or coming up with stuff that doesn’t even work in the you-can-tell-any-kind-of-story-in-science-fiction sort of way, we get this brilliant episode.

I mean: Doctor Who finally took a cue from Flatland! One of the most outrageously speculative works of weird fiction ever. How has the show managed to not do something like this sooner? “The Boneless” is sort of a terrible name for these beings, but probably any name that would be appropriate — as “Boneless” certainly is — wouldn’t be all that scary. (Flatlanders?) So that’s forgivable.

Just as the Weeping Angels and the Vashta Nerada ensured that we would never again look at statues and shadows in the same way, now we have to be terrified of graffiti:

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Clearly, the “monster under the bed” motif from “Listen” was intended to have the same sort of impact, but here’s the difference: No matter how much we may have ourselves convinced that there’s something under the bed, there simply isn’t. But statues and shadows and graffiti are really real, things we see every day (well, if we live in a city, anyway). You can look under the bed all you want and you’ll never see anything but dustbunnies (“Dust Monsters! Coming next season!), but did that bit of graffiti just move? Surely that was just a trick of the light, right? No…?

This is one of the things I have enjoyed about the rebooted Doctor Who, and one of the things I’d been missing lately: its wonderfully creepy way of looking at the world. Its dark sense of wonder.

This episode was so enthralling, in fact, that it’s a perfect example of how a good story well told and populated by interesting characters makes you either overlook or not care about minor quibbles or inconsistencies. I was so busy appreciating the bit of social commentary — like how the police weren’t investigating all those missing people, how no one in authority seemed to care because they were poor and not “important” — and enjoying the company of the smart and talented Rigsy, and gasping when the tiny TARDIS went over that ledge into the abyss, that I wasn’t too bothered by how the Boneless were able to read Arabic numerals when they couldn’t appear to understand any other form of human communication, or why it automatically followed that “now they’re 3D they can restore dimensions.” It was cool enough that we could talk to the Boneless using math! Or that Clara got to be so clever, competent, and quick-thinking!

But here’s something I can’t forgive (pending how it turns out), something that soured me just a little. The Doctor says, “You were an exceptional Doctor, Clara. Goodness had nothing to do with it.” At first I thought he had reverted to be his (new) usual insulting jerk, but then Missy shows up:

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And cackles, “Clara, my Clara, I have chosen well.”

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Which suggests that Missy is somehow controlling Clara (and the Doctor knows it). Which suggests that Clara is not responsible for being so clever, competent, and quick-thinking. Which would really really suck.

And how does Missy have that view on Clara? I have a terrible, dreadful feeling I know what’s coming. Was that hacking-into-Clara’s-optic-nerve thing a clue? Has Missy hacked the Doctor’s brain? Or — and this is what I’m afraid of, because it sounds a lot like an idea that I had that I would have loved to develop — is she actually in the Doctor’s brain? Did the Time Lords accidentally — or deliberately — drop some other Gallifreyan consciousness into his head when they gave him a new regeneration cycle?

Random thoughts on “Flatline”:

• Oh, Clara!

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If only you hadn’t answered the phone, thereby cementing yourself in the timeline as not meeting Danny in the park, you could have had the Doctor drop you back then after this was all over, and Danny would be none the wiser.

I mean, not that I condone lying in such a massive way to the guy you say you love, but c’mon: you’ve got a time machine at your disposal. You never have to be late, or miss a date, or anything. As you’ve clearly already figured out.

• Siege mode!

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That would have been really useful at certain moments in the past, probably, if the Doctor hadn’t, erm, forgotten it existed or something.

(Looks kinda like the Pandorica…)

Oh, and I guess the TARDIS is only this small because its dimensions have been messed with, but speaking of that: If the Time Lords were masters of dimensional technology, couldn’t they have engineered into each TARDIS an option to shrink its external appearance down to something that you could shrink down and put in your pocket (or purse)? As far as we can see in this episode, there was no negative impact on the TARDIS because the door had shrunk — it only impeded getting in and out. Did they just not think of it? Or were there reasons why it wasn’t feasible? (See? A good episode activates the fanfiction section of my brain!)

• This was a really nice shot:

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We see the traffic light change from green to red only in the reflection of the driver’s cabin. Clever.

Though this does make me wonder precisely how Clara knew how to use the sonic screwdriver to make the light change. The device has seemed like a magic wand in the Doctor’s hand, but we could at least wave away objections by telling ourselves that he is intimately acquainted with it, knows all its settings and so on. But we cannot presume that Clara was somehow prepared for this particular eventuality.

Oh. Right. Somehow, it wasn’t actually Clara doing all the cool stuff here. Crap. *sigh*

[next: “In the Forest of the Night”]


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  • Jess Haskins

    I didn’t read it as saying that Missy was controlling Clara or Clara wasn’t responsible for her actions. I read it to mean Missy had selected Clara for some *future* use and had been watching her, and Clara’s good performance in this instance confirmed that it was a good choice. (“Watching” her via magic iPad…I don’t think this is Doctor’s POV, this is just some heaven tech thingamajig that can see its target from anywhere.)

    I really enjoyed this episode too. It felt like I was seeing something new and fresh finally. Good on both the sci-fi and the human elements.

  • I read it to mean Missy had selected Clara for some *future* use

    Maybe. Except why did “goodness [have] nothing to do with it”?

    And it would explain how Clara knew how to use the sonic screwdriver with such precision when the Doctor wasn’t telling her what to do.

    i’m not married to my theory or anything. But it was the first thing that leapt to mind.

  • Jess Haskins

    Addressed the “goodness” thing in an edit (should have just made a new comment). I think this is just an expression of the “Is the Doctor a good man?” theme that’s haunting this season.

  • David_Conner

    I agree with Jess on the “Goodness had nothing to do with it” idea – just more exploration of the question of whether the Doctor is a “good man” or not.

    I particularly liked the bit where we learn how psychic paper can be resisted.

  • Danielm80

    I thought he was saying that it isn’t possible to be an effective Doctor and a good person. He was complimenting Clara for lying and reprimanding her for her hypocrisy–since she’s criticized him when he was dishonest.

    I don’t necessarily agree with the philosophy, but I’m glad that, for once this season, the Doctor’s unpleasant behavior actually had a rationale behind it.

  • I saw things exactly the same as you. It never occurred to me that Missy was controlling Clara.

  • bronxbee

    see, i thought the “goodness had nothing to do with it” line was just an observation that cleverness and quick thinking and leadership qualities don’t come from “goodness” but intellect and experience — maybe i glossed over it too much but i didn’t think it was imbued with *that* much significance

  • bronxbee

    me either — it really, really bugged me that this otherwise excellent episode got blobbed up by throwing this coda into it — however, i thought missy was casting about to choose someone as the Doctor’s future nemesis or someone she could prey upon as a control against the Doctor; but i thought otherwise it was a great episode

  • That really would make the screwdriver almost a magic wand.

  • David_Conner

    Isn’t it, though? I’m not steeped in the lore, having only seen the first, second, and current series of the “New” Who, but that’s more or less how it seems to work to me based on what we see on screen.

    Looking at it with a gamer’s eye, my sense is that the screwdriver has a huge panoply of sensors/”detect” spells/tricorder functions, plus a “Manipulate/Alter Device” function. And that function also probably uses the sensors a lot, conveying schematic information to the user, etc.

    Functionally, all are dependent on the skill level of the user. The Doctor could use it to open a 25th century security door, because he understands 25th century encryption techniques and all sorts of other arcane science/engineering stuff, and knows what bits to have the screwdriver manipulate. Clara wouldn’t be able to open that door, because she doesn’t understand that stuff.

    But a red/green light switch is the most rudimentary of 19th century electronics. I think anyone with a basic high school education (and a skill like “Familiarity: Galifreyan Tech,” which companions would need to do basic offscreen stuff aboard the TARDIS) would be able to flip that switch.

  • Trigguy

    Agree about the ‘goodness’ – I thought it was an excellent illustration of what I see as an aspect of the current Doctor’s self-loathing. He recognises both the same brilliance but also callousness in Clara’s actions. I think that’s what’s so difficult about the current Doctor – his self-loathing is close to the surface and affecting his usual manner. It’s not that he hasn’t had problems of this sort before (eg ‘Amy’s Choice’), but he usually keeps these feelings well hidden. I’m hoping that this is what the writers are trying to put across here, and that it will be at least partially resolved in some way to make him a slightly easier person to get on with, though clearly this incarnation is always going to be prickly, at best.

    Probably thinking too much, but maybe the rationale is that the last Doctor had essentially ‘made his peace’, knowing that he would die fighting on Trenzalore and whatever mistakes he’d made, he had no choice as to how to continue and, finally, die. So how is he going to react after years of that when he gets another stretch of 12 regenerations to use up? Some morbid introspection is not unreasonable. Just a shame that the writing hasn’t really explored that path, and left us to guess a little at his sudden self-doubt.

  • I’m smart and educated, and I couldn’t really tell you how electronics work. Not in detail. I can flip a switch, but I couldn’t explain what happens what that switch is flipped. And I would be astonished if Clara, an English teacher, would be able to do so either.

    The most “reasonable” explanation for how a magic wand sonic screwdriver would work in this instance is: Clara thinks, “I want to change that light from green to red,” and then the sonic screwdriver itself somehow determines how to do that.

    The problem with a magic wand is that it can do almost anything for any reason, and so becomes a cheap storytelling crutch. Even the wands in the world of Harry Potter required specific spells to accompany their use, the effectiveness of which depends on the knowledge and skill of the user. In Harry’s world, what Clara does here would more likely end up with the light turning into a frog, or something.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Isn’t this exactly why the producers asked the writers to stop using the sonic screwdriver in the ’80s?

    Since 2005, the writers haven’t even tried to pretend the sonic works like anything other than magic. 9 and 10 both used it as a wand, with the occasional tinkering. 11 used it like a wand and a tricorder. “The Day of the Doctor” introduced something about “software” and “hardware”, suggesting that the device is directly connected to the TARDIS, which is known to be both temporally disconnected (it knows what you’re going to do because it remembers) and a little bit psychic.

    I think if you cornered any writer or producer of “Doctor Who” from the past 50 years and asked them “How exactly does the sonic screwdriver work?”, their answer would be “Very well, thank you.”

  • David_Conner

    I figure the sonic screwdriver probably presented Clara with a schematic of the train switch not unlike this and the equivalent of a dialogue box saying “Choose A or B?”

    http://catalog.miniscience.com/Catalog/Electricity/KSWITCH_Diagrams/SPDT_Diagram_2.jpg
    http://catalog.miniscience.com/Catalog/Electricity/Knife_Switch_Diagrams.html

    It’s not a terribly complex situation, electronics-wise. It might be further up the chain (i.e., how do you know if a train is coming), but at the endpoint, it’s just a binary switch.

    But if Clara was pointing the screwdriver at the control board for a radio station or somesuch, I agree that she wouldn’t be able to accomplish much beyond (maybe) “turn everything off.”

  • Froborr

    On the sonic screwdriver: I agree with Phil Sandifer on both this and the psychic paper, that its purpose is to circumvent boring obstacles/questions so that the story can focus on interesting things. It *is* a magic wand, and its power is to do tech-y stuff that is logically necessary but narratively boring. Obviously that means it can easily be abused by writers as a crutch, but it’s actually fairly difficult to find examples where it has been.

    I’m actually intrigued by how Mary Ann’s reviews and Phil’s have been polar opposites this season–he thinks this season is the best the show has ever been and called this episode the season’s weakest; Mary Ann is hating the season but thought this episode was good–and I’m somewhere in between. I thought this episode was okay, this season is doing some things really well and failing horribly at others… *shrug*

  • Stephen Robinson

    To MaryAnn’s point, calling the sonic screwdriver a “magic wand” is almost an insult to actual magic wands. Even within the pseudoscience of GREEN LANTERN, the power ring functions as an extension of the user’s will power (thus, Green Lantern can’t just be any random guy with a fondness for accessories).

    We’ve established that The Doctor has psychic abilities, so I never had an issue with the screwdriver or the psychic paper as an extension of those abilities. The Jedi Mind Trick is cool because Obi-Wan is an accomplished Jedi Master. If the “trick” was just some badge he showed people — a badge that could work just as well if anyone used it — it would be less impressive.

    So, as a writer and fan, I would rank Clara’s use of the screwdriver and the psychic paper up there with Tegan or Nyssa piloting the TARDIS.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Not seeing the crucial difference between the sonic screwdriver and the power ring. If you look at the venerable histories of two devices, you find they are largely interchangeable.

    What makes a magic wand a magic wand isn’t who can use it. It’s what the storyteller uses it to do. The nice thing about magic wands is not just their multi-functionality, or their ability to extract characters from difficult situations, but that their operation doesn’t have to follow any rules of physics, or even logic.

    Has any character ever attempted (unsuccessfully) to use the Doctor’s screwdriver previously?

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    It seems like most of the time, all the Doctor uses the sonic to do is to “make this mechanism do the thing it’s designed to do, right now”. Hence, it opens a lot of locks.

  • Tonio Kruger

    And Missy Clara’s fairy godmother?

    Mind you, I did regret the acute scarcity of flying monkeys in that last scene…

  • Tonio Kruger

    The problem with TV sci-fi in general is that almost any sci-fi device used in a sci-fi show becomes “magic.”

    Thus a robot often ends up acting like a thinly disguised human being, a computer acts like some sort of magic box that can figure out almost any puzzle — and sometimes read people’s minds to boot — and a hologram becomes just another sort of high-tech ghost.

    (And don’t get me started on hard-light holograms. It was a dumb concept on Red Dwarf and it was an equally dumb concept on last week’s Doctor Who episode.)

  • Danielm80

    Every show is better if you add monkeys. Smash would still be on the air if it had singing monkeys.

    But yes, the sonic screwdriver is a magic wand, the Doctor is a wizard, and the TARDIS is a flying carpet.

  • any sci-fi device used in a sci-fi show becomes “magic.”

    Only if lazy writers allow it.

  • Daigoro Ogami

    “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

    — Arthur C. Clarke

  • Daigoro Ogami

    This.

  • althea

    Hooray, now THIS is a Doctor! He wasn’t acting certifiably loony. Sigh of relief. Let’s see if it sticks. I’ll just write off most of the previous episodes.

  • This negates my comment in precisely no way.

  • Although “being magic” may be one sort of issue, being “inconsistently magic” is a deeper issue. Why shouldn’t a hard-light hologram be a thing? As long as it’s a consistent thing.

  • Exactly. Even magic has to have rules.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Well, a hard-light hologram seems like something you expect to see mentioned by a person who has no idea what a hologram is or how it is created. Technically, one could argue that such a device might be someday possible with the use of technology that we do not yet possess but then you could say the same thing about flying carpets and universal solvents. And anyway, such plot devices tend to work a lot better in fantasy rather than in science fiction.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t mind suspending my belief when I watch certain sci-fi shows — especially when I’m watching the sci-fi equivalent of junk food — but even I like to have some limits and some plot devices will always annoy me more than others.

    Your mileage obviously varies, which is just as well since this would be a dull forum if everyone here had the same mileage.

    Anyway, if I wished to be pedantic — or at least, more pedantic than I usually am — I could point out that I never said that a hard light hologram was not a “thing.” I just happen to consider it a “stupid thing.” :-)

  • The hard-light hologram didn’t bother me because it was mostly stage dressing, not something that had any significant impact on the plot.

    That said, how Clara uses the sonic screwdriver here doesn’t really bother me, because the story overall is so good. But there was a *good* reason why John Nathan-Turner had the Fifth Doctor see his screwdriver destroyed: it was making the writers lazy. (Of course now, the Doctor would just make a new one.)

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