Beautiful Fragile Human Skin Like Parchment (Flatline)
|Typically two-dimensional characterization|
It’s October 18th, 2014. Meghan Trainor remains at number one with “Shake it Off,” while Ed Sheeran, Ella Henderson, Jeremih, and Nicki Minaj entering the top ten, the latter with “Anaconda,” which enters one place above Taylor Swift if you’re the sort of person who wants to keep score in years-old short-lived celebrity feuds. In news, Nicola Sturgeon becomes set to take over the Scottish National Party from Alex Salmond by dint of their being no other candidates, and the first case of Ebola to be contracted in the United States is confirmed.
On television, meanwhile, Flatline. Once again, Jamie Mathieson provides a script based around a clever and highly televisual concept. It’s not quite surprising that Doctor Who has never done two-dimensional monsters before; conceptually it’s the sort of thing that’s more likely to show up in the classic series, but it would have been technologically infeasible prior to CGI. Still, it’s the sort of idea that if you asked a casual fan if had ever been done, they’d assume it must have been; it’s self-evidently a Doctor Who idea. In practice the Boneless aren’t quite as crisply realized as the Mummy—their rules become pure handwave once they become 3D—but they look good throughout and are the Capaldi era’s only real stab at a proper new monster (as opposed to henchmen for a human-appearing villain or, the more common case, not-actually-monsters), and certainly the only Capaldi-era foes you could see coming back down the line. (Indeed, they made a dreadfully unsatisfying comics appearance in Doctor Who Magazine that took no advantage of the inherent possibilities of a 2D/3D shifting monster appearing on a 2D page that represents 3D space.) And in any case, they look great, setting up the delightfully Doctor Who phenomenon of an episode that can do shambling zombies that have spontaneously gained an extra dimension persuasively, but that whiffs it completely on doing a convincing train.
But even moreso than last week the clever premise and well-executing Doctor Whoing of the affair is just the foundation on which something interesting is being built. It’s not that Flatline’s set pieces aren’t worth celebrating; the shrinking TARDIS is a brilliant conceit, and the Doctor hand-walking the miniaturized TARDIS off the railroad tracks as Murray Gold puts his hero theme into overdrive may well be the single greatest moment of Doctor Who in which it’s not entirely clear whether anyone involved is remotely competent at their jobs. But taken on their own these things only get you a better-than-average late season standalone. What distinguishes Flatline is simple: Clara.
Obviously we’ve talked about Clara a lot already. I highlighted her more than most critics are inclined to all the way back in the Series Seven material, and since reviving Eruditorum I’ve tried to give her at least a paragraph per essay, in part because I want to devote attention to female characters, but mostly because I think she’s integral to the Capaldi era’s status as a golden age. Clara/Twelve isn’t just an iconic pairing to rival Jo/Three or Sarah Jane/Four, it’s the most complexly characterized Doctor/companion relationship the series has ever managed. When we talked about Jo or Sarah Jane, we mostly ended up focusing on Katy Manning and Liz Sladen, which is to say that the bulk of what worked about those characters was their specific performances and rapport with the lead. Even through the Davies era, where the official policy was to have the companion be a co-lead, the companion was often programmatic. Rose was sublime, but she still reduced to the quality of concept in rooting the companion in the working class and the fact that Billie Piper was a gift. Donna started to strain against that, but there’s still an irreducible “Mel done right” aspect to her where the whole edifice extends out of casting an already famous actress.
But Moffat’s tendency to slightly overwork the concepts of his companions pays a perhaps unexpected dividend in how we have to understand those companions, in that they suddenly resist being reduced to their performers in the same way. It’s not, obviously, that Karen Gillan and Jenna Coleman don’t contribute tremendously to their characters’ successes, nor that their rapports with Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi aren’t central to their eras’ functions. But these things are no longer sufficient to explain the characters’ functions. For all that Moffat’s detractors like to pick on the way in which his companions come with handy taglines like “The Girl Who Waited” or “The Impossible Girl,” the fact that these characters are defined in part in mythic terms gives them a weight that stands up to Rebel Time Lord in a way previous companions couldn’t.
But of course, Clara hasn’t been the Impossible Girl for a while; the term disappears completely from discussions around her character after Deep Breath. But the mythic heft of the character remains. And Flatline is a demonstration of that; a story in which Clara not only “gets to be the Doctor,” but where she excels at it in precisely the way Rose and Donna didn’t get to in The Christmas Invasion and Turn Left. Clara gets to do the actual bulk of the heroing here, with the Doctor literally being reduced to a gadget in her pocket to accompany the sonic screwdriver and psychic paper. She may get another three false departures after this, but her sheer competence here is what makes the terms of her actual departure inevitable. There’s simply nothing else that will do besides her actually ascending to equal terms with the Doctor.
But the mythic is defined precisely by its separation from the human scale, especially in Doctor Who, where there’s always been a carefully maintained measure of distance from its mythic center. And this becomes strange when applied to the companion, who in the traditional (if never entirely accurate) conception is the character the audience is supposed to ally their perspective with. As I said last week, I’m generally uninterested in picking apart the reasoning of the Clara hate brigade. Or, more accurately, I just don’t think there’s that much to pick apart; the overlap with the crowd opposed to Jodie Whittaker’s casting is revealing in the extreme. But it’s also the case that Clara isn’t straightforwardly likeable in the way that most companions are. We are constantly invited to focus on her flaws in a way that isn’t normal for the companion. And Flatline takes that to one of its most extreme points, doing an entire story about Clara’s equivalence to the Doctor that pays off with the Doctor telling her off about it.
Actually, the real payoff is the revelation that Missy picked her as a companion, and that’s worth unpacking. I usually try to avoid getting too proleptic with TARDIS Eruditorum, but since this fact is never really substantively unpacked in an individual story let’s go ahead and tackle it a bit here in case I get distracted in Dark Water/Death in Heaven and The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar. First, the spoiler: *stage whisper* Missy’s the Master! She’s a very different sort of Master, and not just in the obvious ways, but there are definitely better stories than this to talk about that with. Still, it’s worth stressing up front that the notion of her as a distorted mirror of the Doctor is dealt with in much more complex terms than with previous iterations of the character. Which is to say that on the one hand, Clara is a homicidal maniac’s idea of the perfect companion, but on the other there’s no particular reason why this should undermine her. Indeed, given the particulars of Missy’s relationship with the Doctor it’s just as likely to validate her.
Certainly Missy’s assessment was been a part of Clara long before we found out it was Missy’s. After all, her critics are usually just as quick to call her a Mary Sue as they are to call her unlikable, and while there’s an obvious contradiction in that, the truth is that both accusations are in their own way correct. From the start Clara is defined as the perfect companion. Consider her three introductions: a Junior Entertainment Manager, a job that’s two synonyms away from children’s literature; a fairy tale governess straight out of the golden age of children’s literature; and a children’s literature connoisseur. In other words, she’s consistently framed in terms of the genre the plucky female companion archetype was inherited from, defined by her unwavering adherence to those terms. Indeed, a central engine of the Impossible Girl arc was the constant sense that Clara was simply too good at being a companion.
Much of her plot in Series Eight consists of responding to the implicit question this leaves behind. If there really is nothing sinister about Clara and she really is just an ordinary girl, why is she so good at being a companion? Or, to put it another way, what sort of person would you have to be in order to actually be the ideal plucky children’s heroine? And the answer turns out to be that you’d have to be deeply, deeply fucked up. And so the cleverness of children’s heroines becomes the purview of liars. Their fearlessness becomes the drive of an addict. Their steadfastness and sense of control over their own stories becomes bossiness.
This is not a surprise from Moffat. The heart of classic tragedy is generally that the hero is put into a position where their virtues become flaws. Othello, a brilliant soldier known for his decisiveness, is put into a position where the one thing he needs to do is slow down and think; Hamlet, a thoughtful and meticulous scholar, finds himself in one where delaying constantly makes things worse. Moffat’s sense of adventure fiction has always been the inversion of this: the hero is someone with the right vices for a situation. That’s blatantly the heart of Sherlock, and it’s always present in his sense of Matt Smith’s Doctor as a slightly menacing and dangerous figure. So the conclusion that Clara’s heroism should not be a matter of goodness but of flaws is wholly in keeping with how he conceives of the idea.
The fact that Moffat conceives of all his heroes this way makes it difficult to believe that her flaws-forward presentation is why so many people have it in for her; sexism may not account for each and every individual case, but it remains the best explanation for the aggregate. But there’s still something odd about it in the companion role. Because for all that she’s equated to the Doctor and made mythic in her own right, Clara is still the companion. She’s still the human one, understood through human frailties and ambitions; she’s still us. And that’s an important point opposite Capaldi’s Doctor, who is kept at more of an emotional remove from the audience than any Doctor since McCoy.
I’ve said before that I’m not wild about calling the companion the audience identification figure, not least because I always wanted to be the Doctor, not the companion. But the thing is, so does Clara. When Rose or Donna had to be the Doctor it was something forced upon them. But Clara leaps at the opportunity. That’s never really been something the companion has aspired towards before. And if there’s a mad and annihilating hubris to it, well, that’s how some things are. Certainly it’s how stealing a TARDIS and running away is. You don’t fall out of the world with your sense of self intact.
Clara forces us to confront that, and Flatline is the story that shows us what that’s going to mean. It’s not pretty, and as the Doctor says, goodness has nothing to do with it. But that’s not the same as saying it’s bad. It’s saying that this isn’t about morality. It’s just human. It might be the most human thing there is. Certainly, at this point, Clara is the most human companion we’ve ever had. Don’t stop her now.
May 28, 2018 @ 9:42 am
I’m one of those people who really can’t stand Clara as she’s either too bland or insufferably smug, but she really does work in this episode. And Mummy, actually.
Maybe it’s just that Moffat can’t write Clara.
I don’t like all the leaping to assumptions you see that people don’t like Clara as they are automatically right wing sexists, as if everything is binary. As, well, 90% of the other New Who female characters are great (really just River and Clara end up grinding my gears and they both share that awful smugness).
You talk about her being the ‘perfect companion’ and I think that’s probably hitting the nail on the head as to why she never really clicks. She’s just so boring. Sometimes you WILL see a writer trying to do something interesting with that (like you say “And the answer turns out to be that you’d have to be deeply, deeply fucked up”) but then that’s something Moffat shys away from, and you get the feeling that no, a spade really is just a spade and he feels that’s a perfectly fine thing.
I did think that the series 9 arc was going somewhere interesting with that, and her ‘danger addiction’ leading to her untimely death as she gambles too much, but then again, no, turns out she was right all along and she’s perfect and great.
At least Bill was a step back into actually having a relatable character in the show showing that the Moff hadn’t completely lost it! Shame that wasn’t series 9 and we got another year of backtracking Clara’s decent series 8 departure!
May 28, 2018 @ 11:32 am
“I’m one of those people who really can’t stand Clara as she’s either too bland or insufferably smug”
Okay, I am curious about this one – can you say you what scenes you found Clara to be smug in? Because I see that criticism of Clara a lot, but I honestly can’t think of any times I’ve found her “insufferably smug”. She’s self confident, yes, but I struggle to think of any scene that marks her out as more smug than any other main character in New Who.
May 29, 2018 @ 8:07 pm
Yeah, I don’t really pick up on the supposed smugness of Clara (unlike River Song, who is unabashedly smug).
As to not liking smug companions in general… I always note whether people don’t like smugness per se… and particularly whether they include the typically smug Doctors in their analysis of what they don’t like.
May 28, 2018 @ 5:02 pm
You’ve nailed it as far as I’m concerned with your assessment of Clara. I’m a left wing feminist who’s thrilled at the idea of a female Doctor, but Clara never clicked for me. I wanted to see her more as a person rather than as a living concept. Bill was a recognisable person and for me that enhanced rather than diminished her. I didn’t feel she was less a match for The Doctor because of it.
May 29, 2018 @ 12:09 am
I have zero doubt some of them are left-wing sexists.
May 29, 2018 @ 12:51 am
More seriously, if you’re seeing a binary here, it’s one you’re imposing. That’s very much not how I view sexism and misogyny.
Rob O Shea
May 29, 2018 @ 1:43 am
Yep, I totally agree there are left wing sexists. Interestingly Steven Moffatt did a podcast ( the toby hadoke one) recently and he made a nice point about some left wing or liberal people, that just because they have ‘good’ politically correct views, can be really aggressive and troll people with ‘bad’ views. Not sure how I am trying to connect it to left wing sexists, I’ve lost my point. But I guess I consider myself lefty and have seen fellow liberals get pretty aggressive with Trump supporters and I don’t think aggression is in the answer. I can’t stand Trump but I don’t think losing the plot with his supporters helps. Loved your review of Flatline, I loved Clara and Bill but very curious to see what the new companions will be like. I’m hoping three companions are not too much. One last thing, have you read the Damon Lindelof’s recent 5 page post about his take on Watchman? I loved The Leftovers and I actually think his approach on Watchman may really work. I know Alan Moore obviously won’t like it, but I’m prepared to give it a chance over those awful DC sequel/prequels. Although that may make me a hypocrite!
June 18, 2018 @ 5:36 am
I don’t think ever really, that Clara was portrayed as smug at all. For me she comes across as a well rounded and thus not perfect person whose flaws are integral to her abilities.
May 28, 2018 @ 9:45 am
Actually that’s another good point. I think that was a massive mistake. When he’s allowed to be charming, Capaldi is fantastic. Less so when just mean and grumpy, as it isn’t an entertaining mean and grumpy like in say, In The Thick Of It.
He shines in the Matheson episodes, as Matheson actually writes him with charming moments.
I do wonder if the Capaldi era would have been differently received if Deep Breath had the Flatline ending transplanted into it, or something like that. It’s a FANTASTIC “I’m the Doctor!” bit and really reaffirms the heroic nature of the character
May 29, 2018 @ 12:08 am
I mean, McCoy is full of charm. Distance is more about audience access to the character’s interiority.
May 28, 2018 @ 10:02 am
Yeah, totally agree with MattM here. There’s something unintentionally funny about saying there’s “not much to pick apart” regarding arguments against Clara, where your own arguments essentially boil down to “Clara haters are all just mysogynists”, which equally is so binary and simple that it almost defies being picked apart. Count me in as someone who is delighted about the Jodie Whitaker casting but can’t really abide Clara.
May 28, 2018 @ 10:12 am
I’d say “sexism may not account for each and every individual case, but it remains the best explanation for the aggregate.” is quite clearly a different argument to “Clara haters are all just misogynists” – it accounts for the fact that some people just naturally won’t like a character and that’s fine and that doesn’t make them bigoted, while also acknowledging the kind of sexist trend in quite a lot of criticism of Clara.
May 28, 2018 @ 10:23 am
I mean, does it though? If that’s true you have to assume that all the people who hate Clara are only really selective in their sexism and only come out to bash her rather than all the other strong female characters in the series who are very popular (Rose, Donna, Romana, Ace etc). Maybe it’s just something unique to Clara and the rather poor handling of her character. I’m sure there are some sexists who dislike her because she’s female, but that must be the minority as otherwise you’d see that same pattern across all of the show. It feels like an excuse not to engage in any introspection and instead just assume that the audience is somehow prejudiced instead of the fiction being lacking.
In the same way, all the complaining about the people who hated the new Ghostbusters because it featured women, meaning we don’t need to look at why it was an actually bad film. (Some of the techniques in it gave us Thor Ragnarok though, so that’s one positive!). I mean yes, it was a thing but a very very small thing. All those comic book sexists must have taken the day off for Wonder Woman though! Which was coincidentally a good film.
We live in a very binary and polarised age, but actually very few things are binary.
May 28, 2018 @ 10:25 am
“Maybe it’s just something unique to Clara and the rather poor handling of her character”
First we’d have to agree that her handling was poor. Which I very much don’t think is the case.
May 28, 2018 @ 10:58 am
The reason why dislike for Clara is 90% sexism (even not overt sexism) is that the reasons people don’t like her (too smug, too perfect, too much) are things women aren’t allowed to be in real life either. Liking women only when they behave in a way that is palatable to you still shows sexism.
For more specific things Clara does that women get shunned for in real life while men get away with the very same (or get lesser consequences for): being bossy, manipulating a situation to get her way, being perfectly prepared for every situation even though it fucks up her personal life (this one she gets criticised for on both counts!).
(Also from above, your assumption that she is boring says an awful lot more about her than it does about you. Clara has more depth and complexity than most characters ever get. I’ve published a book about her, and written at least that again analysing her, and I /still/ have things left to say)
May 28, 2018 @ 1:21 pm
It might seem odd, but having enough complexity to yield a book and more of writing can actually make a character boring to some kinds of (perfectly nice and reasonable) people.
Doctor Who, of course, has been good at a bewildering array of different things during its history, so it has fans who watch it for a bewildering array of different reasons. For me, I’d identify in particular the format which can go anywhere in time and space, having a hero who hates guns and villains who represent power, and its healthy understanding of its own fictionality. Which I don’t think anyone here would complain about too much.
But that means that when I watch Doctor Who, I’m doing it to see new and interesting places, or to see fundamental ideas presented in an interesting way. So my notion of ideal TARDIS travellers is either people who are fun to see the universe with, (such as Troughton/Jamie/Zoe,) or people who spend a lot of their time meaning abstract things, like Eccleston/S27 Rose. In both of these cases, it’s best for the character to not actually be all that complex and realistic. When I get on well with character-based narrative, it’s in something like KareKano, with its extensive internal monologues, animation so the body language is nice and exaggerated, and not much else in the way of distractions.
So when a complex and realistic (at least in this “what sort of person would you (realistically) have to be in order to actually be the ideal plucky children’s heroine” sense) character turns up in Doctor Who, most of that complexity is going to pass me by, because I’m paying attention to different things and I’m not used to picking it up in this sort of environment anyway. So the narrative will be full of “Clara is acting like this because of that and that” scenes which to me are going to be “Clara is acting like this for some reason I’ve probably missed. Maybe someone in fandom will explain it tomorrow.” Which doesn’t make for the most enticing viewing experience.
It’s not necessarily conclusive. I wouldn’t actually say Clara bores me, she just doesn’t positively interest me all that much. From time to time she does things which you don’t really need to understand the character in order to appreciate, (even though I’m sure you’re getting even more out of them,) so I just enjoy her in things like, actually, this one I think, or Kill the Moon and so on, and otherwise just defocus. It’s possible for things to be both fascinating and baffling at the same time, but it’s rare.
May 28, 2018 @ 2:52 pm
And of course, there’s “is this really complex and nuanced or just confused”
People have written massive essays about the deep complexities of the Star Wars prequels and how they are some of the most genius works of cinema but the masses can’t appreciate them because they don’t look at them in minute detail (really good example here: http://www.starwarsringtheory.com ) whereas… it might just be that they’re rubbish.
Or how about the really long and complex theories about Lost and how it’s really clever and ties together expertly with ultra deep themes… or it was all just made up on the hop.
Likewise, Clara might be a really really really really complex character, or she might just be written really badly and inconsistently.
(Not saying anyone can’t like her, opinions are subjective after all, but I think there’s a good reason why she’s so disliked and similar characters before and afterwards aren’t)
May 28, 2018 @ 4:14 pm
That sort of thing depends on how well it relates to real stuff and how it works, and that depends very much on what you think is real and how you think it works, and which parts are important because they’re relevant to your life or personality or friends or goals or politics or illogical fascinations, or not. So it’s very much a matter of opinion.
Of course, when things are a matter of opinion, it’s a lot harder for them to be objectively wrong.
May 28, 2018 @ 5:30 pm
“I think there’s a good reason why she’s so disliked and similar characters before and afterwards aren’t”
I think there’s a good reason, too. You brought up Star Wars: I think it’s the same reason lots of Star Wars fans say Rey’s a Mary Sue, even though most of her achievements are just as (if not more) justified than Luke’s in the original Star Wars trilogy.
I have yet to see any criticism of Clara that, to me, convincingly prove that she’s (to list some of the common accusations) “a Mary Sue”, “insufferably smug”
“inconsistently characterised” or “in need of a comeuppance” (the general theme of criticism that says her death on trap street should have been the end of her story).
So yeah, to me, sometimes a spade’s a spade and much (not all, but much) of the criticism of Clara is sexist in nature. That’s not to say that all, or even most, of Clara’s critics are rampant misogynists, but I think there’s a tinge of sexism to most of the lines of criticism Clara receives. Not “she’s inconsistently characterised”, I don’t agree with that criticism, but it’s definitely not sexist. But “Clara needs to die for wanting to be like the Doctor”, “Clara has the same flaws as the Doctor and this makes her insufferable”, and “Clara takes over the show and ruins the twelfth Doctor” (when she isn’t in two episodes of series nine while the twelfth Doctor gets a ten minute monologue and an entire one handed episode to himself) are all lines of criticism that have a more than a hint of double standards for the show’s female lead compared to its male lead.
May 29, 2018 @ 12:04 am
I mean, Ring Theory is probably the worst example you could reach for in that it appears, from interview quotes, to accurately reflect how Lucas approached the prequels.
I’d also quibble pretty intensely with the contention that having deep themes and tying together is incompatible with making it up as you go along. The method of construction is not the finished product.
May 29, 2018 @ 11:11 pm
“Likewise, Clara might be a really really really really complex character, or she might just be written really badly and inconsistently.”
And if people were really upset about Twelve for being really badly and inconsistently written, and they also included Clara in that complaint, that’d be understandable. I wouldn’t agree, but I could see where someone could make that argument. (Arguably, it’s true across the board with Doctor Who unless the script editor is being very heavy-handed.)
It’s the people who somehow find the writing of the male lead to be fine and only object to the female lead being written badly, using as proof that she sometimes displays characteristics that the male lead displays, that seem to be proving El’s point.
May 28, 2018 @ 11:15 am
“Maybe it’s just something unique to Clara and the rather poor handling of her character.”
That “poor handling” (and quotations marks were never thicker) is the conclusion people arrive at. It’s not a logical, irrefutable premise.
May 29, 2018 @ 12:13 am
This seems not entirely dissimilar to the “if Jordan Peterson is such a clown why don’t you write a thorough and detailed refutation of him” argument. If there were a lot to pick apart about it then it wouldn’t boil down to something as simple as sexism.
But the reality is that an overwhelming amount of Clara hate—by no means all of it, but a huge portion of it—is either blatantly sexist or falls into patterns like the “she’s a Mary Sue” line that people have argued pretty convincingly are sexist. Certainly the “the show became Clara Who” argument is reliably tinged with sexism.
May 30, 2018 @ 9:10 am
It’s actually very easy to write a detailed refutation of Peterson. But ain’t nobody got time for that, PRECISELY because he’s a clown. Or, rather, we call him a clown because his points are so silly so as not to move us to refutation.
May 28, 2018 @ 10:23 am
Unabashed fan of Clara here.
This, of course, is not the first time Clara has taken charge this series (there was Deep Breath and Kill the Moon, of course, Robot of Sherwood, Listen – quite a few moments, when I start to think about it), but after all the put-downs from the Doctor throughout the series (which can be read charitably, as El does, but which really did bother me while watching this series) it’s a real pleasure to see her take charge so completely.
May 28, 2018 @ 10:35 am
As for the hatred of Clara, this might be coloured by my experiences with the Polish fandom (which has its own unique set of certain opinions), but I see a lot of overlap with the people who criticise Rose for her selfishness, so I tend to think this is in many cases about a certain set of characteristics that are not very commonly encountered in female characters and that make the slightly spiky, difficult, a little unlikeable. A lot of the time those characteristics have to do with dominance, proactiveness, willingness to take control, so it’s hard not to read them as stemming from (possibly unconscious) sexist assumptions and storytelling conventions.
Another thing is that slight oversignification of companions that you mention, which I think results in a lot of people not having a firm handle on who Clara is as a person, leading them to call her bland or inconsistently written. It’s interesting that this didn’t happen to Amy: I wonder if it’s a matter of degree (was she perhaps less oversignified than Clara?) or was she just slightly more what we’d expect from a female character.
May 28, 2018 @ 10:40 am
Even Billy Piper thought Rose was selfish
May 28, 2018 @ 10:47 am
RTD calls her that as well (“Rose is open, honest, heartfelt, to the point of being selfish, wonderfully selfish (…) If Rose can be selfish, then her finest moments will come when she’s selfless”), but thinking or calling her that is different than criticizing the character for it. I don’t think there’s anything to criticize (from a character-building point of view), it’s an interesting flaw to give to a character.
May 28, 2018 @ 10:51 am
But to me, I think that’s an important differentiation. The show recognises she’s a bit selfish, and it’s clearly a flaw in her character.
May 28, 2018 @ 10:56 am
So does Moffat in Clara’s case (I mean, her flaws do get her killed), but at the same time, as El writes, Clara, much like the Doctors 11 and 12, has the right vices to become a Doctor in her own right, so that’s what ends up happening. This is a consistent aesthetic choice for Moffat, so singling out Clara for it and not extending that criticism to Eleven, Twelve, or Sherlock is… well, one starts to think it isn’t just motivated by a personal dislike for that particular storytelling choice.
May 28, 2018 @ 11:00 am
The show thoroughly recognises Clara’s flaws and she has multiple unpleasant consequences from them. They just don’t stop her from being a hero or a good person. (Which is exactly the same as how the Doctor is treated in the show, and male characters are treated all over media)
May 28, 2018 @ 11:10 am
And … the show doesn’t do that with Clara?!
Not even counting the many, many times she’s called a control freak, you get her entire romance arc with Danny which is very clearly framed as her being selfish and incapable to maintain a romance; you get her cockiness literally getting her killed in “Face the Raven”; you get the Doctor and her having to separate because the show acknowledges they’re toxic to each other. That’s just … plain text.
June 4, 2018 @ 5:15 am
Clara started taking charge of the series with “come back tomorrow,” if not earlier.
The characterization of Clara proper (not the earlier “echoes”) was consistant from the beginning, as a caregiver and teacher, wanting adventure and travel, but on her own terqms. She’s the first person to get the Doctor to actually stick to a schedule (“see you next Wednesday.”)
We were simply distracted from seeing this, temporarily, by the Doctor’s obsession with her alledged “mystery.” Which has its own unfortunate implications in the pattern of men seeing women as mystereous or difficult to understand because they refuse to communicate or listen.
Really, the first time Clara “becomes the Doctor” is at least as early as “Rings of Akahatan” when she steps up to defeat a monster the Doctor can’t stop.
It’s all there, hidden in plain sight.
May 28, 2018 @ 11:02 am
I generally find most of the criticism of Clara along the lines of the “Rey is a Mary Sue” take. In which a female character is criticized for being either overpowered or for taking up too much of the narrative. Although ironically, the “Moffat is a misogynist” crowd seized on that idea as well.
One thing people seemed to miss about Clara is that she’s the 50th anniversary companion. That’s why she’s so important in series 7, that’s might be why her last name is Oswald (obligatory JFK reference), that’s why she’s met and influenced every single Doctor. TV Tropes of all things managed to pick up on this. Even though she got a ton of character development after the 50th anniversary, a lot of people seemed to ignore that.
On a side note, the weirdest thing to me about Clara is that throughout series 8, I kept getting odd shades of Six and Peri in season 22. Even Deep Breath gave me flashbacks to the Twin Dilemma. And this didn’t end until the moment the Doctor said “Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?” And then in series 9 they were about as close as… well Six and Peri in season 23. The whole thing feels so bizarre because season 22 is probably objectively the worst season (either that or season 23). And Six and Peri are controversial at best. Yet 12 and Clara are probably one of the best pairings in the series and series 8 is one of the best seasons. Which is of course down to great writing and amazing acting but it feels so ironic.
May 28, 2018 @ 11:10 am
As an aside, I haven’t come across your description of what makes a tragic hero elsewhere. (I assume from your examples that it’s a generalisation of A.C. Bradley’s observation that if you swapped Hamlet and Othello into each others situation you’d have no play? But Bradley didn’t generalise.) It looks like the most useful observation on tragedy I’ve seen. It applies to Macbeth, Oedipus, and Avengers Civil War. Does it apply to Lear?
May 28, 2018 @ 7:19 pm
Snap! My reaction was pretty much “Hey, that’s great!”, followed by “Not sure it works for Lear though”. (But it totally does for Coriolanus, and Brutus-in-Julius-Caesar.)
May 28, 2018 @ 9:05 pm
On consideration, if you take virtue in a non-moral sense, Lear clearly has the virtues of being a strong ruler – aside from his older daughters all the characters who know him love and respect him. It’s just that’s no good when he’s taken into his head to renounce power.
May 29, 2018 @ 11:30 am
The abdication (and partition) is his own initiative, though, and is generally seen as part of what he does wrong, by both critics and characters. And his virtues being no longer useful is different from them being actively harmful.
Mind you, I suppose the abdication can be interpreted on one level as a situation he is put in, in the sense of it being a metaphor for the disempowerment of old age. And one can conjecture that what made him a good king made him a bad father (shades of the Henry V Good King=Bad Man reading there, though with toughness rather than dispassionate political calculation and shrewd image-management as the kingly virtue in question here), In which case, that “virtue” can be seen as underlying the way his elder daughters react once they’ve got the upper hand on the haughty, splenetic old patriarch. Be nice to people on your way up, beause you’ll be meeting them again on the way down, style of fing. That does take a fair amount of head-canoning though, given how little we get in terms of backstory.
May 29, 2018 @ 11:36 am
dispassionate political calculation and shrewd image-management
Well, and war-mongering ruthlessness, of course, which gives a closer analogy.
May 30, 2018 @ 11:27 am
The initial decision to divide the kingdom is itself tragically misconceived; the problem with applying El’s theory is then thinking which of the characteristics that King Lear displays in the rest of the play is both responsible for that decision and would be a virtue in other circumstances.
A lot depends on how you read Goneril and Regan. If you see them as completely corrupt from the off, then the decision to divide the kingdom was never going to work. If on the other hand you see them as either falling into a conflict with Lear as the result of his followers’ misbehaviour, or even as taking advantage of the opportunity the followers’ misbehaviour offers for a power grab, then the initial decision looks more sensible; it’s just that Lear is the wrong person to take it.
A further complication is the role of Cordelia and France in all this. (El’s theory definitely works for Cordelia.) Shakespeare uses a lot of dramatic tricks, including a double time scheme and Lear and his entourage getting all the good lines, to gloss over the fact that we don’t see Goneril and Regan doing anything to justify a declaration of war until after Cordelia invades.
May 30, 2018 @ 1:07 pm
I don’t think the behaviour of Lear’s followers is an issue. Goneril and Regan are already plotting to remove his remaining power at the end of the first scene, ostensibly because they fear his violent and erratic temperament, supposedly always a problem and now apparently worsened by age.
The question is more whether they, or more to the point their husbands (hostility and the prospect of war between Albany and Cornwall is reported long before we see any dissension between the two sisters, which comes in only once they start squabbling over Edmund) would have been willing to keep the peace if Cordelia and France/Burgundy had, as planned, been established as a third force to balance things out. Which they might – Albany seems an unlikely troublemaker, and Cornwall might have been deterred by the prospect of taking on both of the other parties together, and so have settled for his share. Whether Cordelia’s husband might have made trouble himself or colluded with Cornwall is more of a mystery, but she would likely have been a restraining influence on any aggressive inclinations from him, under other circumstances.
There is also the question of whether they would have kept their agreement with Lear about his retinue if his personality and behaviour had been less threatening, but then that would not have been an issue if he had not disowned Cordelia, since his plan was to live with her. As for how things might then have worked out between Lear and Cordelia, who knows?
So the significance of the abdication and partition seems debatable, but I do find it hard to see that action as both an inherently unwise choice and a product of virtues which are inappropriate to a situation forced upon him. What is undoubtedly inherently disastrous is his treatment of Cordelia, and that seems still harder to read in terms of virtues.
May 28, 2018 @ 9:10 pm
Hamlet’s complicated. I’ve always considered it to be a challenge to this, because Hamlet himself seems to view his actions as emerging from a madness beyond hi,
But then again, that’s just my love of Hamlet coming into play (if you’ll allow the pun it’s day on stage).
May 29, 2018 @ 11:17 pm
I’d argue it does apply to Lear. His task at the beginning of the play is to abdicate. He tries to do so in a massively stage-managed ceremony where he’s tried to control every single aspect of things. He then spends several acts failing to assert control any more and open war breaks out in his kingdom.
If he’d actually been willing to give up control, instead of merely surrendering the title, then he would have accepted Cordelia’s attestation, or at the least been willing to forgive her for ruining his big moment.
Certainly the model breaks down a bit, too, in the sense that when Lear genuinely loses all control he comes back to himself. Nor do we ever really see much of the evidence of his talents, aside from the presumption that a kingdom that falls apart this quickly had been held together pretty much through Lear’s force of personality alone.
I suppose the question gets more complex if you read the Fool as an externalization of part of Lear instead of a separate character.
May 30, 2018 @ 9:01 am
The trouble is, while it’s easy to find vices in Lear that contribute to his downfall, attributing it to virtues depends a lot on speculation and on taking particular positions on other questions of interpretation, and is a bit hard to sustain even then.
Like, why does Lear abdicate, why does he divide the kingdom, and is this a terrible plan, or a good one badly executed? One can certainly make a case for the latter. Inheritors who divide kingdoms between them end up going to war more often than not (and hence I don’t think the fact that they do so here says anything in particular about Lear’s kingship), but with no male heir and multiple daughters, a war of succession is likely anyway. All the more so when the eldest daughter, who could be expected to get the whole lot if the kingdom were not divided, is married to an ineffectual wet blanket while the second is married to a vicious thug. Dividing the spoils straight away, and doing so while he is still alive and so able to oversee the process, could seem like the best bet to avoid a conflagration. It also enables him to give a share – indeed, the best share – to his favourite daughter, while at the same time helping him set her up with a powerful husband who can protect her.
From that perspective, one can argue that a virtue of “strength” that made him rule effectively becomes pernicious by making him reluctant to truly relinquish control, this virtue clashing disastrously with the virtues of political realism and recognition of his own mortality that make him try to do so. But classing that reluctance to follow through on his own intentions properly as a virtue seems a bit strained. That reflects not effectiveness in controlling others but ineffectiveness in controlling himself. And if the object of the exercise is to oversee an orderly transition when violence is otherwise in prospect, trying to “stage-manage” the process would seem entirely sensible.
If, on the other hand, the Fool and numerous critics are right, and abdication and/or partition is in itself a bad idea, finding ways for the disaster to emanate from virtues gets even harder. Aand if it is a bad idea, that makes it all the more difficult to see the situation facing him as a product of circumstances rather than being one he creates by his own spontaneous initiative.
June 4, 2018 @ 11:10 am
I seem to have got accidentally deleted as spam here. Though I don’t think any spambot has quite that much time or energy to waste on trying to reconstruct the backstory to King Lear as a real political.scenario. Even automated processes are time-poor these days.
June 4, 2018 @ 3:56 pm
My fault—must have misclicked while manually clearing out about 50 spam comments last night.
May 28, 2018 @ 11:40 am
Excellent essay El, by the way! Some wonderful Clara analysis, especially this line which I think really gets to the core of Clara’s character and what makes her so interesting and dynamic:
“If there really is nothing sinister about Clara and she really is just an ordinary girl, why is she so good at being a companion? Or, to put it another way, what sort of person would you have to be in order to actually be the ideal plucky children’s heroine? And the answer turns out to be that you’d have to be deeply, deeply fucked up.”
May 28, 2018 @ 11:40 am
Flatline still remains one of my all time favourite Who episodes. In addition to the Clara stuff, it just hits every mark so perfectly in terms of pacing.
June 4, 2018 @ 6:53 pm
And the visuals, and the humor… it’s got everything. Love this episode.
May 28, 2018 @ 11:45 am
The bit about heroes, flaws, vices, and tragedies is very revealing. I’m going to have to ponder that a while.
May 28, 2018 @ 12:40 pm
There is something else in Flatline I think is worth mentioning: it’s the first explicitly urban Doctor Who story I can remember in the Moffat era. The return to a Powell Estate.
And perhaps even more political. It ends with the Doctor thinking that the local jobsworth probation officer was the worst man. I loved Rigsy as a character. He was an interesting version of the failed companion; a character who is too heroic without being shrewd enough to survive in Doctor Who. And unlike other versions of this character, he gets to survive because the show acknowledges he doesn’t need to sacrifice himself. I wished he’d return in some form before the end of the Capaldi era, just so he could get a chance to accept what happened to Clara.
Funnily enough, this was the first episode in which I loved Clara. It was the first which showed her flaws as something that was understood.
May 28, 2018 @ 1:42 pm
There’s also Night Terrors, which… happened, I think?
May 28, 2018 @ 6:33 pm
I forgot about Night Terrors, and whilst I don’t wish to be arrogant, I think that’s part of its problems.
As El showed earlier though, it’s not really an urban episode; it’s too cosy, too middle-class and ultimately way too naive to be one.
Night Terrors has its urban area as a backdrop, the same way Amy’s village was. Flatline cares about the fact it’s dealing with graffiti monsters, and goes out of its way not to become a lazy, accidental condemnation of graffiti itself.
May 28, 2018 @ 3:13 pm
I love that take on Rigsy!
“I wished he’d return in some form before the end of the Capaldi era, just so he could get a chance to accept what happened to Clara.”
Perhaps Clara will visit him in her TARDIS.
May 30, 2018 @ 9:40 am
My problem with Rigsy is a question of setting. It is a very important plot point that the episode is not set in London, since it means Clara is temporarily stranded and thus cannot go back to her daily life as was the plan when the TARDIS landed.
But then in Face the Raven he has moved to London. Why is that? Is it simply because he needs to getting in contact with the Trap Street and a secret alley of alien refugees?
But then why wasn’t it in Cardiff?! I mean, we already know that Cardiff has a bunch of aliens hiding around, it has (or has had) a Rift through which aliens constantly come through, AND it has an immortal being around trying to keep the aliens in check!! Ashildr was just a Torchwood rip-off!
And then they filmed Face the Raven so obviously in Cardiff that I literally have to remind myself constantly that we are in London when I watch. The TARDIS flying over London always jolts me, especially after they land next to the Cardiff University Main Building and actually walk around inside it. And then after that they walk around the Hayes and the Trap Street in on Westgate Street. Whenever I walk past, I always mention it to someone: “oh, here’s the Trap Street”. The whole episode just screams Cardiff. You can see the iconic Central Library. They show the logos of St David’s Centre AND St David’s Hall. They even filmed inside the arcades! You can see the world-famous Spiller Records! (They do put some London “stuff” around, like a poster London Bus poster on a bus stop. I think there were some fake traffic signs as well.)
Also, I wonder how this aspect related to the policy that must have existed throughout the whole BBC Wales Doctor Who of never allowing any Welsh writing to show. It must be difficult! They probably put fake signs around precisely to block Welsh signage.
Anyways, just a rather round about way of saying that I think the episode makes it very difficult for me not to imagine it is set in Cardiff.
May 30, 2018 @ 9:57 am
I’d guess that London, magnet for the young, ambitious and talented, is meant to signify Rigsy moving onwards and upwards, getting out of the trough he was in in Flatline.
May 30, 2018 @ 10:55 am
It’s also probably meant to connect the episode with the rich tradition of urban fantasy set in London. Stuff like Neverwhere, Harry Potter etc.
June 4, 2018 @ 9:54 am
Which makes it an interesting choice. Do you connect your work to the rich tradition of urban fantasy set in London or do you use it to add to the not-so-rich tradition of urban fantasy set in Cardiff?
June 4, 2018 @ 10:57 am
Or the even smaller (?) one set in Bristol. (Off the top of my head I can only think of Our Mutual Friend’s Being Human, and I’m not sure sort-of-horror-drama counts.)
June 4, 2018 @ 11:49 am
This reminds me of a book I once read that catalogued fantasy and SF works set in particular Polish cities. There were lots and lots of stories set in the capital and quite a large number of works about every other major city… except for smallish-and-mostly-unloved Białystok which had about three. Seeing as I can’t recall a single show set in Bristol I guess there’s one such place in every country.
May 30, 2018 @ 6:53 pm
There’s a policy of not having Welsh writing in Doctor Who?
Also, the move is odd, but I assume that it’s because Sarah Dollard isn’t English, so decided to set in the city with real international fame. Then the production crew did a bad job of filming it. Rigsy could just be moving out of his home town and away from people that have him labelled as a “trouble-maker”.
May 31, 2018 @ 11:03 am
But BBC Wales filmed Cardiff to look like London many times before to much better results. This episode looked very strange for not looking like London.
And regarding the Welsh policy, Welsh locations almost never stand in for places in Wales, so showing Welsh signage would be jarring!
June 4, 2018 @ 9:51 am
Well, to be fair, this problem exists only for those who know both London and Cardiff well enough to notice. Which is probably quite a large group of people but still a small percentage of the audience. Perhaps they’ve just shrugged and decided “eh, it’ll do”.
June 4, 2018 @ 11:03 am
Very tangentially, I’ve been amused, watching A Very English Scandal, to see Manchester Town Hall playing the Houses of Parliament yet again. It’s the Toronto or the Dubrovnik of British governmental interiors.
May 28, 2018 @ 1:41 pm
“I’ve said before that I’m not wild about calling the companion the audience identification figure, not least because I always wanted to be the Doctor, not the companion. But the thing is, so does Clara.”
Wonderfully put. I’m imagining what it’d look like if Clara had had Amy’s backstory: the central problem there could be restated as, why would she dream of being the companion and not the madman herself?
And how do we square this would-be Doctor with the 7B Clara who says “come back tomorrow”?
May 28, 2018 @ 2:08 pm
“And how do we square this would-be Doctor with the 7B Clara who says “come back tomorrow”?”
I see this as a power play. The Doctor is seducing her (I think El wrote about offering companionship as seduction before), and she is willing to be seduced eventually, but by delaying she takes control over the situation and shows that she won’t be seduced easily. It definitely fits the “bossy control freak” aspect of her.
May 28, 2018 @ 2:31 pm
Yes it’s absolutely Clara trying to control the situation, and establish her power within that relationship.
May 28, 2018 @ 3:17 pm
That’s especially savvy if you read it in terms of Clara’s uneasiness with the companion/sidekick role.
Z. P. Moo
May 28, 2018 @ 3:19 pm
What confuses me about Clara Hate is why these people have an issue with a character getting achieve equal status with the Doctor.
It’s not like their points of issue are unique to her either. Just in NewWho alone we have a whole host of others:
• Donna literally becomes an incarnation of the Doctor (Journey’s End) complete with a psuedo-regeneration (The End of Time). Nobody complains.
• Jack gets an effectively-infinite number of “regenerations” (close enough anyway). He gets an assortment of companions (Gwen, Ianto, etc). He gets a base that’s bigger than it appears from the outside. He has an entire spin-off devoted to him. Like Clara, he’s an inherently flawed person and also like Clara he gets called out for them often (to the extent that Torchwood might as well be called “Jack’s Flaws: The Show”). And nobody takes issue with that either.
• Rory has effectively outlived the Doctor before his first season is over. Amy too. (That’s a valid reading of “The Big Bang”, I think.) How many times have these two died and come back (like a regeneration)? It literally takes a ham-fisted time paradox to stop them doing so. And nobody complains.
• River’s sexually liberated, she’s off exploring space/time on her own terms, and she’s very self-assured. Clara parallels abound. And yet she’s one of the most wanted characters by the wider fandom for a spin-off, which Big Finish have delivered on.
• Sarah Jane Smith. No explanation needed. Just look how many companions she’s had.
• Rose Tyler, our universe-hopping heroine. Fighting Daleks and Cybermen, allying with UNIT, saving the Doctor from death multiple times. Eventually gets everything she ever wanted when she gets a clone of the Doctor to go live her life with.
So why is it that Clara Oswald is the target of so much hate when all of these others “get away with it”? I don’t get it.
It’s almost like Clara Haters don’t really have a point and are just seeing a female character getting to succeed and are triggered by it. Which is of course entirely a sexist premise.
(It’s not unique to Doctor Who either, just look how well “The Last Jedi” was received.)
May 28, 2018 @ 4:07 pm
But… surely that proves the opposite? If the ‘Clara haters’ were powered by sexism, then they’d also hate all of the above examples with equal vigour as well!
But they don’t, so maybe that theory is just wrong as the evidence doesn’t support it.
Again, some people like her, that’s fine. Just like some people like the Star Wars prequels and Lost. There doesn’t NEED to be some sort of conspiracy to excuse why people don’t like something that goes beyond not really speaking to people as fiction.
I think sometimes we’re all too quick to run to the ‘there is something wrong with the audience’ when a work of fiction isn’t well received, rather than spending a bit of time being critically introspective as to why it didn’t work for everyone.
As you rightly say, characters like Rose and Donna and Jack Sarah and Romana and River co have done equal things to Clara, yet by and large people love them. So the answer can’t be as simple as ‘gender’ or ‘powerful role in the story’, so what is it?
May 28, 2018 @ 4:10 pm
Donna got punished for becoming like the Doctor. Jack left the show and so didn’t challenge the default DW Doctor-companion power dynamic. Rory, Amy and Sarah Jane never truly stepped out of their designated companion role, never truly took the Doctor’s place in a story like Clara did in “Flatline”. Rose got plenty of hate from what I’ve seen but she, like Donna, was also punished (banished to another universe). And River Song was widely hated in some circles for being the Doctor’s equal (which prompted people to call her “Mary Sue”), much like Clara was by the end of her story.
Not a Clara hater here, I like her a lot. I just don’t think your comparison works.
May 29, 2018 @ 11:27 pm
Another way to see the issue is to think about Romana II, who actually does get at least one episode (The Horns of Nimon) where she takes on the Doctor role.
First off, in her first story, she briefly appears wearing the Doctor’s clothing. Subsequent to that, she’s dressed in clothing that’s not only girly, but sometimes alarmingly so, like in The Creature from the Pit. (She looks like she should be playing Miranda in The Tempest.)
Secondly, the show massively tones down the initial friction between the Doctor and Romana I which was driven by her actually knowing more about some things than he does. That didn’t actually survive Romana I’s full season,
Her overall affect is so intensively “girlish,” despite her being over 100 years old and a Time Lord with a triple first, that she’s unthreatening. And being in the companion role means that as often as she gets a good juicy confrontation (say, with Soldeed), she gets menaced, captured, pawed, tortured, or turned into a beast.
May 28, 2018 @ 6:23 pm
Clara’s arc is also Moffat’s stab at privilege in a way. To be the Doctor, you no longer need Timelord training or Galifreyan genes or alien lifestyle. A teacher from Coal Hill can become the Doctor so long as they have the flaws (and some of the virtues) that make the character of the Doctor. Another way that Clara is the most human companion.
May 28, 2018 @ 7:06 pm
I mean, let’s never forget it was two teachers from Coal Hill School who originally taught the Doctor how to be the Doctor in the first place.
May 28, 2018 @ 6:24 pm
I’m certainly not a Clara-hater – it’s a toss-up between her and Bill for my favorite new series companion – but I think the anti-Clara stuff both often is and often isn’t tinged with sexism. I think the “Clara Who” critics are pretty much straight-up sexists 100% of the time, for example, as well as a lot of the too smug/too bossy stuff. Where there is a legitimate criticism I think is just how messy her treatment is. I know both El and Caitlin have made persuasive arguments that 7B Clara isn’t substantially different than the Clara of the next two seasons, but that never totally clicked for me. Series 7 in general is, for me, the absolute nadir of New Who, and part of that is Clara being written with little to no consistent characterization. A lot of credit has to go to Jenna Coleman for making these disparate threads of characterization seem even remotely believable.
Series 8 Clara clicks into place perfectly for me from beginning to end. I don’t think there’s much for me to say here that hasn’t already been said.
Series 9 is a bit more problematic – Clara is given a lot less to do and a lot less focus as a character in general, but by this point the writers know how to do Clara, so it still works overall.
May 29, 2018 @ 3:08 am
Yeah, I think at least some of it was that, by Series 8, a lot of people had lost faith in Moffat as a writer. A lot of the signifiers of his bad writing were baked into Clara’s conception, and getting onboard for the upswing in quality in Season 8 I think required a leap of faith that a lot of people felt too exhausted to take.
May 28, 2018 @ 6:25 pm
“And I name you the Boneless!”
“Nothing suggested in the last three minutes has been better than Squashy Squashy Flat-Men.”
May 28, 2018 @ 7:11 pm
I’ve said this before, but I think the “Mary Sue” complaints are both more exactly on the money and more completely missing the point than acknowledged here, at least as far as Season 7 is concerned. It seems as though Clara is purposely written there as a Mary Sue in excelsis, as part of the wider fandom-trolling of the Impossible Girl arc. To closely paraphrase myself from last time around, she’s a “perfect” character with self-authorial tendencies, who ends up inserting herself into every single Doctor Who story ever and saving the day in all of them. I mean, surely that has to be a deliberate parody of the whole concept, no? Which means that complaining of Mary Sue-ness in Season 7 Clara is like complaining about Judge Dredd being a hero who espouses questionable moral and political values and displays insufficient psychological complexity. It’s not that it’s untrue, it just kind of misses what’s going on there.
Of course, things moved on from Season 7, but first impressions tend to stick, and it’s not as though the Clara’s subsequent development moved sharply against those tendencies in such a way as to cancel that impression.
Also, I’m not sure there’s a contradiction between unlikability and Mary Sue-ness – surely the idea is that a Mary Sue is always adored by other characters, not that the character is actually likable. It only becomes a contradiction if you suppose that the character is being deliberately written as unlikable, and I assume that those making such complaints would not credit Moffat with that.
May 29, 2018 @ 4:12 am
I think that the least-widely-supported opinion I have about Doctor Who is that “Flatline” is Mathieson’s best episode. It is, from start to finish, an absolute delight. The smaller TARDIS is great, Clara is great — oh, she is so great, and the Boneless are great. Also, while Moffat writes Capaldi the best (naturally), Mathieson writes Grumpy Capaldi™ the best: “No, not annoying. This gestures at Clara is annoying! But this gestures at tiny TARDIS, this is huge! Well, not huge, actually smaller than normal — which is huge!” is easily the funniest bit of dialogue in Season 8.
May 29, 2018 @ 10:04 am
I’m with you there. It’s better than Oxygen or Mummy (though those are still very good), and knocks TGWD into the proverbial headgear.
May 29, 2018 @ 7:32 am
A stray thought:
I very loosely recall TARDIS being a stand-in for television itself. If so, does the miniature TARDIS represent streaming TV on your smartphone? Is the story a case for watching Doctor Who on a proper, bigger screen?
May 29, 2018 @ 7:34 am
I mean, we even have villains who downgrade the way humans are displayed.
May 29, 2018 @ 9:56 am
“I am big! It’s the pictures that got small!”
Mind you, television screens have got a lot bigger. If you’re not watching on a mobile, your screen is pretty sure to be at least as big as an 80s TV, maybe a lot bigger, and will certainly be a good deal bigger than a 60s one.
May 30, 2018 @ 9:47 am
Well, they don’t have to represent every trend in visual media. I can totally see this story being about how we now often watch TV on smaller screens than before – and how it makes the show less powerful. I like this idea very much.
May 30, 2018 @ 10:16 am
I suppose my reading is coloured by watching DW overseas, where the default way for many people is watching on a laptop (since Polish TV stations pick up new series a year or more after their original airing, so many people resort to, shall we say, other means). So it’s a bigger screen than a phone, but it doesn’t necessarily gets continuously bigger.
May 29, 2018 @ 10:31 am
the Boneless … are the Capaldi era’s only real stab at a proper new monster (as opposed to henchmen for a human-appearing villain or, the more common case, not-actually-monsters)
It’s interesting how the story itself is written with an overt awareness that “proper monsters” are something Doctor Who seldom creates these days. What would once have been absolutely standard has become almost unconventional, such that the Doctor himself is rather surprised and disappointed at being unable to find them out to be not-actually-monsters: “You are monsters. That is the role you seem determined to play. So it seems I must play mine.”
And as dm pointed out in the review comments way back when, this amounts to a lovely bit of wordplay: “the Doctor explicitly tried to find some depth in them, tried to make them anything more than generic monsters- but of course they weren’t! They were entirely 2-dimensional!”.
May 29, 2018 @ 1:39 pm
I was a bit disappointed that the Boneless turned out to be the monsters after all when they had such a great potential to fundamentally misunderstand human world. But we’ve had so many misunderstood monsters that it’s perhaps for the best that Mathieson subverted our expectations here.
What’s interesting about the Boneless is that they resemble the Doctor in their ability to warp the narrative they appear in. When they enter our world, the Doctor can’t; he’s trapped in his magical box which suddenly loses its function as a portal to another reality. Fundamental DW concepts break down, the Doctor-companion dynamic is turned on its head. Apparently the ability to change people and things into images (notice how when the Doctor looks out of the small TARDIS, he clearly becomes a flat-looking face projected on a screen) and vice versa is a DW-breaking ability. Fascinating.
I wonder what real-life fear the Boneless represent (or are inspired by). They definitely fall on the Weird side of things… so maybe they’re just the fear of the alien, the strange, the unexplainable?
May 29, 2018 @ 2:22 pm
They are images that become real and in doing so reduce humans to images, so I’d say they draw from stuff like Baudrillard and Debord. They are parasitic agents of the Spectacle.
May 29, 2018 @ 2:42 pm
Oooh, yes! Nice!
May 30, 2018 @ 9:44 am
I guess they could also represent the power of media. They have the ability to transform harmless images into harmful reality and to strip a person of their humanity, to reduce them to a single detail they’re interested in. They can take the images of their victims and use them for their own purposes. And, just like real media, they can make Doctor Who smaller, powerless, forced to enter siege mode and fight for survival – and in the end, they’re the only one who can restore the show.
May 30, 2018 @ 10:55 am
Yes, I like that. And the setting and the situation of the characters gives a specific political edge to that sort of dehumanising tabloidesque reduction of people to crude images, of “community service scumbags” or whatever else.
On a different but related tack, there could also be a “What if phones, but too much?” dimension to it, of the life lived for Instagram, or the way people take photos of things and walk away instead of looking at them, the fixation with producing images of an experience distorting, draining and replacing the experience itself. And this vacant, mechanistic, parasitic image-production is contrasted here with the life-enhancing production of images by active, artistic creativity.
(Which could indeed line up with mx_mond’s suggestion about watching on small screens as sapping the artisitc power of television. I’m just a bit more reluctant to embrace that one, for all that I instinctively sympathise with it, because to me that sort of prescriptiveness about how people watch their telly feels like having a bit more of a grouchily technophobic, neophobic, get-these-kids-off-my-lawn ring about it. Which, as a grouchy technophobe and neophobe who would probably want the kids off my lawn if I had one, is a tendency I am wary of indulging too readily.)
May 29, 2018 @ 10:35 am
“Certainly, at this point, Clara is the most human companion we’ve ever had.”
That’s really my only issue with Clara (whom I generally like a lot): she isn’t human. Between the Impossible Girl arc, the 50th anniversary and her eventually becoming the Doctor she’s all mythic and storybook, with very little connection to the human world. She has no family, no friends, only her job to ground her in everyday human experience. Admittedly, that’s how all Moffat era companions work – Amy’s parents existed for like half an episode. But where Amy had Rory to have emotional scenes with, Clara had Danny and I don’t think they had enough chemistry to work with. Add to that Clara’s desire to become the Doctor and you end up with a character who feels very disconnected from our reality. After Davies era companions I found Clara less accessible because of that.
A friend of mine once observed that by the end of Clara’s story she became hard to connect with emotionally because her experiences were so far removed from human reality. I personally didn’t feel like that (I loved Clara’s ending) but I do think there’s a grain of truth here. Clara and Bill both get endings that could be called “esoteric happy endings” (a TvTropes term) – they’re signified as happy but they’re also very complex and sci-fi which makes them less emotionally accessible. When Rose becomes stuck in a parallel world, it’s fundamentally no different from your lover moving to another country for good and we cry our eyes out. When Clara dies but is resurrected as an immortal being who then agrees to be forgotten about by her best friend… that’s a bit harder to relate to.
May 29, 2018 @ 11:26 am
Due to quoting from memory I might’ve stretched the meaning of “esoteric happy ending” a bit – on TvTropes it means an ending intended to be happy by the creator but perceived differently by the audience. But I think my understanding of it is not that far from the original meaning. When your emotional beats rely on high-concept sci-fi ideas, their impact might become lessened if you’re not careful.
May 29, 2018 @ 12:10 pm
I think it’s just that (as with Rose) one has to find the right angle from which to see the symbolic meaning. With Bill I’m going to once again bring up the heteronormative aspects of the Cybermen’s conversion: Bill is cut off from her own self and, by extension, from connections to other people (particularly romantic/sexual ones), but then is saved by her crush and empowered to explore the world on her own terms, a prospect she was denied by the limited circumstanes she lived in when we first met her.
Now Clara is a little harder, maybe because we don’t have the orientation or class angles we had with Bill. But there is still a desire on her part to live an unconventional life. In my reading the whole series 8 arc with Danny shows that, while there is a desire in her to hold on to both words, she is deeply ill-suited to an ordinary life with a stable job and a stable relationship. There is a risk-taking, convention-flaunting aspect to her. She’s much more at home travelling and having adventures, which can represent all sorts of occupations, but the main thing for me is Clara’s hunger. She’s hungry for experiences. She wants to live her life to the absolute fullest. A life that is, unfortunately, cut short. There were readings that equated the raven to a terminal illness, and I think this is quite good. Suddenly Clara realises that she won’t manage to do everything she wanted, so Hell Bent becomes about her reconciliation with that, a realisation that, to paraphrase Death from The Sandman, she got what everyone gets: a lifetime (I might be misquoting slightly), and her determination to make the best use of the time she has left before she has to go and face the raven.
May 29, 2018 @ 12:39 pm
You’re certainly right, it is definitely possible to find the right angle and map those plot points onto real life experiences (as evidenced by your brilliant examples). But I think my friend’s point still stands – finding the right angle is possible but might require some time and analysis. Which is totally fine but might not always be possible on the fly, when one is watching the episode. And so we, the fans, take the time to find our meanings in Clara’s or Bill’s story while a casual viewer might be left a bit cold. Whether we or the showrunners should care is an entirely different question.
May 29, 2018 @ 12:44 pm
That’s a fair point. I feel like the Capaldi era demands a lot of critical engagement (I myself recall a lot of points that I didn’t get on my own but had to read other people thoughtful essays and blog posts in order to properly appreciate) and it might be a part of why it wasn’t as widely appreciated as more accessible eras. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
May 29, 2018 @ 12:31 pm
Clara requires a bit of DW context switch. She is more than a human companion.
She is a human hero, a protagonist, who desires adventures more than anything. And she does everything that a human, who sees herself as the lead, would do. She wants more than her daily life- yet she forms relationships with her students and takes selfies with them (Woman who lived). More than any other companion, she actually forms strong independent relationships with the guest characters she meets (Rigsy, Ashildr, Cass, Robin Hood, Maisie, even Missy in Witch’s Familiar and from 7B, Merry), just like human protagonists. She gets addicted to adventuring and there is nothing new here- Indiana Jones, Sherlock, Han Solo etc etc are all human adventurers. And like all stories of adventurers, they are aspirations more than someone you encounter in your own lives. If you (one) relate to her as a hero, she makes complete sense and is quite consistently drawn. If you want to relate to her as a sidekick or just another companion like Amy or Rose or anyone else, then you find she does not fit with that category and it might be dissonant.
Wanting to become the Doctor is pretty human- at least I have always wanted to be the Doctor, like Elizabeth.
Clara closes the distance between the Doctor and humans. The Doctor is no longer an “other”- she is one of us! So yes, Clara requires the viewer to break out of conventional DW categorizations and I think that’s what makes her so fascinating.
And the Impossible Girl arc is all about how she is human, despite the Doctor thrusting his category of “the Impossible Girl”, “the puzzle” on her- a human who is ready to sacrifice her life for her friend.
And just like the Doctor in S7, some viewers seem to want to thrust into a standard companion category and then find her “unrelatable” (a term I have never understood- wouldnt relatibility be defined by each person’s personal experience and social context? If there IS an aggregate relatibility, wouldnt it mean fitting with idealized images of the majority and privileged?). And of course, it wont work. Because Clara’s story is significantly different from other human characters we have seen on DW, but not different from the myriad of different human characters outside of DW.
Sure, S9 should have continued with S8’s trend of showing Clara in Coal Hill independent of the Doctor (instead of just showing her independent of the Doctor in the adventure), perhaps getting Courtney Woods back. But most of the other companions were in the Tardis all the time, and their Earth stories were shown, if at all, only through the eyes of maybe one or two other characters. If anything in S8, we saw Clara’s family and friends as much or more than any companion.
There have always been flaws in DW because there are so many different imperatives to balance- the immediate plot, the bigger arc, the Doctor’s characterization, the cinematic direction, diverse viewer need etc. No reason why the Clara story should be held to a higher standard of quality than others (and even if you do, I personally think it does reach a higher standard of quality)
June 1, 2018 @ 9:00 am
Yes, I think you’ve touched upon one of the most important reason why Clara grinds some viewers’ gears: she challenges her role as a companion. She changes the Doctor-companion power dynamic in a way most previous companions didn’t. And in my opinion that’s exactly why some people feel that she “takes over the show” or “is insufferably smug”: because she’s the first companion in NewWho to truly be the second lead of the show. People who were used to the traditional setup, with the companion taking the backseat, noticed that something was different. They felt the power shift. (And, being sexist, they reacted negatively).
I’m not saying Clara haters are right. They clearly aren’t. I’m just saying that letting Clara challenge one of the unspoken core rules of the show (a sexist one, but still) was a big deal. Even bigger, perhaps, than letting the Doctor fall in love in NewWho. The show is better for it. But we know how DW fans are. Of course they reacted negatively. The show should stay like it was back in the golden era, whenever that was. Clara ruined DW forever.
Man, fuck those guys.
As for your assessment of Clara’s humanity,… I’m not saying she’s some kind of unrelatable alien being. But for me her “normal life” always felt paper-thin. Perhaps because Davies era companions had stronger connections with their families and friends and those side characters were better developed. Even if we only saw Jackie or Donna’s mum every once in a while, they clearly had a huge impact on Rose’s or Donna’s emotional lives. Except for Courtney and Danny, Clara never had connections like that. And even then half of her season with Danny was their relationship not working and her lying to him in order to avoid her everyday life and have fantastical adventures. And because she wanted to become the Doctor, she was always running further and further away from the normal world. That’s why, at times, she didn’t feel human to me: because she didn’t want to be human. That’s a great story but it’s not neccesarily always relatable. I’ve always wanted to be the companion.
(Yes, relatability is relative and yes, aggregate relatability relies on generalized traits that mostly reflect what the priviliged majority thinks. But it still works. Have a character be clumsy, make her fall in love, give her a problematic family member – that’s relatable to most people. Take all that away and you might leave most of the audience cold. I’m not saying that’s right and shouldn’t be challenged. One should always challenge the audience. I’m just saying it works).
“And the Impossible Girl arc is all about how she is human, despite the Doctor thrusting his category of “the Impossible Girl”, “the puzzle” on her- a human who is ready to sacrifice her life for her friend.”
Yes, but that’s still thirteen weeks of making the viewers suspicious of Clara, inviting them to hold back their sympathy for her. And just as she steps out of this role, she starts her journey towards not having a “normal” life and becoming something more than human.That’s a lot of (subjective) alienating for one character.
May 29, 2018 @ 10:46 am
Incidentally, I liked this article, and obviously the Clara stuff is the pivotal aspect of the episode from the larger Eruditorum perspective, and your occultist stuff is decidedly not what I come here for, yet I still feel a slight and thoroughly unreasonable disappointment at not getting a take on this story from a magical perspective. There was some talk in the review comments about the magical resonance of the Doctor’s naming of the Boneless, and there is surely some wider LWIAish art-as-magic stuff for investigation there, with the Boneless exerting power over people/things by turning them into images, and Rigsy the artist as a magician whose art enables him to combat them on their own, er plane (d’you see what I did there?).
May 30, 2018 @ 8:52 am
I absolutely loved this episode when I first saw it because it had such a joyful humour to it. The tiny TARDIS just looked amazing. And the Clara metamorphosis was interesting.
It’s good to see that this episode actually gets better upon rewatching. Especially if you’re stoned, which in my first language we say “flattened”, so it made perfect sense!
Anyways, I haven’t finished reading the article, but I have to point out that the physics of the whole thing really bugged me. Maybe I am nitpicking the sci fi aspects of what is almost a comedic moral parable, but that’s not how 2D beings would experience 3D objects. They wouldn’t see things flattened: they would see cross-sections. So the idea of flattening a handle or painting a 2D handle is rather naff. But I guess it makes sense in relation to how we understand 2D as flat images of 3D things.
It would be amazing now for the Doctor to interact with a 4D world and beings. Well, in a way that is what he always doing by time-travel, and I remember pointing out to friends that from the Boneless’ perspective, they are time-travelling in a sense.
But it would be cool to see an episode where we are in the Boneless shoes having to “flatten” 4D objects and environments into 3D ones so we can interact with them and understand them.
May 30, 2018 @ 9:04 am
The fact that Clara manages to take control of the situation on her own is very telling. I wonder if she would have been able to save the day in Midnight if she were there by herself with the TARDIS in her purse. Did she succeed because Rigsy was playing the part of companion, a piece the Doctor so awfully lacked in Midnight?
Also, it is interesting to think of what other companions might have shined in Flatline. Could Amy have done all this? I find it unlikely. But Martha has commonly been heralded as the most competent companion, so I think she would have pulled it off.
May 30, 2018 @ 6:57 pm
Martha definitely could have filled this role. In fact, she’s the companion the show previously placed in the position of “Knowing more than anyone else” in Human Nature. It doesn’t fit there brilliantly, but being capable of filling Benny’s shoes is a tall order.
I like to think Donna wouldn’t stick out too much here. I can see her doing a version of this, but the show often went out of its way to punish her unlike Clara.
June 9, 2018 @ 4:05 am
The situation isn’t a million miles away from Rory and Eleven in The Girl Who Waited. It’s a shame Rory didn’t have to take charge of a group of strangers in that episode – I don’t think he’d have taken to it quite the way Clara did, not with Matt Smith yelling in his ears.
May 30, 2018 @ 9:53 am
By the way, can we all agree that Missy’s “choosing” Clara has never been properly explored? By what criteria did she choose Clara, how did she know about Clara and her personality, how did she make sure that Clara would indeed become a companion, and, finally, how the hell did she know Clara would eventually lead the Doctor to “Heaven”?
May 30, 2018 @ 11:08 am
It is extreeeeeeemely sketchy, yes. Mind you, so was “If I arrange for these aliens to invade Earth and crush all in their path, that will presumably work out well for me…in some way…?”
May 31, 2018 @ 10:08 am
Well, yes, but that’s been established as the Master’s fatal blind spot ever since Terror of the Autons. “Oh no, it seems the Nestenes / Axons / Daemons are as much a threat to me as everyone else? Didn’t think it through again!”
June 2, 2018 @ 12:07 pm
That was my point.
June 2, 2018 @ 2:25 am
I would say Hell Bent explains that exactly
May 30, 2018 @ 1:41 pm
The comic that featured the return of the Boneless was actually a Titan comic, not DWM.
As for Flatline, I think it’s the best story of the Capaldi era, I love all the interesting concepts and visuals, and Clara really shines here. Even Capaldi stuck in the TARDIS feels like he’s having a lot of fun.
May 31, 2018 @ 9:23 pm
Not related to the article, but thought I’d mention that Twitch, since the 29th, has been running a Classic Doctor Who marathon-each day, they’re doing 6 hour blocks, repeated twice a day, of classic Doctor Who streaming. Right now they’re in the middle of the Dalek Invasion of Earth. Later on, they’ll circle back to covering Reign of Terror and Planet of Giants. Should’ve mentioned earlier if you hadn’t heard.
May 31, 2018 @ 9:26 pm
It’s kind of fun watching the old serials streaming like this, one after the other.
I think it goes all the way until July 13 or so with Seventh Doctor, how they’ve structured their broadcast.
June 1, 2018 @ 1:34 am
Until July 23rd, Monday-Friday, 6 hour blocks running three times a day, but they’re skipping some good serials to fit the run time or because they’re missing episodes. Second Doctor only gets three days. They included K9 and Company. 4th Doctor gets 11 days! Just commenting.
June 2, 2018 @ 11:26 am
The twitch chat is my favourite fandom thing for YEARS. The fact that they labelled the rapey dude from Keys of Marinus “Hagrid Weinstein” justifies the project alone
June 2, 2018 @ 3:59 pm
the delightfully Doctor Who phenomenon of an episode that can do shambling zombies that have spontaneously gained an extra dimension persuasively, but that whiffs it completely on doing a convincing train.
Surely the issue with this kind of thing is that we can’t look at shambling n-dimensional zombies and say “No, that’s not what shambling n-dimensional zombies look like.”
Hey, we’re 2/3 of the way through the season and this is my first comment. That’s odd. But then, this was a pretty odd season for me, for a number of reasons. I loved it (mostly), and I certainly loved this episode, but well, my sister point-blank stopped watching at the start of the season and my niece gradually drifted away from the series over the course of the Capaldi era (something I didn’t even realise until this year), so in retrospect, I find discussing it kind of depressing.
June 4, 2018 @ 7:17 am
We may not know what the shambling n-dimensional zombies should look like but we certainly notice when they look shitty.
June 18, 2018 @ 5:46 am
I flat out love Clara. Not had time to join in the conversation but been some good chat going on! Coleman is superb and the writing for Clara is generally superb too. Can only gush about her!