Dear Steven Moffat: Flatline

DW Flatline

Dear Steven,

One of the questions, when this series began, was how you and your coterie of scribblers would handle a middle aged Doctor. Initially our focus was on his personality. We assumed he’d eschew being juvenile, be less enamoured with popular culture, and would be less excitable, reflecting the real world differences between a twentysomething and fiftysomething. Such was our obsession with these things that we failed to touch on two other crucial elements, which unbeknownst to us preoccupied you: a) the Doctor’s physicality – that is, how much of a physical role he’d take in his new adventures, and b) the changing role of his companion, relative to the wizened Galifreyian.

In an average season of Nu-Who, “Flatline” could be waved away as a mere companion episode. Indeed, the story gave Clara an opportunity to cut loose and play Doctor for the first time since that embarrassing summer afternoon with Tom Scuttleworth in childhood. But in a season where the audience has good reason to suspect that you don’t quite trust them to embrace an older, more curmudgeonly Time Lord, so have tried to mitigate against this imaginary deficiency by beefing up the younger, more sprightly companion’s role, it looked like both a culmination and coronation.

Of the nine episodes we’ve now had, at least half of them have pushed Clara front and centre. “Deep Breath” gave Clara the lion’s share of screentime, “Listen” retconed the series, making her architect of the Doctor’s psyche, “The Caretaker” reduced the Doctor to a supporting role, “Kill the Moon” had her assume saving the world duties and tonight, in front of an open mouthed nation, she took the sonic screwdriver, assumed the moniker and saved Bristol from a two dimensional menace while the Doctor watched on TV, like the rest of us.

Running around, problem solving, vanquishing foes – typically these are the Doctor’s staples, but now he stands in the background spouting exposition while his former assistant does all the work. Once the Doctor’s companions had to snap to fit his lifestyle, now he snaps to fit theirs. Once upon a time fandom got excited speculating about the Doctor’s true identity. Now, with tonight’s cryptic epilogue, and Missy’s implication that Clara’s her plant/unwitting agent/sleeper assassin, we’re speculating about Ms Oswald’s identity, the Doctor of lies, for the second year running. In short, the Doctor and Clara swapping roles wasn’t just the conceit of Jamie Mathieson’s second story, it was the story of the season.

Frankly I’m amazed you had the balls to let Mathieson be so explicit. The strategy up until now has been about maintaining the pretence this is still the Doctor’s show, while incrementally marginalising him, presumably as a sop to the fucking idiots at home who just can’t get a handle on their Dad being the dynamic centre of their sci-fi universe. These ageist, BBC3 addicted simpletons, who crave young flesh, can root for Clara because she’s either a bit like them or someone to whom they can reasonably aspire. Who’d want to be an aloof, deep-thinking middle aged man with bad hair continuity, eh? Who’d want to occupy the craggy body of a 2,000 year old Time Lord? Oh, I don’t know – a fan of the FUCKING SERIES, maybe?

Now I understand that in this awful modern world of ours, younger viewers have certain expectations. They want their heroes and heroines to be physically dexterous, as well as sharp, like a Peter Cook rebuke. Doctor Who’s competing for their attention with Marvel movies and the like, and it just wouldn’t do to expect the half-formed miscreants to sit quietly for 45 minutes and watch Peter Capaldi think.

The Doctor, it’s believed, has to muck in and act as if he were a Viz character, pushing the world’s largest set of gonads ahead of him in a wheelbarrow. But if, Rassilon forbid, he’s just not up to somersaulting, grandstanding, swinging, running, and defenestrating himself, because he’s been played by an actor who’d rather not and sees the character as more of a man of words than action, then you and your fellow scribes are left with a difficult choice to make. Do you a) try to re-educate the very audience you’ve bred to expect all this shit by telling different kinds of stories that accentuate the new Doctor’s gifts or, and take your time Steven, do you b) reassign the heroic stuff to the companion and make the new Doctor the hero’s fun but eccentric old friend. Note that choosing B turns Doctor Who into Back to the Future.

Look Steven, you can do whatever you want – we can’t stop you (yet), just know that if Clara remains the focus of the show (an awfully risky strategy to adopt in a new Doctor’s inaugural year) then you risk devaluing your greatest asset – this impossibly complicated, multi-faceted alien with the experience of eleven lifetimes, whose name is on the title card. If, as we now suspect, Clara’s a big part of whatever revelations await us in the finale, and the focus on her has been building to this moment (retrospectively justifying her character’s special treatment) then fine, but this better be a twist for the ages. To paraphrase the Doctor (remember him?), it needs to be huge.

So that aside “Flatline”, mini-TARDIS and all, was a better effort from Mathieson than his debut last week. “Mummy on the Orient Express” was concept mash, whereas this felt more imaginative. The influences were plain as day; it’s clear Jamie likes Innerspace (as do your entire team as this is the second time it’s been alluded to this season after “Into the Dalek”) and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. I liked the notion that made me think of the Trek sequel – the idea of an alien with difficulties communicating, inadvertently causing death and destruction, though its motives be good.

Well, after seeing the Dimensionoids kill a few Bristolians, the Doctor concluded they may not be so good after all and designated them monsters. This was less about their true nature, I felt, as the Doctor didn’t really know anything more about their motives at the end than the beginning, rather than underlining that Capaldi’s Time Lord is far more ambivalent when it comes to fostering harm on his enemies than some of his predecessors. Killing the occasional villain is, for this Doctor, a necessary evil, and one he’s fully capable of rationalising. What this will mean for him when he catches up with some of his old foes and the collateral damage registered on the way at Chez Missy, is anyone’s guess. Well, not yours – you already know. Obviously.

Yours in time and cyberspace,


P.S: Another day, another annoying teen helping to save life as we know it. Steven, promise me that next year Capaldi will only solicit help from middle-aged men and women. I’m begging you.

P.P.S: I had nervous system wallpaper once, what of it?

P.P.P.S: A mercifully brief bit of Danny this week. We learned that a) he’s “territorial”, which was a big fucking surprise, given his passive possessive shtick in previous episodes, yet b) he fails to react when he’s talking to Clara on the phone and it sounds like she’s having sex at the other end. What an enigma!

P.P.P.P.S: Is there any reason to believe the Doctor would have heard of the Addams Family? Yet weirdly he knew what Clara meant when she alluded to Thing.

P.P.P.P.P.S: “You were an exceptional Doctor. Goodness had nothing to do with it.” Now whatever could that mean?

The Adventures of Clara and her Geriatric Pal:

Doctor Who: The Youthful Years

The Distant Past:

Deep Time:

Published in: on October 18, 2014 at 14:37  Leave a Comment  
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