“Flatline,” the second consecutive episode written by “Who” newcomer Jamie Mathieson, takes a hell of a gamble. Not because the Doctor is trapped in a first comically then terrifyingly shrinking TARDIS, not because Clara is left to run things, but because if you’re going to write an episode where half the characters are two-dimensional, you’d better make sure it’s the right half.
In a patchy 8th season, Mathieson might be the best thing to have happened to the show in a while. With Steven Moffat in love with his own cleverness and even Mark Gatiss off the boil, the scripts have been crying out for new blood, and Mathieson delivers in buckets. The premise of the episode is somehow both new and classic “Doctor Who” — the creepy aliens in the walls should be funny, but instead they’re terrifying, reminiscent of the Gelth from Gatiss’ first “Doctor Who” episode, “The Unquiet Dead.” In fact, last week’s “Mummy on the Orient Express” was curiously Gatiss-esque as well. Has anyone seen them in the same place at the same time?
Of course, the real star of this week’s show is Clara. In fact, Jenna Coleman has stolen so many scenes from Capaldi this season, she should be doing community service along with Rigsby. With the Time Lord stuck in a shrinking TARDIS (although, of course, it’s only shrinking on the outside) Clara is the Doctor and she is magnificent. Even the real Doctor admits it — although he insists that, like Mae West and her diamonds, “goodness had nothing to do with it.”
And that’s the problem. If the point of this episode was Clara learning that being the Doctor means not always doing the right thing, then it missed by a country mile. Clara was more the Doctor in one episode than he’s been the entire season, and she’s good at it because she has the empathy he’s been lacking. Because the Doctor is a good man — there was even an episode title about it. Sometimes he’s dark, sometimes he’s conflicted, sometimes he’s downright arrogant, but at his core, he’s one of the good guys. He’s the good guy.
But this Doctor is obsessed with his own dark side — he’s the Gallifreyan equivalent of a teenage goth who’s spent too long with the curtains drawn, blasting death metal. It’s a shame because when it comes to plumbing the emotional depths, Peter Capaldi is a pro. But Clara’s bright, quirky take on the Time Lord underscores the fact that Capaldi has been playing his hero as a bad Tom Baker tribute band.
One viewer on Twitter recently suggested that this Doctor is actually the Valeyard, a classic Who villain made up of the Doctor’s dark side somewhere between his “twelfth and final incarnations.” Moffat has implied that he’s torn up the rule book this season, and after more than one episode where the Doctor has had to reassure Clara that he really is her old friend, that would be a nice touch, and I wish I could believe it. Sadly, I think this is just another example of the lazy writing that’s infused this season — we’re given something new and dramatic and we’re meant to gasp in admiration at Capaldi’s surly surface, rather than notice the lack of substance underneath.
Mathieson avoids that this episode, largely by sidelining the Doctor, although even the climax outright states that no one really cares what the Alien Of The Week’s motivation is. There are some terrific touches — Clara saves the day with her headband, there’s a fantastic guest cast, the first sight of the alien slithering in the building was shiver-down-the-spine scary — and it’s definitely one of the season’s stronger episodes. But it’s rapidly becoming the Clara Needs To Decide Between The Two Men In Her Life Show, and no one really signed up for that, least of all the writers.
I’ve never had much time for the “traveling with the Doctor as romantic relationship” metaphor, but that’s probably because I’m sick of heteronormativity getting all over my TV. It was cute when Rose and the Ninth Doctor ate chips and watched planets burn, less so when the only explicitly feminist companion of the 70s — or was it the 80s? — is brought back to shed a tear over the Doctor trading her in for a newer model. The complicated emotional triangle that’s being set up between Clara and the two men in her life grates — she’s more than just a romantic interest — but it also unearths a fascinating aspect of the Twelfth Doctor.
Unlike Matt Smith’s Doctor, who freely admitted to noticing Clara’s short skirts and even married River Song, Capaldi looks like he’d rather have root canal from a Dalek than confess to any biological impulses — and damn, if that doesn’t make it all the hotter. His possessiveness seethes under the surface every time Danny is mentioned and he can’t stop doing it, like prodding a bruise to see how much it hurts. In the words of the Eleventh Doctor, “I shouldn’t like that. Kind of do.”
But who cares about anything else? Missy’s back. And in terrific twist, it’s not the Doctor she’s interested in — it’s Clara.
Much like the rest of us, then.