I will be the first to admit that much as I love to watch, talk about, read about, dissect, and critique visual storytelling, I approach it first and foremost as a literary critic. I will enjoy the visuals, but am primarily drawn to and excited by literary techniques: Dialogue, characterization, narrative structure, theme and symbolism. It’s not that visuals aren’t related to those qualities, but seeing how they relate requires a bit more effort. The challenge for filmmakers is in making the form relate to the content: Create visuals that reinforce and engage with the abstract story. The challenge for critics and bloggers like myself is remembering that form and content are related, and that how a piece of film looks relates to what it’s saying.
Almost counterintuitively, episodes in which I notice the visuals are often worrying to me. If I’m easily distracted by meaty storytelling, then it is sometimes the case that focusing on the visuals means there’s not a lot of meat on them bones. My friend and fellow podcaster/blogger Curtis Weyant calls this phenomenon “well made pieces of crap.” Take “Curse of the Black Spot” as my favorite Doctor Who whipping boy: It’s gorgeous and utterly hollow. “Flatline” could have been one of these. When your episode is structured around sight-gags and visual effects, the temptation could be to forget the story. And “Flatline” doesn’t go out of its way to disprove this. Like Jamie Mathieson’s first episode “Mummy on the Orient Express,” which aired the previous week, “Flatline” doesn’t really go for the big emotional gut-punch. Like “Mummy,” there is subtle and skillful characterization, but nothing that presents itself as a huge turning point.
Instead, “Flatline” really manages to be all about the visual spectacle, and yet the trick it pulls off to avoid this being problematic is that the spectacle is so bloody weird. The episode is all about spaces and dimensions and how they relate to Clara’s relationships and perceptions of the world. The shrunken TARDIS is so many things in one literally tiny image. It’s a cheap gag – both literally cheap to produce (usually the source of Doctor Who‘s biggest innovations – think the static police box and the Weeping Angels) and just a wonderfully silly bit of farce. It’s yet another way to explore the TARDIS’s physical dimensions (“It’s bigger on the inside” / “Do you know, I don’t think that statement’s ever been truer”). This is an episode which revels in its own superficiality, and deserves to: It’s every bit as funny and clever and surreal as it sets out to be, and that has value in its own right. They chuck the “less is more” rule out the window and find as many ways as they can to milk the jokes for all they’re worth. There are the hilarious Hermione Granger/Mary Poppins beaded bag jokes, with the Doctor passing Clara a series of increasingly improbably large objects from inside her purse. There’s the rudeness of Capaldi’s hand-gestures and the fact that he can knock it over with his dance. And of course, the crowning moment of the Doctor cosplaying the Thing from The Addams Family. Nothing made me happier all season than that image.
The focus on the visual doesn’t stop with the tiny TARDIS, however. Going along with these theme of size, shape and space, we get monsters who are defined by the physical. They dissect human bodies, layering their skin and nerves into the walls in an attempt to understand them, reshaping physical dimensions on a whim. They flatten pieces of furniture into surreal Daliesque murals. They finally manifest themselves three dimensionally as the goofiest clay-mation monsters ever. Despite moments of menace, what unites everything is this episode’s sense of play and fun. This is again Doctor Who being from under your bed, but not so much the monsters as the toy box. These are all toys, part of the lives of everyday children: Toy TARDISes (compare Amy’s homemade TARDIS which Clara found in the TARDIS junk room), paints, sculpting clay. This extends and starts to envelope the supposedly real-world, adult trappings around the fringes of the episode: The train which threatens the Doctor looks strangely like a model toy train, which is bizarre considering that the budget surely could have included a mimetic one. In fact, they did in the previous episode (apart from the space, anyway). Like the Daleks with kitchen supplies and the Weeping Angels with Grandma’s Footsteps, this is an episode kids could recreate: With their art supplies.
But the thing about art is that form and content are equals, or should be. Thought can be sculpted in to reality. Alchemically speaking, reality can be sculpted through art. “The image of an angel is an angel.” These are not opposed notions. “Flatline” avoids the trap of many spectacle-based episodes by connecting the internal story to its external representation. The episode is all about spaces and dimensions and how they relate to Clara’s relationships and perceptions of the world. She is becoming even more controlling, than she already was. She has rules of when and where she travels with the Doctor. She has rules of how he should behave, and threatens to leave when he violates them. She rigorously insists on keeping her “real life and Doctor life” separate, while also refusing to give either of them up. She lies to both the Doctor and Danny about the other. The first thing to know about the Doctor is that he lies, and she is becoming Doctorish and thus the master of lies. Indeed, in “Flatline” she literally plays the Doctor.
Clara: I’m the Doctor.
Doctor: Don’t you dare.
Clara: Dr. Oswald, but you can call me Clara.
Rigsy: So what are you a doctor of?
Doctor: Of lies.
Of course she’s the Doctor of Lies, for that’s what the Doctor is himself. And as we established last week, there’s a reason for that. He lies to people in order to save them.
Clara: I just hope I can keep them all alive.
Doctor: Ah, welcome to my world. So what’s next, Doctor Clara?
Clara: Lie to them… Lie to them. Give them hope. Tell them they’re going to be fine. Isn’t that what you do?
Doctor: In a manner of speaking. It’s true that people with hope tend to run faster, whereas people who think they’re doomed–
Clara: Dawdle. End up dead.
Doctor: So that’s what I sound like.
Learning from her experience with Maisie last week, Clara seems to take this as the central trick of playing the Doctor. And crucially, she no longer sees this solely as a character flaw but as the root of his heroism. “Secrets keep us safe,” as he said in season 7 as he concealed Clara’s own mystery from her. His lies, the role he plays, are how he’s able to do what he does. By lying to her companions and pretending to be the Doctor, Clara (for a moment) becomes the Doctor.
And again, we have the notion of play: This time role-play. She fun of the visuals reflect the fun Clara has playing Doctor Who. And so, we have the image of Clara picking up the TARDIS as if it’s a toy. This vehicle which, the Doctor tells us, would “fracture the surface of the Earth” if it “were to land with its true weight,” she picks up as if it weighs nothing. But is that because she’s bigger than it, a god holding the fate of the Doctor and the TARDIS in her hands (as “Name of the Doctor” might suggest)? Or is she rather a child, picking up a toy, not sure of the significance of her actions? Certainly she shows a child-like desire for praise at the end. She wants the Doctor to tell her she was a good Doctor, the bestest Doctor ever. He does, although he notes the ambiguous word “good” suggesting that morality and efficiency are not necessarily associated. “Lying is a vital survival skill,” he admits, but also a “terrible habit.”
All of the risk, none of the consequence. She gets the fun of his boasts and bravura, but with him whispering instructions in her ear. It’s not until the Doctor is cut off, falling down to the bottom of the subway, that she is really forced to be him for real, to hold their lives in her hands. There’s more to being the Doctor than play: There are the mortal companions, the innocent bystanders, and of course the monsters. Clara proves herself well, if we had any doubt that she would. She’s intelligent and creative and kind, but she still doesn’t understand the consequence. “On balance” they did well, she says, sweeping away the failures in favor of the victories. And of course the Doctor does have to think like that to keep going. We all do. But what happens when the balance tips the other way, when the losses outweigh the gain? We are left with the ominous Missy tag, watching Clara on her iPad: “Clara. My Clara. I have chosen well,” suggesting that whatever Missy has planned Clara herself is a vital part of making it work.