Doctor Who & The Companion Who Forgot To Care

[Spoilers up to and including "Flatline", the ninth episode of Season Eight.]

Well, that was pretty messed up. And I don't just mean the terrifying creatures from the two-dimensional universe who were sucking humans into flat deaths, or that giant hand, or the shrinking TARDIS. Because, yet again this week, the most fascinating thing about the episode was the relationship between the Doctor and Clara. Season Eight's portrayal of our current companion continues to be much more interesting than the two-dimensional character (pun oh-so-very intended) we were introduced to last year.

Last week, after "Mummy On The Orient Express," I wrote about the way the Doctor seems to be actively moulding Clara in his own image. And I wasn't the only one who noticed. As Chris Lough wrote in his review for Tor.com, "Over the course of the season... he continually places her in positions that will make her just like him." It backfired in "Kill The Moon" — she was so upset by the responsibility he forced her to shoulder that she was ready to leave him for good. But their showdown with the mummy helped Clara to better understand the Doctor's thought process. She even lied to Maisie just like he would have.

But this week, the show made that theme kind of the whole point of the episode. (Y'know, other than all the saving of the world.) In "Flatline," Clara runs around with the sonic screwdriver, calling herself the Doctor, and trying to save the day. It's not the first time we've seen a companion take on the Doctor's role — like, say, Amy in "Dinosaurs On A Spaceship" — but this week it had a whole new weight.

That's largely because we're left to wonder just how much of a positive development this really is. Just a couple of episodes ago, Clara had deep concerns about the Doctor. She's had them all season long — unable to answer his "good man" question in "Into The Dalek." But in order to satisfy her time travel addiction, she now seems willing to overlook her concerns and embrace the Time Lord's way of seeing the universe. To make it, in fact, her own.

It ended well in "Mummy On The Orient Express" and again in "Flatline." They save the day. But the Doctor's companion isn't supposed to think like the Doctor. They're supposed to think like a human being. That's the whole point, as we've been reminded over and over again this season. Clara is the caretaker. The one who cares so he doesn't have to. His conscience. The asking questions one — not just about the details of an episode so the audience can understand what's happening, but also about whether or not what the Doctor is doing is truly a good thing to do.

So the moment in "Flatline" that really stands out for me is one that happens when they're in the tunnels. While they're trying to escape the Flatliners (sorry Doctor, "the boneless" is a terrible nickname) they come across some of Rigsy's graffiti. While Clara has been playing the role of the Doctor, Rigsy has been playing the role of her companion. And in that moment, he looks for praise from her just like she looks for praise from the Doctor. But she barely even glances at his artwork. "Yeah, not bad," she says dismissively. She's got bigger things on her mind. It's exactly the kind of rough bedside manner we've been seeing from the Twelfth Doctor all year. Focusing on the big picture while forgetting to be nice to people. It's the kind of thing Clara is supposed to be better at. That's why he needs her around. She is after all, a school teacher. She's supposed to be encouraging to young people. But right now, she's too busy saving the world to be nice.

It's a small moment, but an emblematic one. She's supposed to care about being nice. About lying to people. About seeing them die. But in "Flatline," she doesn't. At least, not as much as she's supposed to.

"You were an exceptional Doctor, Clara" the Time Lord says to her at the end of the episode. "Goodness had nothing to do with it." And you can understand the worried look on his face. Because, if the Doctor's companion becomes too much like him, then who's left to do all the caring?


Other thoughts:

- There's a good discussing about that graffiti moment on the Verity! podcast this week.

- Emily Asher-Perrin points out the great class-related stuff for Tor.com.

- Interesting choice to have a graffiti artist in Bristol named Rigsy; that's Banksy hometown. I visited the city this summer — Bristol's street art is great.

- For a show about travelling through all of space and time, there have been an awful lot of episodes taking place on Earth this year. And another one, it looks like, next week.

- It doesn't have much to do with "Flatline", but as a Canadian I couldn't help but have the events in Ottawa in mind as I re-watched the episode this week. "Flatline" deals, as Doctor Who so often does, with the question of violence and what our response to it should be. These days we seem to have an increasing understanding of how often mental illness plays a role in these situations — it occurs to me that it's something I wouldn't mind seeing the show tackle at some point.

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This post posted by Adam Bunch, the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at adam@littleredumbrella.com.


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