Wednesday, October 07, 2015

8.9 Flatline

"You mean you could've taken your hand out of that cuff at any time?"
"No, not at any time. Only when it was funny."
         Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Stories sometimes mean things which their writers didn’t intend. They sometimes grow in meaning after their writers stop working on them. I don’t buy the notion that the whole of Doctor Who — books and comics and CDs and TV and all — has an independent and an evolving sentience. But this story is a genuine example of a TV programme leaping up and saying something that no-one intended it to say. 


About a decade ago, the National Society for the Prevention of Children had a TV advert in which a human actor kicked, thumped, beat and generally mistreated a cartoon child (who popped up, Tom & Jerry style, after each indignity) until the final slogan “real children don’t bounce back” appeared on the screen. This made the point that cruelty to children was a bad thing, for the benefit of anyone who didn’t already think so. A decade before that, the same National Society for the Prevention of Children had appeared on the news complaining about the glorification of bullying and corporal punishment in comics like the Beano. And a decade before that One of Those MPs had tried to stop the BBC showing Tom & Jerry because he didn’t think that you would like it very much if someone put your tail in a food blender or dropped an anvil on your paw. I can't remember his name but he was on John Craven's Newsround. 

There is a continuum between what is realistic and what is not realistic and anyone can tell where we are on that continuum at any given moment. The answer to “This would be wicked if it were real” is always “Yes, but it isn’t”, or indeed “You are clearly not old enough to consume fiction.” No baby is killed, no wife is beaten, no-one is hung, and no-one’s soul suffers an eternity of conscious torment separate from the love of God in a Punch and Judy show. At worst, it indulges children’s slightly morbid fascination with violence and executions and the devil and other stuff they’ve been told by adults not to be fascinated by. At best, it’s a bit of slapstick in which a doll with an ugly face thumps a doll with a pretty face with a shillelagh.

This isn’t to say that Punch and Judy shows and Dennis the Menace and Tom & Jerry don’t have subtexts. Everything has a subtext.

Tom & Jerry is at one end of the continuum. It isn’t a real cat, it isn’t a real mouse, and nothing either party does can possibly harm the other. Kick-Ass is at the other: it wouldn’t be funny if it wasn’t happening in a world where violence is really violent, pain really hurts and gangsters really might take a blow torch to your embarrassing bits. The Simpsons is somewhere in the middle. If Homer tries to strangle Bart we are quite clear that no real boy is being strangled; there is no residual sense that someone ought to call Springfield social services. If we thought it through, we’d probably say “what we are seeing on the screen is a visual representation of a father saying ‘I’m so cross I could strangled you’”. But when Bart’s dog is going to be put to sleep we are supposed to feel at some level “sad”. Or think that Bart is feeling sad. Even though it’s a cartoon and we know the outcome will be happy and probably funny. This sets limits on the kinds of stories that can be told. “How would Homer cope if Marge died?” would involve emotions that a cartoon just can’t deal with.

It’s possible to set up jarring clashes between the two extremes. The three minute anti-cruelty advert was one example. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was another. Oddly enough, I can’t think of an example of campy, silver-age superheroes being made to solve crimes in bleak, modern, drug-soaked America. Your Dark Knight Returns and your Watchmen always involve bleak, modern, drug soaked superheroes in the bleak modern world. Imagine what Roger Rabbit would have been like in a film noir world populated by realistic, three dimensional, furry animals with dark, existential emotions who just happened to able to walk and talk.

Where, on the continuum, is Doctor Who? Is it a cartoon, or is it live action? Is it Punch and Judy, or is it Kick-Ass?

“Oh, Andrew, it can be anywhere and nowhere; a comic strip at one moment and a tragedy at another. That’s the whole joy of it.”

Okay. But where are we, in this episode (or in any particular moment of this episode)? How are the writer’s controlling the movement along the line? To what purpose and effect?


Flatline appears to be a Sarah Jane story about creatures from literally another dimension, who appear (from our point of view) to be pictures and patterns on flat surfaces. However, they have found a way to interact with our world by leaching dimensional energy from the TARDIS.

This makes perfect sense. The problem with saying “The Moon is an egg; the Moon hatched; the shell went away by magic and another Moon appeared by magic and chicken flew away” isn’t that it is obviously scientific rubbish; it’s that it doesn’t follow any kind of logic or pseudo logic. “There were these creatures that appeared to us to be merely pictures, so they sucked the dimensions out of the TARDIS, and became living breathing monsters, but the more energy they sucked, the smaller the TARDIS got” follows perfectly good storybook logic. The final solution follows on nicely from the logic we have just established. The dimensional monsters can suck energy out of objects, turning them into pictures; and they can blow energy back into those pictures, turning them into objects again. So our hero gets a young man who is very carefully not called Banksy to draw a convincing picture of a door. The dimensional monsters squirt energy at it, to try to turn it into a door. But since it was never a real door, this doesn’t work. The energy instead goes into the TARDIS; the TARDIS grows back to its proper size; and Peter Capaldi steps out and does an impersonation of Matt Smith in the very first episode. 

It’s not sciencey science fiction, but it’s an awful lot better than the Doctor magicking the bad thing away with a doohickey.

We are told at various points that the dimension monsters are planning on eating or conquering or destroying the world. The whole world. 890 times as bad as the Holocaust. 900 thousand Hiroshimas. No one seems to care very much.

At one point, the dimensional creature is about to kill Wonderful Clara. Kill her: funerals and embalming and graveyards and nasty smells and flowers and people crying. Death. But no-one seems very bothered by this. Clara is mostly interested in deflecting an embarrassing phone-call from her awful boyfriend. Death is an occasion for romantic comedy.

I mean, I get that Doctor Who is not very serious, but if everyone — the annoying girl from the Moon one, the two other annoying kids from the Cyberman one, the cute English teacher from the perfunctory robot one, the granny who quite likes it when the Doctor comes to Christmas dinner in the nude in the last Matt Smith one — are in danger of being killed or eaten or conquered shouldn’t someone at least try to say something dramatic? You know the kind of thing. “Meh..! They dare Chesterfield, they dare! And, meh, we must dare to stop them!”


Three weeks ago, the Doctor found out about Danny and Danny found out about the Doctor.

Two weeks ago, Clara dumped the Doctor (for no reason).

One week ago, Clara went back to the Doctor (for no reason), telling him that Danny was fine about their relationship. (*)

This week, Danny and the Doctor find out that Clara is lying to them about the Doctor and Danny. And Clara has to be the Doctor while the Doctor is trapped in the miniaturized TARDIS, which forces us all to wonder about what “being the Doctor” means.

In the old days, I think we knew what being the Doctor meant. If you wanted to “be” the Doctor you would try to always do what was right; side with the underdog; hate tyranny; be the sort of person who is often in battles but hates war. You would take an interest in science; construct complicated machines with your meccanno; cause fires with your chemistry set. You would consciously wear unfashionable clothes, respond to meaningful questions with wisecracks, and get thumped. But you would still not be an immortal Time Lord with a vast amount of scientific knowledge and a box that could take you anywhere in time and space. Which is kinda like the whole point of being the Doctor.

Since then, at least two things have happened. The Doctor has been literally defined as the most important person in the universe. Trying to emulate the Doctor is less like trying emulate St Francis, and more like trying to emulate the Holy Ghost. The idea that the Doctor is a role rather than an individual has gained ground — Doctor Matt can talk about “not being the Doctor any more” and say that Doctor John lost his right to use the name. But simultaneously, we’ve been asked to believe that it’s not the Doctor’s advanced knowledge that makes him the Doctor, but some facet of his personality. The fact that a guardian angel popped up and told him not to be scared of ghosties when he was a little boy, for example.

This week, the idea seems is that “being the Doctor” means acting as if you are in charge; mouthing military clichés in an authoritative voice ("I am the one chance you've got of staying alive" while professing to hate soldiers; pretending to have a plan, even when you don’t; claiming that whatever happened is what you planned all along; being callously prepared to sacrifice lives along the way.

Granted, Clara saves the day in the final act by doing the kind of thing that I have been complaining that the Doctor doesn’t do nearly enough: solving a problem by spotting a thing that no-one else has spotted. But the bulk of the episode seems to be about debunking the Doctor. Most important person in the universe? Actually he’s a bit of a fraud; he’s just convinced everyone he’s great.

It seems to be the deceit that the final scene is asking us to focus on.

“I was a good Doctor, wasn’t I?”
“You were an exceptional Doctor. Goodness had nothing to do with it.”

We’re back in episode 2. There is an ambiguity in the word “good”. A very bad man might be a very good assassin. Only a very good journalist can get a job on the Daily Mail but only a very bad person would want one. Once you are a good Dalek you are no longer a good Dalek. Clara wants the Doctor to tell him that she was a good Doctor. At the beginning of the series, he wanted her reassurance that he was a good man.

I sometimes ask a representative sample of non-fan Doctor Who viewers (or “Mum” as I usually call her) what they think of the show.

Their most frequent comments are

1: That they don’t understand it and

2: That I over analyze it, and that I should just accept it for what it is.

Yes, I cry. Just tell me what it is and I will accept it for that it.

“It can be many things, Andrew, at many different times”

Then tell me which thing it was this week, and how that relates to the thing it was last week, or I swear I will go insane.

If I watched one episode of a Soap Opera I might very well not understand it; but I would understand what I didn’t understand.

Why, I might ask, was Mrs Lady, who had walked out on her husband in Tuesday’s episode, back with him on Friday?

“Aha” the soap viewer would reply “That old man who visited her at the end of the episode was her old parish priest, who is the one person she really trusts. We were supposed to understand that he was going to give her a little talk about the sanctity of marriage.”

Or they might say “Well, it’s been a standing joke since 1986 that Mrs Lady periodically leaves her husband, but always goes back to him. They don’t even bother to show the going back any more.”

Why, I might ask, did Mr Man, who is always so sweet and kind to everybody, being so horrible to his new neighbours?

“Aha” my soap fan would say “That’s because his baby sister died in the blitz, and he still can’t forgive anyone for having a German name.”

That is: things happen in a Soap which only make sense in terms of other things which happen in that Soap; so if you don’t watch the Soap regularly, then you might not know enough to make sense of a particular scene. But the information is out there, and someone can give it to you, and then you do. Unless the information not being there is the point. “Who was the mysterious one-armed man who visited Mrs Landlord during the quiz night?” “That’s a mystery. He’s been in every story since Christmas, but no-one knows who he is.”

In Doctor Who there is an infinitely vast amount of stuff which the die hard Whovian knows about but the casual viewer does not. If you need to know it for the story to make sense, it is invariably explained on screen. No one would say “Let’s jettison the TARDIS’ swimming pool, first mentioned in the 1981 story  Logopolis”. But someone certainly would say “The Cloister Bell is Ringing which means that the TARDIS is about to be destroyed.”

How am I supposed to watch Doctor Who? Is it This Is England or the Bash Street Kids? Is Danny a human being who is going to be hurt? Am I meant to care about his getting hurt? Does it matter that the Doctor and Clara are both behaving like the most colossal shits, or his his emotional pain only pretend pain, like Bart being strangled? Is the question about whether the Doctor is a good man one which potentially has an answer or is just a bit of Yoda philosophy which everyone but me knows is not meant to mean anything.


I hope all this explains why I find the idea that Doctor Who sometimes generates meanings quite apart from what any one writer might have in mind so very appealing right now.

This season began with a halfway decent attempt at Victorian period drama, pulled the rug away with Tom Riley playing Cary Elwes playing Erol Flynn, and then gave up altogether and offered us a magic moon chicken.

And here we are, near the end of it. Watching a story about two dimensional creatures, who are suddenly turned into three dimensional creatures, and who then collapse back into being flat cartoon drawings again.

Surely someone is trying to tell us something? (**)

* Clara is willing to deceive Danny. Danny is stupid enough to be taken in by Clara’s deceit. Clara is willing to deceive the Doctor. The Doctor is stupid enough to be taken in by Clara’s deceit. Or, Clara is stupid enough to believe that the Doctor has been taken in by her deceit. Or, Clara is stupid enough to be taken in by the Doctor pretending that he is been taken in by her deceit. Or both of them know the other is lying and knows they know the other is lying but care so little about each other and about Danny that they don’t care.

** Before going to press, I noticed that I had typed "Amy" for "Clara" throughout. Never at any time have I said "Jo Grant" when I meant "Sarah Jane" or "Turlough" when I meant "Adric. Just saying.