(Caution – spoilers for Doctor Who, “Flatline”!)
This last week’s episode of Doctor Who, “Flatline,” has pleased me to no end. It was great to see a woman playing the Doctor, for one thing. That deserves a squee post all on its own. (While I’m at it, I really ought to post about Barbara Benedetti, who played the Doctor in a series of fan-made films produced by Ryan K. Johnson.) But even more exciting, to me, was its exploration of morality.
I started watching Doctor Who with Patrick Troughton and went straight through to the end of Classic Who, with Sylvester McCoy. The Doctor was a fine, though ridiculous, hero. Most of the time, the show never questioned the Doctor’s innate goodness. He was just this guy who saved us from the monsters. I have to admit, I liked it that way. I wanted, and I still do want, the Doctor to be “the good guy.”
But I also have to admit that I was fascinated when the Doctor took a wrong step in “The Waters of Mars.” What happens when a superhero goes too far? I was so intrigued that I wrote an article about it for Strange Horizons: “Fall of A Superhero in Doctor Who and the Waters of Mars.” I said:
It is asking the grown-up questions that need to be asked. Can we really count on our superheroes? We need them to be powerful enough to fight our villains and win, but what do we do if our heroes become villains themselves?
This is not a new question. Lately, many movies and graphic novels have been exploring the theme of good and evil with superheroes. But I felt that “The Waters of Mars” and the two following episodes explored that question exceptionally well. My opinion is that superheroes can be “good” only if there is a counterbalance to their power. And when the Doctor stepped over the line, a woman did step up to stop him.
I hoped that when the Doctor regenerated, he could go back to being “the good guy.”
Did he? Is he a good man?
This season of Doctor Who has taken this question as one of its main mysteries. The Twelfth Doctor was terrified when we first saw him — probably of himself. He asked Clara if he was a good man, and she replied, “I don’t know.” Like Clara, we’re not sure. The Eleventh Doctor always explained himself, but the Twelfth Doctor is both cagey and brutally honest about his reasons for doing what he does.
But there’s another question behind that one. What does it even mean for a superhero to be “good?” Which actions should s/he take in the face of difficulty? And what if there are no good choices?
That’s the question that “Flatline” tackled. To summarize the episode, the Doctor gets trapped in his TARDIS and hands Clara his tokens of power (sonic screwdriver and psychic paper), his name, and his leadership tips and tricks. Clara flawlessly executes the usual monster-fighting strategy, managing to save the world plus at least a couple survivors.
And that’s why the Doctor compliments her halfway through, saying, “You were good, and you made a mighty fine Doctor!”
But at the end of the adventure, after everything has been said and done, he changes his story. “You were an exceptional Doctor, Clara,” he said. But then he adds, “Goodness had nothing to do with it.” He walks off into his TARDIS, leaving Clara puzzled.
What was it? What went wrong? Clara did a brilliant job. If she hadn’t done it, our entire world would have been taken over by malicious monsters from a two-dimensional world, and the Doctor and his TARDIS would have been utterly destroyed. Some people died along the way, but it was through no fault of hers. Why wouldn’t that count as “good?”
Well, there are hints throughout the episode that something is amiss.
Early on, the Doctor catches Clara lying to him about her boyfriend. He congratulates her, saying that lying is a survival skill . . . and a terrible habit. Later, while Clara is leading a group of people to safety, knowing they might or might not live, she realizes that part of the Doctor’s strategy is to lie to people. She consults the Doctor to see if she’s right.
“Lie to them. Lie to them,” she says. “Give them hope. Tell them they’re all going to be fine. Isn’t that what you would do?”
Taken aback, he stammers, “In a manner of speaking, I-i-it’s true that people who have hope tend to run faster. . .”
Clara also guesses his “Rule 1.” Each incarnation of the Doctor has had its own series of rules. For example, for many of the Doctors, “Rule 1” was for the companions not to wander off. (Of course, they always did, because otherwise, how would they have adventures?) For the 11th Doctor, Rule 1 was “The Doctor lies.” But for this 12th Doctor, the rule appears to be, “Use your enemies’ power against them.” What’s happened to Rule 1? It’s gone from a joke to an admission of Machiavellian techniques and from there to a military strategy.
Could this be why the Doctor tells Clara “Goodness had nothing to do with it?” Has he seen his morality mirrored in her actions and decided it’s flawed?
Yes, maybe. But there could be another explanation. Perhaps the moral issue is not with Clara’s actions — which were as “good” as possible under the circumstances — but with Clara’s later processing of the situation.
The Doctor asks her a question at the end. “You okay?” He looks more considerate in that one moment than he has this entire season. He knows she’s been responsible for a group of people and seen some of them die.
“I’m alive,” she replies. She’s wearing a poker face, as she usually does. If she’s in pain, she tends to hide it.
“A lot of people died,” he says, still sympathetic.
And here they are interrupted by Fenton, a morally degenerate survivor. The survivor compares what has just happened to a forest fire. You save the big trees, but you let the brush go. He refers to the dead, who had been doing mandatory community service, as “scum.”
The Doctor is not pleased by this analysis. He says, “It wasn’t a fire, those weren’t trees, those were people.”
Clara, however, does not appear to have quite followed this interchange. She is listening from a distance, a slight smile on her face. She wants the Doctor’s approval, so she says, “Yeah, but we saved the world, right?”
The Doctor smiles. “We did! You did.”
“Okay, so on balance . . .”
I think this is where Clara goes wrong. She has taken all the right actions, but she’s failed to consider the impact of those actions on her own sense of right and wrong. She’s nothing like Fenton, but just as he is comparing people to expendable trees, Clara is weighing one group of lives against another.
Perhaps this is why the Doctor later says that goodness had nothing to do with it. Perhaps he’s trying to tell Clara to step back and consider the moral implications of her actions.
Or maybe something else is going on.
“Balance!” says the Doctor, disgusted.
“Yeah! That’s how you think, isn’t it?” She’s still looking for his approval.
“Largely so other people don’t have to.”
Well, it looks like the Doctor has his own issues there. He doesn’t want other people to weigh one life against another, but he does it himself. It’s the classic “Do as I say, not as I do.”
So perhaps when the Doctor says, “Goodness had nothing to do with it,” he actually means, “Goodness had nothing to do with being the Doctor.”
If that’s what he means, he’s challenging the morality of the entire series, all the way back to the 1960s. This was a pretty run-of-the-mill episode, with clear-cut choices and answers. The same plotline would have easily worked with Patrick Troughton as the Doctor, or Tom Baker, or any other “Classic Who” Doctor — and without that enigmatic statement from the Doctor, we would never have batted an eye.
Maybe we should have.
Anyway, whatever the Doctor means, I’m hooked. Can’t wait to hear what next week’s episode has to say!