Flatline: A Reflection On Identity

Western society’s emphasis on the individual has created an understanding of identity that does not acknowledge the importance of relationships or societal context in shaping who we are. “Be who you are despite what others think/say/do.” “Find the real you!” “Get in touch with your inner self” are messages that bombard us on social media and which form the foundation of the self-help industry. While of course it is vital that we do not become overly dependent on others to define our self-worth the reality is that our identity is formed, at least in part, by those around us. We are molded by our interactions with friends, family, and coworkers. Our search for who we are will be in vein if we refuse to concede the essential role others play in our lives and how we in turn influence others.  However, the danger of acknowledging how we shape other people and vice versa, is that we might not always like what we see reflected back to us. And for those of us who grew up in abusive or neglectful households, it is frightening to think that we might share characteristics with our abusers. There is a comfort in believing that we are autonomous beings who can resist being shaped by others and our societal context, and there is a sense of liberation that comes from believing that our lives don’t really impact others. If we acknowledge that such thoughts are false, we will have to think much more critically about how we treat others both individually and on a national level. Such thinking forces us to recognize that we are deeply interconnected with others-from our best friends to those suffering in west Africa, or the Middle East and as a result we can’t simply shrug our shoulders in disinterest or blindly condemn the actions of murderous thugs without recognizing the role we as individuals and as a nation have played in the various oppressions and injustices occurring on the world stage.

In the episode Flatline, the Doctor sees bits of himself reflected back to him through Clara and as a character whose struggles with self-loathing have been a dominant theme since the return of the show, to see himself through Clara troubles him deeply. Because the Doctor is trapped in a shrinking TARDIS, Clara takes center stage and effectively takes up his role in this episode. Clara even jokes about this towards the beginning of the episode

CLARA: I’m the Doctor.
DOCTOR: Don’t you dare.
CLARA : Doctor Oswald. CLARA: But you can call me Clara.
RISBY: I’m Risby. So er, what are you a doctor of?                                                                         DOCTOR: Of lies.
CLARA: Well, I’m usually quite vague about that. I think I just picked the title because it makes me sound important.

But fairly quickly we begin to see how traveling with the Doctor has made Clara blasé about lying. To be fair, traveling with the Doctor always involves a level of duplicity-telling everyone you meet that you travel through space and time in a time machine that looks like a 1950s police box is a sure way to be ostracized or taken in for a mental health evaluation. But those who travel with the Doctor soon find themselves lying extensively or at the very least withholding information from those they love. In the last few episodes we have seen that Clara is lying both to the Doctor and to Danny Pink. She wants to continue her adventure with the Doctor and also her relationship with Danny Pink and fears having to give up either one, so her solution is to withhold and distort the truth.

DOCTOR: Excellent lying, Doctor Oswald.
CLARA: Yeah? Well, thought it was pretty weak myself.                                                              DOCTOR: I meant to me. You told me that Danny was okay with you being back on board the TARDIS.    

CLARA: Well, he is.                                                                                                                       

DOCTOR: Yeah, because he doesn’t know anything about it.                                                       CLARA: Doctor
DOCTOR: Congratulations. Lying is a vital survival skill.
CLARA: Well, there you go.
DOCTOR: And a terrible habit

Shortly after this conversation Clara asks, “Does it even still count as lying if you’re doing for someone’s own good? Well, like, technically their own good.” But who she is talking about? Is she really trying to protect Danny or the Doctor or is she simply avoiding having what may prove to be difficult conversations about the future?

Later on in the episode, Clara begins to understand why the Doctor acts the way that he does-in ways that seem cold, heartless and manipulative. Of course sometimes it is for his own purposes disguised as altruism, but in other cases his actions are the best way he can conceive of to help others. Clara, realizing that she is in charge of keeping Risby. Fenton, and the other workers alive begins to understand the magnitude of this responsibility. And the Doctor gets a glimpse of how he sounds like to others:

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Clara is reflecting back to him the pragmatism that manages to push aside past tragedies, (such as previous deaths) and focuses on what needs to get done in order to ensure that the most people survive.

DOCTOR: Are you okay?
CLARA: I’m alive.
DOCTOR: And a lot of people died.
FENTON: It’s like a forest fire, though, isn’t it? The objective is to save the great trees, not the brushwood. Am I right?
DOCTOR: It wasn’t a fire, those weren’t trees, those were people.

Clara and the Doctor have of course influenced each other throughout their time together. In fact, the show frequently explores how the Doctor and his companions have shaped each other for better or for worse. In Nuwho, the companion has often been a healing influence on the Doctor, especially in regards to the Time War and during his confused post-regeneration phase. The Doctor has often encouraged companions to see their own strengths, to be open to new and strange adventures, and to think outside of the box. Many would argue that in those cases the influence has been mutually beneficial and positive. On the negative side, traveling with the Doctor does take its toll. Sarah Jane Smith, struggled with how to live a normal life after being left behind, Rory and Amy struggled with balancing their normal life and their life with the Doctor. And of course Clara has not only picked up the Doctor’s penchant for lying, even to those that only want to help her and love her, but she has also begun to lose a part of her humanity. (Although the previews for the season finale has me scratching my head as to who or what Clara is. But for now, I am just going to stick with her being human). The woman who convinced the Doctor there must be a different way to end the Time War, and who shouted at the Doctor in, Kill the Moon for being manipulative and for essentially abandoning her to make a decision that could have had catastrophic consequences, seems to have taken a more carefree attitude towards death, at least in this episode.

DOCTOR: Yes, a lot of people died and maybe the wrong people survived.
CLARA: Yeah, but we saved the world, right?
DOCTOR: We did. You did.
CLARA: Okay, so, on balance
DOCTOR: Balance?
CLARA: Yeah, that’s how you think, isn’t it?
DOCTOR: Largely so other people don’t have to.
CLARA: Yeah, well, I was you today. I was the Doctor. And, apparently, I was quite good at it.

At times we become so blind to our words and actions that we don’t recognize their impact until we see others acting in ways that are reminiscent of how we behave. The Doctor, especially in this season has been unmoved about death. In fact in numerous episodes, (Into the Dalek, Mummy on the Orient Express, etc) he mocks those who want to take the time to mourn. What ultimately matters is that evil has been vanquished and that even though some people died, it could have been worse. The Doctor, at least on a logical level is right. As he told Perkins in Mummy on the Orient Express: “People with guns to their heads, they cannot mourn. We do not have time to mourn.” And while his logic makes sense, there is still something that feels off about such an attitude. He sees death and moves on to the next adventure. But seeing Clara react in a similar way forces him to pause.

CLARA: Admit it. I did well.
(Her phone rings. It is Danny. She picks the “I’m in a meeting” text option to end it.)
DOCTOR: Is that PE?
CLARA: Just say it. Why can’t you just say it? Why can’t you just say I did good?

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In our individualistic society we are so keen to deny how interconnected and reliant we are on one other. Of course I am not suggesting a denial of personal autonomy, but there needs to be a balance and a recognition that how we treat others and how they treat us matters. How we interact with others changes all involved for better or for worse. And this remains true on a larger national scale. How we treat foreign nations impacts how they react to us, and while many want to deny it, we can’t simply condemn other countries for human rights abuses without being aware of how our country has treated others. People are rightfully angry at ISIS for their horrific treatment of their own people and of foreigners, but can we say that our country is really above it all? Have our actions possibly influenced and strengthened terrorist movements? In an interconnected world such questions need to be taken seriously.

In Flatline, the Doctor’s eyes were opened to how he influences his companions. Will that change how he treats Clara or how he acts? Not sure. But watching Clara bought about an even deeper level of self-awareness and a reminder that actions have consequences, but not always the ones we think. As a result it essential that we embrace that truth instead of running away from it. We can use this knowledge to reflect more critically on how our nation’s actions intentionally or not contributes to a cycle of violence.

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