Written by Jamie Mathieson
Directed by Douglas MacKinnon
Starring: Peter Capaldi (The Doctor); Jenna Coleman (Clara Oswald); Jovian Wade (Rigsy); Christopher Fairbank (Fenton); Jessica Hayles (PC Forrest); Samuel Anderson (Danny Pink) & Michelle Gomez (Missy)
Here There Be Spoilers.
With a title like Flatline, this episode of Doctor Who was almost guaranteed to be a nail-biter and, although the title was a bit misleading, it paid off in spades on its premise: a gang of aliens from a two-dimensional plane of existence (the flatliners of the title, although the Doctor eventually refers to them as “the boneless” and so shall I) decides to visit Earth and cause a lot of havoc. It’s a new creature, yet another of quite a group for this series, and an episode such is this depends a lot on their effect on the viewer. So far, the new creatures introduced for this series has been something of a mixed bag, from the sublime (Time Heist‘s Teller) to the meh (the robot threats from Deep Breath, Robot Of Sherwood, and especially the Skovox Blitzer from The Caretaker). So how do these new, paper-thin perils measure up?
After a quick prologue that introduces the threat (and all good pre-credit sequences are, by definition, short), Flatline begins with the Doctor having the usual hiccup with the TARDIS navigation circuits and winds up in Bristol, more than a hundred miles from Clara’s lunch date with Danny. But the TARDIS seems to be losing power and, what’s even more surprising, the outside shell of the TARDIS is shrinking. While Clara goes off to investigate, the Doctor remains behind to see if he can stabilize the time machine, but he becomes trapped when it further shrinks down to handheld size. While this amuses Clara immensely, the Doctor is now dependent on her to be his eyes, ears and feet. After popping the TARDIS in her purse, Clara toddles off with sonic screwdriver and psychic paper in hand to save the day. She is essentially the Doctor for the length of this adventure and she clearly enjoys the prospect of it; when first meeting Rigsy, a graffiti painter who serving a sentence of community service, she introduces herself as “Doctor Oswald” (the Doctor doesn’t think this is funny at all). One is reminded of Clara’s smirk in The Crimson Horror when the Doctor absently told her that she was “the boss.” Despite the fact that she is in contact with the Doctor and he is guiding her, Clara has attained the status of “boss” over the people who find themselves in harm’s way (and when the TARDIS goes into siege mode her communications link with the Doctor fails, making her the sole decision-maker).
As monumental as this must be in Clara’s life (and her development as a character), this set of circumstances is nothing new in the world of post-2005 Doctor Who. Rose (Billie Piper) grew as a character specifically as a result of the times when she had to spring into action when the Doctor wasn’t there (episodes like The Satan Pit, Fear Her, and Doomsday spring to mind). Likewise Martha (Freema Agyeman) was tasked with saving the entire Earth all on her own in The Last Of The Time Lords (it took her a year, but she did it). This isn’t even the first time that the Doctor has had to stay in the TARDIS and send a companion out to do the work for him; remember Rory (Arthur Darvill) and his silly “Rory-cam” glasses in The Girl Who Waited (thank goodness the Doctor found a more subtle device for Clara; she would’ve looked stupid in those glasses). The Master (John Simm) in The Sound Of Drums taunted the Doctor that he “makes people better” and Davros (Julien Bleach) in Journey’s End went one better saying that the Doctor fashioned people into weapons. While that is a matter of opinion, it’s clear that exposure to the Doctor changes a person and, in the most-satisfying character arcs, makes them ready to tackle the aliens on their own. It’s especially an important moment for Clara who, now that her “impossible-girl” mystery has been solved, can now be viewed as a normal character who needs to be developed if she’s going to be considered a successful companion. Her status in the series 8 episodes has been something of a roller-coaster ride; sometimes she’s making the hard decisions (as in Kill The Moon) while other times she just seems to be along for ride (as in Time Heist). The good news is that, in the last few episodes, the series has been successfully doing what the previous series before it did, building a solid and likable companion that can assist the Doctor without forgetting that the hero of the show is the Doctor himself. It’s quite a tightrope for the writing staff to tread, and Flatline is a good example of how well the writers are coming along.
As for Flatline’s creatures, they are one of the better additions to the rogues’ gallery. Unlike the aforementioned Skovox Blitzer killing machine, a clanking quick-draw artist cobbled up for The Caretaker because Daleks have already made an appearance this series, these nasties are down-right menacing. They’re largely invisible for the bulk of the episode, shimmering on surfaces as they suck you in and turn your central nervous system into a mural, before evolving into the jerking and phasing 3-D image of their victims (something of a tactical blunder on their part – you have a reasonable chance of escaping a creature that you can actually see pursuing you). What makes them worse is that we have no idea who they are or what they want; the Doctor, true to form, initially balks at the thought of killing them without finding out what they want (Time Heist gave it’s creature a happy ending when the Doctor discovered it was being forced to turn people’s brains into soup because it’s mate was being held hostage). In fact, the Boneless is yet another of creatures from series 8 that we never find out too much about and probably never will (we never learn what kind of creature was hatched in Kill The Moon and was there even a creature in Listen?). Flatline is a conceptual blood-brother to what must be the greatest episode featuring an unknowable threat, Midnight. That episode taught us that, sometimes, the less you know about a creature the more thrilled you are by the inscrutable mystery (notice how the Weeping Angels, so terrifying in Blink, lost their punch in subsequent episodes). Naturally the Doctor is intrigued and wants to discover their motives, but by the end he’s had enough; they’ve nearly killed him and his friends and have avoided even the most rudimentary forms of communication. I don’t particularly swallow the use of the sonic screwdriver magically sending them back to their own realm in one swift blow (what setting was that, then?), but I realize that the episode had, by that time, run its course and needed to end. What was more interesting was the Doctor finally having to take the steps that needed to be taken, being sure to place the blame on the invaders and not himself (like the tenth Doctor did so many time before). I wonder if he truly believes it.
By the episode’s end, Clara is so impressed with her work (and the Doctor’s praise during a moment when he thought that a) she couldn’t hear him and b) dying) that she wants the usually reticent Time Lord to throw her a bone; she wants to hear him say, without reluctance, that she was a “good Doctor.” The Doctor, however, has the final word: “You were an exceptional Doctor, Clara. Goodness had nothing to do with it.” Upon first hearing, his words are strange; Clara is visibly taken aback. But it doesn’t take long to put together the pieces of the puzzle that was begun in Deep Breath. Not long into his tenure, the Doctor asked Clara if she thought of him as a good man and she responded “I… don’t know.” Later she amended her response to include that the Doctor tried to be good and that was what was important, but the series never fully let that question lie. Time and again, we’ve been faced with a Doctor whom we’re not completely sure about; just when we think that we recognize him, a cloud seems to fall over his face and we’re forced re-evaluate him again. That look on his face when the clock-work half-faced man fell to his death seemed to be the look of a stranger. He is a man who coldly accepted the apparent deaths of his friends while breaking into the Bank of Karabraxos (only to be relieved later on when he discovered the truth), who buggered off to leave Clara to save the Moon-creature pretty much single handed, who talked of having to decide when there were only bad choices to make and who, in this episode, instructed Clara to lie to Fenton’s men to give them hope because “people with hope run faster.” Maybe the Doctor is afraid that the more like him she becomes, the less like her good self she will be. Maybe that’s something that Danny, the former soldier, is also afraid of.
Divorced from all of that, Flatline is a good story with some exceptional suspense sequences, one good supporting character, Rigsy (Fenton is too nasty to be believable and he’s nothing more than a nastier throwback to Brixton Slade in Voyage Of The Damned, which inspired the wonderful denouement “Of all the people to survive, he’s not the one you would’ve chosen… but if you could choose who lives and who dies… that would make you a monster”), and some really ingenious writing that involved putting the Doctor and Clara in tight spots and finding plausible but brilliant ways of getting them out. Examples of this includes the Doctor being able to hand Clara the things she needs (from sonic screwdriver to sledgehammers) through the door of the tiny TARDIS, Clara and Rigsy swinging their way to safety from a room crawling with the Boneless via a hanging chair, the Doctor’s hand dragging the TARDIS (like Thing from The Addams’ Family) out of the path of an oncoming train, and the absolutely brilliant move of painting a false door on a wall to trick the Boneless into re-energizing the TARDIS. Only the aforementioned moment when the Doctor zaps the Boneless back to their realm with the screwdriver seems tacked on but hey, how many inventive plot turns do you want for your buck? For a transitional episode (Clara still hasn’t paid the piper for lying to the two most important men in her life), Flatline is fun, exciting, reasonably easy to follow and leaves us with a stronger and better Clara than what we started with.
Next week, it looks like Danny is finally taking a TARDIS trip and a bunch of school kids are going with our heroes. Will they be inquisitive and slightly nauseous (like Courtney of Kill The Moon) or just petulant and a pain in arse (like the Maitland kids from Nightmare In Silver)? Only the timey-wimey will tell.