Separated from the Doctor, Clara discovers a new menace from another dimension. But how do you hide when even the walls are no protection?
With people to save and the Doctor trapped, Clara goes against an enemy that exists beyond human perception.
Peter Capaldi is the Doctor in Flatline.
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Peter Capaldi (The Doctor)
Jenna Coleman (Clara Oswald)
John Cummins (Roscoe)
Jessica Hayles (PC Forrest)
Jovian Wade (Rigsy)
Christopher Fairbank (Fenton)
Written by: Jaimie Mathieson
Directed by: Douglas Mackinnon
Gifs by: J-Ru
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So, how good was this episode?
Flatline sees Clara take center stage, thanks to the Doctor being trapped by an alien force. Add to it an original and creepy group of monsters and a top-notch script, and Flatline just might be, when all is said and done, one of the Twelfth’s Doctor “essential” episodes.
The TARDIS lands 150 miles away from Clara’s home, specifically in Bristol (which was held by Arthur Negus in 1970. Not confirmed, just a bit of gossip). It’s not the first time that the Doctor has landed somewhere other than where he intended, but this time it’s not his fault. Rather, some unknown force is draining dimensional energy from the TARDIS, causing its exterior to shrink. With the Doctor trapped inside, Clara is forced to take on his role. Sonic screwdriver and psychic paper in hand, Clara explores the council estate, where a rash of disappearances hasn’t gathered the interest of the local police. However, a nearby pedestrian tunnel has some new graffiti; murals of the departed…
After last week’s solid Mummy on the Orient Express, writer Jamie Mathieson takes us to a sparse council estate on the edge of Bristol. It’s a setting Matheson knows well, as he penned several episodes of the BBC series Almost Human which took place in the same location. The location works to the story’s benefit; a rundown council estate, a rusting industrial area, and a series of abandoned subway tunnels help to establish a very nice variant of the “base under siege” setting. No one is coming to help (least of all the disinterested police), putting the characters on their own against the threat of the two-dimensional creatures known as the Boneless. And how about those Boneless? A brand new threat from another plane of existence, the viewer doesn’t know if the Boneless are explorers, lost travelers, conquering invaders, or just hostile 2-D psychopaths. Experienced Who director Douglas Mackinnon (The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky, The Power of Three, Cold War) does a standout job with the presentation of the Boneless. At first, they slither across the walls and the floor towards their prey, in one case sucking a policewoman into the carpet and leaving a layout of her nervous system on the wall as a tree-like mural. As they study and dissect their victims, they slowly become three-dimensional, moving in a blurry, jerky manner as they stalk their prey. The design of the three-dimensional Boneless is unnerving, like watching a old VHS cassette held together by Scotch tape, the video image jerking and skipping with every passing moment. It could have been easy for Mackinnon to keep them in the shadows, but instead he keeps them on screen just enough for the viewer to be unnerved. The Boneless are definitely a “jump behind the couch” creature that will both scare and delight young viewers of the show.
Inside the TARDIS, the Doctor is in scientist mode, but he has to fully rely on Clara to be his eyes and ears and provide the necessary data. Mathieson and Mackinnon together do a fantastic job of demonstrating just how helpless the Doctor is, as the lights slowly begin to fade, life support fails, and the Doctor has little control over his fate. Perhaps the best compliment I can give the writer and director comes when a subway train is about to barrel into the TARDIS. After an abundance of overuse in recent years, the one singular chime of the Cloister Bell made me sit up and proclaim “oh, no!” It’s been a very long time since a Doctor Who serial
The tension of the story is well balanced by the comedic aspects, including a literal use of the concept of “hammerspace!” The second half of Flatline is very much a nail-biter, but the creepiness of the first half is mixed in with some very funny moments. The episode takes the idea of the Doctor trapped in a tiny TARDIS and milks it for all its worth. Capaldi’s face peering out from the small doors, one hand reaching out to give Clara the sonic screwdriver and psychic paper, and even the tribute to The Addams Family as the Doctor’s hand “Things” his way across a set of train tracks to safety. But we can’t forget the one-liners as Clara tells people to call her “The Doctor” as Twelve growls “don’t you dare.” It’s refreshing, just for one episode, for the Doctor to see how he actually is with people, and how Clara channels him for both comedic and, later on, dramatic effect.
Flatline revolves around the Boneless, Clara, and the Doctor. Which is for the best, as the supporting cast of characters will be remembered more for what they said or what they did rather than their personalities. We have the policewoman who thought Clara was from MI-5, the train driver who “always wanted to ram something,” two community service blokes who served as redshirts, and the grafitti artist who took way to long to realize “oh, yeah, I DON’T need to throw my life away by crashing this train.” The only standout was the real villain of the story; Christopher Fairbank as Fenton, the head of the community service team. He’s the standard “this will never work” jerk that every story requires, but Fairbank takes it a step further by establishing his ideas of class and social structure without really outright stating it. Fenton is the kind of character who, in past serials, should have died along the way. Instead, sometimes good things happen to bad people, as Fenton dismisses those who died with a statement of “sometimes you burn the brush to save the forest. So, thank you for saving my life.” It’s a shock to see such a character not get his comeuppance…but it adds to the uniqueness of this episode. I just hope it’s a one time thing…
The Doctor takes a backseat in this episode, trapped inside the “shrinking, but not shrinking” TARDIS. Even when confined to his control room, Capaldi’s Doctor is still in motion, running up and down steps, throwing on a pair of steampunk jeweler’s goggles, and constantly providing information and commentary to Clara throughout. Moreso than last week’s Mummy on the Orient Express, this is the Doctor in scientist mode, trying to solve the puzzle with both his life and the lives of countless others at stake. It’s a fine performance, even if the Doctor never quite comes out and says how he can send the Boneless back to their 2-D universe. But when he does so, Capaldi knocks it out of the park with a speech akin to Matt Smith’s “hello, I’m the Doctor” speech from The Eleventh Hour. If there was any doubt in anyone’s mind that this new actor WAS indeed the Doctor, the dialogue below should erase any and all doubt.
“I tried to talk, I want you to remember that. I tried to reach out, I tried to understand you, but I think that you understand us perfectly. And I think that you just don’t care! And I don’t know whether you are here to invade, infiltrate or just replace us. I don’t suppose it really matters now, you are monsters! That is the role you seem determined to play, so it seems that I must play mine! The man that stops the monsters! I’m sending you back to your own dimension. Who knows? Some of you may even survive the trip, and if you do, remember this: you are not welcome here! This plane is protected! I am the Doctor!
*catches his screwdriver from Clara*
And I name you: the Boneless!”
One quibble about Clara in this episode. When she’s hanging from a chair in the middle of a room, flat tentacles slithering towards her and the graffiti artist…why oh why would she pick right then and there to answer a phone call from Danny?!? It was the only piece of bad writing in all of Flatline, as Jenna Coleman IS the Doctor. She shuts down the voices of the idiotic, she makes educated guesses, she barely escapes danger, she inspires the hopeless to hope, and she uses a bit of brilliance to save the day and restore the TARDIS to its full size. Jenna Coleman takes the acting ball and runs with it. With only the barest of hesitation when the Doctor is in her ear, and the boldness of action when she decides to not do what the Doctor would do, but to do what SHE would do, Clara does everything possible to not only save the day, but to earn the Doctor’s approval. Her actions during these events were nothing less than “Doctor-esque,” but at the end, after the Doctor has realized she’s been lying to him about Danny not having concerns about her traveling in the TARDIS, calls her out on it. “You were an exceptional Doctor. Goodness had nothing to do with it.”
One of the themes of this season has been “is the Doctor a good person?” He himself asked that question in the season opener, Deep Breath, and subsequent episodes have focused, directly or indirectly, on this topic. Flatline brings it to the forefront, but does so via a bit of role reversal. Now, it’s Clara who does what needs to be done, putting people in harm’s way via “calculated risk,” an educated guess that her plan would cause the TARDIS to be restored. It’s exactly what the Doctor does on a regular basis, but rarely does he take the joy in it that Clara did when she was in his shoes for once. Just because the Doctor does exceptional things…does it make him a good man>
One other thing…the ending shot with Missy and the high-end, future-technology that is an iPad, as she says that with regards to Clara, “she chose well.” I know it’s a little late in the game with regards to Clara, but after nearly every companion in the revival outside of Martha being “special” in someway, I’d like to see the Doctor just have an “old school, straight up, traveling with the Doctor for the thrill and leaving when they feel like their time is done” companion. We don’t always need “Bad Wolf” or “The Impossible Girl.” Sometimes, all the show needs is “The Shadow Cabinet Minister of Blowing Stuff up with Nitro-9.”
Flatline is everything a good episode of Doctor Who should be. It’s creepy, it’s funny, it showcases the Doctor, the companion, and the dynamic between them, and does things JUST a little differently from the norm. As it’s a stand-alone episode, I feel that this story could become the Twelfth Doctor’s answer to Blink – an episode that someone could show to a new viewer of the show and say “this is everything that’s awesome about Doctor Who.”
Next up – Everywhere, in every land, a forest has grown overnight and taken back the Earth…
Peter Capaldi is the Doctor in…In the Forest of the Night.