8.9 – “Flatline”
Not for the first time, The Doctor lands the TARDIS in the wrong place but, on this occasion, he has more than an irritated Clara to contend with. The TARDIS itself is shrinking and people in the local area are disappearing. Is there are connection?
Doctor Who is always a treat when it deals in concepts rather than simple storytelling and “Flatline” offers up a compelling concept that opens the door to an unusual situation for The Doctor and Clara. Rather than your traditional monster of the week, the antagonists of this story are beings that exist on a separate dimensional plane to our own, specifically the second dimension. When said 2D thingies begin converting people to their dimensions in an effort to better understand the third dimension and it’s inhabitants, how exactly is The Doctor supposed to communicate with these things and make them understand that they are essentially killing innocent people?
Well, before we can even get to that quandary, The Doctor himself is immediately cut off from being directly involved in this week’s adventure. After arriving in Bristol (once again, nowhere near where Clara is trying to go) our heroes step outside of the TARDIS only to discover that it’s shrunk significantly. The Doctor isn’t immediately rattled by this; he’s actually enjoying the fact that something weird has happened and he has no idea what it is. He sends Clara off to take a look around the nearby housing estate to see if she can find anything that might be connected with the TARDIS shrinkage but, when she returns with news of disappearing locals, the TARDIS has now shrunk to the point where Clara can lift it off the ground. The Doctor is now trapped inside and in a bit of a panic, his initial curiosity now forgotten as the problem seems to be getting worse.
So with The Doctor out of action it’s time for Clara to step in and become his avatar for this week. I’ve seen a lot of people writing online about how much this angered them, saying that The Doctor’s role has been diminished and that the show has become all about Clara. I will not do the show the disservice of referring to these people as fans, as they clearly have no idea what they’re talking about. The worst companions in Doctor Who history are the ones who do very little and basically serve as a plot device for The Doctor to have to run around saving. The best companions are the ones who get involved, help solve the mysteries and act on The Doctor’s behalf when he is either incapacitated to some degree or is off solving another piece of the puzzle by himself. The best companion in the entire history of the show, Sarah Jane Smith, was always investigating and getting her hands dirty in an effort to aid The Doctor but I don’t see anyone complaining about that.
Okay, this is becoming a rant now so I’ll simply say that Clara does an excellent job of not only relaying The Doctor’s instructions but also doing her own thing, putting together the pieces, taking charge of a group of people and doing her best to keep them safe while she deals with this week’s creepy antagonists, The Boneless (more on them in a minute). She essentially spends a day being The Doctor and seeing the world through his eyes; there are tough decisions that have to be made, personal feelings and affections can’t always win out or else they can get in the way, you have to be pragmatic and do the best you can in the situation, even if that means lying to people in order to give them hope. This is all best summed up in a line from The Doctor himself towards the end of the episode, where Clara asks him why he can’t just admit that she was good at being Doctor for the day, to which he responds “You were an exceptional Doctor; but goodness had nothing to do with it.” In other words, doing the right thing doesn’t always equate with doing good things, something The Doctor knows all too well.
The Boneless themselves are a fascinating idea for a villain, one that should probably have appeared before now really. They exist in the second dimension and, as such, have no understanding of our plane, so they analyse and dissect people in order to better comprehend, to learn and evolve. Some of the effects in this episode are absolutely wonderful, with the Boneless brilliantly realised in creepy, fluid stop motion animation that is plastered on top of live action performances to great effect. The fact that The Doctor does his best to understand them and try to communicate with them, only to eventually determine that they are intentionally being hostile, is something I really loved about these monsters. They are not misunderstood or just different in an alien way that we can’t understand – they are monsters, they need to be stopped and there’s only one man for the job in those situations. Well, one Time Lord and his quick-thinking companion.
The resolution may have been lacking somewhat but the style, atmosphere and ideas of the episode all win out and make this an instant classic for New Who. Capaldi and Coleman are both on excellent form throughout, with Coleman bearing the brunt of the workload in this somewhat Doctor-lite episode. There’s also a great visual gag that’s more than a little nod to The Addams Family – I won’t spoil it here but it had me laughing my head off! I really appreciated that little moment of fun in an otherwise moody episode. The guest cast are all pretty good but one individual shone above them all; Joivan Wade as young graffiti artist Rigsy, who played his role with such easy charm and street-smart quick thinking that he would make an excellent future companion for The Doctor. If that never happens, I at least hope to see more of him on television as Wade is clearly a fine young British actor in the making.
Easily my second favourite story of this series, “Flatline” is an atmospheric, high concept piece that plays out at the perfect speed and features quality performances from all involved. The Boneless are a great one-off enemy, brilliantly realised in creepy stop-motion animation and exactly the kind of alien threat the show needs more of – you can’t see their true form, you can’t understand their motives, you only know that they’re a force to be feared and that The Doctor is the only one who can stop them. Great stuff. “Flatline” earns this series’ second, totally deserved 9/10.
Written and edited by Richey Hackett