Sunday, 19 October 2014

Reviews in Time & Space: Flatline

Doctor Who s08e09 - Flatline

Jamie Mathieson clearly had a good time writing last week's Mummy on the Orient Express, because the former Being Human writer is already back with another entry for Doctor Who - this time the episode going by the name of Flatline. This time the Doctor takes a bit of a backseat as he becomes trapped in a shrinking (well, on the outside anyway) TARDIS - it's power being siphoned away by an mysterious alien entity. It's up to Clara to take up the role of the Doctor and investigate, connecting it with the disappearance of a number of people in the estate they've landed in. After discovering that the threat is not of the third dimension - Clara learns first hand about what it's really like to play the Doctor.

The zombie-like Boneless
Meet the Boneless

Opening with Clara and the Doctor emerging from a progressively shrinking TARDIS which culminates in the Doctor's face or body parts sticking out of a toy-sized version may give the impression that Flatline is an episode that is going to be played mostly for laughs, but this gives way to a more sinister plot as the story progresses. Much like Moffat usually does Mathieson takes something we see in every day life and twists it into something scary, this time the UK's growing obsession with graffiti. The idea of 'the Boneless' (coined by the Doctor at the end of the episode) being a killer Banksy may sound silly on paper, but once they evolve from dodgy clear ectoplasm into these sketchy zombies there is an air of eeriness about them. They don't want to communicate with us, they are just monsters that are going to kill us. Much like the Weeping Angels I'm skeptical that these creatures would suffer from diminishing returns, but if they were to come back I'd like to think the idea of a creature that exists via a 2D plain leaves plenty to work with.

Clara takes the role of the Doctor
"I'm the Doctor, but you can call me Clara."

With the Doctor trapped inside of the TARDIS for the majority of the episode this is a Clara story through and through, but is far better handled than some of the offerings we've seen since she first joined the Doctor on his adventures. Here she gets to play Doctor for an episode, but with it comes all the hard decisions he has to make on a daily basis - lying, accepting that people are going to die, the works. Her quick thinking in re-powering the TARDIS manages to save the day at the end, and when everything blows over she rather cockily pleads the Doctor to admit she was a 'good Doctor'. This is something he's eventually willing to admit, but adds that "being good had nothing to with it". That's where the scene ends, but the Doctor's remark does present some nice food for thought and ties back to the Doctor's uncertainty of him being a good man from the season's earliest episodes. The only really confusing aspect to all this is her phone calls with Danny, where the Doctor finds out Clara has been lying about him being okay with her to continue her travels through time and space. The Doctor seems initially angry, but Danny isn't really showing any signs of not being okay (he doesn't know, but his tone of voice always seems to suggest he has an inkling) with it so I'm not really sure where the conflict lies.

The Doctor has some trouble with the TARDIS
Trapped in the TARDIS, a new project by R. Kelly

Many fans will probably label Flatline as a 'Doctor-lite' episode thanks to him being trapped for 90% of it, but unlike others that fall into that category he still has a pretty prominent role in it all. The Twelfth Doctor revels in strutting around the TARDIS monologuing, and this is an episode that allows Peter Capaldi to do it as a full time stint. Despite being able to comment on everything going on around him, having the Doctor placed in such a powerless position makes for an interesting change of pace - as does his glee at having something to investigate that he doesn't already understand. Upon his eventual release Flatline then ends with a big bold "I am the Doctor" speech, which was something pretty common in the Tennant/Smith eras but a bit more fleeting now. After weeks of uncertainty about the Doctor's personalities its key moments like these that remind the audience that he is still the man fans have followed for 50 years, and still a force to be reckoned with.

Flatline's episode-of-the-week side characters are mostly there simply to be picked off by the Boneless, but there are a few good performances that help add an extra bit of meat to the episode. Actor Jovian Wade does a great job as graffiti artist Rigsy, who is very much the Clara to Clara's Doctor in this episode. Meanwhile on the other end of the spectrum there's Fenton, a wholly unlikeable character who's real purpose in the episode only becomes clear at the end - that sometimes it isn't the right people that get saved.

Clara's new companion

Although an episode where Clara gets to play the Doctor probably has a fair portion of fans rolling their eyes just at the thought of it, Flatline manages to pull it off without a hitch and come out shining as one of season eight's strongest episodes thus far. Looking at what it takes to be in the Doctor's shoes from a different perspective makes for a nice change of pace, while the running down dark tunnels and killer graffiti are an excellent blend of classic and new Doctor Who elements. That's two for two in terms of Mathieson-penned episodes, so here's hoping he's back for a few more offerings next season eh?

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