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Doctor Who: Series 8 Revisited – Flatline

In eager anticipation of brand new Doctor Who, the Gallifrey Times team is revisiting Peter Capaldi’s debut season as the Doctor. We’ll be covering an episode a day from Deep Breath to Last Christmas, the perfect build up to The Magician’s Apprentice on September 19th.

The second in Series 8’s double bill from Doctor Who newcomer Jamie Mathieson, Flatline more than manages to maintain the high standards set by his debut episode Mummy on the Orient Express. Frightening, funny and full of fresh ideas, Flatline is an episode that fully embraces the conventions of Doctor Who whilst taking them into new and unexplored dimensions…

“They’re wearing the dead like camouflage.”

It seems incredible that the idea of aliens hailing from a different dimensional plane hasn’t been tackled by Doctor Who before, but Flatline certainly handles the premise with aplomb. The concept of ‘killer graffiti’ is one that could easily have come across as somewhat cartoonish on screen – that it doesn’t is testament not only to some brilliantly executed artwork and special effects, but also to the clear care with which the aliens have been conceptualised and developed.

Right from the off we are introduced to what the Boneless are capable of, and Flatline doesn’t shy away from ramping up the horror as the episode progresses. It’s one thing to see missing people as murals on the subway walls, and quite another entirely to witness PC Forrest’s absolute terror as she watches herself being slowly dragged into the floor. The resulting gruesome revelation that the aliens are dissecting humans is tempered by not knowing whether it’s done out of malice or ignorance, but as the body count continues to rise it’s clear that this makes them no less of a threat. 
The Boneless show themselves to be able to adapt to our world with disconcerting speed, and some stunning special effects expertly portray both their slithering 2D forms and their flickering, juddering 3D versions. It’s a transformation that’s also responsible for a pretty huge jump scare, and the initial shock of Al being grabbed by a giant hand and dragged down a tunnel is further intensified when the camera follows him all the way down, lingering on the horror of that moment.

“He’s a pudding brain. Worse than that, he’s a fluorescent pudding brain.”

Al marks just one in a long line of casualties in Flatline, and while the high body count is as good a way as any of demonstrating just how dangerous the Boneless are, unfortunately it comes at the expense at any meaningful character development for their victims. In all fairness, Flatline isn’t the only episode in Doctor Who‘s history – or indeed the only episode in Series 8 – to feature potentially promising but underdeveloped secondary characters, and it’ll be interesting to see whether it’s a problem that the increased number of two-parters in Series 9 is able to tackle.

Even Rigsy, the guest character we spend the most time with, suffers from this to an extent. His attempted ‘sacrifice’ on the train in the tunnels feels out of place as, although we learn just enough about him to buy into the fact that this is something he would do, we have no real idea of his motivation and therefore it doesn’t feel quite believeable. However, this is the only real misstep in a character that is otherwise likeable and engaging, and Rigsy slots into the ‘companion’ role alongside ‘Doctor’ Clara quite nicely. Not only does he ask all the right questions and act as a valuable source of ‘local knowledge’ to Clara and the Doctor, but his graffiti skills even help to save the day. It’s only fitting that as an honourary companion Rigsy gets his own ‘it’s bigger on the inside’ moment – even if, as the Doctor remarks, he doesn’t quite realise just how true that statement is…

“This is huge! Well, not literally huge, slightly smaller than usual. Which is huge.”

Rather pleasingly Flatline‘s internal logic hangs together quite nicely, as the presence of aliens leeching and manipulating dimensions causes trouble with the Doctor’s very own dimension-defying blue box. Jamie Mathieson draws on his background in comedy to fully capitalise on the humour inherent in the situation, right from the moment when the Doctor clambers out of the TARDIS to discover that it’s definitely smaller on the outside than usual!

The shrinking TARDIS exterior makes for some of the funniest moments in Flatline as it lends itself to some brilliant visual humour – particularly the running gag of the Doctor handing items out of the TARDIS to Clara reaching its zenith as in a rather Mary Poppins-esque moment she confusedly pulls a sledgehammer out of her bag. It’s a brief but beautifully done sight gag, but Flatline also excels at verbal humour with snippets like the 2Dis and Clara’s phone conversation with Danny punctuating the fast-paced action of the episode.

Importantly, the humour in Flatline never detracts from the horror, nor vice versa – the swift gear changes between the two are smoothly handled with heavy and lighter moments complementing each other well. Nor does the humour ever take away from the fact that the TARDIS is in very real peril – as is the Timelord stuck inside it. With the TARDIS losing power and lying on a set of train tracks, the Doctor ‘Addams Family-ing’ his way to safety is undeniably hilarious to watch, but we as an audience also clearly recognise that it’s done to get out of a very real and serious predicament.

“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.”

That the shrinking TARDIS is such a substantial part of the plot at all is inspired, as the plot thread was primarily introduced due to the need for this episode to be ‘Doctor-lite’ – an episode that required all of Peter Capaldi’s scenes to be filmed in one location for time reasons. By confining the Doctor in the TARDIS Flatline achieves this in much the same way that The Girl Who Waited did for Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor, and so continues the recent trend of managing to pull off ‘Doctor-lite’ episodes in such a way that they feel like a standard episode of Doctor Who.

Considering that the Doctor is stuck in the TARDIS for the majority of the episode, he still gets an awful lot to do. Able to see what Clara sees, he can help figure out what is going on, even if he ultimately doesn’t succeed at determining what exactly the aliens want. In a very Doctor-y move he attempts to communicate with the Boneless and gives them the benefit of the doubt – but once he realises that they may not care they’re hurting people he comes down on them hard by sending them back to their own dimension using the TARDIS’s own dimensional energy. It’s maybe too neat a resolution, but completely worth it as it provides Capaldi with his huge ‘I am the Doctor’ moment – a moment that we as an audience have been waiting for since his Deep Breath debut, and one that Capaldi makes the most of in yet another spectacular performance.

Not being in the thick of the action also means that the Doctor can take a step back and, through Clara, observe how he comes across to other people. Facing up to his more negative traits such as lying to others, even as he’s talking Clara through doing them herself, clearly makes him uncomfortable, and he is further unnerved by the speed and ease at which Clara takes to ‘being the Doctor’. Perhaps it’s this that’s responsible for the small shift in the Doctor’s outlook when he challenges Fenton at the end of the episode, reminding him – and Clara – that no matter the outcome, a lot of people died.

“You were an exceptional Doctor, Clara. Goodness had nothing to do with it.”

It’s a reminder that falls on deaf ears – not surprisingly so in Fenton’s case, but rather more troubling so when it comes to Clara. We’re so used to seeing her as the Doctor’s moral compass – ‘she cares so I don’t have to’ – that the subtle role reversal is a fascinating direction to see both their characters go in, but Clara’s in particular.

For there’s no denying that the Doctor’s right – Clara does make an exceptional ‘Doctor’ in Flatline, and Jenna Coleman’s sterling performance is probably the closest we’ll come to seeing how a female Doctor would work in Doctor Who, at least in the near future. Clara takes charge, she keeps everyone moving – even if she can’t keep them all alive – and her neat solution of keeping the Boneless away with a graffitied door has the rather clever added bonus of charging the TARDIS at the same time, giving the Doctor the means to dispatch them for good.

And yet Clara embodies what the Doctor acknowledges to her – and maybe to himself too – at the end of the episode. So desperate is she to hear that she did well, that she was a good ‘Doctor’, that she doesn’t stop to consider that maybe being the Doctor may not be compatible with being a good person. It’s an fascinating dilemma for both characters to consider as they head towards the end of the series and provides food for thought not only for them, but also the viewers – at least until the question’s resolved in Death in Heaven

“Your last painting saved the world. I can’t wait to see what you do next.”

Flatline is at heart a conventional Doctor Who episode, complete with its very own ‘monster of the week’, but imaginative concepts and seamless execution of them keep Flatline feeling bold, fresh and a fast-paced, enjoyable watch. Although there are a few niggles that keep it from being perfect, overall Flatline combines excellent writing, direction and acting to make it one of the strongest offerings of Series 8.

Happily, Series 9 will see a highly welcome return for Joivan Wade’s Rigsy, the highlight of Flatline‘s supporting characters, in Face the Raven – when hopefully we’ll learn more about what makes him tick! It’ll also mark a return for writer Jamie Mathieson who, along with Steven Moffat, has penned The Girl Who Died. Mathieson clearly has a knack for writing Clara and the Doctor well, and it’ll certainly be intriguing to see where he takes them next series!

Tomorrow, join Louis – but avoid the solar flares – as he takes a wander In The Forest of the Night.