Hello Whovians and DAPs-devotees, and welcome back to the Doctor Who Review! A running gag is that the TARDIS is bigger on the inside – but what happens when it gets smaller on the outside? Much, much smaller? With the Doctor effectively out of commission being trapped in his tiny TARDIS, it’s up to Clara to find out exactly what is happening to people in Bristol. Will the realization knock her flat, or will she be up to the task? Find out in this week’s review of Doctor Who ‘Flatline.” Warning, spoilers ahead!
Ever been in the wrong place at the right time? That tends to be the norm for the Doctor and Clara, as they arrive to drop Clara off for her lunch date with Danny but end up in Bristol. Stranger yet, something is leeching off of the TARDIS’ dimensional energy, making it appear even smaller from the outside. While the Doctor is trapped inside, it’s up to Clara to find out what is happening to the time-traveling box and how it relates to the disappearances of Bristol’s inhabitants. There’s more than meets the eye to the graffiti around town, and Clara will have to dig deep to bring the truth to the surface.
Any misgivings I had about Jamie Mathieson from last week’s ‘Mummy on the Orient Express‘ evaporated with this episode. With his second script for Doctor Who Mathieson captures both the exciting/scary dual nature of the series and the relationship between Doctor and companion. Whereas last week’s episode had the set looking like a glamourous Gatsby rip-off, this week brings a chilling sensation of claustrophobia for its two-dimensional alien menace. Combined with the tried-and-true direction of Douglas Mackinnon, ‘Flatline’ emerges as one of the best stories of Season 8 so far.
Peter Capaldi continues down the promising road of deep characterization he began the week prior, as the Doctor shows more trust in his companion and a greater appreciation for having someone to rely on. Trapped within the TARDIS, he can only depend on Clara to be his eyes and ears as they delve into the mystery of the two-dimensional beings, and ultimately must entrust his life in Clara’s hands when their communication is severed. He brings a perfectly balance of snark and sincerity, keeping his iteration of the Doctor very singular while retaining some of the original warmth and spark of his predecessors, like in this little tidbit:
While Capaldi’s take on the Doctor has been divisive to say the least, it’s moments like this that make it incredibly difficult to write him off as simply “grouchy.”
Yet we get to see only a little bit of the Doctor in this episode, literally and metaphorically, as Clara takes center stage.
Clara becomes the Doctor’s eyes, ears, and feet as she investigates the mystery surrounding Bristol and the TARDIS’ tiny trouble, becoming his vessel through which he explores; in essence, she becomes the Doctor and rises to the occasion. Her kindness and curiosity tempered with his knowledge and experience makes for a great combination, and Clara’s mettle has already been tested by the numerous adventures she’s lived through. She even has her own companion in the form of Rigsy, a young man performing community service for graffiti (played by Joivan Wade). She exudes competence and stellar street smarts dealing with the unknown (with one glaring example to the contrary).
Despite this slip-up, she shows ingenuity at every turn, ultimately saving herself and the Doctor from the transdimensional beings. She does not come off as perfect, however, especially when it’s revealed to the Doctor that she has been lying to both him and Danny about her adventures. This repeated theme of “Danny vs the Doctor” in Clara’s personal life hangs like an albatross on the show: you don’t know when or how, but you get the feeling that nothing good is going to come of it.
One wouldn’t normally picture two-dimensional aliens to be all that terrifying, but the 2Ds are easily this season’s most terrifying villain-du-jour to date. Being surrounded by an unknown entity that not only kills its victims by removing an entire dimension of their being but can steal the TARDIS’ energy leaving the Doctor eseentially helpless is truly frightening. And that doesn’t even cover their growing intelligence and ability to entire our three-dimensional plane.
Even Missy comes off as a little more menacing and formidable foe as she hints at puppeteering Clara, though the iPad she uses to spy on her is a little less “scary” and a little more “Geek Squad.” Overall, this story has plenty of fearsome unknowns that keeps the viewer on the edge of their seats.
This is one of the season’s strongest episodes by far; the characters, script, and direction meld perfectly and create a story that is both frightening and captivating. It’s also the first time we see Coleman and Capaldi capture the level of Doctor-companion partnership that matches the levels of interdependence and camaraderie as previous iterations (i.e. my personal favorite being David Tennant and Catherine Tate). It’s the first time I can sincerely say that this felt like a natural Doctor Who episode; this season has had its share of awesome and awful stories, but this felt like any other episode, which is far better than the language implies.