Doctor Who: 809 “Flatline” Review
Reviewed by John Hussey.
It’s always interesting to see a danger within Doctor Who that relates to something back at home, something that makes us think every time we undergo our everyday lives. Steven Moffat loves to do this kind of thing in which he has made us question statues, shadows, memory, clocks, cracks and snowmen. Now Jamie Mathieson does a similar trick within his second story on the show and quite frankly it was a very disturbing idea.
‘Flatline’ started as a somewhat fun story due to the humour around the idea that the TARDIS has shrunk to the size of a toy replica. Then it quickly dawns on you, “Hang on a minute, this isn’t right.” The dangers are fast put into place and you become worried that the exterior dimensions of the TARDIS are closing in upon the interior dimensions. Then the next question comes to mind, “What the heck could cause this to happen?”
I always become wary whenever I hear there’s going to be a ‘Doctor-lite’ episode because it instantly makes me think it’s not going to have the same quality as an average episode. Ever since the first lite episode ‘Love & Monsters’ I’m made to feel paranoid that a horrendous plotline will be thrown into our face again. But fortunately over time Doctor-lite episodes have proven rather interesting, i.e. ‘Blink’ – a episode that survives without the Doctor due to Sally Sparrow’s loving and engaging character, whilst others are done in a clever way that don’t make them appear as a Doctor-lite episode like with ‘The Crimson Horror’ due to the Doctor being merely absent for the first stage of the story. ‘Flatline’ takes on the idea implicated within ‘The Girl Who Waited’ by having the Doctor stranded in the TARDIS but still active throughout the story through coms and video. This time, fortunately, the Doctor does maintain throughout the story and even has the bizarre methods of communicating to Clara through popping his head through the now tiny TARDIS doors or putting his hand through to direct or pass her things.
It was certainly an intriguing idea to play with having the Doctor miniaturised whilst his companion essentially became him in order to save the day, whilst he acted in the background as a sort of mentor. Series Eight’s main themes have been the questioning of the Doctor’s moral decisions as well as challenging Clara’s loyalty and understanding of her friend. The latter theme has been an essential role over the last two stories to which saw her become angered over the Doctor’s moral decisions after he used her before coming to understand his decisions in life in greater detail. ‘Flatline’ takes this theme even further and like within ‘Kill the Moon’ Clara is forced to become the Doctor and act like he would, making the same risks and decisions. Clara is already a clever character who is good in a situation so it was no surprise that she managed to handle herself well throughout the story. She was even given a companion to help her on her adventure in the form of graffiti artist Rigsy.
Equipped with the Sonic Screwdriver and the Psychic Paper, Clara was on her way going through each situation like the Doctor would. It was funny her taking the opportunity to mimic the Doctor by calling herself a Doctor, and joking around with his usual traits with the Doctor growing ever more annoyed from within the TARDIS. It was also amusing to see the Doctor in the first half of the story throwing his usual cheap remarks against human traits, including the character Rigsy. But as the story got on its way the seriousness grew with the Doctor taking things more seriously and Clara staying on top of things whilst the Doctor guided her. Though to give Clara credit she didn’t require too much guidance, merely pointers and tackled the dangers with her own bravery and leadership.
The Boneless, as they were named by the Doctor during their defeat, proved to be an inventive creation by Mathieson. This horrible idea of creatures living within the walls around us that can attack at any time is nerve-wracking. I will admit they never did come across as frightening, nor did they create much tension but it left you feeling fascinated by the implications of the writer’s ideas. It was horrific though to know that the Boneless had killed a lot of people by transforming them into 2D figures trapped within the walls and floor. At one point we were able to witness the creatures at work when they pulled PC Forrest into the carpet, eventually morphing within the ground. You feel at first that the premise of the Boneless is more harmless, much like the Isolus from ‘Fear Her’, and that when the victims are pulled into the walls they are still alive and the process can be reversed. This turns out not to be the case and the disturbing creature’s motives are left unanswered. All that was known was that they wanted to claim the power of the third dimension and gain a new physical form outside of their 2D parameters. I must compliment the special effects department in creating the disturbing and somewhat Silent Hill like form that the Boneless undertake when trying to use their victims bodies to create themselves a body. It was quite horrific to say the least.
For once I’m going to talk about bad points. ‘Flatline’ within my mind is the worst episode so far within Series Eight but that doesn’t mean it was rubbish or lacked imagination, I just simply mean it was the least engaging (which until now went to ‘Into the Dalek’). I think the main reason for this is the absence of the Doctor because, although I like it when companions have to fend for themselves whilst the Doctor is away, I just don’t really like not seeing him engaging within the plot and stealing the show. To me it’s what the show is all about. Some will probably disagree with me on that silly term, some might not. The other reasons why is because of the annoyingly repetitive trap that the New Series has gotten itself into and that is lack of characters. Within the Classic Series we had characters left, right and centre but now that we are limited to such a short time frame for a story it has a negative effect on the episode itself, usually resorting into minimal characters (in this case ending up with about three main characters) or the threat being downgraded in scale.
‘Flatline’ suffered with both of these problems. There weren’t many characters to engage with and the Boneless threat, as big as it was, was reduced to threatening a council estate in Bristol. Kind of anti-climatic in some sense. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the episode was placed within a small space, like a space station or base but when you know you’re on Earth and a threat can consume the world you get a little underwhelmed when the treat is lowered. The Boneless could potentially be in any wall in the world but end up chasing Clara and a small band of unlikable characters down a tunnel. Maybe that’s me being picky, I don’t know but I would’ve found the Boneless more threatening if they’d been attacking the whole of Bristol instead of stalking a small group, thereby mounting more pressure on Clara’s shoulder and making the situation all the more intense.
And yes I do stand my ground with the unlikeable characters claim. Rigsy was probably the only character that was likeable but he still didn’t have much to go on because his character was quite flat with no real depth. Even when he attempted to charge the train into the Boneless, thereby sacrificing himself, made you question why he’d go to such extremes to die a heroes death (nobody is really going to remember or thank him for it). It was almost out of character and out of place. There was no reason. Then there is Fenton who was unlikeable from the get-go and had no redeeming features at all. Always complaining and being no use to the group or the adventure as a whole. It was no wonder why the Doctor became annoyed over the fact that the wrong people survived whilst the innocent perished. Other than those two there was only the train driver that was a main character and even he didn’t bring anything to the story other than just standing there in the background to make up the numbers. As for the workers helping Fenton and Rigsy on community service, they served the purpose of dying, end of.
I did like the whole story about Clara being the Doctor whilst the Doctor himself proved helpless, unable to do anything but help from a distance. It even got to a point where the Doctor was forced to isolate himself within the TARDIS, through the imaginative fail-self Siege-Mode, and nearly died due to having no power or life-support within the TARDIS. I’ll give Mathieson credit for the imaginative way of returning the TARDIS to full size via using the Boneless’ powers against them but then it was ruined by what came next. Yes people the Sonic Screwdriver saved the day again in a rather over the top manner that made it look like the Doctor was casting a Harry Potter spell with his, theoretically, magic wand. Though I’ll give the scene some slack as the Twelfth Doctor finally got given an ‘I’m the Doctor’ speech which Capaldi spoke triumphantly and with much determination and continuous authority.
What I liked though is that the Doctor started to feel his influence on Clara had begun to change her for the worst. Though his qualities are good qualities they are in the same sense bad, especially to Clara’s good nature that could essentially corrupt her as it has done to previous companions. This was the reason the Doctor resisted calling Clara a good Doctor, not in the sense that she didn’t do good like Clara was trying to insinuate but within the actual term good. The Doctor knows he isn’t fully a good man and he doesn’t want Clara to fall down his trap. As she becomes further addicted into his way of life maybe his traits will become more dominant. The Doctor has already called Clara out for using his worst trait of lying on Danny which he quickly figured out through listening to their phone call earlier on in the episode. She’d told him that Danny was alright with her adventures with the Doctor but in fact he was unaware that they were still travelling together. Here’s hoping that the addiction doesn’t start bringing her and Danny apart after all their relationship has been through within this series already.
And of course the mysterious and sinister Missy returns right at the end for another entry. This time we are shown her observing Clara somehow, smiling with what seems like sinister intent. What’s made all the more disturbing is when she declares Clara ‘her Clara’ and that she has chosen well. What does this mean? Are fan theories coming true and that Missy has wanted the Doctor to be pulled to her twisted kingdom of Paradise and Clara is the unaware instigator to his demise. What if (another fun theory) that every single companion to date has been the workings of Missy in order to try and bring the Doctor closer to death through the slow usage of his regenerations. Now that the Doctor has been granted a new set of regenerations perhaps Missy is trying something new. All I know is I don’t know whether I’m ready for what Moffat has installed for us in the finale which will apparently give us a new perspective on what really happens after death and could potentially change our entire perception of the show.