When I first saw the trailer for “Flatline,” I have to admit that I wasn’t terribly impressed. Unlike the trailer for “Mummy on the Orient Express,”which left me eagerly looking forward to seeing it, the trailer for “Flatline” made almost no impression on me. Well, technically, that’s not true. It briefly made me think of the tenth Doctor episode “Fear Her,” but that didn’t raise my expectations for it. However, despite my feelings going into it, I really enjoyed “Flatline,” and it provided me with one of my favorite moments of the season.
The plot is a unique one. The Doctor and Clara end up landing in Bristol, in a low-income development, only to discover that the TARDIS has become even smaller on the outside than it usually is. Clara manages to get out, but the Doctor becomes trapped inside. Clara has to take on the Doctor’s role as she investigates the mysterious disappearances of people who live on the estate with the help of a young graffiti artist named Rigsy. Together, they discover that the earth is possibly being attacked by two-dimensional beings who, with the Doctor trapped in the TARDIS, seem unstoppable.
The story in this episode was strong. Sure, there are probably just as many holes in logic as any other story, but the story kept me so involved that I didn’t start wondering about them. As is the norm for this season, it had a strong pre-credits sequence that really set a creepy tone. On a rather trivial note, I also have to admit that I loved seeing the tiny TARDIS. Additionally, I thought the episode did a great job of balancing the creepiness of its antagonists with the humor of having the Doctor trapped inside his tiny TARDIS. The Addams Family gag was executed well, as were the humorous ways the Doctor and Clara interacted in this story.
It was also interesting to see the show take on the idea of beings who live in only two dimensions. There is a lot of talk of dimensions on the show, but they are not often the focus of the plot, as they were in this case. While this is not the first time that we’ve encountered a miniaturized TARDIS (the first time was in “Planet of Giants” at the start of the show’s second season), everything else felt very fresh.
I also enjoyed the realization of the “boneless” on screen(although I do think they could have had a better name). It’s quite a challenge to have your antagonist be creatures who are basically formless for most of the story, and whose only communication is the numbers 22 and 55, but the show pulled it off well. Which leads me to another strength of the episode, the direction. The episode was very visual; the effects of people and objects getting pulled into two dimensions were really important to the success of the story and I have to say that I think they pulled it off nicely. They were well realized when they started to take on three-dimensions as well, with the jerky movements of beings who were still learning to control their form (although I’m not sure why they abandoned the giant hand form, which seemed pretty unstoppable).
One of the flaws of this episode, however, was its supporting characters. Rigsy gets developed more than the others, but pretty much everyone else was…well, a redshirt. The rest of the graffiti removal crew is not developed at all, except for the incredibly unlikable, Fenton, whose only discernible personality trait is his hatred of everyone who he considers beneath him (basically everyone living on the estate). While it was yet another exploration of class this season (which seems to be a bit of a reoccurring theme), it would have been nice to learn something more about him. Although the fact that he isn’t reformed by the experience was an interesting and unexpected turn of events. Unlike Jamie Mathieson’s previous story, “Mummy…,”where I really believed that the supporting characters had a life outside of the story, these characters were, forgive the pun, flat. While I was not wishing any harm on the removal crew, I can’t say that I was really that upset when they died either.
This lack of development may have prevented me from feeling what I was supposed to feel about Clara taking on the mantel of the Doctor. While this isn’t the first time the companion has “become” the Doctor (Amy in “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” leaps to mind), this is clearly not meant to be a good step for Clara. I thought the episode would help her to understand the Doctor better, seeing as how she has given him a hard time this year about his lack of feeling for those who have died around him. While it did do that, the Doctor also feels badly that Clara was able to take over his role so easily. He chides her for celebrating victory at the end of the episode when so many people died. In that moment, the Doctor and Clara have truly switched roles, as he has become her “carer.” Unfortunately, some of the impact was lost on me due to the lack of development for the characters who died. It felt to me that Clara did what she had to, and saved as many people as she could. However, it was probably a bit unnerving for the Doctor to hear his methods so coldly dissected by Clara as she figured out what she needed to do.
It was also interesting to see Clara break out of the “soldier following orders” mold into which she had lately been fitting. She spends most of the episode literally being the Doctor’s eyes and ears, doing whatever he said. When communication was lost, however, it was nice to see her find her own solution. When she realizes that she can’t rely on the Doctor, she realizes she needs to figure out how she would solve the problem, not try to guess what he would do. It was good to see Clara’s character gain a bit of her agency back. And as for the final scene with Missy…I’m not sure what to make of that yet.
Of course, this episode also furthers the look at how compulsive a liar Clara has become. In a scene which I thought was ridiculous (and was probably my least favorite moment of the episode), the otherwise smart Clara answers a call from Danny while in a perilous situation with Rigsy. Since she has told Danny that she has stopped traveling with the Doctor, she has to lie to Danny to explain what he is hearing. Aside from the horribly unbelievable lie and ridiculous behavior, the conversation reveals to the Doctor that Clara has been lying to him. He handled it pretty much as I would expect him to, not really being upset at Clara for lying in principle, since he considers lying a necessary survival skill, but annoyed that she was able to lie to him (I think it wounds his pride a bit that she was able to fool him) and is a bit concerned for her.
I haven’t said too much about the Doctor because this was a “Doctor-lite” episode, but the Doctor was front and center in my favorite moment. I loved the Doctor’s monologue to the boneless. I thought Peter Capaldi delivered it perfectly, as it starts out very calmly and full of regret, but it slowly builds into a powerful confrontation. After watching the Doctor struggle with exactly who he was all season, it was good to see him fully embrace being the Doctor. After struggling with the idea of whether or not he is a good man or a hero, he was finally confronting an enemy who was clearly evil (although we never get to learn about the boneless’ motivation, it was clear they needed to be stopped). They were acting like monsters, so he could wear the mantel of the one who stops the monsters with no guilt. Watching him deliver that speech was a real highlight for me.
Overall, I have to say that I enjoyed both of Jamie Mathieson’s contributions to Doctor Who this season. Although I think “Mummy on the Orient Express” was the stronger of the two, they both dealt with some interesting ideas and themes while keeping the stories engaging. He even managed to create two interesting antagonists, despite the fact that neither one gets to speak. I’ll definitely be looking forward to any future scripts from him.