This review is a bit late, but I was so struck by the Doctor Who episode “Flatline” that I had to sit down and do a write-up on it at some point.
After another journey in the TARDIS, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is getting ready to return Clara (Jenna Coleman) back home to London. Unexpectedly the TARDIS lands slightly off-course in Bristol. Something is leeching the energy from the time machine, and the exterior dimensions have begun to shrink. Clara squeezes out of the now-smaller doors to scout around for anything suspicious while the Doctor stays behind to check over the TARDIS.
Clara meets Rigsy (Joivan Wade) a graffiti artist who is being forced to perform community service, which includes having to paint over his own work, something that his mocking supervisor Fenton (Christopher Fairbank) finds especially amusing. Clara learns from Rigsy that a number of people have recently disappeared under unexplained circumstances, but that the authorities are not particularly interested in investigating since it is a low-income area. Clara returns to the TARDIS only to discover that the outer shell has shrunk even further. It is now small enough to fit in the palm of her hand. Trapped inside, the Doctor squeezes his hand out the door and gives Clara his sonic screwdriver, psychic paper, and an earpiece to wear which enables him to communicate with her as well as see through her optic nerves.
Clara slips the tiny TARDIS into her handbag. Returning to the nearby council houses, Clara convinces Rigsy to help her investigate. She informs Rigsy that she is “Doctor Oswald” from MI5, and begins to mimic some of the real Doctor’s mannerisms, much to the real Time Lord’s consternation, who is listening in and watching everything on the TARDIS scanner.
Clara and Rigsy go to the apartment of the latest victim and find nothing out of the ordinary other than an odd desert-like mural on one of the walls. Heading over to the site of the very first disappearance, they are joined by police officer Forrest. While Clara and Rigsy are in one room, Forest is sucked into the floor screaming. By the time Clara and Rigsy make it into the room, the policewoman is vanished. Looking through Clara’s eyes, the Doctor observes a mural on the wall that is an exact reproduction of the human nervous system. The Doctor solemnly informs Clara and Rigsy that this is, in fact, an actual human nervous system, all that remains of the unfortunate PC Forrest. Likewise, in the other apartment they were in the “desert mural” was in fact a close-up of human skin. The Doctor deduces that entities from the second dimension, beings with length and width but without height, are invading into our third dimension and, in an effort to understand humans, are capturing and dissecting them.
And it was at this point watching this episode that I really started freaking out!
Barely escaping being killed by the two dimensional entities, which the Doctor refers to as “The Boneless,” Clara and Rigsy flee. They locate the rest of the community service crew, including an especially ill-tempered Fenton. Clara tries to use the psychic paper to convince him that she is from MI5 to get him to cooperate, but all Fenton sees is blank paper. Inside the TARDIS the Doctor sardonically observes “It takes quite a lack of imagination to beat psychic paper.” Before Fenton can argue any further, the graffiti on the walls literally comes alive, revealing itself to be more of the Boneless. Clara, Rigsy, Fenton, and the crew all flee into the nearby railway tunnels, being pursued by the bizarre, lethal entities.
“Flatline” is written by Jamie Mathieson, who also penned the previous episode, “Mummy on the Orient Express.” It is literally back-to-back frights with these two episodes. “Flatline” must be the scariest episode of Doctor Who since “Blink.” Older fans of the series will no doubt recall how certain critics in the 1970s and again in the mid 1980s accused Doctor Who of traumatizing Britain’s youth. Well, it seems like Mathieson is attempting to completely unsettle an entirely new generation of young viewers. I bet Mary Whitehouse is rolling over in her grave!
Mathieson’s concept of the Boneless, of entities from a second-dimensional universe, reminded me of an old sci-fi / horror story from the comic book Weird Science published by EC Comics. “Monster from the Fourth Dimension” originally appeared in Weird Science #7, cover-dated May-June 1951, was written & drawn by Al Feldstein. As you can no doubt tell from the title, that story involved the opposite scenario, with a being from a four-dimensional universe entering our own three-dimensional reality. Feldstein did an excellent job explaining the theoretical science behind such an entity and how it would be perceived by us, as well as in crafting an extremely unnerving, creepy tale. I wonder if Mathieson ever read that one.
In terms of developing the relationship between the Doctor and Clara, “Flatline” can be regarded as the final part of a loose trilogy, with “Kill the Moon” and “Mummy on the Orient Express” comprising the first two parts. In “Kill the Moon,” the Doctor forced Clara to take on his role of making life-and-death decisions. She did so, and was able to find an apparently ideal solution to the crisis, but she was absolutely furious at the Doctor for placing her in that position. In “Mummy on the Orient Express” the Doctor once again assumed his role of making life & death decisions, of having to choose who lives and who dies. Once again Clara was angry, perceiving the Doctor to be cold & unfeeling. At the end of that episode, the Doctor explained “Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones. But you still have to choose.” Clara finds out exactly how true this is in “Flatline.”
With the Doctor trapped inside the shrunken TARDIS, only able to offer limited advice & assistance, Clara is now forced to once again assume his role. As first she may have jokingly referred to herself as “Doctor Oswald,” but soon enough she realizes that everyone’s lives really are in her hands, that she once more must make those life & death decisions. And, unlike in “Kill the Moon,” this time there is no perfect solution. Instead, as the Doctor previously explained, all the choices before her are “bad ones.”
Attempting to take charge of the community service crew, as well as cope with Fenton’s extremely negative attitude, Clara wonders what she can possibly do, and communicates her concerns to the Doctor:
Clara: I just hope I can keep them alive.
The Doctor: Ah, welcome to my world. So, what’s next, Doctor Clara?
Clara: Lie to them.
The Doctor: What?
Clara: Lie to them. Give them hope. Tell them they’re all going to be fine. Isn’t that what you would do?
The Doctor: In a manner of speaking. It’s true that people with hope tend to run faster. Whereas people who think they’re doomed…
Clara: Dawdle. End up dead.
The Doctor: So that’s what I sound like?
Clara is able to keep her head and manages to push everyone to try to stay alive, despite the relentless pursuit of the Boneless, who one-by-one are picking off their human prey. Clara is finally able to come up with an extremely clever solution to the problem, with a much needed assistance by Rigsy, who utilizes his artistic talents.
The TARDIS is finally restored to normal. The Doctor, who had attempted to help Clara communicate with the invaders, to make them understand that humans were sentient, living beings, realizes that he has no choice but to fight the Boneless:
“I tried to talk. I want you to remember that. I tried to reach out, I tried to understand you but I think that you understand us perfectly. And I think you just don’t care. And I don’t know whether you are here to invade, infiltrate or just replace us. I don’t suppose it really matters now. You are monsters. That is the role you seem determined to play. So it seems I must play mine. The man that stops the monsters. I’m sending you back to your own dimension. Who knows? Some of you may even survive the trip. And if you do, remember this: you are not welcome here. This plane is protected. I am the Doctor.”
The invaders are dispatched, but nearly everyone in the community service crew has been killed by them. The only people who Clara managed to save were Rigsy, a train conductor they encountered along the way, and the ungrateful Fenton, who feels no regret at the loss of the others, who he refers to as “community payback scumbags.” The Doctor sadly observes “Yes, a lot of people died, and maybe the wrong people survived.” Clara, seeing how the Doctor feels, responds, “Yeah but we saved the world, right?” She observes that “on balance” things worked out. Clara is now even beginning to sound like the Doctor, attempting to cope with the deaths of others by looking at the big picture. And then, when she asks the Doctor to acknowledge that she did well, that she did a good job filling his shoes, the Doctor solemnly responds “You were an exceptional Doctor, Clara. ‘Goodness’ had nothing to do with it.”
This goes back to the question the Doctor asked Clara at the beginning of the season, is he a good man? Perhaps the Doctor has finally decided that he is not. Instead he sees himself as having to do what is necessary, what is needed to get the job done, rather than doing what is “good.” Maybe he doesn’t believe that he can look at the bigger picture and still be good.
Elsewhere / when, watching all of these events on a computer screen is the sinister Missy (Michelle Gomez). She ominously observes to herself “Clara, my Clara. I have chosen well.”
In conclusion, “Flatline” was excellent episode. Jamie Mathieson’s script was intelligent and scary. The continuing development of the Doctor and Clara’s relationship was well-handled, with both Capaldi and Coleman doing excellent work with the material. Joivan Wade was also very good in the role of the story’s temporary companion, Rigsy.
And now, I wonder, will I be looking over my shoulder every time I pass by a wall filled with graffiti?