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Doctor Who: Flatline (Review)

Same time, same place… ish.

…ish? Don’t give me an ish.

These readings are very… ish-y.

In many respects, Flatline can be seen as the flipside of Turn Left.

Turn Left was twinned with Midnight towards the end of David Tennant’s final year in the lead role. If Midnight was a story about the Doctor trapped in an adventure without his faithful companion, Turn Left was very much the story of the companion trapped in an adventure without the Doctor. Both of those stories seem to stress the need for both a Doctor and a companion to form a functioning team, building very consciously towards the merging of the two in the season finalé, Journey’s End.

Eyebrows!

Eyebrows!

While Midnight suggests that the Doctor would have great difficulty without a companion to help ground him, Turn Left is even more pessimistic. It seems to set a ceiling for the role of the companion. Without the Doctor, the best that his companions can do is fight to a depressing stalemate and hope to rescue some alternate universe where the Doctor is still alive. As far as Turn Left is concerned, the companion fills a very important function – but that function is very clearly secondary to the Doctor.

In contrast, Flatline seems to suggest that the companion can step up to fill the vacancy left by the Doctor. Flatline builds off the climax of Kill the Moon in positioning Clara as a character who could step in to the role of the Doctor. It is an interesting idea, arguably one that the show has been teasing from as early as Ace’s character during the final season of the classic show. Here, Clara suggests that it might be possible for a companion to elevate themselves to such a position. However, it remains questionable if such a possibility would be desirable.

Drawn together...

Drawn together…

Flatline is a very shrewd piece of Doctor Who. A veteran of Being Human, writer Jamie Mathieson demonstrated that he could craft an effective episode with Mummy on the Orient Express. If anything, Flatline feels like a more self-aware story. It is an episode of Doctor Who that doesn’t just offer a superb execution of a tried-and-tested formula, it actually plays with that formula and explores the implications of its core idea. It is a story explicitly about monsters, but is very careful and precise about the use of that word.

Mummy on the Orient Express went through the stock Doctor Who plot elements in an almost perfect manner. It had a mystery, a great supporting cast, a clever monster, snappy dialogue, a nice personal subplot and cracking direction. It was a superb example of what might be considered a “traditional” episode of Doctor Who. If you were looking to show a new fan what a typical episode of Doctor Who might look like, Mummy on the Orient Express jumped right up to the top tier of recommendations.

It's smaller on the outside...

It’s smaller on the outside…

On the other hand, Flatline is a little weirder and more adventurous. It is populated with a lot of little details that feel noticeably wrong, adding up to a Doctor Who story that feels as uncanny and as unsettling as those stumbling half-formed shapes stalking our heroes through those train tunnels. Appropriately enough, Flatline looks almost like a two-dimensional sketch of a typical Doctor Who episode when approached from the right angle, but when stretched into the third dimension it becomes something completely different entirely.

Most obviously, the TARDIS lands wrong. It arrives in Bristol rather than London (or even Cardiff), and it lands in the wrong configuration. The interior of the TARDIS is already much larger than the exterior, but Flatline seems to suggest the proportions have been skewed. “It’s bigger on the inside,” Rigsy observes when he is offered a glimpse into the handbag-sized TARDIS. “That’s never been truer,” the Doctor deadpans, pointing out that this is a familiar detail of Doctor Who – albeit one grossly distorted.

(Screw)driving the plot...

(Screw)driving the plot…

Of course, the TARDIS has been wrong before. Steven Moffat himself wrote a gag into Blink about how the windows where the wrong size. One might argue that the spacial relations of the TARDIS have been wrong since An Unearthly Child, a collection of inexplicable contradictions. However, Flatline pushes the idea even further. In hindsight, it is incredible that it has taken Doctor Who over half a century to produce an episode like this – an episode that takes advantage of the physical wrongness of the TARDIS and pushes it even further into the uncanny valley.

In keeping with the the theme, many of the plot details of Flatline resemble familiar Doctor Who plot beats… just executed a little askew. The Doctor doesn’t wander into this crisis, Clara does. Clara is forced to fit herself into the narrative absence created by stranding the Doctor in the TARDIS. She takes charge of the group when they seek refuge from the two-dimensional monsters. She encourages Rigsy to realise his potential in the middle of a crisis. These are all roles traditionally filled by the Doctor.

"Consider this your PhD..."

“Consider this your PhD…”

The strange two-dimensional creatures represent a particularly odd sort of monster. Appropriately enough, they remain two-dimensional for the entirety of the episode. The finer details of their plan are never revealed.  “I don’t know if you are here to invade, to infiltrate or to replace us,” the Doctor reflects at the climax. “I don’t suppose it matters.” When they begin citing numbers associated with their victims, it is never made clear what they are doing – are they “bragging” or “apologising”? Would it make a difference?

These creatures are so alien and so unfamiliar that even the TARDIS has trouble translating. After all, as the Doctor explains, “their idea of language is just as bizarre as their idea of space.” This is a strange life-form so radically different from mankind that its conception of reality cannot be aligned with our own. We will never know what they are or what their motivations are. In keeping with the themes of perception running through episodes like Deep Breath and Dark Water, we can only conceive of these creatures as we can perceive them.

The writing's on the wall...

The writing’s on the wall…

They are, in the purest sense, monsters. They are the irreconcilable, the other. They are the creatures who lurk beyond our comprehension. They do not exist outside the reality they have entered, the narrative construct that Doctor Who imposes on them. “You are monsters!” the Doctor proclaims. “That’s the role you seem determined to play, so it seems that I must play mine. The man that stops the monsters.” The Doctor officially “names” the monsters as “boneless”, but that seems superfluous. He had their number when he called them “monsters.”

The idea of monstrosity reverberates through the season; Flatline just pushes it to the fore. In Deep Breath, the Doctor confronts a ruthless robot that has been making himself more human. In Into the Dalek, the Doctor confronts the concept of a “good” Dalek, something that challenges his understanding of his arch-enemies; in the same episode, the Doctor explained that he only defined himself in the role of Doctor opposite the Daleks. In Listen, it was even suggested that the Doctor invents monsters once he gets bored. Danny becomes a good monster in Death in Heaven.

Please put on your 2D glasses...

Please put on your 2D glasses…

The idea of playing roles is a major part of Flatline. The Doctor insists that these creatures are playing their role, forcing him to play his own. However, it is suggested that best of us find a way to transcend those roles. Clara is thrust into the role of the Doctor. Rigsy is forced to move past the role in which Fenton has cast him. Clara even refuses to allow Rigsy to play the role of the heroic sacrifice. It’s another stock Doctor Who story beat that Flatline rejects. “You’re not getting off that easily, there’s work that needs doing!”

"So, female Doctor, then?"

“So, female Doctor, then?”

It all ties back into the central narrative arc of Flatline, and perhaps into the rest of the season. These roles can easily make people two-dimensional. After all, the Doctor seems to resent being forced back into his old “Oncoming Storm” persona, even as he insists that this is not an attempt at genocide. Similarly, the Doctor seems a little uncomfortable at how easily Clara fell into his role. “You were an exceptional Doctor, Clara,” he offers when she asks how “good” she was. “Goodness had nothing to do with it.”

One of the central conflicts of Clara’s character – resulting from the manner of her introduction as “the impossible girl” – is the conflict between Clara as a character in her own right and Clara as the most archetypal or generic of companions. The eighth season has worked hard to flesh out Clara’s life outside the TARDIS, and Flatline seems to suggest that having Clara fill the narrative role of the Doctor would diminish her; it would be reductive. It would reduce what makes Clara Oswald the person that she is.

They argue over the smallest things...

They argue over the smallest things…

Indeed, the show hints throughout the season that Clara is well-suited to playing the role of the Doctor. Both Kill the Moon and Mummy on the Orient Express forced her into that role; she was actively angry about it in Kill the Moon, but seems to have grown more comfortable with it over time. Perhaps her observation about “addiction” in Mummy on the Orient Express was more astute than she realised. That sort of power must hold some appeal, despite the best efforts to deny it. By Death in Heaven, she manages to even bluff her eyebrows into the opening credits.

Of course, Clara might be smart enough and quick-witted enough to fill the role, but she also has another major qualification. “Rule one,” River Song stated in The Big Bang. “The Doctor lies.” Words are one of the recurring motifs of the Moffat era – from the translation of “Melodi Pond” in A Good Man Goes to War to the discussion of books in The Angels Take Manhattan to the library in Silence in the Library to the emphasis on the Doctor’s name as a source of power in The Name of the Doctor. As such, it makes sense that the Doctor gains his power from books.

The wrong side of the tracks...

The wrong side of the tracks…

So Clara is quite suited to the role because she is an exceptional liar . She’s lying to Danny, lying to the Doctor and perhaps even lying to herself. She knows that she should stop travelling with the Doctor, but she cannot bring herself to do it. The Doctor praises her on her “excellent lying.” It is quite telling that – when introducing herself as “the Doctor” – Clara cites vagary as one of the character’s defining attributes and the Doctor suggests that she is the Doctor “… of lies.”

These creatures (the “boneless”, as the Doctor names them) are an even purer breed of monster than the eponymous ghoul in Mummy on the Orient Express. More like the creatures from Listen or the Weeping Angels from Blink, these monstrosities exist as high-concept monsters. They are a delightful meta-fictional construct, one designed to perfectly fit the profile of a Doctor Who monster. Indeed, they fit that profile so well that they feel uncanny and unsettling.

Clara's on track to make a great Doctor...

Clara’s on track to make a great Doctor…

Much like the Weeping Angels are monsters that cannot be defeated by hiding behind the sofa, or the monsters in Listen exist purely as the idea of monsters, here we have monsters that transition from a two-dimensional surface to a three-dimensional reality. They transcend the reality in which they are trapped. If they can crawl from a wall into the world of Doctor Who, surely they can crawl from a two-dimensional television set into reality… or maybe even into viewers’ nightmares?

Much like Mummy on the Orient Express, Mathieson has constructed a monster that plays with the show’s fictionality. The predator in Mummy on the Orient Express was very much an archetypal monster – once you saw it, you were dead; it was not hampered by physics or geography or anything like that. It took over a minute to kill a person, forcing the show to enter real time. It would also move in the rapid cuts holding a scene together. It operated by the logic of stories, rather than anything claiming to be reality.

"You shouldn'ta turned the brush on that kid, man. You shouldn'ta turned the brush on him."

“You shouldn’ta turned the brush on that kid, man. You shouldn’ta turned the brush on him.”

Here, the monsters are ultimately trapped and contained in two-dimensions. Since the BBC scrapped 3D production, these monsters seem unlikely to ever manifest fully. The Doctor is quite excited once he figures out what these creatures are. “They’re from a universe with only two dimensions!” he deduces, dynamically. “And yes, that is a thing!” Of course it’s a thing. The audience at home is watching it right now through their television sets. One of the smarter images in an episode packed with smart images sees the Doctor locked in the TARDIS by forced perspective.

There’s also something very wry and very clever about the episode’s basic premise. A number of people disappear within their own homes, with no sign of intruders or forced entry. The Doctor very shrewdly identifies it as a “locked room mystery.” He is correct, and he proposes two very generic solutions to such a set up. However, Flatline cleverly proposes a third: what if the room itself is the killer? In this case, it turns out that the walls and the floors are the murderers.

The inside looking out...

The inside looking out…

It’s also worth noting that it is a “locked room mystery” in another sense. It is a mystery where the Doctor spends most of the episode trapped inside a locked room, trying to get out. The idea of isolating the Doctor away from the rest of the cast while trying to solve the mystery – in particular, trapping him inside the TARDIS – is absolutely inspired. It is worth noting that this is the third episode in a row where the plot has conspired to separate the Doctor and Clara. Whether that’s a theme from the writers’ room or necessary production decision, it is interesting.

Flatline continues the season’s trend of pointing quite heavily back towards the Davies era. This is the first time that the Doctor has landed in working-class Britain in quite some time – even the council estate in Night Terrors felt like a heavily stylised dystopia rather than a place that could actually exist. Flatline takes place in a world that is recognisably working-class Britain – concerned with graffiti and train lines and estates. It wouldn’t take too much effort to reimagine Flatline unfolding in the Powell Estate from the first two seasons of the revival.

The art of the monster...

The art of the monster…

There’s a sense that these monsters have been able to feed so relentlessly because this is the kind of place that slips by under the radar – it’s a community that doesn’t register as particularly important in the minds of the authorities or the press. “The police weren’t doing anything,” Rigsy tells Clara when she inquires about the missing people. “They never do on this estate. People were thinking that no one was listening. That no one cared.” For the first time since the Davies era, the Doctor confronts an alien invasion exploiting class structure.

Escorting Clara and Rigsy through the crime scene, Officer Forrest admits, “I think the brass are hoping that if you just ignore it, it’ll go away.” There is a depressing ring of truth to that idea. The Twelfth Doctor seems much more acutely aware of class than his direct predecessor, and cannot wait to get the boot in when Clara suggests that the victims might have been shrunk. “Well, of course he might have been squashed under a policeman’s shoe by now,” he cynically suggests – a potent metaphorical (and, in this case, literal) image.

Keeping his head down...

Keeping his head down…

Although the Doctor tends to gravitate towards particular individuals, the season has made a conscious effort to introduce the Twelfth Doctor to outcasts and the disenfranchised. To be fair, this makes a certain amount of sense. The Twelfth Doctor has been fascinated with ideas of class and privilege. In The Caretaker, he went undercover as a janitor while Danny recognised him as an officer. In Into the Dalek and Time Heist, he recognised that the service areas are typically the least well-protected areas of any system.

So the Twelfth Doctor feels much more comfortable in a council estate than his predecessor would. The Eleventh Doctor feeling at home in fairytales or theme park Britain. It is very hard to imagine the Eleventh Doctor sharing the same sense of empathy with Courtney Woods, for example. The Eleventh Doctor tended to react to children as children; in contrast, the Twelfth Doctor seems more likely to treat teenagers as teenagers. It is a small, but vital, distinction.

If walls had nervous systems...

If walls had nervous systems…

However, there are other points at which Flatline seems to hark backwards towards the Davies era. Most obviously, the Twelfth Doctor’s climactic speech feels like the kind of big moment that the Tenth Doctor would have loved. He would have even dropped his own name in there, and maybe even added an “I’m sorry” to boot. The closing scene also echoes the Tenth Doctor’s character arc from the fourth season through to the specials, as the Twelfth Doctor reflects on the fact that Fenton somehow survived to the end of the episode.

“I guess a lot of people died and maybe the wrong people survived,” the Twelfth Doctor muses, recalling the Tenth Doctor’s feelings at the end of Voyage of the Damned. That was a scene that arguably set up the arc running through Russell T. Davies and David Tennant’s final stretch of episodes – the idea that choosing who would live and who would die would make the Doctor some sort of monster. It is an arc that can be traced from Voyage of the Damned through The Fires of Pompeii to The Waters of Mars.

Painting a pretty bleak picture...

Painting a pretty bleak picture…

Interestingly, it is a major theme of Peter Capaldi’s two previous appearances in the Doctor Who universe. Peter Capaldi played one of the few lives that the Doctor could save from the volcano at the climax of The Fires of Pompeii. The actor also played a civil servant in the five-part miniseries Children of Earth, a character who committed murder-suicide when it was revealed that his own children would be among those chosen to be sacrificed so that a greater number may live.

Staring at his reflection in Deep Breath, the Twelfth Doctor wondered why he had received a familiar face. Maybe that’s the reason – maybe it’s a way of reinforcing a theme to the Twelfth Doctor’s character arc. After all, Peter Capaldi’s appearances in Doctor Who seem to be grounded in those sorts of horrible and anti-heroic choices. Maybe the Twelfth Doctor was given this face for a reason. Still, if that is the case, one wonders why the Sixth Doctor resembles Commander Maxil.

Boxed in...

Boxed in…

As with Mummy on the Orient Express, there is a mid-season softening of the Twelfth Doctor coming off Kill the Moon. On the beach at the end of Mummy on the Orient Express, the Doctor explained to Clara that sometimes there are only bad choices; this does not remove the moral imperative to choose the best option. Here, Clara seems to face a similar dilemma. Retreating with the community service team into the train tunnels, Clara muses, “I just hope I can keep them all alive.” The Doctor replies, “Ah, welcome to my world.”

The Twelfth Doctor is considerably more internalised than most of his recent predecessors. As such, allowing Clara to step into his role and experience the challenges first hand is a very clever way to humanise the character. Clara gets to discover why the Doctor is so stand-off-ish, and why he is so pragmatic. “Vital stage,” the Doctor advises Clara as the group flee from the monsters. “This little group is currently confused and disorientated. But pretty soon a leader is going to emerge. You need to make sure that leader is you.”

Terror in the third dimension...

Terror in the third dimension…

Flatline also develops the relationship between Clara and Danny Pink, demonstrating that Danny Pink is a very different romantic interest than Rory Williams was. Danny is trusting enough to allow Clara her own space; he does not seem too concerned about what she is doing when she is not with him, as long as she is not recklessly endangering herself. There is something quite sweet about the mundanity of the life represented by Danny, sitting on a park bench. “Oh, hon, you’re missing some classic park action.”

Danny is only concerned about Clara’s activities when it sounds like they might be putting her at risk. “Where are you and are you in trouble?” he asks, a two-in-one question that suggests he is more worried about her safety than anything else. Watching Flatline, it seems that Danny might even be able to come to terms with Clara travelling in the TARDIS; it is the lying that Clara does to cover from her time in the TARDIS that causes the problem. Clara’s desire to keep travelling blinds her to the fact that Danny is not necessarily jealous in the standard meaning of the term.

Drawing a blank...

Drawing a blank…

It seems like Flatline is back to characterising the relationship between Clara and the Doctor as paternal dynamic. The Doctor seems more accepting of Danny’s presence than he has been in the past, and is more interested in what Clara’s decisions mean for her than anything to do with Danny or himself. “Nice,” he observes as Clara fibs her way out of a tough question. “Not technically lying.” Similarly, Clara’s desire for validation at the end feels more like that of a child than a partner. “Just say it. Why can’t you just say it? Why can’t you just say I did good?”

It is worth noting the the special effects are quite brilliant here – the shuffling, flickering monsters and the two-dimensional art that appears three-dimensional to begin with. Flatline even makes nice use of the incredible shrinking TARDIS. The sequence where the Doctor does his “Addams Family” impression is a highlight of the season, a rather delightful use of the story’s concept to provide an ingenious visual. Flatline is a delightfully fun and inventive forty-five minutes of television. As with Mummy on the Orient Express, it looks like it was great fun to make.

Alive inside...

Alive inside…

Flatline captures the wonder of a show like Doctor Who. It is a delightfully high-concept science-fiction adventure, with wonderfully (and literally) off-the-wall) concepts. As Clara tries to process these aliens, the Doctor describes it as just another day at the office. “I know a race made of sentient gas who throw fireballs as a friendly wave,” he boasts. “I know another race with sixty four stomachs who talk to each other by disembowelling.” He clarifies, “My point being that in a universe as immense and bizarre as this one, you cannot be too quick to judge.”

It the same sense of optimism and wonder that underscores Kill the Moon, even if Flatline ultimately does not share the earlier episode’s faith that everything will ultimately work itself out. Still, the universe is a beautiful and infinite space that presents an unlimited number of possibilities. Killer man-eating graffiti invading the world from two-dimensional space? That’s just Tuesday. It’s hard to resist that adventurous spirit and attitude, the sort of zany high-energy approach that characterises the second half of the season.

Staying on point...

Staying on point…

Flatline continues the season’s strong run of episodes, with the eighth season already on its way to becoming a true classic.

You might enjoy our other reviews from Peter Capaldi’s first season of Doctor Who:

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10 Responses

  1. I remember spending a hungover rainy Sunday flicking through your NuWho reviews a few weeks ago – I’d trawled reviews of NuWho on various websites plenty of times in the past but I was really floored by the amount of thought-provoking new angles your reviews threw up. Especially with the earlier seasons (maybe you were reviewing those seasons in retrospect?), you always add interesting theories on how to interpret the themes and tie them to the big picture – you’re consistently sharper than the AVClubs and DenOfGeeks when it comes to deep analysis of this show. It’d be interesting to read your thoughts on these episodes again at the end of Capaldis run (not that I’m hoping that happens any time soon) when we all have a clearer picture of Capaldis character arc and what his Doctor is ultimately going to represent (and what that final tragic personality flaw is gonna be) – I’ve no doubt when that time comes your two cents will make for great reading. Anyway – main point – thanks for taking the time to write these reviews man, nobody on the net does em better.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Mike. I hope they measure up. I’m quite eager to pick up the blu ray set and re-watch the eighth season. It holds up phenomenally well from week-to-week.

  2. Neat review.

    I wasn’t quite as impressed by the supporting cast as you were (Rigsby felt very much like a romanticised safe middle class view of a working class stock character) but it was an interesting episode with cool monsters.

    • Fair point on Rigsby, but I think he’s more of a stock Doctor Who character in general – the character with enormous potential who doesn’t even realise it. That he is working class fits with the setting and has been a feature of Doctor Who since the Davies era at least. (Although Ace probably counts as well.) He is, after all, framed as the companion to Clara’s version of the Doctor.

  3. Great review. I thought this was a really strong episode. We haven’t had anything this creepy from Doctor Who in a while. Personally what I liked most though was the way Clara was forced to experience the Doctor’s point of view. I’ve been arguing for weeks that this Doctor is not heartless, just focussed.

    • Thanks Eoghann! I’d suggest that he’s also pragmatic. There’s little point in getting all torn up about these deaths, particularly if it hinders your ability to help the survivors. It seems to be something of a numbers game to him. What was the line “hope makes you run faster”? Even hope is a tool to help save as many lives as possible.

  4. Your analysis of the 10th Doctor choosing lives, and why the 12th Doctor now has Caecilius’s face, is utter genius. I will be linking to it later. Thanks!

    • Well, I mean – we’ve been told by Moffat that there’s a reason, and the Doctor himself draws attention to it in Deep Breath. Not to mention that the Curator suggests that the Doctor occasionally models faces for a reason.

      Of course, this is all speculation and could prove ridiculously off-base, but given the emphasis on pragmatic “save as many you as you can” decisions this season, it has a certain thematic appeal to it.

  5. I held off reading other reviews of “Flatline” until I wrote up on own WordPress post on it. I have to say that you did an absolutely brilliant job at analyzing this episode. This was an incredibly insightful piece. Great work!

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