‘Doctor Who’ is Full of Life for Much of “Flatline”

By  · Published on October 19th, 2014


Last week’s episode of Doctor Who kept Clara (Jenna Coleman) mostly on the sidelines while the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) was front and center doing all that he does best. So, it’s interesting that the show follows it with an episode where he is mostly offscreen and she’s front and center doing all that he does best. Yes, he. In “Flatline,” Clara gets to play Doctor in a way that allows her to understand him a little better. That’s important for a season in which she is constantly on him about his methods and manners. She has to deal with situations where she too needs to lie for the better of the mission, to give people hope because those without it are more likely to die. But she also has to cope with the fact that some people may die while she’s in command.

I’m a little surprised that she doesn’t have more of a reaction when one of the men does die under her leadership. In fact, I’m a little disappointed that there’s not more felt in the responsibility of her role in this episode. Outside of some dialogue in reference to what this experience of walking in the Doctor’s shoes means to their relationship, there isn’t a whole lot of substance here, neither for character development nor for the ongoing story and thematic developments of the show. Still, like last week’s episode, which was also written by Jamie Mathieson, the slightness of the story doesn’t take away from the fun. “Flatline” has a lot of neat tricks up it’s sleeve, particularly a lot of fun gags born out of the clever idea to miniaturize the TARDIS exterior but not interior – which of course gives reason for more, always welcome “bigger on the inside” jokes.

The special effects involved in those gags, such as the very Addams Family-ish moment when the Doctor tries to pull the TARDIS out of danger and the first time he sticks his hand out and makes his companion uncomfortable, were perfectly executed. Those involved in the depiction of the new foes were for the most part pretty good, too. As much as these “Boneless,” as they’ve been named by the Doctor, were capable of being rendered. The scene with Clara and Rigsy (Joivan Wade) in the flat was plenty creepy and imaginative, as were the skin and nervous system wall decor leftovers from the victims. When the Boneless became 3D zombie-like creatures, though, not so much. Christopher Fairbank, as the cranky local Fenton (who also prefers the creatures when they’re flat), is far creepier than these latest monsters. I was just waiting for something more to be going on with his character. Especially since he didn’t buy the Psychic Paper trick.

Maybe the Boneless’s two-dimensionality was intentional, and if so, fair enough. The mystery behind them is okay, and maybe we can see them come back in the future to find out more, but I’m not even clear if “them” is proper. For all we and the Doctor learned, it’s just one entity or something else entirely that we could barely understand. Just because there are multiple zombie versions later thanks to the body forms of the victims doesn’t mean there’s a single Boneless being to each representational figure. And they seemed to be too easily defeated via Sonic Screwdriver – the Doctor should have had to turn them back into 2D form first using his brilliantly named “2-Dis”). Never mind that it also was very implausible that Rigsy could paint such a realistic door painting in the brief time the monsters would have presumably been upon them.

Whatever, those are the kind of nitpicked things that aren’t that big a deal with Doctor Who, but they did pull the episode down a bit after a first half full of wonderful ideas. I might say that better half was some of the most original visual ideas seen on the show in a while, yet I am reminded that at least some of the premise of “Flatline” is quite reminiscent of the 2006 episode “Fear Her,” which also deals with people being trapped in two-dimensional drawings – the Doctor included, which means his companion (then Rose) similarly has to take charge while he is trapped. (There’s also 1981’s “Logopolis” serial, in which the TARDIS is shrunk.) Why must we get so much recycling, especially when it appears they’re trying to seem new? Some familiarity can be okay, just as recently “Listen” set up another creepy creature akin to the Weeping Angels and The Silence. That episode still works. This one works too, but not nearly as well.

I found it funny that this episode features another appearance of Missy (Michelle Gomez) at the end, because I got about two seconds to think to myself that I hope the Boneless return so we can learn more about what they are before the more intriguing villain showed up. In her most curious moment since her first, the head of the Promised Land is talking to an image of Clara like some Wicked Witch from Oz or a Grimm fairy tale (iPads are the new Mirror on the Wall). What is she after? And does her interest in Clara have any effect on my ongoing theory that Clara will wind up in the Promised Land as a result of a sacrifice for the Doctor? What did she think of Clara stopping Rigsy from giving his life for one of the Doctor’s missions?

Some usual hypocrisies from the Doctor this week:

Capaldi’s comical delivery of “of lies!” when Clara is asked what she’s a doctor of. Even funnier when you think about how the Doctor is full of lies and Clara has to be a doctor of lies to be a surrogate for the Doctor (neat role reversal after being a surrogate for the audience last week, by the way).

When the Doctor asks, “Could you not just let me enjoy this moment of not knowing something?” because there’s a lot this season he hasn’t known and has been proven wrong about. Maybe he’s just not trying to seem like a know-it-all just to be reminded that he wasn’t right again? That’s good. We like the Doctor more when he’s inquisitive more than arrogant.

This isn’t a hypocrisy but a new turn: Following the Tenth Doctor being “the man who regrets” and the Eleventh Doctor being “the man who forgets” we now know the Twelfth Doctor to be “the man who stops the monsters.” It doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.