With the Doctor trapped in a shrinking TARDIS, Clara is forced into the role of the Doctor, complete with a group of people to save as a force from another dimension threaten their existence.
Flatline sees a return to the “Doctor-lite” stories that were commonplace in David Tennant’s era and feels like a story that wouldn’t have felt out of place in Russell T Davies’ era as showrunner, with contemporary Britain the setting for a takeover. However, by the mere fact that we haven’t had an abundance of this story in the intervening years, and with an original and creepy foe, Mathieson makes this feel quite fresh. Jamie Mathieson is a fantastic addition to the show for the late Moffat era and this story is a fantastic example of what he brought to the show.
Unlike some other Doctor-lite stories, Capaldi’s Doctor feels constantly present through being the voice in Clara’s ear. If we compare this to an episode like Love & Monsters or Turn Left, it is scarcely noticeable that Capaldi probably shot all of his scenes in a couple of days. Clara is forced into the lead role, and it is perhaps a chance to see how developed this character has become over the course of this series. From being ‘the Impossible Girl’ in her first half series, she has become a defined and flawed human being, seen to be lying to Danny and making the Doctor complicit in this. From his brief cameo, Danny seems to have made his peace with the idea of Clara continuing her travels in the TARDIS, but the fact that Clara still continues to deceive him is more of an issue in their relationship. Whilst I have problems with this, they become much more relevant to the series finale and so I will go into more detail when I get to review that episode. That said, Danny does encapsulate Ultimately, the story is designed to show the responsibility that the Doctor takes on when he enters situations like this and he is clearly alarmed at the ease with which Clara slips into the role. She takes the authority role over the group of community service outcasts and is ultimately accountable when only Rigsy and Fenton survive.
Why can’t you say it? I was the Doctor and I was good.
You were an exceptional Doctor, Clara.
Goodness had nothing to do with it.Clara Oswald and the Twelfth Doctor
As mentioned above, this story does feel as though it wouldn’t have felt out of place during the Tenth Doctor’s era. Mathieson has set this on a council estate, which harks back to the Powell Estate, and there are numerous mentions that the authorities are hoping that the problem will solve itself. Officer Forrest tells Clara and Rigsy as much shortly before she is absorbed into the rug as the trio investigate the home of another victim. Clara’s band of companions feel like the forgotten of society, and Rigsy is an example of the potential that exists in these scenarios. A further reinforcement of this is Fenton, the community service supervisor, who regards his charges as scum. Fenton fills the role of the person who the audience want something unpleasant to happen to, almost guaranteeing their survival. This reminded me most strongly of Voyage of the Damned, where Rickston Slade survives the events aboard the Titanic. Mathieson does waver from some aspects of the Russell T Davies era and Doctor Who in general, however, when Clara stops Rigsy from making the heroic sacrifice, substituting him losing his life with her losing her hairband. The story also has some moments of lightness and humour, such as Fenton only seeing a blank piece of paper when presented with the psychic paper, due to his lack of imagination, a detail which is completely throwaway, but it’s always nice to see that the Doctor’s gadgets have flaws.
Ultimately, the strength of the story lies in the monster. A foe from another dimension, whose motivations aren’t really ever fleshed out, but seem to be hostile, the ‘Boneless’ are a great one-off antagonist and bring out the strongest elements on the production side. The direction by Douglas Mackinnon is fantastic, and he makes the story feel really unsettling at times, starting with the cold open where the camera moves slowly to allow the reveal of Roscoe’s stretched out body. This story utilises a combination of great direction and special effects, particularly when the Boneless take on a three-dimensional form in the tunnel towards the end of the story. Moments like the reveal of George being killed work really well, and the transition between him seeming three dimensional and then merging into the wall and eventually melting away is really well done. One moment, conversely, that doesn’t work so well is when the hand pulls Al back down the tunnel and the camera tracks with it. It would be much more effective to have Al just pulled out of shot, but I have come to terms with it as it introduces the human facsimiles who are really sinister in the way that they move and their appearance. The story also takes advantage of playing with the reduced size of the TARDIS, complete with funny moments like the Doctor passing Clara the sledgehammer through her handbag or the Addams Family reference as the Doctor gets the TARDIS off the train track, followed by his little celebratory dance.
Putting Jenna Coleman in the leading role works really well for this story, and brings great performances out of her and Capaldi. The Doctor wants to believe the best of the Boneless until he has definitive proof that they are out to harm humanity, and his speech at the end was the moment that sold me on this Doctor forever. Out of the guest cast, Rigsy really stands out and it is a good performance by Joivan Wade, who we’ll see again in Series 9. Rigsy is a character who falls into the mould of a directionless outcast but his experiences with Clara (and by extension, the Doctor) open his eyes. I really like the fact that the solution to the story involves his artistic skills to power up the TARDIS.
Your last painting was so good it saved the world. I can’t wait to see what you do next.
It’s not gonna be easy. I’ve got a hairband to live up to.The Twelfth Doctor and Rigsy
Verdict: A story which is creepy and visually interesting and sees the companion take on the responsibilities of the Doctor, Flatline is a standout episode from Capaldi’s debut series. 10/10
Cast: Peter Capaldi (The Doctor), Jenna Coleman (Clara), Joivan Wade (Rigsy), Samuel Anderson (Danny), John Cummins (Roscoe), Jessica Hayles (PC Forrest), Christopher Fairbank (Fenton), Matt Bardock (Al), Raj Bajaj (George), James Quinn (Bill) & Michelle Gomez (Missy).
Writer: Jamie Mathieson
Director: Douglas Mackinnon
Behind the Scenes
- This was the original idea that Jamie Mathieson pitched to Steven Moffat, after which, he was also asked to write Mummy on the Orient Express. After several drafts, he was asked to minimise the role of the Doctor to abide by the production schedule.
- Mathieson wanted to maintain a sense of mystery around the Boneless, and so chose not to have them speak.
There are a lot here, but I think I’m going to have to go for the Doctor getting the TARDIS off the train tracks.
I tried to talk. I want you to remember that. I tried to reach out. I tried to understand you. But I think you understand us perfectly. I think that you just don’t care. And I don’t know if you’re here to invade, infilitrate, 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 who 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 defended. I am the Doctor. And I name you the Boneless!The Twelfth Doctor
Previous Twelfth Doctor review: Mummy on the Orient Express