“Flatline” is the second episode penned by Jamie Mathieson for Doctor Who’s eight season, though it was actually the first one he was hired to write (much like Neil Cross’s two contributions in Series 7, “The Rings Of Akhaten” and “Hide“). He originally pitched the idea to Steven Moffat two years earlier, but the Moff turned it down. When the Capaldi era began, Moffat decided to give him another chance to bring his big idea to life, under the condition that it would become the traditional Doctor-lite episode of Series 8 (a story where the Doctor is given a significantly smaller role than usual, so the show’s lead actor can get a much needed break in their filming schedule). In the past, these sorts of episodes have given us some truly unique gems like “Turn Left” and “The Girl Who Waited“, where the companions are given their time to shine, and “Flatline” is no exception to that.
While “Mummy On The Orient Express” served as a spotlight episode for the Twelfth Doctor, “Flatline” fulfils the same role for Clara, letting her come into her as a heroine as we grow closer and closer to the season finale. Furthermore, the two episodes compliment each other well as a double bill: the latter builds off the way the former developed Clara and the Doctor’s relationship, by putting Clara in a similar position to the Doctor in the previous adventure and contrasting the way she handles her very own trial by fire. “Flatline” has more of a slow-burning pace than “Mummy On The Orient Express” did (which really starts to pick up around the halfway point), and it has a much more mundane setting – trading in a spacefaring train soaring through the cosmos for the domestics suburbs of contemporary Earth – but one thing they both have in common is devoting a lot of time to exploring a simple, high concept idea for a Doctor Who monster and using that idea to its full potential for some quality scares.
When “Flatline” begins, Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) is still lying to both of her boys about her decision to keep traveling in the TARDIS, and she’s not doing a particularly convincing job of it, since she tends to jabber on too much when she’s feeling guilty about something. Her tendency to constantly lie to people so she can avoid any and all uncomfortable conversations has officially become a really bad habit that she keeps slipping into, even though she already knows from experience that nothing good will come of it down the line. Still, Clara has much greater concerns to worry about at the moment. When the TARDIS lands in Bristol, the outer shell of the ship starts to shrink rapidly, trapping the Doctor inside the console room. So now, Clara has to set out into the city and find the source of the problem, or else her friend might be trapped inside his own ship forever.
“Flatline” is the culmination of a direction Clara’s character has been heading in ever since she was introduced. Clara loves to tease the Doctor about some of the dumb decisions he makes, and she’ll call him out in an instant if he crosses some kind of line. However, she does respect him a lot for what he does, and she generally tries to take the life lessons he teaches her to heart, following in his footsteps. Ever since Eleven’s regeneration into Twelve, the Doctor has adopted a trial-by-fire approach as her mentor, which has pushed her to do all sorts of things she didn’t think she was capable of before. Now she gets to put everything she’s learned to the test, when she flies solo and tries to fill in for him for a day. In that regard, “Flatline” feels like a very appropriate follow-up episode to “Mummy On The Orient Express”. Clara just got some brand new insight into how the Doctor thinks and why he makes some of the difficult judgment calls that he does on a case, and now she gets to step into his shoes.
Clara quickly strikes up a rapport with one of the locals, a man named Rigsy, who can tell her everything she needs to know about the people who have been disappearing recently in Bristol, and as a result, she makes him her temporary companion. While they’re on the case, it becomes apparent that Clara has grown so accustomed to seeing surreal alien things all the time that she’s starting to lose sight of basic human social norms: at one point, she just casually starts talking about shrink rays and alien conspiracies, like that’s a perfectly normal thing for someone to do, and she nearly scares Rigsy off when he thinks she’s crazy. The first act is very entertaining, especially when she decides to poke fun at just how pompous the Doctor can be about his title, but eventually things start to get serious, when Clara finds the answers she’s searching for.
As it turns out, creatures from another universe are killing people in town and leeching energy from the TARDIS, so they can try to understand a world with three-dimensions. Those very same creatures quickly decide to start hunting down Rigsy’s co-workers as their next victims, which forces Clara to take action to protect the humans and save Bristol. Clara has had to step into a leadership role and make all sorts of difficult decisions under pressure before in episodes like “Nightmare In Silver“, “Deep Breath“, “Robot Of Sherwood” and “Kill The Moon“, and her self-confidence has only grown in strength since then – so in theory, she should be able to handle leading Rigsy’s crew. However, despite her best efforts to keep them one step ahead of the ghouls, the Boneless pick the poor men off, one by one, taunting her and the Doctor about how powerless they are to stop them all the while.
Like in “Nightmare In Silver” and “Kill The Moon”, Clara also has to deal with plenty of pushback and a potential mutiny from Fenton, Rigsy’s boss who’s skeptical of every single action she takes as their self-appointed leader (because he would rather be in charge himself), and often goes out of his way to antagonize her and Rigsy. When things start to get bleak, Clara stops Rigsy from pulling off an entirely unnecessary self-sacrifice in an attempt to slow down the Boneless, managing to get the same results herself (without any lives lost) simply by using her head. But the true test of her character comes when the TARDIS goes into lockdown and she’s no longer able to communicate with the Doctor, leaving her alone to make the decision that will either save Bristol or doom it.
Clara has done her best to emulate the Doctor and make the kind of choices he would make in her shoes, but that will only get her so far. She decides to dig deep and rely upon her own gut instincts, resourcefulness and ingenuity – the things that make her who she is – and that’s how she earns her win. She uses Rigsy’s sick painting skills to trick the Boneless into restoring the energy they stole from the TARDIS, saving the Doctor’s life and sealing their own doom in the process. “Flatline” is one of those episodes like “The Rings Of Akhaten” or “The Name Of The Doctor” that causes you to gain a lot more respect for Clara, because if you give her a challenge, she will rise to it and do whatever she needs to to get the job done. This experience has given her a bit of an ego boost though, which she probably doesn’t need, since Clara already has a bit of a prideful streak in her. And the final coda reveals that Missy, the woman in the shop from “The Bells Of Saint John“, is still watching her, feeling quite happy that she paired her and the Doctor up because of what it will bring down the line, which is really not a good sign.
As the Doctor-lite episode of Series 8, the Doctor spends most of “Flatline” trapped in one location, allowing Peter Capaldi to film all his scenes quickly and efficiently inside the TARDIS console room set. The main justification for this predicament is pretty reminiscent of the initial set-up for “The Girl Who Waited”, and it works just as efficiently here as it did in that episode; because even though he has less screentime than usual, the Doctor remains an integral part of the plot. When the Doctor and Clara land in Bristol, they quickly discover the outer shell of the TARDIS is rapidly shrinking, which the Doctor is initially thrilled about, because it’s something cool and mysterious that he’s never seen before. However, he quickly realizes this phenomenon is serious business, when he discovers power is being leeched from his ship and he gets trapped inside it when it shrinks down to the size of a toy model.
For most of this episode, Clara carries around a miniature TARDIS in her hands, stuffing it inside her bag for safe keeping, and it’s an adorable sight. Whenever the Doctor sticks his hands or even his face out of the doors to talk to her, it’s always hilariously weird (and the visual gag is at its best during a nod to “The Addams Family”, where the Doc has to use his hands to move the TARDIS off of some railroad tracks before it gets hit by a train). The Doctor sends Clara into town to look into the problem, though he isn’t nearly as thrilled about the idea of her pretending to be him as she is. And while she’s on the case, her little white lie from the end of the last episode comes to light. He calls her out on tricking him, again, but he just as quickly gets over it, because they have more important things to worry about and he really couldn’t care less about what sort of relationship drama might go down between her and Danny when he finds out about it.
Once it becomes apparent that our heroes have discovered a brand new form of life, the Doctor tries to remain hopeful that the Boneless might have good intentions and that they simply don’t understand the damage they’re causing to human beings – because it would be nice, for once, to meet a group of alien invaders who are actually benevolent. However, they quickly prove to be every bit as callous and malicious as they seem, and by the episode’s end, he officially writes them off as a lost cause. Throughout the hour, the Doctor gets to watch his student in action, providing her with some helpful advice and technical support. But he’s rather fittingly cut off from her in the final leg of her mission. He can no longer offer her any guidance, so she has to stand on her own in the eleventh hour. The TARDIS goes into lockdown mode, and he nearly suffocates inside it: so Clara’s quick-thinking not only saves Bristol, it also saves his life.
By the coda, Clara has made him proud, but she’s also starting to worry him. He gets a nice, good look at some of his more unsavory personality traits from an outside perspective in this adventure, and it’s very disturbing to see Clara mirroring them so well – including the advice he’s been repeatedly giving her, about prioritizing the greater good of the many over the natural desire to mourn causalities. The Doctor is finally starting to notice what Danny immediately picked up on in “The Caretaker“. The crash course he’s been giving her about his way of his life and his way of fighting monsters all season has worked a bit too well, and now he’s worried that he’s been unwittingly molding Clara into a carbon copy of himself. Considering how the Doctor feels about himself (even on a good day), that is not something that he would ever purposefully want for someone he loves, someone he looks up to himself. But, for better or for worse, there’s no turning back on Clara’s transformation now.
Unlike the last episode, where most of the supporting cast were given distinct, charismatic personalities, most of the guest characters in “Flatline” are one-dimensional redshirts who basically exist to be cannon fodder – and that’s perfectly fine, since Clara, the Doctor and the Boneless are the three main focal points of this episode. However, there are two exceptions to this trend. The first of which is Rigsy, a young street artist who apparently got busted for graffiti not too long ago and was sentenced to do community service, cleaning up the council estate in his hometown. Rigsy hits it off incredibly well with Clara, seeing her as a bit of a kindred spirit who lives an exciting and mysterious life, and the two of them become fast friends as she lets him tag along with her on her case.
Throughout the hour, Rigsy is shown to be a personable and good-natured young man. He’s very passionate about his art, and he has plenty of respect for the dead: he’s outraged that Fenton would have him paint over a memorial that people have created to honor the loved ones they just lost. Despite being a delinquent in the eyes of the law, it’s pretty apparent that Rigsy has far more compassion and concern for others than his high and mighty boss. When the crisis with the Boneless ramps up, Rigsy butts heads with Fenton several times and is perfectly willing to stand up to him, despite all the trouble the man could cause for him, because he trusts Clara’s judgment and he’s ready to back her up if he has to. When things get really ugly, Rigsy is noble enough to try to sacrifice himself so that everyone else in the group can live, even if it would have been an entirely unnecessary decision, and his expert painting skills wind up playing a vital role in stopping the Boneless. By the episode’s end, Rigsy can feel proud of what he helped take part in, and he walks away from this story with a brand new leash on life.
Standing in direct contrast to Rigsy, you have Fenton, a law-abiding man who’s in charge of watching over the community service workers as they pay off their debt to society. While Fenton isn’t an antagonist, he is one of those characters who’s designed to be a completely unlikable, and as such, he presents another challenge for Clara to deal with besides the monsters that are trying to kill her. Fenton clearly enjoys lording power over the people who are in his command. He makes it no secret that he thinks he’s better than them, and after they die, he shrugs off their horrible fates because their lives were already worthless in his eyes anyway. He constantly sees the worst in everyone, friend or foe, presumably because his line of work has caused him to become very cynical over the years, and the Doctor’s psychic paper fails to work on him, which the Doc attributes to a dull lack of imagination.
He immediately resents Clara bossing him around, because he hates having to answer to anyone else. But despite constantly criticizing her leadership (and trying to undermine her several times), he contributes nothing of value himself during the crisis except constantly complaining about everything, antagonizing Clara and Rigsy every chance he gets, and at one point, making everything worse than it already was when he nearly gets the Doctor killed. At the end of the day, Fenton is one of the few people who makes it out of this episode alive, and he fully believes that the community service workers deserved to die (despite only being low-level offenders) because they were the dregs of society, which is disgusting. Like Rickston Slade in “Voyage Of The Damned“, Fenton’s character drives home the message that some people are just awful, they’ll never see the error of their ways, and they’ll never receive any real comeuppance for the way they treats others – and that’s just an unfortunate fact of life.
The villains of this episode are the Boneless, creatures from another world that only has two-dimensions, and they’re easily some of the most memorable one-off villains from Series 8. Once they’re on Earth, they starting killing people in Bristol and dissecting their bodies, so can they learn how to take their forms and learn more about a three-dimensional world. After they’ve built their strength up, the end results are pretty chilling and gruesome. As far as Doctor Who villains go, the Boneless are completely ruthless and merciless creatures. Just one touch from them will kill you in an instant (like the Vashta Nerada from “Forest Of The Dead“, or the Flood from “The Waters Of Mars“), and it’s pretty difficult to stay away from nearly invisible predators who can crawl along the floor and the walls.
Once they start to wear the skin of their victims, they stumble along after our heroes like zombies, since they’re not used to walking on two legs. They can’t maintain the illusion of flesh bodies for long, so they flicker in and out of their natural forms like television static, giving off the unsettling impression that they’re flickering in and out of existence every other minute. After a while, they’re able to bend and contort their limbs to incredible lengths as well, to the point where they don’t even need to get close to their prey to kill them anymore. Because of the nature of these monsters, they’re quickly drawn towards the TARDIS for the same reason as the Weeping Angels: it’s an incredible source of untapped power for any creature that can feast on it. They nearly drain it dry, which ultimately proves to be their undoing, since their lust for power puts the Doctor and Clara on their trail and eventually gets them banished from our universe entirely when the Doctor has had enough of their cruelty.
“Flatline” is helmed by Douglas MacKinnon, who previously directed “The Sontaran Stratagem“, “The Power Of Three“, “Cold War“, “Listen“, and “Time Heist“, and his work on the show has only improved every time he’s stepped into the director’s chair. With “Flatline”, he does a great job of giving the pace of this episode plenty of vibrancy and energy, while also creating a tense, spooky atmosphere around the Boneless, by choosing his shots well to enhance their unnatural body horror. In particular, there’s one surprisingly effective jump scare in the underground tunnels that’s shot from a low angle, when one of the Boneless kills one of Rigsy’s co-workers. Clara, Rigsy, Fenton and Al are all standing in the foreground of the shot, arguing with each other, so your typical audience member won’t notice a giant hand creeping down from the ceiling behind them until after it’s struck one of them.
You can tell a good chunk of the budget for this season was devoted to this episode, despite the rather mundane modern day setting it has, because the special effects work for “Flatline” is a pretty large step up from Doctor Who’s usual fare. Some of the illusions don’t quite hit the mark, like the green-screen shots of the Doctor’s face inside the shrunken TARDIS (which are never quite scaled properly), but many of them are surprisingly phenomenal. Like the scenes of the Boneless rapidly flattening people and furniture who fall victim to their touch, causing them to melt away into the floor in the blink of an eye, or the shots of the Boneless trailing after our heroes in the darkened underground tunnels, like a small army of silent zombies. Since “Flatline” is a small-scale story, Murray Gold’s score is scaled back as well this week, and it alternates between being jovial and creepy in tracks like “Not Knowing” and “Siege Mode“.
In conclusion, Jamie Mathieson manages to write two standout stories in a row with “Flatline”. This episode shows off all of Clara’s best and worst qualities as a heroine, develops her relationship with the Doctor substantially (even while the latter has a smaller role than usual), and gives us some quality one-off villains with the Boneless.
* The pre-titles sequence leaves me with some questions. How did that guy find out about the Boneless and what they were up to? And if he knew they were in the area and that they’d want to keep him quiet, then why didn’t he get the hell out of Dodge before he tried to call the cops?
* “Could you not just let me enjoy this moment of not knowing something? I mean, it happens so rarely”.
* “It’s roughly northwest, that way!” “Please don’t do that. That’s just wrong”.
* “I’m the Doctor” “Don’t you dare-” “Dr. Oswald!”
* “So what are you Doctor of?” “Of lies!” “Well, I’m usually quite vague about that. I think I just picked the title because it makes me sound important”.
* At one point, Clara and Rigsy climb on top of a tiny chair hanging from the ceiling, to avoid touching the floor where the Boneless will get them. There’s no way a chair that size would hold them both up long enough for them to escape out the window.
* “Excellent lying, Dr. Oswald” “Yeah? Well, thought it was pretty weak myself”.
* “Fine, I’ll tell you who I am. I am the one chance you’ve got of staying alive. That’s who I am!”
* “You think everyone’s out to get you, don’t you?” “Well, in this case, they kind of are”.
* “Clara, do you want the good news or the bad news?” “We’re in the bad news! I’m living the bad news!”
* “Apparently these things can pump it out as fast as they can steal it” “Maybe if I ask them really nicely, they’ll fill you up again”.
* “Can we ram the blockage?” “Yeah. Is this official? Because I’ve always wanted to ram something” My good man, I like the way you think.
* “Fine, great, cause I was just going to do this: no driver required. And I really like that hairband, but I suppose I’ll just take it, will I? And every time I look at it, I’ll remember the hero who died to save it”.
* “I quite liked that hairband”.
* That scene where Clara stops Rigsy from throwing his life away with a completely unnecessary self-sacrifice (while making sassy remarks about her hairband) hits differently upon rewatch. Because the next time they see each other in “Face The Raven“, their positions are reversed, with a much less pleasant outcome for Clara.
* “I don’t know if you’ll ever hear this, Clara. I don’t even know if you’re still alive out there. But you were good! And you made a mighty fine Doctor”.
* “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!”
* Real talk though, Clara did half of the work stopping the Boneless in this episode – perhaps even more than that – and the Doctor swoops in at the last second to take all of the credit for himself. That’s just rude.
* “Your last painting was so good it saved the world. I can’t wait to see what you do next” “It’s not going to be easy. I’ve got a hairband to live up to”.
* “Come on, 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” Oof.
* “Oh Clara, my Clara. I have chosen well” Clara fans when you ask them who their favorite companion is.
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