“Flatline” continues the shift toward the horror genre in Doctor Who this season. The humor lightens the mood a bit so if feels more like a horror tribute. The relationship between Clara and the Doctor continues to evolve in an interesting way, with Clara transcending her companion role. We open with a mysterious bearded man (aren’t all bearded men mysterious?) who seems slightly terrified. He is on the phone to the police, whispering.
“I know who did it—who did it all. I figured it out. No, no I can’t speak up. They might hear me. Oh please, listen. They are everywhere. All around. We’ve been so blind.”
He is violently dragged down. The police on the phone ask, “Are you in a safe place?” I think the lesson here is calling the police always ends badly. When the camera pans over the wallpaper we see a stain on the wall—but closer inspection shows it’s not a stain, but the bearded man’s face horribly stretched out and horizontally transposed onto the wall. We love the exciting cold opens we have been seeing this season that get the viewer right into the action. We are already glued to the couch with eyes wide open. People around us are saying “Hey you, close your mouth already.” Well, they would be, if we weren’t in the dark holding a pillow in front of our faces. We go to Clara and the Doctor in the TARDIS. She is going on and on about how Danny is okay with her traveling through space and time until the Doctor tells her he’s stopped listening. Doesn’t she know that we don’t care too much if Danny is OK with it or not? Well, we might care a little. She seems to have forgiven the doctor pretty fully since the last episode. So was it Clara that didn’t want to travel with the Doctor, or was it Danny’s morality that influenced her feelings? The most interesting thing we learn from this monologue is that Clara can leave her belongings in the TARDIS. This is a little surprising, because we know the TARDIS does not like Clara, and because most of the Doctor’s previous companions seemed to wear the same thing all the time. Someone should have told Leela that she could have stowed a change of skins in the TARDIS. The Doctor and Clara land and discover that the TARDIS has shrunk—at least the outside dimensions of the TARDIS have shrunk. Clara complains that it is annoying that they landed off-course in Bristol. The Doctor says, “No, this is impressive,” indicating the TARDIS, then points at Clara and says, “this is annoying.” Despite having come to like Clara a lot more since the Doctor’s most recent regeneration, we love it when he makes fun of her. Peter Capaldi has a gift for this mocking with his dry delivery. The little TARDIS is described by the Doctor as “Slightly smaller than usual, which is huge.” We get more excited about the incredible shrinking TARDIS when the Doctor emphasizes how strange the phenomenon is:
Doctor: “Could you not just let me enjoy this moment of not knowing something? It happens so rarely.”
The Doctor sends Clara off to look for clues about what has caused this strange occurrence. We like Clara’s confidence and her independence. She never seems to be pining for the Doctor to arrive to sweep her off her feet or rescue her. Perhaps it’s having an already-existing companion at regeneration, but this Doctor seems to really trust and rely on Clara. Nearby, a mean little man is overseeing some Misfits engaged in community service. Community Service is very old school in the United Kingdom apparently. They make the offending troublemakers wear jail-like uniforms, do their penance in the most public place possible, get shamed by an authoritarian figure, and they don’t use fancy terms like Restorative Justice or Reparation. The tyrannical nature of the community service supervisor is reinforced when he makes one of the Misfits, named Rigsy, paint over his own graffiti. What a jerk! We are hoping something horrible will happen to this supervisor. One of the community service workers is very slightly rude to Clara, and Rigsy comes to her rescue. We already think Rigsy is delightful, and not just because of his charming, seemingly British, name, but because he seems like such a nice, polite boy. In her search for clues, Clara discovers creepy paintings of the backs of people in the tunnel. How does she not think that is really weird? Rigsy tells Clara that people have been disappearing. It would be plausible that the creepy images in the tunnel could be mistaken for a hip art installation memorializing “The Disappeared,” if this weren’t Doctor Who. Clara comes back to find the TARDIS has shrunk to an even smaller size—again, only in its external dimensions. Clara rightfully describes it as adorable. It looks like the like the stuffed TARDIS in our living room. The art department makes a full-size TARDIS look quite real, but the success of their efforts to make smaller versions appear authentic seems to wane relative to the size of the TARDIS. The Doctor is now trapped in the tiny TARDIS and tells Clara to take it with her.
Doctor: “Clara, I need you to pick up the TARDIS. Carefully. It should be possible. I’ve adjusted the relative gravity.”
Clara: “You mean you’ve made it lighter.”
Doctor: “Clara, it’s always lighter. If the TARDIS was to land with its true weight, it would fracture the surface of the earth.”
We love learning new facts about the TARDIS! Then, the Doctor just hands over the psychic paper and sonic screwdriver to Clara. Like it’s no big deal. Like the rest of us, Clara realizes it is a pretty big deal, but she plays it cool—much cooler than we would. If we learned anything from “Kill the Moon” (S08E07), it is that the Doctor trusts Clara’s decision-making skills, even though she appears to have a stronger moral compass than he does, or perhaps because of it. Clara reconnects with Rigsy, introducing herself as the Doctor, much to the annoyance of the Doctor, who is stuck in the TARDIS. When Rigsy asks her what she is a doctor of, she responds, “Well I’m usually quite vague about that. … I think I just picked the title because it makes me sound important.” Nice one. Rigsy takes her to the house of the last victim. When Rigsy hears Clara speaking through her nanotechnology earpiece, Clara tells him that she is talking to the Doctor. The Doctor responds (only in Clara’s hearing), “Hello barely sentient local,” and later describes Rigsy as a “pudding brain.” We love Twelve’s crankiness. We also love Rigsy’s earnestness: “I think its great that someone’s finally looking into this. The police weren’t doing anything. They never do, on the estate. People were starting to think no one was listening, that no one cared.“ So sweet, but does the Doctor really care? Lately we are not so sure. Clara suggests the cause was a shrink ray, and that tiny people may be underfoot. It sounded plausible to us, but the Doctor later dismissed the theory. But this zany suggestion starts to freak out Rigsy. So to keep Rigsy involved (now that the Doctor has realized the value of “local” knowledge), Clara shows him the tiny TARDIS. Geez, everybody gets to see the TARDIS nowadays. Like every episode. Something is draining energy from the TARDIS and they must run away. Clara: “This is where we run.” The police join in the search, which is somewhat surprising given Rigsy’s earlier statement. Police Constable Forrest herself seems pretty disappointed with the police response as well, but honestly we weren’t really listening to her stream-of-consciousness dialogue (and neither were Clara and Rigsy). But then we quickly realize why she is there—she is a redshirt in a police uniform. Look out PC Forrest! There’s something on the floor! As this creature seems to suck PC Forrest into the floor, she screams for help. It’s rather dismaying how long it took Rigsy and Clara to run 10 feet to the next room, but when they finally get there PC Forrest has already disappeared into the floor. How big are Bristol estate houses? Luckily the Doctor figures out what happened to her pretty quickly. He notices a horrible “mural,” which turns out the nervous system of PC Forrest, flattened. Yuck. Apparently there was also microscopic human skin at the previous scene. Gross. Are we sure Doctor Who is still a show for kids? Then again, no one likes gross stuff more than kids. The floor creature goes after Rigsy and Clara. They climb onto a cool Hanging Bubble Chair to escape—so stylish and convenient when escaping creatures in the floor and walls. Inconveniently, Danny calls Clara at this moment. Well it’s really only inconvenient because Clara answers the phone. Does she really think he believes her casual act? After Rigsy and Clara have escaped out the window, the Doctor calls out Clara on lying to him about Danny’s acceptance of her companion status, telling her that she is a good liar. It turns out that our aliens are from a two-dimensional universe. Did one of the writers just reread Flatland? At least they are not from the 8th dimension—those guys are real jerks. Rigsy finds the community service crew about to paint over “The Disappeared” mural and tries to stop them. At first we thought Rigsy didn’t want it painted over because he figured out they could be the missing people, but it turns out he’s has a passion for protecting art. Both are pretty good motives. The Doctor sees the figure on the wall and tells Clara to get the community service crew out of there. The Doctor gives a lot of instructions from the tiny TARDIS in Clara’s purse. The next thing that happens shocks Clara, the Doctor, and us: the mean supervisor doesn’t fall for the psychic paper. The Doctor comments to Clara, “It takes quite a lack of imagination to beat psychic paper.” The Supervisor (whose name is apparently Fenton, though no one ever addresses him as such) challenges Clara’s authority. Clara does not realize how carefully mean little men like this guard their power. Fenton yells at one of the crew, Stan, to paint over one of the images, but then the figures on the wall begin to turn around, killing poor Stan. He was just trying to fulfill his community service requirements. The Doctor tells Clara to get them out of there. Clara and the crew run into a run-down train service warehouse. This seems like a bad place to go. Isn’t there a nearby coffee shop or community center? The Doctor starts mentoring Clara in what steps to take in order to seize control of the situation.
Doctor: “Vital stage. This little group is currently confused and disoriented. But pretty soon a leader is going to emerge. You need to make sure that leader is you.”
Clara manages to take control by telling Fenton that she is the only chance he has of staying alive, which impresses the Doctor. The Doctor decides to try to communicate with the creatures, using pi and a loudspeaker. Some enjoyable pi jokes, but perhaps too literal. Why use pi—why not use music, like Close Encounters? We guess they may not have ears, or French horns. They respond with number 55, which Rigsy cleverly identifies as the number on Stan’s jacket, prior to his flattening. The next number the creatures share is 22, which turns out to be the number of community service crewmember George. We didn’t really get to know George, but it was still horrible to see him disintegrate. So much for friendly chit chat. Clara and what’s left of the crew run into the tunnel. Why are there only scary places to escape to? Clara says, “It feels like they’re cornering us.” Maybe run out into the open instead of running deeper into a tunnel then. But the Doctor says that you can’t apply human logic to creatures from another dimension. We believe him; he is the Doctor. The creatures have flattened the handle of a door inside the tunnel. The Doctor begins to work on a solution. Rigsy points out one of his graffiti works, really quite a nice painting, and Clara brushes him off. What a jerk. The Doctor succeeds in making a device to deflatten the door, labeling it the 2Diz (the toodis —which he thinks is quite clever), but it doesn’t work. This results in mean old man Fenton complaining about the Doctor—we are hoping for a terrible end for this one. But who suffers instead? One of the nameless community service workers, as a giant hand suddenly grabs him from behind. Can someone kill Fenton already? We will have to suffer with him the whole episode? The Doctor realizes, “Of course. The next stage. 3D.” Super creepy 3D creatures, resembling those who have been killed, come out of the ground. They remind us a little bit of the zombies in World War Z, but more shaky and much slower. They are actually pretty cool looking, and convincingly terrifying. The Doctor gives Clara a revamped toodis, and she is able to use it to “deflatten” the door handle and escape through the door. Clara flattens the handle from the other side, hoping it will stop the creatures. They creatures aim a wobbly red beam at the handle and are able to make it three-dimensional again. Clara and what is left of the crew are on the run again. As the creatures chase them through the tunnel, the Doctor tries to come up with a plan. He says that the TARDIS needs more power to send the creatures back to their own dimension. He and Clara discuss it while she runs for her life. Fenton tries to take the TARDIS. What exactly was his plan once he took the TARDIS, no one knows. He’s just an obstructionist. Next thing you know, the tiny TARDIS falls down a huge hole. That can’t be good. From within the TARDIS, at the bottom of the hole, the Doctor reports that structural integrity is failing. Whether you hear it in Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, or Doctor Who, failing structural integrity is never a good thing. We discover that the TARDIS is sitting on a train track, and there is a train heading at it going about 500 kilometers an hour by the look of it. Clara tells the doctor to move the TARDIS off the track using his (relatively) giant hands. “Like Addams Family,” she says. The Doctor manages to get it all the way off the track, but then it falls backwards onto the track when he celebrates to soon. Oh no! What will become of our hero? Meanwhile, Clara sees that the creatures are coming in one end of the tunnel while another incredibly fast train is coming from the other direction. Clara cleverly uses the sonic screwdriver to signal the engineer to stop. When he gets off the train Clara tells him that there’s blockage in the tunnel and asks if the train can be used to ram it. He responds, “Is this official? Because I’ve always wanted to ram something.” Clara suggests rigging the train to run into the creatures, but Rigsy apparently knows how to drive a train. We always thought it would be hard and would require a lot of training, but apparently not. Rigsy is willing to unnecessarily sacrifice himself, for which he is thoroughly ridiculed by Clara. The train is sent speeding to the other end of the tunnel, but it doesn’t seem to have much effect except for leaving a cool image of the engine car on the wall. As they start running away again, Clara has a piece of luck when she finds the TARDIS on the train track—at least what she thinks is the TARDIS. The Doctor managed to put it in “siege mode,” so its just a tiny box, looking like a combination of the Pandorica (S5E12) and the cubes from “The Power of Three” (S07E04). The Doctor cannot communicate with Clara, so she is left to come up with a plan on her own. Her plan involves asking Rigsy to paint something and then leaving the TARDIS on a girder on the wall. Fenton is still alive and is still making exasperating comments. The Doctor seems to think this the end for him because life support is failing in the siege TARDIS. He tells Clara, if she can hear him, that she was good and that she made a mighty fine Doctor. Clara has been becoming increasingly remarkable this season. We have not liked her this much since “Asylum of the Daleks” (S07E01) when she was first introduced as Oswin Oswald. She is strong, independent, and a good problem solver, though she has been a little over-reactive since she met Danny. It turns out that Clara’s plan is to fool the creatures into energizing the TARDIS (sitting just on the other side of the wall) by tricking them into using their special rays on a fake door painted by Rigsy. That nice Rigsy boy has done a pretty good job, and the plan succeeds. The TARDIS is energized and it pushes the creatures back, holding them captive in its energy field. Now that he has them confined, the Doctor rationalizes his plan to zap them back to the second dimension by saying he tried to communicate with them and that they are monsters.
Doctor: “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 if you were 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.”
He sends them back to their own dimension, though the trip may kill them. Not that we are complaining. The Doctor gives one of his usual speeches about protecting this planet, or in this case, this dimension. Then he dramatically names them the Boneless. That’s right. He even says, “I am the Doctor and I name you the Boneless.” Naming independent, intelligent creatures based on his own biases—very European of him, or very Timelordish. (What we have seen in “Last of the Timelords” (S03E13), as well as the old series, makes us think most of them are kind of asses.) The Doctor takes Clara, Fenton, the train engineer, and Rigsy back above ground. What the hell? Everyone gets to see the TARDIS today, even horrible Fenton. We love that Rigsy calls his mom right away. We really don’t see enough of that kind of thing—calling your mom to say hi after a harrowing death-defying experience. The engineer kisses the ground and expresses his gratitude to Clara. Fenton just ties his shoes and makes an obnoxious remark about the need to save the great trees and not the brushwood. The Doctor retorts, “It wasn’t a fire. Those weren’t trees, those were people.” The Doctor is very contrary. Even though Clara already heard the Doctor’s praise when the TARDIS was losing power, she tries to get him to commend her again (fishing?). Clara says she was the Doctor today—she is starting to understand how he must make decisions. The Doctor compliments Rigsy, and he responds in an adorable, “Aww shucks” kind of way, then walks off too. Danny calls, and Clara chooses the “I’m in a meeting” option on her phone. So many potential messages she could have programmed into her phone that would have been clever. Such a lost opportunity for Clara and for the show. Sure, she answers when her life is being threatened, but she can’t interrupt her approval-seeking argument with the Doctor to talk to Danny. Perhaps this means she has come to terms with her role as companion, at least for now, and will stop trying to placate Danny. When Clara demands acknowledgement that she was good, he tells her she was an exceptional Doctor, but that goodness had nothing to do with it. Re-integrating his experiences as the War Doctor has made this Doctor much more interesting and morally complex. How will Clara having experienced the challenge of playing the role of the Doctor impact her in future episodes? Then we see Missy looking at Clara on her iPad. Yes, we were surprised she had an iPad too. “Clara, my Clara. I have chosen well.” This makes us care a little more about the mystery of Missy. If only Missy didn’t look quite so much like Kovarian from Season Six, which reminds us of the mystery surrounding his previous companion, Amy … we might like this development a bit more. This episode has provided a great opportunity to write the word TARDIS again and again. There hasn’t been such a TARDIS-centered episode since Neil Gaiman’s excellent episode “The Doctor’s Wife” (S06E04). Frankly, we can’t get enough of the TARDIS, particularly when it’s adorably small. “Flatline” gave us a glimpse into something scary, while still keeping a storyline grounded by the relationship between the Doctor and Clara.