‘Flatline’, written by Jamie Mathieson, finds the Doctor trapped in the TARDIS leaving Clara to play his role investigating a spate of missing people in Bristol. Soon she is trying to keep a small group of people alive in train tunnels against an alien race from another dimension.
This is another strong episode, providing creepy monsters who can be near invisible or take the form of their victims as shambling, juddering, mob. It effectively puts Clara in the Doctor’s shoes, allowing her to appreciate what the Time Lord has to go through and letting the Doctor see ‘himself’ from a different perspective.
Spoilers From Here On In!
The opening teaser establishes the horror of the episode as a panicked, bearded man contacts the police to warn that ‘they’ are everywhere before he himself vanishes, leaving the phone swinging from its cord. The camera pans across to reveal the smeared shape across the wall his the victims own screaming face.
The Doctor is returning Clara home, with his companion insisting that Danny is fine with her travelling with the Doctor. The first hint of strangeness is that the exterior door has shrunk and when they emerge they find they are not only in Bristol but the TARDIS is nearly half its normal size.
The Doctor is at first bemused by this, happy that he has a mystery to investigate. The change to the normally static status quo of the TARDIS is an effective element of ‘wrongness’ to proceedings, combined with the location filming along a railway track. It feels alien to be out on the outskirts of the familiar urban settings.
While the Doctor re-enters the TARDIS to fix the problem Clara explores the surroundings to see if she can find the cause. She encounters a group of community workers painting over graphite and learns that people have been vanishing in the local area, their images appearing on a mural in an underpass.
This is an effective introduction to the supporting cast of this episode. Christopher Fairbank as Fenton is instantly hate-worthy as he makes young graphite artist Rigsby, played by Joivan Wade, paint over his own work. For his own part Rigsby shows compassion, mistakenly believing Clara is at the memorial mural because she has lost someone and revealing his own loss.
By the time Clara returns to the TARDIS is has shrunk so small she can put it in her bag. The Doctor is trapped inside but is able to pass her the sonic screwdriver, psychic paper and hacks her vision so that he can see what she sees.
The SFX for this sequence aren’t entirely convincing (they are too flat) but they are fun. The Doctor’s face peering out of the tiny TARDIS is humorous without being too silly. Jenna Coleman appears to be having fun, with Clara relishing the chance to play the role of the mysterious Doctor herself, armed with his tools.
There is some good send up here with Clara teasing the Doctor by suggesting he only picked his title because it made him sound important. Nonetheless she manages to recruit Rigsby as her guide.
Investigating the home of the last victim, seen at the start of the episode, the group believe it is a classic locked room mystery. Pleasingly the characters are shown to be imaginative thinkers, coming up with theories about what might have happened. Rigsby own theorising is what convinces the Doctor that they should keep him around. Clara comes up with the plausible theory that the victims are being shrunk, like the TARDIS, but this proves incorrect.
Moving on to the home of the first victim they encounter PC Forrest, played by Jessica Hayles. The Doctor has moved on to the theory that the victims are in the walls, passing Clara a sledge hammer that appears magically out of her bag like something out of ‘Mary Poppins’. This is a delightful piece of comedy that works wonderfully with the science fiction premise.
Things soon take a darker tone as PC Forrest is attacked by slithering flat creatures that absorb her into the carpet. Her screams of terror as she futiley pulls at her vanishing legs are suitably horrific.
Rushing to investigate the noise Clara and Rigsby find a red network of lines on the walls which the Doctor identifies as PC Forrest’s nervous system. Two dimensional creatures are dissecting their victims in order to understand them.
When the 2D aliens go on the attack again, flattening the door so they can exit the room, Clara and Rigsby are left dangling from a suspended chair. The tension gets mixed with comedy as Danny phones Clara in the middle of crisis. Lying about the situation Clara’s gasps and groans, as they try to swing the chair through the window, is a surprisingly risqué joke.
Returning to the memorial mural in the underpass, where the community workers are about to paint over them, the group discovers that the mural is actually the 2D creatures wearing their victims like camouflage.
When one of the workers, Stan, is flattened the group seek shelter in the nearby train depo. Following the lessons of the Doctor Clara assumes leadership of the group, barking orders and lying to them that they’ll be alright. This neatly continues the theme of exploring the nature of the Doctor and shows that Clara now readily accepts (and emulates) the behaviour she railed against in ‘Kill The Moon’.
The Doctor hopes that this is all just a misunderstanding and the 2D aliens are unaware that they are killing people as they explore this new dimension. This hope appears to be dashed when the aliens send coded communication that appears to taunt the group as they claim their next victim.
Fleeing into the train tunnels this increases the sense of claustrophobia, as the group are surrounded by brick and darkness. The 2D aliens show their mastery of the 3D dimension by creating a giant hand that snatches away community worker Al in another spectacularly good SFX sequence that leads into the creatures emerging from the ground using the forms of their victims. These shambling, zombie-like avatars are deeply disturbing. Their victims are now just puppets, shells manipulated by an unknowable intelligence.
During their escape an argument between Fenton and Clara leads to the tiny TARDIS being dropped down a hole on to another train track. Low on power, unable to move, the time machine risks being destroyed by an approaching train.
In another imaginative sequence Clara suggests the Doctor use his fingers to drag the TARDIS of the track, in the style of Thing from ‘The Addams Family’. This is extremely suspenseful, especially as after the Doctor pulls the TARDIS free it tips back on to the rail.
As a last ditch effort the Doctor puts the TARDIS into ‘siege mode’. It survives the train but now the Doctor lacks the power to turn it back to normal. With no way in or out and with life support shutting down all hope lies with Clara.
After recruiting the help of another train driver Rigsby is ready to sacrifice his life by using the train to ram the approaching aliens. Clara isn’t about to let one of her own companions die, pointing out that a hairband can do the job just as well.
When the train proves ineffective Clara pulls another trick from the Doctor’s playbook, using your opponents abilities against them. Making good use of Rigsby’s artistic talent she has him draw a convincing ‘flat’ door and when the 2D aliens attempt to restore its dimensions their energies are in fact going into the TARDIS, hidden behind the picture.
In a triumphant sequence the TARDIS returns to its full glory and the Doctor emerges, dismissing the aliens with a wave of his sonic screwdriver and naming them the Boneless. In this scene the Doctor seems to not only know who he is but accept it. His declaration of his own identity is akin to the moment in ‘The Eleventh Hour’ where the 11th Doctor has chosen his own costume and declares that he is protecting the Earth.
With the monsters dismissed to their own dimension there is time for reflection. Fenton has learnt nothing from the experience, saying that there is no real loss on those who died. The Doctor is disturbed that Clara is similarly pleased by her performance.
The Doctor concedes that Clara was exceptional but that it wasn’t good. This returns us to the exploration of morality with the Doctor apparently viewing their actions as necessary but not what he believes to be good.
Indeed Clara shows some of his darker tendencies, willing to lie and reasoning that her victories mean that she doesn’t have to mourn those who have died. This sinister angle is further enhanced as we cut to the mysterious Missy observing the scene and musing that she has chosen well with Clara.
‘Mummy On The Orient Express’ and ‘Flatline’ both do a great job of continuing to fleshout and re-establish the relationship with the Doctor and Clara. The uncertainty that plagued the first half of the season has passed and this pairing seems more stable in the past. Different to how the 11th Doctor and Clara were but now less fractious. Something that could last.
‘Flatline’ is another episode from Jamie Mathieson that really seems to get to the heart of Doctor Who. While Moffat writing is often brilliantly clever Mathieson has produced stories which are strongly reminiscent of the classic series with tales that are imaginative without being too convoluted.