Flatline is a classic NuWho adventure. It’s a glowing advert for the potentiality of a female Doctor, an ingenious twist on the “Doctor-lite” format and a slice of old school horrific Doctor Who.
Could you not just let me enjoy this moment of not knowing something? I mean. it happens so rarely.
All too frequently in NuWho the Doctor’s armed with almost omniscient foreknowledge of his foe of the week. Here in Flatline he’s completely in the dark about the two-dimensional beings he comes to label as “The Boneless”. For once the Doctor’s immense deductive skills and scientific knowledge are showcased rather than simply witnessing him reciting from his prodigious memory. It’s a fantastic journey for the audience as the Doctor frantically pick over clues, develops and rejects theories, and strives to protect his home and the Earth from destruction. It’s a reminder of a time when he’d open the doors of the TARDIS without any clue of where, what or who laid beyond the sanctuary of his timeship.
Despite being confined to the TARDIS console room for the majority of the episode (a return of the “Doctor-lite” stories that featured in the David Tennant years) Peter Capaldi is once again mesmerising as the Twelfth Doctor. Nine episodes in and he’s well on the way to being one of the greatest Doctors of all time. The fine balancing act between the Twelfth Doctor’s scariness and benevolence is becoming more apparent as his first series heads towards its conclusion. Yes he’s often a frightening presence for the unwary but he remains the universe’s greatest champion against evil. And in Flatline Clara gets a rare insight into his nature as she’s to forced to assume his mantle…
Doctor Oswald. But you can call me Clara.
A female Doctor. A notion that’s hung over Doctor Who like a narrative Sword of Damocles for over 30 years – ever since Tom Baker mischievously wished good luck to his successor “whoever he or she may be”. Each time the announcement of the next actor to play the Doctor is been due there’s been massive campaigns for a female to assume the role. Now in Flatline the series showcases the potential of a female lead as Jenna Coleman’s Clara becomes the Doctor whilst Peter Capaldi’s genuine article is trapped inside the TARDIS.
Clara’s authoritative, she makes life and death decisions in the blink of an eye, and gets to wield the psychic paper and sonic screwdriver. Just like the Doctor. It’s an ultimate geek moment as the companion gets to play the Time Lord. Though the Doctor is whispering in her ear for much of the time the solution of how to restore the TARDIS and save the Doctor is completely Clara’s. Thankfully she’s taken note of the fundamental weapon within the Doctor’s arsenal: use the enemy’s own power against them. It’s a punch the air moment as the TARDIS is restored to life and the Doctor emerges to complete the defeat of The Boneless.
Flatline is Jenna Coleman’s episode as she delivers her best performance to date. The Clara of the Matt Smith years could never have carried it off, but the Clara of the Peter Capaldi years can. Coleman’s abilities and character have evolved almost beyond belief from the doe-eyed flirtatious child that travelled with the Eleventh Doctor. She’s a grownup with the Twelfth Doctor.
Given that the Doctor’s been identified as both a father and a grandfather, the idea of Doctor Who being headed up by a female is widely viewed as ludicrous. Even though the time travelling elite of Gallifrey are known as Time Lords there are in fact Time Lords and Time Ladies, a clear gender distinction. Neil Gaiman stoked up the fires of controversy in The Doctor’s Wife when he stated that the Corsair had been both male and female. Whilst a retort to the idea of a female Doctor may lay in introducing stronger female characters the idea remains an intriguing one.
If the day for a female Doctor dawned a personal choice would be Sue Perkins (she of The Great British Bake Off fame). Perkins’ roots as an actor, comedian and writer lies in Cambridge University’s amateur theatrical club Footlights, whose august ranks include Olivia Coleman, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson.
I mean this is just embarrassing. I’m from the race that built the TARDIS, dimensions are kind of our thing.
Though the TARDIS has been shrunk before (in Logopolis when the Master messed around with Block Transfer Computations), Flatline is the first time the timeship’s gone into “siege mode” to protect herself and its occupant. The scene of the Doctor desperately using his hand in the manner of Thing from The Addams Family to scurry the TARDIS out of a train’s path is both hysterically funny and grimly frightening in the same instance. For a brief window of time the TARDIS is utterly vulnerable to destruction.
The initial promise displayed by Jaime Mathieson with Mummy on the Orient Express (commissioned on the strength of the drafts of Flatline) continues here and marks him out as one of the best scripting finds for Doctor Who in years. In a rare outing of the series as an urban thriller, Flatline is a completely different animal to the preceding Orient Express (in space!) adventure. Opulence and grandeur replaced with grittiness and decay, and characters of breeding and intelligence giving way to all too real and banal human individuals. Fenton (Christopher Fairbanks, forever Moxey of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet) is so thick, selfish and dull that the psychic paper is ineffectual upon him. Yet, it’s still beholden upon the Doctor and Clara to save him as he’s an innocent human caught up in extraordinary events.
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 whether you are 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. The man that 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 protected. I am the Doctor. And I name you The Boneless.
NuWho has had a problem with creating truly innovative and memorable monsters. Only Steven Moffat’s Weeping Angels and The Silence are able to lay claim to being as durable as the likes of Daleks, Cybermen and Ice Warriors. Now to the list can be added Jamie Mathieson’s The Boneless. Two-dimensional creatures leeching into our three-dimensional universe and experimenting upon humans to understand their new realm is a spine chillingly clever concept.
The sudden realisation that the graffiti and abstract-like art are in fact humans reduced to two-dimensions after dissection and examination is a great moment of Doctor Who horror. As are the attempts of The Boneless to become three-dimensional – extracting themselves from walls – stalking and splintering in the same instant.
Kudos for the realisation of Mathieson’s atmospheric urban horror tale lies with the ever reliable special effects team and director Douglas Mackinnon, who clocks up his third credit for Peter Capaldi after Listen and Time Heist. Atmospheric horror works far better for the Twelfth Doctor than the comedic romps more suited to the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors.
Clara! My Clara. I have chosen well.
Excellent news. There’s WiFi in the afterlife. Or at least in the heavenly realm presided over by Missy (Michelle Gomez). She’s exacting a manipulation of Clara that dates back to The Bells of Saint John and perhaps even further. A key theme of Series 8 so far has been Clara’s alienation and separation from the Doctor, followed by their reconciliation. She’s comes to terms with the loss of her “boyfriend” Doctor and accepted, understood and even emulated the new incarnation. Clara’s learning to make the difficult, dangerous and nigh on impossible choices that the Doctor faces all the time. With just In the Forest of the Night, Dark Water and Death in Heaven to come there’s a sense that ultimately Clara will have to choose between her love for Danny or her love for the Doctor.
Flatline is a rarity. A classic NuWho adventure. Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman deliver terrific central performances and are fast becoming one of the best Doctor and companion pairings. It’s to be hoped that Jaime Mathieson’s been signed up for one or more adventures for 2015’s Series 9 and that a return for The Boneless is already under discussion.