Hot on the heels of last week’s “Mummy on the Orient Express,” new writer Jamie Mathieson delivers an intriguing and suspenseful standalone episode with “Flatline.” He certainly knows how to start a story with a good visual hook, as the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) land in present-day Bristol and find themselves struggling to emerge from a police box that’s suddenly shrunk to half its normal height. There’s a refreshingly old-school feel to the episode in that the Doctor has no prior knowledge of what’s going on, in contrast to much of the past few seasons (as he says to Clara, “Could you not just let me enjoy this moment of not knowing something? They happen so rarely”). Thanks to the TARDIS shrinking even further, the Doctor becomes trapped inside until the end of the episode, able only to offer advice and the occasional bit of equipment as Clara does the legwork, carrying the TARDIS with her in her handbag. The shots of the Doctor’s face filling the tiny doorway, or his hand reaching out of the little police box, are equal parts funny and slightly disturbing.
In the sort of mundane urban environment that’s been a rarity in Doctor Who since Steven Moffat took over as showrunner, Clara encounters a group of council workers cleaning off a mysterious mural from an underpass wall, and learns of unexplained disappearances in a nearby council estate. Both of these (along with the shrinking of the TARDIS) turn out to be the work of strange two-dimensional aliens with the power to “flatten” objects and people. Director Douglas Mackinnon seizes the opportunity for some startling visuals as characters are warped out of shape and vanish, door handles are flattened into uselessness, and the aliens themselves appear as a set of weird distortions slithering across walls and floors. There’s an effective “jump” moment as the aliens learn how to achieve three-dimensional form, snatching one of the workers and dragging him away. Then they assume the forms of their victims and shamble toward Clara and the others in a bizarre pseudo-stop-motion fashion.
Clara enjoys playing at being the Doctor, waving the sonic screwdriver around and establishing a rapport with Rigsy (Joivan Wade), a graffiti artist who effectively becomes her companion. When they and the other workers are trapped underground with the aliens closing in, she shows she’s up to the role of leading the group and keeping them focused, even when people start dying—and if she has to lie to them to give them hope, she will do so. It’s an unsettling moment for the Doctor, hearing his pragmatism coming from someone who, in “Into the Dalek,” he described as caring so that he didn’t have to. Nevertheless, Clara’s final solution to the problem shows real ingenuity: She gets Rigsy to paint a depiction of a door and tricks the aliens into firing dimensional energy at it uselessly. As she says, “Rule number one of being the Doctor: Use your enemies’ power against them.” The energy they expend trying to give three-dimensional form to a door that never existed is instead able to be used by the Doctor to restore the TARDIS.
Confined to the TARDIS control room, Capaldi has some memorably funny moments, like his little dance after he seems to have successfully dragged the TARDIS out of the way of an oncoming train (in a hilarious effect, looking like Thing from The Addams Family), only for it to topple back onto the rails. Unlike the previous episode, Mathieson started writing this one before learning who’d been cast as the new Doctor, and at points, such as when the Doctor is rushing around the room, expounding on the nature of the aliens, the influence of Matt Smith is clearly visible. In particular, after the TARDIS is restored, he emerges and sees the aliens off with the kind of big set-piece speech that Smith’s Doctor specialized in. He’s tried to give the aliens the benefit of the doubt, but since they seem to be indifferent to the fate of the humans they’re killing, he falls back into his accustomed role as “the man that stops the monsters.”
When the Doctor realizes that, as we saw last week, Clara lied about her boyfriend, Danny (Samuel Anderson), being happy with her continued traveling aboard the TARDIS, he isn’t pleased. With the perspective of one whose “Rule One” in previous years was “the Doctor lies,” he tells her lying is a vital survival skill—and a terrible habit—and comments acidly about how she’s getting good at it. Facing apparent death with the TARDIS life support failing, the Doctor tells Clara she “made a mighty fine Doctor.” She teases him about it afterward, but when she wants him to agree that “I was the Doctor today, and I was good,” he gets the last word: “You were an exceptional Doctor, Clara… Goodness had nothing to do with it.” And to drive home the point, the episode ends with the mysterious Missy (Michelle Gomez) watching Clara and chuckling that she’s “chosen well.” It seems that if the Doctor is worrying over the effect his lifestyle is having on Clara, he’s right to be uneasy.
Next Week: In a mysteriously transformed London, the Doctor, Clara, and Danny find themselves “In the Forest of the Night.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation: For a story where not only the TARDIS gets shrunk, but its occupants as well, see 1964’s “Planet of Giants,” starring the original TARDIS crew of William Hartnell, William Russell, Jacqueline Hill, and Carole Ann Ford.
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