Doctor Who series 8: Flatline review

Spoilers: we take a look at Doctor Who series 8 episode 9, Flatline. And there's plenty to talk about...

This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.

8.9 Flatline

“These readings are very ish-y”

Ah, Missy, Missy, Missy. The plot thickens. With Clara and the Doctor seemingly as close to happy families as they’ve been all series, Missy has to go and throw another spanner in the works right at the end.

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She does it with a simple line, and a giggle. “Clara, my Clara. I chose well”, she says. So woah: is Clara Missy’s mole? Has she been placed into the Doctor’s life deliberately all along (it’s been hinted that the two coming together is no coincidence in the past)? Is Clara aware that she’s part of whatever Missy’s plan is? Is the internet big enough to handle all the speculation?

Not for the first time this series, the last moments of an episode are set to be the main talking point. And not for the first time this series, there’s plenty else to discuss about the episode beforehand too. For Flatline keeps the standard of the series high.

“Are we really hiding from killer graffiti?”

Flatline, then, is the episode that ultimately realises the interchanging of the Doctor and Clara throughout the series. We’ve talked many times about how Clara has taken on a more Doctor-role, often being the effective lead in the majority of individual episodes. Flatline is the one where she became the Doctor pretty much for real, right down to the point where Twelve (yep, we’re still calling him that) is nodding admiringly as she makes Doctor-like comments.

The catalyst for all of this was an incredible shrinking TARDIS, the main practical effect in an episode that leaned heavily, and at times hugely successfully, on CG. Landing in Bristol and diminishing in size (those two things are not related), Clara finds herself on the outside of the TARDIS, the Doctor on the inside. Why is it shrinking? That’s a very good question.

We thus get returning writer Jamie Mathieson putting another mystery together, one where it’s left to Clara to do what the Doctor usually does. “Don’t you dare”, snarls Capaldi, in that Capaldi way, when Clara introduces herself to escapees from Misfits as The Doctor. But she’s only reflecting what she’s become.

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So we see her investigating, coming up with the inspirational speech, telling the lies, and ultimately, come the end of the episode, accepting that people have died so that the world can be saved. Not two or three weeks ago, that would have been the other way around, and she’d have been upset by it. After all, Clara has been the character who’s regularly cherished life throughout this series, so that’s some about turn. There will surely be consequences.

There needs to be anyway. We’ve been fans of the inversion of the key roles in this run, which has allowed Peter Capaldi’s Doctor to settle, and Clara to shine. But where’s this leading? By the end of Flatline, the point has been firmly made, and arguably double-bagged. Is Clara’s move to front and centre of Doctor Who related to what Missy is up to? Maybe so. Either way, we hope the last three episodes of Doctor Who series 8 deliver on the substantive and effective crumbs that have been laid to date.

“Apparently, they’re in the walls”

Let’s go back to the beginning, though, and to Mathieson’s core idea. When Flatline begins, there’s a dab of the T-1000 from Terminator 2 coming up from the floor, as a two dimensional monster in a three dimensional world engulfs someone and, er, adds them to the wallpaper. First thought when watching that? That’s a bit daft, hope it’s going to go somewhere interesting.

It goes somewhere interesting.

That’s because Mathieson’s monster idea, for the second week running, turns out to be a really good one. We learn that the TARDIS’ dimensions are being used by said monsters, hence it shrinking down to pocket size by the end. Furthermore, there are two dimensional creatures trying to get into a three dimensional world. And this mix of dimensions for a start throws something a little different into the mix. But also, the notion that people are being turned into bits of art on the walls, or graffiti, develops more and more, and becomes increasingly sinister.

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Where the idea really strikes gold is come the last third, thanks to some of the very best CG monsters that Doctor Who has ever put on screen. The complexity of said monsters, an amalgam of 2D, 3D and a few zombie films, makes Flatline an episode that could only really be made in the current era of Who. That’s for technical reasons (the tone, as much of the series has, evokes Who of old). Not all of the CG work in Flatline is utterly convincing (the trains down the tunnel, for instance), but when the creatures start rising and walking towards Clara and her cohorts, there’s something very unsettling about them. Sure, they’re beaten a little easily perhaps once the Doctor is released from the newly-powered TARDIS (courtesy of Clara passing her Doctor exam and cleverly using the powers of said monsters against them), but they’ve been excellent company up until that point.

We should give credit too to director Douglas Mackinnon. We’ve spent some time this series praising the directors of Doctor Who series 8, especially given how well they’ve effectively framed horror in the show. When Mackinnon heads to the tunnels, he expertly weaves in the aforementioned CG work with something that feels tangible. Bonus points too that we get a really good Addams Family nod in the midst of it all. An Addams Family homage with the TARDIS cloister bell going off, no less.

Just one thing, which someone’s bound to have the answer to: why does it take extra power to turn the TARDIS’ siege mode off? Surely that’d use less power? Just a thought.

“You make a mighty fine Doctor”

Packing so much into 45 minutes again means that there’s not too much room to squeeze decent supporting characters into Flatline. That said, Mathieson does his damnedest to make two of them count. Joivan Wade as Rigsy, a graffiti artist who proves pivotal in Clara’s plan to save the world, injects the idea that people seem to turn a blind eye when locals disappear. Christopher Fairbank, meanwhile, has a slightly more two dimensional character in the form of the thunderously unlikeable Fenton, but his particular purpose in the episode becomes clear by the end. Rather than playing out with the Doctor giving talks about necessary collateral damage, this time Capaldi instead is the one arguing for life, against the coldness of Fenton. A small, important shift change there.

Further threads? Well, Clara’s relationship with Danny is surely building up to a decision she has to make (we get to see the two nattering as she swings from a chair trying not to die, while he sits in the local park). Back in the early days, she was covering up Danny from the Doctor. Now, she’s covering up the fact that she’s still travelling in the TARDIS with the Doctor from Danny. A choice is coming for Clara between her two lives, and it continues to beg the question as to whether Jenna Coleman will be a part of Doctor Who come the end of Christmas Day. It would be fair to say that the majority of us expect her to choose Danny. Unless Steven Moffat has a rug pull there in his rounding-off two parter?

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Also, when the mini-TARDIS went into siege mode, instantly filling the toy department of BBC Worldwide with glee, was it just us that thought it looked a little like the Pandorica? Coincidence? Or bad eyesight on our part?

“Lie to them”

The main questions though still centre around the Doctor, Clara and Missy. And the answers must be coming, as we’ve only got three episodes left. As a result, next week’s instalment, In The Forest Of The Night, might just be the last standalone adventure of the series. It also marks the Who writing debut of Frank Cottrell Boyce, the third and final new scribe for Doctor Who series 8, and director Sheree Folkson makes her debut on the show too.

The sheer ambition of Flatline, though, is going to take some matching. One or two bits perhaps don’t quite fit as well as others, but it gets an awful lot right. There’s a skilful balance of humour (“the Two-dis” might just be our favourite comedy line of the series) and horror, a corking rant from Peter Capaldi at the end that should happily make any future invading creatures think twice, and a visual style to the monsters that feels different, and hugely impressive.

Congratulations to all concerned. Let the Missy speculation begin in earnest. And Mr Moffat: how about getting Mr Mathieson back on board for series 9?

Our review of last week’s episode, Mummy On The Orient Express, is here.

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