Writer: Jamie Mathieson.
Director: Paul Wilmshurst.
Starring: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Joivan Wade.
A Doctor-lite episode of Doctor Who comes up fairly rarely, as things go. Officially, there have only in fact been two in the revised series, those being Series 3’s standout episode ‘Blink’ and Series 4’s ‘Turn Left’. When fan-usage of the term comes into play, there are often a few more episodes added to the list, Series 2’s somewhat-infamous ‘Love and Monsters’, etcetera. Now, we come to the latest of their number, a Doctor-lite tale for our still-new Doctor.
How does it stack up to its predecessors? Read on to find out. This is ‘Flatline’…
USUAL WARNING: POSSIBLY MILD SPOILERS AHEAD.
As I’m sure any regular readers of these reviews have noticed, Series 8 has been consistently knocking it out of the park when it comes to pre-credit sequences, and ‘Flatline’ continues down that track. We see a man on the phone to the police, apparently reporting on some sort of disappearances that have occurred. He knows who did it…or rather, what did it. He doesn’t get to say, however, as the aforementioned what suddenly shows its face (or rather, doesn’t) and the man vanishes…the only remains being a two-dimensional image on the wall, almost like a painting, clearly in utter agony. The TARDIS is about to land right in the midst of the situation, and the Doctor and Clara are about to face one of the most incomprehensible and bizarre threats they’ve ever dealt with before. Disappearances are rife, something is leeching on the TARDIS and its dimensional energy, and Clara and the Doctor will be separated, forced to deal with a terrifying enemy in unique and wholly-unwelcome circumstances…
It’s a high-concept episode, make no mistake about it, but ‘Flatline’ is an episode that pulls it off with aplomb. It’s a story that introduces a great deal of ideas and plays them all beautifully well, from the bizarre nature of the villains to the conundrum the Doctor finds himself in. It’s genuinely almost unique, in fact! Ordinarily I’d have opened this review by comparing the events of the story to past tales and concepts, but there really is very little comparison for this one, it stands apart. As Doctor-lite episodes go, it’s rather an interesting one in that regard, as the Doctor actually features quite heavily throughout, but by himself, isolated from the rest of the events and characters. The tale plays on the separation between Doctor and companion well, using it to make self-referential jokes and engage in some excellent character development in equal measure. It’s not all fun and games, however, very far from it. ‘Flatline’ is easily the darkest episode of Series 8 so far, and in fact places very highly on the all-time darkest episode list in my opinion. It pulls no punches, it’s scary and occasionally gruesome in the same manner as the Twelfth Doctor era has been thus far, yet…more so. It’s an extremely intense episode that’ll have any given viewer sitting at the edge of their seat due to the rapidly-paced plot but, no doubt, wishing they were in fact hiding behind it.
Unusually for these reviews, I’m going to immediately move on to the monsters, because they absolutely deserve it. Forget the Foretold, forget the Weeping Angels, forget the Vashta Nerada, forget the 456, forget everything else, because these creatures, dubbed ‘the Boneless’, are one of if not the most horrifying Doctor Who monsters in a long, long time. Everything about them, from their initial sheen of mystery, the truly terrifying way that they deal with their victims, their motives, everything about them is flat-out scary, there’s no two ways about it. The special effects team behind their appearance deserve nothing less than the finest commendation, because there isn’t a single facet of their form that isn’t at best unnerving, at worst skin-crawling. Their movement and the way they look was clearly designed specifically to make them as terrifying as possible, and it works unbelievably well. I imagine there’ll probably have been a fair few viewers watching it and thinking “this is actually slightly too scary for kids”, it’s that sort of story, and it’s beautiful because of it.
On that subject, the visual effects of ‘Flatline’ in general are well up there with the most finely-crafted of the series to date. The episode plays excellently on the viewer’s perception of things and uses a great deal of trickery with viewpoints and 2D-3D transitions, as appropriate to the nature of the story’s enemies. There are several scenes that have the sort of impact that’ll make the viewer’s jaw drop slightly, and a great deal of work clearly went into making this story look as unique as it feels, which is important to any given episode of this nature. It’s just one more element that makes the episode feel all the more complete.
Character development is a key facet of this episode, particularly due to the unique nature of the Doctor-companion relationship in the adventure. The Doctor takes something of a back-seat for much of the episode, acting more like an advisor than usual. He’s in his own predicament and it’s a stunning one, something we haven’t seen before too often. Watching him deal with it is fantastic, and he has some absolutely brilliant moments throughout. Clara, however, takes the lead in this episode, having to act as the Doctor for a day, almost. It’s very amusing to watch her face the usual dilemmas that the Doctor typically deals with, but there’s quite a bit of pathos behind what would otherwise be a funny scenario. It causes a notable amount of conflict between the two, and sheds some intriguing and not-previously-explored light on the gradually-widening cracks in their relationship. For this story, Clara acquires a companion of her own to go alongside her newly-gained Doctor-like role, Rigsy (played by Joivan Wade), who is currently painting over graffiti for community service and who adds a surprising amount of heart to the story and has a very defined place in it. He seems like genuine companion material, which is an excellent point for a one-off character.
Performance-wise, as ever this series, the main duo of Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman are utter perfection. Coleman’s portrayal of Clara attempting to be the Doctor remarkably manages to hit both the funny and serious notes of such a role in rapid succession, and it’s an entertaining watch no matter what side of that she’s currently on. She channels both Capaldi’s Doctor and Smith’s Doctor at various points, showing quite organically how she’s learned from them (another great example of character development). However, the element that I have spent almost this entire review waiting to address is Capaldi’s performance throughout this story. It’s a marvellous example of seeing the Doctor at work on a problem that he’s uncertain of, an element that’s come into play quite frequently with the Twelfth Doctor. We see practically every facet of his Doctor in this tale at various points, but the one I really want to discuss is a certain speech he gives. It’s his ‘The Eleventh Hour’ moment at long last, the moment where all other actors who have portrayed the role are suddenly, for the briefest moment, obliterated, and the man on-screen is without question the Doctor, the definitive article. It gave me goosebumps and, I’ll not lie, got me choked up to see it. It’s a standout scene in an episode filled with standout scenes.
That’s what ‘Flatline’ is, essentially. It’s a standout episode. An unexpected one, too, I’ll tell you that right now. Much like last week’s episode, this was a story that I wasn’t expecting to stun me or have anything overtly shocking in it, and my word it turned that expectation on its head. It brought the scariest monster in memory to our screens, it threw some of the best character development in Series 8 thus far into the mix, it brought in some great elements that haven’t been seen before, and trust me when I say, without spoilers, that there’s a certain scene that throws almost everything we’ve known thus far into somewhat-murkier light. It’s a game-changer. Keep Jamie Mathieson around, BBC, he brings gold.
A truly terrifying, intense, thrilling episode. 10/10
Do join us next week for the invasion of the trees, ‘In the Forest of the Night’…