Flatline

23rd October 2014 • Review by Jonathan Capps •

Bottle episodes occupy an odd position in Doctor Who. The concept exists in almost every big TV show, but it’s notable here because it usually involves the one title character taking a break, meaning you always end up with an episode that is, at least, interesting. Even in a show where the setting and tone changes week to week, the bottle episode usually stands out in some way. “Love & Monsters” was a treatise on Doctor Who fandom disguised as a big load of utter bollocks, “Blink” basically redefined how brilliant and scary the show can be, and Midnight and Turn Left gave Series 4 the opportunity to present an intense psychological horror and a bleak, Threadsy, Donna-centric pile of shit. The point is, whatever you think of each, they all stood out from their respective series, and not just because they were double banked and on the cheaper side, but because there was always an effort to take advantage of this quirk in the production schedule and make something a little bit different.

Series 8, after two years of bizarre split series that ended in the unholy and undignified mess of 7, is back to a full(ish) production schedule and so they’ve returned to the bottle. It might be a shame that in “Flatline” (and last week’s “Mummy on the Orient Express”, which was basically a Clara-lite episode) the opportunity was not taken to strike out and be brave in the style of previous examples, but in reality it continues the superb run of one-off episodes that have defined the series so far. It seems, “Listen” aside, Series 8 is less about big, stand out episodes and more about consistent, good-to-great episodes that are building up this year into something special in itself.

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“Flatline” is an episode that instantly grabs your attention by messing with the TARDIS in an interesting and hilarious way. The moment in “Father’s Day” when the Doctor finds his TARDIS is now a useless, empty box was an incredibly effective moment and the effect is very similar here. By gradually shrinking the TARDIS and taking both it, and the Doctor, out of action for the episode it’s a neat way to keep his comforting presence throughout, but forcing Clara to take the lead in a more direct way. For a character that was severely under developed during Series 7, things have improved massively for Clara, and ever since that series’ finale the main strength seems to lie in casting her as someone who can easily be the Doctor’s equal; especially since, despite his brashness, Capaldi is portraying quite a fragile and needy man.

The main concept of the story is also a very strong one. Drawing on the classic tropes of making a common and familiar environment inherently scary, the danger here is very subtle at first, drawing your attention to the odd murals in the subway and just-incongruous-enough wall paintings when Clara and Rigsy are exploring the houses, before showing the full extent of the threat when people and things start being pulling into the walls and floor. The use of CG here is absolutely superb and a great example of it being used in precisely the right way. The sofa collapsing and the later monsterification of the victims into the ‘Boneless’ strikes the perfect balance of being convincing and suitably weird and unsettling.

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The tension of the episode rarely dips and when Clara, Rigsy and the intrepid crew of community service lads go on the run from the increasingly threatening Boneless, it brings with it the strongest spell of the episode. Again, the CG works perfectly as the glitching effect applied to the Boneless is genuinely unsettling and superbly well done, even if it does mean that the episode’s unique feature of the very dimensions of the walls being infected, descends into a more standard chase. What certainly wasn’t standard, however, was a giant bastard of a hand coming out of nowhere – a brilliantly executed and shocking moment, and yet again a perfect use of CG.

As the episode wraps up we hit a few duff points that, unfortunately, also include the very final moments of the main plot. As the horde are getting closer and closer to the survivors, Rigsy – for reasons completely and utterly unknown – decides to sacrifice himself by driving the train into oncoming Boneless. As far as I can tell there is no story reason for this and the whole thing rings completely hollow. Rigsy in general is a well-drawn character, and continues this series’ ability to create likable and effective single-episode companions. Throughout the episode he’s also dealing with his own mini battle with the uncompromisingly awful Fenton (who, by the way, learns absolutely fuck all throughout the adventure) and he’s clearly keen to impress Clara, so his attempt at self sacrifice does make a certain sense, but it still seems way too extreme. Regardless, he has his time in the episode’s last great moment, as Clara’s plan to funnel the Boneless’ energy into the now-cuboid TARDIS is executed perfectly with the help of his painterly skills.

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The TARDIS’ transformation is a big, exciting moment but what follows left me completely cold. The Doctor’s speech stating “this plane is defended” is lifted directly out of the Big Book of Well Worn Tennantisms, and while it’s obviously important to give Capaldi at least some big heroic moments, these felt like stolen words, put into the mouth of a character that does not suit them in the slightest. Then, after an episode full of imagination and surprising twists, the Doctor just points his sonic screwdriver at the baddies and they then go away. I know Clara has saved the day on a number of occasions in the past, but in an episode where it’s made clear she’s taking the role of the Doctor, having him turn up and fix the problem in the most arse-clenchingly tedious way possible was a massive shame.

What comes before the disappointing ending is atmospheric and expertly crafted piece of urban horror with beautiful direction, expertly used CG and a mainly sharp and imaginative script. For a series that is striking out and doing some brave things with our central character, which are being met with resistance from some fans, it’s important that the strong episodes keep on coming. We’re well on course for the most complete and consistently great series post-2005 Who has ever had, even if so far it’s not been hitting the highest heights.

Jonathan Capps‘ name translates in the old Draconian tongue as “The Oncoming Storm”. Curiously enough, when spelled out backwards, it translates in Kaled as “Gobby Northerner Who Likes Sandwiches”.

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