09 “Flatline” (Doctor Who series 8) [SPOILERS]

doctor who peter capaldi

The Doctor is in!

Okay, so I don’t want to be premature, but I have to say that the last few episodes have seen a bit of a good streak from the classic BBC science-fiction series.

Peter Capaldi has brought a much-needed change of tone to the series, which admittedly has taken a little while to find secure footing, but now that it has we seem to have ended up with a more serious, darker Doctor. I have seen some complaint that it isn’t really aimed at children any more. With which I disagree.

It is darker, true. But children can handle that. This is the sort of thing that I would have lapped up as a kid, and indeed did, through watching some of the incredibly dark classic episodes. We need to approach children’s entertainment like this, trusting them to find their own way.

So with my colours nailed to the mast, let’s hope this week’s episode doesn’t disappoint.

Coming back of an illicit adventure, the Doctor and Clara end up in Bristol, in an, err, externally shrinking TARDIS. Clara goes to investigate, meeting a group doing community service and discovering a rash of disappearances, whilst the Doctor tries to stop the TARDIS getting smaller and smaller. Up against a race of two-dimensional aliens, with the TARDIS continually shrinking and the Doctor trapped within, Clara has to step up to the mark and be the Doctor.

Monster of the week episodes — of which this is surely one — succeed or fail on the strength of their monsters. So that seems a great place to start. Here we have an unnamed race of two dimensional creatures experimenting with humans and dimensions. It’s a good idea, playing on the TARDIS’ bigger on the inside schtick. Leaching dimensions is a great term, and makes a lot of sense — relatively speaking.

And they are actually pretty damn terrifying. Bad enough when they are without form, chopping and remaking people in experiments. They were downright Silent Hill-ian as distorted 2D-made-3D creatures shambling along.

But the human aspect of the story was just as strong. Making Clara “play” the Doctor was brilliant, and played into the developing arcs of “who is the Doctor?” and how Clara sees him. It also gives a human glimpse into what it is like to be the one running the show, trying to preserve life and knowing you can’t save everyone. Clara has to lie to and manipulate people to try to save them, which is the exact same thing that she has condemned the Doctor for over the last few episodes. It feels a lot like the Doctor showing her why he acts in the way he does.

As the Doctor says, sometimes it feels like the wrong people survive. So too here, those who die are almost all neutral or good people, whereas the odious community service supervisor makes it through unscathed.

Clara’s character is really getting some development here. How she acts without the Doctor is the sort of great insight which she was not given next to Matt Smith. And through her approximations of how he would act, we get to see the new Doctor through her eyes. It gives Capaldi’s “This plane(t) is protected” speech more weight than anything Smith managed.

I liked this episode. It could have used a little more characterisation for the side characters, but the creatures were brilliantly designed, and the conflict was a managed divide between the horror and the emotional. The writing has changed, of late, from moving pieces around a board to expose, bit by bit, who these people are. And that is very much for the better.

Closing thoughts:

  • Did the “siege-mode” TARDIS look very similar to the Pandorica to anyone else?
  • There are surely other times in the series’ history when such a mode would have been useful.
  • “The Boneless” is a terrible name.
  • “The Thing” moment where the Doctor moves the TARDIS by sticking his hand out of the tiny door Adams Family style embodies the humour of this season. As does the Doctor’s celebration, just before things get even worse.
  • Despite Clara getting a lot more characterisation this season, and being a much more watchable character, not an episode has yet gone by where we haven’t seen someone who I would prefer as companion. Rigsy, this week, but my favourite so far has been Frank Skinner’s Perkins in “Mummy on the Orient Express”.

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